The music documentary of the year and the event of the season is Time Is Illmatic, a tribute to Nasir Jones (Nas) and the creation of his first album in 1994, Illmatic. This album not only made an impact on the growing hip-hop culture in NYC at the time, but is still influencing musicians of all types worldwide. 20 years later, it is still considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time (and this blogger’s first CD he ever bought).
Nas is currently on tour promoting his new feature length documentary. We got a chance to see him on Thursday, October 9th in Detroit. The spectacle at the Fillmore started off with an exclusive viewing of Time Is Illmatic, directed by One9. The film outlined the life of Nasir Jones, growing up in the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York. It captures the lifestyle and hardships Nas had to endure that inspired his classic debut album. Losing friends and family to death and incarceration in a poverty stricken neighborhood motivated Nas to use his incredible musical talents as a ticket out of the projects.
The film is gripping and inspirational on many levels. Family is important to Nas. The film features Jungle, his brother who has been with him through all the ups and the downs. He’s very outspoken and provides the feature with some comic relief, though it may not be intentional. Alicia Keys and Pharrell Williams both make appearances, describing how Illmatic has influenced their music. The documentary also outlines how he was discovered by MC Serch of 3rd Bass and then signed with Columbia Records. Although the film illustrates the dark times of his life, Nas’ release of Illmatic is a triumphant success.
After the film, Nas came out and performed every song of Illmatic, the greatest album in hip-hop history. One highlight of the night is when Nas sampled Sky Is The Limit by Notorious B.I.G. during his song One Love. I feel like Nas was honoring the late Biggie, and recognizing other New York rappers who made the genre what it is today. He also paid tribute to Michael Jackson. Before he performed It Ain’t Hard to Tell, Michael’s youthful face appeared on the screen, and his song Human Nature played, which blended in with Nas’ song. Nas is a lifelong fan of MJ, and says it explicitly in the Illmatic. Nas is appreciative of the people and musicians who have inspired and helped him become the musical success he is today.
Illmatic is not a long album, only 9 songs and an intro, but it is immensely dense in its content and production. Even though Nas dropped out of school, he is self taught in some very complex ideologies and literary techniques. He tackles many of the socio-cultural issues during that time, most of which apply to today’s world (I guess 20 years isn’t long enough to get it right). One song in particular, One Love, is written in the form of a letter from Nas to his friend who is in jail. In it, he criticizes the public school system and religious dogma. Although it’s a somber song, Nas urges his friend in jail, and in turn all of us, to stay positive, no matter what.
Somehow, Illmatic is a positive album in my mind, despite the stories of poverty and crime that Nas has experienced. Part of that can be attributed to the production. When great music can come from an unexpected place, it can be nothing but positive. Legendary producers such as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor, and L.E.S. all composed tracks on Illmatic. The samples used are mostly jazzy, the beats are loud, and the baselines are groovy. My personal favorite is The World Is Yours, done by Pete Rock. The piano piece sampled is truly beautiful and the drums are clean. The Illmatic’s sound is pure New York.
If Nas is coming to your town, I HIGHLY recommend you see this unique event. It was like going to a film festival and a concert in the same night. Time Is Illmatic is a timeless piece.
-Nino Munaco (firstname.lastname@example.org) (@ninomunaco)
Photo: Dontae Rockymore www.mrheatcam.com (@mrheatcam)