Aging gracefully in hip-hop isn’t easy. Year after year, old rappers, old sounds, old styles are swept under the rug in favor of the new and youthful. Which is partly what makes the longevity of Nas and his 1994 debut LP, Illmatic — considered by many critics and fans to be the greatest hip-hop album ever — so remarkable: It’s fair to say that no rap record has ever been so celebrated so many years after its release.
Following its premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, a documentary about the album, Nas: Time Is Illmatic (Tribeca Film), by first-time director One9, hit theaters in select markets on Oct. 1, before an on-demand release two days later. It’s part of a yearlong celebration of the record’s 20th anniversary, including a ballyhooed performance by the artist at Coachella in April and an album reissue. And despite how much content has been pushed out to mark the event, Nas: Time Is Illmatic finds new ways to tell the album’s iconic story, featuring rare footage and intimate interviews with Nas’ legendary collaborators (DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor), A-list admirers (Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes) and, most fascinating of all, family and friends, who give vital background into the stew of domestic problems, violence and poverty the album was crafted in.
Nas — who has amassed six No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and has sold 14.3 million units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan — is notoriously laconic when he’s off the mic, preferring to let his music speak for itself. But in an interview in New York in late September, the rapper, 41, was remarkably candid about the documentary, growing old in hip-hop and why he no longer listens to Illmatic — even as he admits it changed hip-hop forever.
In one of the first scenes in the movie, you talk about how you were trying to make the perfect album. Do you think you succeeded?
I’m not trying to single mine out as the perfect album. I think everybody tries to make the perfect album, because if you don’t, you fail. I think everyone from Nice & Smooth to De La Soul and Ice Cube made great records. I would love to see a documentary on a bunch of albums, and make it honest. I’m just happy I’m still around and people are seeing the documentary and not hating it. I didn’t know anyone would be interested. When we opened up the Tribeca Film Festival, I was sitting in the audience watching people’s reactions. I was nervous that I was going to have to sneak out of there because people would fall asleep.
Your lyrics are very cinematic. Have you thought about writing a screenplay?
Yeah, I’m a big story guy. I’ve had people approach me about working on some songs. There’s a few of them I want to see if we can script out.
There’s a never-ending debate among hip-hop fans about the genre’s greatest album. As a rapper who’s behind a record that often dominates that conversation, do you get caught up in those discussions, too?
Hell yeah. All the time. We break this shit down. The same way that Mick Jagger can break down Muddy Waters and all the records that came out before him that showed him the way, we break down The Great Adventures of Slick Rick and what was on Eric B.‘s mind to buy a Rolls-Royce and sit on it with all this gold and call the album Follow the Leader — what made them make those records the way they did.
How does Illmatic compare to those albums?
I don’t know how to compare my album to others unless I’m forced to sit there with people and listen to it and I’m asked questions. [Def Jam executive/hip-hop producer] No I.D. told me I was the first one to have multiple big producers on one record. He jokes and says I f—ed up rap because before that it was all in-house, one producer, two guys who did the whole album. So I don’t know how to compare my record — I’m too much of a fan of everything else. I still feel like I didn’t get on yet. When I’m talking about [Boogie Down Productions‘] Criminal Minded or [Eric B. and Rakim‘s] Paid in Full, I’m coming from a perspective of not getting in the business yet. I’m still trying, in my mind, to get accepted.
This film gives young kids the opportunity to learn about your legacy — something that happened before their time. How do you feel about that?
It’s great because when I was a kid, I went to see [the 1983 hip-hop film] Wild Style. My pops took me to see it. I was excited to see Busy Bee and Grandmaster Flash and Double Trouble and all those guys. Most of them I’d never heard of before. I hope this is as important to some kids today as that was to me.
Rock stars such as Jagger and Bruce Springsteen are performing well into their 60s and 70s. Is hip-hop headed in that direction?
It’s there now. The majority of us haven’t reached 60, but that’s coming. Dr. Dre did Coachella. I’ll always want to go see him and Snoop. I’ll always want to go see Jay Z. We’ve finally broken into that.
Do you still listen to Illmatic?
No. I don’t listen to my music. I work on it for however much time it takes and then I release it and then it’s yours. I lived with it enough. It’s not mine anymore. It’s the people’s music.
If you don’t compare Illmatic to other albums and you don’t listen to it, what does it personally mean to you today?
It means hip-hop is here to stay. I said hip-hop was dead, and of course the shit died, but the core of it was never touched. You can’t erase what happened. You can’t erase what Afrika Bambaataa did. You can’t erase what Run-D.M.C. did. You can’t erase what Kid ‘N Play and Kool G Rap and Dr. Dre did. Illmatic is proof of that because I’m a child of all the guys I just mentioned. Hip-hop can never die. You can’t erase it like that scene in Men in Black, where you press the button and it’s gone. That shit is still here.