Depending on when you start counting, hip-hop as a genre is only about 35-40 years old. In its young life, it has managed to obtain a fair amount of history, and more than a fair amount of controversy. To have not only an album, but a career that still thrives, even 20 years in, is still quite rare. Big stars have either died (some at the hands of another, some from poor health), some have leveraged their star power to transfer into other industries, and far too many have faded in to obscurity. It’s a genre with an unusually high turnover rate for fame and fortune. Nas has not only bucked those trends, but managed to almost single-handedly reshape hip-hop with a single album.
If you’ve never listened to Illmatic and you consider yourself a hip-hop fan—or a socially conscious human being on any level—you really owe it to your brain to give it a shot. It’s hardcore hip-hop, but it is very cerebral. Even the act of spitting on the sidewalk is described with poetic lyricism. Now, growing up as a white male in middle-class America, I won’t pretend to understand the plight of growing up in the Queensbridge projects, but I can respect art, no matter who it is from. Nas paints a portrait of life that is frighteningly timeless, yet shaped by a specific place in a specific era. The beats that back it are the grunge music of hip-hop—stark in their simplicity from 5 of the biggest names in the game. Drum-kicks and bass-lines that defined the era interspersed with minimal melodies and a notable sample or two. If Illmatic has a failing, it’s that it is a very New York album. Maybe the New York album. Much like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, it is tied to a place that it will never escape from.
The few hip-hop docs I have seen did not sit well with me. Granted, most I’ve seen are related to the murders of Biggie and 2Pac, and were sloppy attempts to present some sort of conspiracy theory. There are exceptions to the rule, and Sunday night’s screening of Nas: Time is Illmatic at the Keswick Theatre presented one of them. It is less the story of the making the album than it is a family drama. It tells of the life that shaped the mind that wrote the album.
Brothers Nasir and Jabari, and father Olu Dara figure predominantly into the tale. It’s the story of a boy who becomes a man, maybe too soon, but at least gets some time to be a child. Like many of his peers, Nas’ life began in the slums, but he did not come from a broken home. His family had it better than most in the Queensbridge housing development, having access to some of the nicer things of the days. Noticeably absent is Fannie Ann Jones, his mother, who passed away in 2002. Despite that absence, she is a central character of the documentary. The sentiment comes to a head in a heartbreaking moment. Jabari is recalling his mother fondly when he seems to be heading down a trail of thought that may lead to him saying he wishes it was his father who had passed instead. He catches himself, and simply states that his mother deserved to be alive to reap the praise for raising Nas that his father receives.
It’s that personal. The film is brisk and weaves an intricate tale of innocence lost that never overstays its welcome. In a mere hour and 10 minutes we see the transformation of a bright young man with no interest in being just another cog in the wheel go from a boy to a man. He suffers the loss of friends to the violence of the day, but perseveres. It’s a funny, sad, and exhilarating tale.
That brings us to the major failing of the film. It is a family drama, and an engaging one, about the birth of an artist. Beyond a few sound clips, and brief interviews, it does very little to give any actual insight into the making to the album. AZ was the lone other MC on the album—his verse on “Life’s A Bitch” won almost as much praise as any that Mr. Jones dropped, scored him his own deal, and pegged him as the Snoop to Nas’ Dre. Yet, he is in the film for barely a minute.
Large Professor, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Pete Rock, and Q-Tip were integral to shaping the album. Anecdotal stories from interviews in past publications paint a vivid picture of a group of beat-makers that melded seamlessly with Nas’ style of poetry, and even helped shape it. To reduce them to mere sound bites that seem to say “I had this beat, and he liked it” is to rob the viewers of deeper insight into the creative process of a hip-hop album as a whole, and not just the lyrical content, majestic as it may be.
It was a disappointing oversight, but not so much so that it lessened the blow of what preceded it. It’s still a powerful music documentary, and it feels a little incomplete, but thankfully doesn’t overstay its welcome, and still manages to bring proper moments of joy and sorrow.
Much like the doc, Nas’ live performance of Illmatic was short, sweet, and to the point. Also like the film, it was a family affair, this time between Nas and his fans. No entourage and a minimally intrusive DJ meant that Nas was front and center with a rabid group of admirers. So he came out and wowed everyone.
This is a man that has performed in stadiums and festivals all over, worth millions. Yet there was not a single ounce of ego on that stage. There was, instead, a humble man truly thankful for what he has. A humble man that brought his brother out on stage to hug him in front of legions of fans, and talk about how much he means to him. During the performance, he took multiple opportunities to shake hands with everybody up front.
The setlist was in the name. 9 sweet classics, minimal intrusions, and a whole lot of flow. The DJ threw some curveballs to keep it fresh (mixing in the beat from Notorious BIG’s “Sky’s The Limit” into “One Love” was a magnificent moment) and there was a pretty sweet display in the background that flashed scenes from Nas’ life before and after the fame hit (remember Belly?). In my favorite tale from the night, he fondly recalls—with childlike excitement—the moment he and his producers got permission from Michael Jackson himself to use the sample from “Human Nature” for “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.”
Then like that, the evening was over, there were only a few extra hits thrown in. Hit’s that had the MTV video views to be respected, but not nearly the importance. A bit of a sour note on an otherwise perfect evening, but Nas was there to entertain, clearly not to play to me. So there really are no valid complaints about anything that happened, it was truly a beautiful night for music, and a great celebration for a classic album, and an artist who is a modern classic.