A Night With Nas’ ‘Time Is Illmatic’

blame it on Meka October 1, 2014

Illmatic, for better or worse, changed my life.

You see, prior to listening to Nas’ debut album for the very first time – albeit roughly a couple years after its release, when it eventually made it to Southern California and, amidst the then-chokehold Death Row Records held over the entire region, my crew of East Coast-leaning friends (who, ironically, lived in the Inglewood/Crenshaw/South Central area) put me on to the tape – my “rap discography” consisted of whatever I recorded off of the radio, my third copy of Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, a bootleg of Ready To Die and half of Tical (don’t ask). As soon as “Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin'” blared through the modified speakers (read: way too large for their own good, and capable of spewing earth-shattering bass) of my homeboy’s whip and into my ears, however, I knew right then and there that any glimmer of hope my mother had of me becoming a doctor was washed forever.

Now I’m able to pay off my mother’s bills supplying music to the masses, whether it’s deejaying for a quasi-living and/or talking half-recklessly about urban entertainment pseudo-anonymously on the Internets. Needless to say, I don’t think she’s too mad at my decision these days.

Nasir’s celebrated first album has birthed so many trends, emulators, and inspirations in its mere thirty-nine minutes and 51 seconds that he should have a couple closets full of rental checks or Father’s Day cards. Now, the album is the focal point of the new film Time Is Illmatic, which premiered earlier this year at the TriBeCa Film Festival, was screened at the MoMa Tuesday night (September 30th) (and should be playing in various movie theaters around the country by the time you read this). The occasion brought out an eclectic mix of writers, musicians, executives, and more; somehow, I ended up sitting right next to one of my own inspirations, DJ Premier.

Yeah, I was on total star-struck/speechless mode the entire time.

The Erik Parker-written, One9-directed documentary focuses primarily on the first 20 years of Nas’ life, leading up to the release and subsequent critically acclaimed reception of the movie’s musical namesake (and its subsequent fellowship at Harvard University). Tracing his roots all the way back to Mississippi up until the album’s April 19th, 1994 due date Nas, as well as MC Serch and Faith Newman (the executive producers of Illmatic), Marley Marl, AZ, his father Olu Dara, his brother Jungle, the producers on Illmatic – Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and L.E.S. – and many others tell their respectively personal tales on how the album was truly shaped.


Without going into too much detail (as to not spoil it for those who want to see it) the film isn’t that long (it clocks in at under 90 minutes), which one could assume is a sly tribute to the album’s own short length, and it doesn’t go as deep as I’d hoped it would (there’s no mention of the album’s legendary mass bootlegging, and three of the nine actual songs – excluding the intro track “The Genesis” – aren’t really discussed, for example). Considering that Erik and One9 have worked on the thing for roughly a decade, one could suggest that it could have a bit more comprehensive. These slights are relatively minuscule and ultimately innocuous, however, when taking in the entire breadth of the documentary, and it will either make you appreciate the album even more or – if you’ve not heard it yet (and if you have not, I seriously question your sanity) – inspire you to snatch up a copy and give it a spin.

Who knows: it could change your life. For better or worse.