Across genres, 1994 was a massive year for music: Green Day’s Dookie hit stores in February, heralding a pop punk revival. One month later, Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral, an unlikely hit that would go platinum four times over. In April, Outkast finally cemented the South as a hip-hop powerhouse with their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and a few weeks later 15-year-old Aaliyah dropped Age Ain’t Nothin’But A Number. Then in the fall, Biggie kicked off the Bad Boy era with Ready to Die and TLC became the second-biggest selling female act in US history with CrazySexyCool.
But even in an all-star year, few records matched the brilliance of Nas’ debut album Illmatic, released on April 19, 1994. The Source gave it five out of five mics; in her review for the magazine, Miss Info wrote, “I must maintain that this is one of the best hip-hop albums I have ever heard…Lyrically, the whole shit is on point. No clichéd metaphors, no gimmicks. Never too abstract, never superficial.” Spin gave the album its highest recommendation, praising Nas’ “Rakim-like ruminations.” In the twenty years since, life has been good to Nas: the man who rapped My people be projects or jail, Never Harvard or Yale now has a fellowship in his name at Harvard University.
In the early 2000s, journalist Erik Parker and multimedia artist One9 teamed up to tell the story of Illmatic in documentary form. “We didn’t have any money,” remembered Parker when I sat down with the two last week. “All we had was passion, the idea, the thoughts, and good people.” That decade-long effort culminated last week with the debut of their film Time Is Illmatic at 2014’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Featuring interviews with Nas’ brother Jungle, his father Olu Dara, and producers Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and many others, Time Is Illmatic does justice to the legendary album. Incorporating new and archival footage, Parker and One9 paint a vivid portrait of Queensbridge, the housing project where Nas grew up; offer a window into the homelife of young Nasir, when Olu was frequently absent; and give a sense of the hype and anticipation that surrounded the young lyricist who called himself Nasty Nas in the months leading up to Illmatic.
After the film’s premiere, I sat down with Parker and One9 to discuss the iconic album—reissued this year as Illmatic XX—their experience working with Nas, and which tracks still resonate just as clearly as they did in 1994.
Of all the albums you could have chronicled, what drew you to Illmatic? ONE9: In ’94 I was in Washington D.C., doing a lot of graffiti and street art. I grew up in hip-hop, listening to Erik B. & Rakim, Run-D.M.C. and even further back. Me and all my friends were anticipating Illmatic after Live at the Barbecue came out. I bought the cassette and listened to it over, and over, and over again. I just kept rewinding it, being like—What did he say there? That album just connected to us on such a strong level. Not just lyrically, but musically. At the time the best producers out were Q-Tip, Large Professor, DJ Premiere, Pete Rock. Ten years later, when Erik and I met, we realized that this album spoke to both of us on so many levels. It wasn’t just a hip-hop album—it was something that spoke for our generation.
ERIK PARKER: In 1994, when that album came out, it was a game-changer in hip-hop. Prior to that, in the 80s, hip-hop was about validating the music for critics of music—for rock critics, and not even rap critics. It was about validating the music as a form of art and expression that had merit beyond the hood. In the 90s, rap was beyond that. By the time Nas came out, he no longer had to fight the battle of validating hip-hop as an art form. Now, he was looking for something much greater: validating we as a people, and his world view. That was what he wanted to show the world: We’ve proven that hip-hop is an art form, now we want you to understand who we are as a people, our struggles, our world view, and our thought process—and that we have poetry and art mixed into our struggle. That’s what stuck out for us. That’s what still stands to this day. We both knew that that album spoke to us in a way that no other album did. I don’t know if we can put our fingers on every reason why at that time, but we started unpacking that over the last 10 years.
Having sat with this album for so long, how has it changed for you? What tracks did you come into loving, and what tracks do you love now? PARKER: When I started this project, “Life’s a Bitch” was my favorite record because Nas says, I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessing. It says so much about his mindset and where he was. And then AZ comes in and he puts down one of the classic verses in hip-hop with so much poetry—a concise piece of work that details his thought process and where we are: We were beginners in the hood as 5 percenters / But somethin’ musta got in us cause all of us turned to sinners. He tells us where we are as a people at that time. They were living a type of righteous life in their mind—strict, no drinking, no weed, what have you; that’s how 5 percenters are supposed to live. And now they all became sinners. And then Nas says, I switched my motto; instead of saying ‘fuck tomorrow’ / That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto. There’s so much hope in that. And what Q-Tip says in the movie is that within all that street shit is hope, and that track outlines that.
But as we went through the tracks and started to get the back-story and understand a little bit more, I started to see that “One Love” speaks on a different level than every other song on that record. Now that’s become my favorite because some of the things he’s saying. Mainly, it’s a letter to a friend who’s in jail—it’s a type of love letter; it’s support. It takes into account that this is the condition we’re in, but I’m dealing with you as a human being. It shows that you can have empathy for someone that society has cast out as a thug.
ONE9: For me, it wasn’t so much that the music changed. It still resonates for me in so many different ways. But what gave me a better understanding was the back stories: who Ill Will and who the other people in the neighborhood were. We learned who Illmatic was—John Boy Illmatic Ice. I learned about the people around him—we heard about Wallett Head, we heard about Bullet—we can now put a face to a story. And also learning about the cover of Illmatic, and where that picture came from. It really helped me take on a better appreciation. This guy was really writing for his community, for his friends, the ones he was representing. I love the album now even more, because I can put a face and a story to the people he was talking about. He becomes a voice for those people—those that are locked up, those that are dead.
Do you feel the album had a cultural impact outside of music when it released? PARKER: At the time it came out, I don’t think so. The metrics by which we measure success in music has to do with radio spins, record sales. Illmatic was #8 on the Billboard charts when it came out, which is respectable, but not a huge record. He didn’t make singles to be on the radio and smash airplay. The metrics by which the music industry measures success were lost on the success of Illmatic. It resonated with people. He was speaking for people who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t measure success by those metrics. When you talk about somebody who has a connection with Illmatic it’s beyond a sales team, a marketing staff. It’s really an authentic truth that speaks directly to them. You can’t judge that by numbers. But we knew—we knew we had someone who spoke to us, and for us. For that, we held onto it as something that was special.
Twenty years later, the world’s ready to understand what it meant to us. It’s a historical document. People are ready to examine it, explore it, and understand what made these people tick at these times. Now it’s primetime for people to acknowledge it and gain some insight about what was happening in America—what was happening in their own backyards. Now we’re at a space where we can understand it, once we’ve listened to the poetry and put it in its proper context. That’s what we tried to do with the movie.
What was it like getting access to Nas? As an artist, he’s introspective, and comes off a bit guarded. ONE9: Initially he was a bit introspective and stand-offish. He’s analyzing—he’s analyzing you, he’s reading your energy, what your passion is, what your view is. When we first started, he didn’t know us. We came out of nowhere: two hungry hip-hop fanatics with a camera and a microphone ready to tell a story. But over the course of the last few years, once he started seeing the course of what we were doing, the passion that we were doing it with, the honesty—he really understood that these are guys who can tell the story right. And he totally opened up. We saw that transformation with Nas, and now he’s someone that we feel we can open up in ways that gives us complete access to his true and honest thoughts. It took a while to break those layers down, and we couldn’t have done the film without that.
PARKER: In 2000 or 2001, when I was a music editor at The Source, I did a story on Nas. That was when he was recording Stillmatic, which was a comeback of sorts; a revisit of Illmatic to remind people who this guy was who made that groundbreaking album in 1994. It was at the height of the Jay-Z beef and Nas was a different person then. He was a very guarded person—he was always a guarded poet. When you talked to Nas then, you couldn’t understand how he was so articulate in his music because his words were so measured. He didn’t say a lot. You’d go to interview Nas and you had to coax it out of him. Now, One9 and I have developed a relationship and a trust level with him and he’s opened up. He’s 40 years old, he has two kids, he’s now ready to tell his story and the world’s ready to hear it.
You were both at the premiere of the film. What did he say when he saw the film? Has he discussed it with you? ONE9: Twice. Immediately after the screening we went to the afterparty and he called us over and said ‘Come on, I want to talk to you about the movie.’ We went off to the side and he said that it was one of his best nights, that it really meant so much. He feels like this film represents in the film world what Illmatic did in the music world. He said that when Illmatic came out, he felt like it was going to do something—he felt good, that the energy was right. And now that the movie’s coming out, he’s feeling that again. Jungle came up to us right after and said that it was the best night of his life, that he’d gone through so many emotions. We saw him talking to his father right after the film. They were all very moved and to just that was such a great moment. We’re telling their lives in front of hundreds of thousands of people. We want to make sure that it’s accurate and honest—that it has that integrity. To hear that from them validated us.
PARKER: This being the Illmatic for movies is high praise from anyone because of the way that record impacted us. If this movie can impact anyone—or do justice for the album, which did justice for the people it represented—we will have done our job. We wanted to make a story that was bigger than us in the same way that Illmatic told a story that was bigger than what happened in that studio; it told the story of a people. We all know that Nas is a great poet. But if we stay on that point and never get beyond it to understand the people he was speaking for, then we might have missed a great opportunity.