On Wednesday night, April 16, the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival anointed a new venue with its Opening Night Gala of One9 and Erik Parker’s Nas documentary Time is Illmatic, premiering at New York’s legendary Beacon Theatre, followed by a performance by Nas, running though his entire debut album “Illmatic.”
To be perfectly honest, I actually had stopped listening to rap around 1994 after listening to it all through my high school years. By the time I arrived in New York City, I was regularly listening to Public Enemy, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest–took me a little longer to get into the Beastie Boys–but Nas was never really on my radar, maybe because by that time, “gangsta rap” was becoming popular and I just had no interest or connection to it whatsoever.
The film’s premiere started over a half hour late, but by the time it began, the Beacon was packed with Nas collaborators and peers, film and music press from every major outlet as well as a few hundred fans lucky enough to get their hands on the elusive tickets.
The relatively short doc directed by One9 and written and produced by Erik Parker is a fairly decent representation of Nas (born Nasir Jones) and his early days growing up in the projects of Queensbridge, Queens with his mother and older brother nicknamed “Jungle,” before making his first record. It’s a straight-forward documentary in terms of the way Nas’ story unfolds, the environment in which he grew up in and how the local rap community fueled his creativity as well as his anger about the system. Before the age of 18, Nas’ style was getting the attention of a lot of rappers, leading to a record deal with Columbia before the age of 20.
Last year’s Tribeca Film Festival opened with Mistaken for Strangers, a much better doc about the rock band The National, but one thing the Nas doc has in common with that movie is that it’s Nas’ brother “Jungle” tends to steal Time is Illmatic with his amusing off-the-cuff remarks about his younger brother while being interviewed. There are also a few truly moving moments dealing with Nas’ jazz musician father leaving the family for his mother to raise them alone, as well as the untimely death of his best friend and his DJ Will “Ill Will” Graham before they had a chance to make “Illmatic.” Both things clearly had a huge effect on Nas’ early life and still affects him when talking about the events decades later.
What’s important to realize is that Time is Illmatic isn’t necessarily about the making of the record “Illmatic,” as some might assume from the title, with almost no archival footage from the studio or details about how some of the songs came together other than producers Marley Marl or Mad Professor laying down a beat and Nas doing his thing. There’s certainly a danger of the movie being highly self-serving, often feeling like a movie made by Nas fans who casually gloss over the fact that many of the friends and peers Nas glorifies in song are involved with drugdealing and gang-related incidents. The film tries to bolster the idea that young black men raised in the projects don’t stand much of a chance at amounting to much beyond dealing drugs and eventually ending up in prison, which as true as it may be, also feels like the sort of pointed social commentary that belongs in a different movie.
Once the film ended, the screen was raised for what most people were really there for, a live performance by Nas as he kicked right into “Illmatic’s” opening tune “New York State of Mind” following an appropriate piano and vocal introduction by none other than Alicia Keys. Now 40 years old, Nas hit the stage on his own, backed solely by his current DJ, giving a home-coming performance with the same intensity one imagines he had twenty years earlier, often giving shout-outs to the album’s producers who were in the audience for the premiere.
(Photo Credit: Ivan Nikolov/WENN.com)