Nas released illmatic in ’94 with no real understanding of the impact that album would create for the years to come. Now 20 years later, illmatic has been deemed the classic album that will never fade. And right along with most, writer, Erik Parker and director, One9, knew that illmatic should be celebrated. So they put together the film, Time is illmatic and the project that took them ten years to put together, became the Tribeca Film Festival’s opening night film.
I sat down with Erik Parker and One9 to discuss the film and the impact illmatic had on them. Check out the interview below.
Tell me how you guys became Nas fans
Erik Parker: For me I think, illmatic did it. I appreciated his work on “Live at the BBQ.” He did a great job standing out. Talking about illmatic is like talking about poetry that Nas used to describe the world that we all could relate to. It was so elevated and so raw and blunt and real yet high poetry. It flips rap on it’s head and as a writer I looked at it and was looking at what he did with words and no one has done it before with complexity within hip hop before. So I was instantly a fan.
One9: Probably illmatic. In hip hop I was listening to Run DMC, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane. I was listening to technical musicality, how lyrics moved over beats, it wasn’t till I heard “Live at the BBQ.” I heard this kid talking about snuffing jesus. I was like what did he just say? I was like wow. I was like this kid right here when does he come out? Nasty Nas. When illmatic came out I think I rushed to the store to get a cassette or album; I don’t remember. I played the first two or three tracks. I kept rewinding. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The music was crazy but the way he was creating all these stories and imagery so I never heard anything like that. I think I was calling all my friends saying ‘Did you get it?’ It was that amazing raw experience and to this day I still play it.
Do you guys have favorite lines from the album? That you can recite?
Erik Parker: I can remember from ‘life’s a bitch’ he says ‘I woke up early on my born day, I’m 20 its a blessing. The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh’ that line right there said a lot about how he viewed the world. He was saying he’s 20 years old and I made it. Now people think about making it in the world. They don’t think about waking up at 20 years old as making it. For him this was his world view of what he saw; that sense of ‘I survived others didn’t.’ You look at the depth and you start to understand what the experience was like. He lost one of his best friends to murder who was shot dead and killed right in front of his eyes. So when he says that he’s not just posturing. He was like I woke up early on my born day and I’m 20, it’s a blessing. It’s a blessing for him to have a life because he’s seen so much darkness and people who didn’t have life and he says in the same song ‘ I switched my motto: instead of saying “Fuck tomorrow. That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto.’ if you break that apart, he says so many things in that song. You’ll see in the film that Q-Tip breaks down some of the things in that song. Q-tip says there was hope and if you listen to that you’ll see a man talking about hope in spite of the circumstances. In that verse “I switched my motto: instead of saying fuck tomorrow. That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto,” first of all he’s talking about playing a lotto. Which is some what ridiculous but it tells you about the mind state of somebody who’s saying it’s better than jerking your life away. It was a metaphor for moving towards the future and thinking towards the future. So now he’s thinking he has an eye on getting out. You know he has hope for getting out of it. I mean there are million rhymes, the illmatic album, when you watch fans who were really touched by the album. They listen to the lyrics and recite every song. It’s not easy; it is complex wordplay. I mean there are million lines and everyone has their favorites.
One9: Every song is crack but ‘One Love’ to me in general is just crazy to me. The way he put together stories talking about people who aren’t there anymore because they are locked up. Talking about what it’s like on the outside world and being able to do it metaphorically; it just sounded so crazy with the beat. I mean it’s just he was really able to paint a portrait, a picture. As he does that through the whole album but I really love that ‘One Love’ track. The way he puts things together and I love those metaphors it gives that hope and inspiration without preaching.
How did the concept of the film come about?
Erik Parker: In 2004, I was a music editor at Vibe Magazine and we were working on the ten year anniversary of illmatic. But obviously the print was not able to tell the full story of illmatic in four pages. So I contacted some friends and in particular like One9 who comes from a graffiti world he is a visual artist and great visual story teller and I knew that there was something bigger that we can do. It was then we thought we were going to make a ten year anniversary of illmatic and that we were going to explore the music. So we started shooting people. We were on with couple of dollars we had and couple of cameras we had and passion for the album and tell the story of some sort. We started shooting people. We filmed his father talking about his roots and that opened up the doors to another story that we have not previously considered. So we started traveling down that road.
Nas had a pretty long career; lot of different moments. Having done the period of illmatic, if you could chose one other period to document of Nas’ career, what would make for an interesting film?
One9: I would document the period when he was ten to when he was 16 years old. Before his album, I think we dug into it a little bit but those were the pinnacle years when he was hearing Marley Marl in the streets and that was when he first started to listen to hip hop as a kid. When Ill Will lived upstairs and he was working on making a cassette tape and rhyming in the hallways. When he was going across the street to go see MC Shan and then there was a period when Ill Will was killed. Those were the pinnacle years that transformed Nasir Jones into Nasty Nas. Those were the years that were most impactful that we addressed in the film but I feel like those are the years when you really start to see the growth of a child to a man.
How does it feel to be opening for the Tribeca Film Festival?
One9: It feels amazing. First of all, as filmmakers we never made anything like this before. To have being respected by one of the most prestigious film institutes and be brought on stage by Robert De Niro and having Nasir Jones and his family in the audience watching the premiere, what else can we do other than that for hip hop? That to us is so much respect for us as filmmakers but what Nas stands for as a voice for his generation. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
In hip hop, people come in with the mindset that they can do better than the other guy because they have that confidence not in a arrogant way but just in like knowing you can do it. And you guys opened up the Tribeca Film Festival with a Hip Hop film.
Erik Parker: You’re absolutely right. We didn’t really have the money to do this but we knew we wanted to do this and we knew that it had to be done at some point. Somebody will do it so why not us? And for Nas to believe in that, for us was a validation in itself. We came out of no where, he doesn’t know us but he believed in us and to got his full support and to tell a story in it’s honest true form it couldn’t get any better than that and we knew we had to put everything into it.
-Jasmina Cuevas (@CueJT)