“Time Is “Illmatic,” the documentary about Nas’ 1994 debut album, lived up to its name last night. Twenty years ago, no one could have predicted that “Illmatic” would be here, at New York’s legendary Beacon Theater for the TriBeCa Film Festival’s opening night, being celebrated by an excellent documentary and a performance by Nas at which film and music luminaries rapped along word for word. It’s a moment only the passage of two decades, and the growing mythology of what is arguably the best rap album of all time, could bring to reality.
“I was trying to make a flawless album,” Nas says in the documentary. To many fans and critics — including this one — he did. “Illmatic” features some of the most beautifully descriptive lyrics ever recorded, delivered with the butter-smooth rasp of a 20-year-old street sage. The beats, which range from stark and hard to lush and soft, were made by a Mt. Rushmore lineup of production legends-to-be (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor, LES). The album was praised as an instant classic by some critics, and New York rap aficionados labeled Nas the second coming — of Rakim, not Jesus, but the description still speaks to the extent that the album was, and still is, worshipped by hip-hop fans.
Still, “Illmatic” wasn’t a blockbuster commercially and it didn’t produce big hit singles. It defined a sound — traditional, New York-centric, so-called “boom bap” rap — that would soon be near extinct, swept aside by Death Row’s SoCal G-funk, Bad Boy’s glossy hip-pop aspirations, and a growing Southern sound that would begin to find its legs just a week later, when Outkast released its own landmark debut.
So, it’s hard to understate how surprising it was last night to see festival founder Robert De Niro praising the album on this huge of a stage in his introductory remarks before the film. But of course, he wasn’t there for the music — he was there for the movie, and it’s clear why: it’s excellent and engrossing, and a bold surprise choice to start the festival with.
The nuts and bolts of the making of the album — the studio stories, the then-obscure samples, the label politics that make music-history buffs drool — have long been picked over and parsed in the hip hop press, including Vibe magazine, whose 10th anniversary look at “Illmatic” inspired then music editor, Erik Parker, to later write and co-produce the film with director One9. There are parts of that trivia here, via interviewees including former Columbia A&R rep Faith Newman and producer Pete Rock, who discusses the sprightly drums and Ahmad Jamal piano melody behind “The World Is Yours.” But the filmmakers wisely zoom out for the bigger picture.
Like the album, the movie is a time capsule to a very specific place and time: Nas’ notorious Queensbridge projects in the ’80s and early ’90s pre-Giuliani “bad old days,” where a vibrant new sound, hip-hop, was somehow blossoming amid rampant crime, desperate inner-city poverty, and the new crack epidemic. The movie dives in deep, thoroughly explaining how that world birthed Nas and his music. But in the process, it touches on subjects way bigger than them: racial segregation, educational inequality, public housing, and the prison system. Nas’ family history doubles as African-American history: His father is jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, who moved to New York from Natchez, Mississippi. He poignantly recalls the unwelcoming world that greeted he and the millions of other Southern African-Americans who migrated to Northern industrial cities in the 20th century. Nas’ younger brother, rapper Jungle, is interviewed while walking through Queensbridge with a blunt in hand. He provided needed moments of light comic relief, but also described first-hand the trauma that gun violence and broken families inflict on young minds.
But part of what makes the film so good is its source material: the music itself. There are several lengthy clips, both vintage and recent, of Nas performing songs from the album, shown with subtitles that allowed newcomers and forgetful fans to follow every bar. It was a smart addition, helpfully driving home just how vivid and detailed Nas’ portraits are.
Many movie-goers happily rapped along: Deniro and other Hollywooders aside (“Girls” actress Jemima Kirke and “12 Years a Slave”‘s Adepero Oduye were also in attendance), much of the audience at the Beacon comprised “Illmatic”-obsessed fans and industry insiders. Rappers Wale and Ka walked through the crowd, each with big smiles of seeming anticipation. Execs from Beats Music, one of the event’s sponsors, and Def Jam, Nas’ current label, mingled with Hot 97 program director Ebro and on-air personalities Peter Rosenberg and Minya “Miss Info” Oh, who wrote The Source magazine’s glowing “five-mic” review of “Illmatic.” Author and MSNBC talking head Toure, who penned Rolling Stone’s review and is working on Nas’ autobiography, was there as well, along with several cult-legend figures from New York rap’s golden age: Ralph McDaniels, Fab Five Freddy, Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito, the Awesome Two, “Wild Style” director Charlie Ahearn. Despite the glossy film-festival trappings, there was the unmistakable feeling of a hip-hop family reunion in the air.
The audience applauded loudly when the credits rolled, and not just because they loved the film. They knew what was next, especially when the “Wild Style”-sampling intro to “Illmatic” dropped: a performance from Nas himself. He was introduced by Alicia Keys, who played the dark, unmistakable piano riff that opens “New York State of Mind.” Nas appeared and took it from there, proceeding to go through the album in order, classic song by song and unforgettable verse by verse.
Nas has sometimes been a low-energy live performer, but on this night he was focused and forceful, much like at his “Illmatic”-centric show at Coachella last weekend. At that show, a crowd dominated by tired twenty-somethings, too young to remember the album, was loud and lively. At the Beacon, strangely, the audience was more responsive to the film about the album than the actual live performance of it. (Blame it on the triple-whammy of a demographic: 30- and 40-year-old New Yorkers who work in the entertainment industry.)
Aside from Keys’ brief cameo, DJ Green Lantern playing the beats on the turntables and Jungle and his kids dancing alongside Nas for a song, there were no other guests, and there was no band backing Nas. Jay Z didn’t come out to perform “Dead Presidents” (which samples “The World Is Yours”), as he did at Coachella last weekend. AZ’s incredibly intertwining verse was sorely missed on “Life’s a Bitch,” and Q-Tip didn’t come out to coo the chorus of “One Love,” as seen earlier this month on “The Tonight Show.” The album is only nine tracks, and Nas didn’t perform any of his later hits after he rocked “Illmatic” closer “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” But the stripped-down show kept the focus where it belonged: Nas and his timeless introductory mission statement, which went on to influence countless rappers, writers, poets, musicians — and, of course, the talented filmmakers behind this standout documentary.