NEW YORK — When Nasir Jones was about 13 or 14 years old, his father told him and his brother Jabari that if school wasn’t nurturing them, they should drop out. An exceedingly well-read, Mississippi-born jazz musician who went by his “ancestral name” of Olu Dara, the father looked around at the Queensbridge Houses where his sons and their mother had settled and gambled that his boys could do better on their own. A young, precocious Nas took him up on the offer.
In the soulful new documentary “Time Is Illmatic,” which kicked off the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday night, filmmakers Erik Parker and One9 pick up the narrative just as Nas is trying to figure out how to transcend his surroundings. It’s New York City in the mid-1980s, and like many New York City ’hoods and housing projects, Queensbridge has been ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic and gun violence.
Having acknowledged that jail will be as far from public housing as many of his homeys will get — “never Harvard or Yale” — the 8th-grade dropout becomes determined to make something of the rhymes he’s been writing since about age 8.
We learn that his doting mom, Ann Jones, provides the love and protection, while roaming dad Olu, gives his offspring the musical and intellectual education. Early on, there are jazz records playing and the shelves are lined with books like Ivan Van Sertima’s “They Came Before Columbus” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” And, maybe most important, there’s hip-hop.
By the time Nas is penning lyrics for what will be his seminal 1994 debut, Illmatic, he’s already been a giddy eyewitness to a major rap battle. What’s more? Nas’ Queensbridge forms hook and verse for battle tracks by rappers MC Shan and Boogie Down Production’s KRS-One.
Between Shan’s homage “The Bridge” and Bronx-bred BDP’s devastating “The Bridge Is Over,” it’s not just that the aspiring rapper is swelling with pride and angst for his hometown heroes, but Nas now has proof that people just like him make it out of the ’hood and onto hip-hop’s rapidly expanding world stage.
“Time Is Illmatic,” ostensibly a doc about the making of the classic album, gathers a symphony of voices for a vivid recreation of what’s in a larger sense, a moment in hip-hop history. Nas’ brother, Jabari (a.k.a. Jungle) and dad Olu are prominently featured but we also hear from the pivotal players who orbit a then-20-year old Nas as he sets out to create a record that, as he puts it, will be “proof that I was here.”
Producers like Large Professor, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, rapper/producer Q-Tip, and the iconic Marley Marl talk about hearing Nas rap for the first time in prophetic terms. Even the A&R rep who signed Nasty Nas to Columbia, Faith Newman, recalled the urgency she felt upon getting his demo. Clearly, the kid was special.
But back in ’94, there was no guarantee. In a telling scene, Jungle recalls feeling that the album’s release would be the peak: There would be advance money to spend, parties to go to, spoils and maybe good weed for a time, and then it would be over. “We’d go back to living in the ’hood,” he remembers thinking.
On Wednesday night at the Beacon Theatre, many of the aforementioned gathered to screen the doc with Nas. The kid from Queensbridge never went back to living in the projects, of course. What’s more, 20 years later, he dusted off a pair of Timbs and performed his first album, front to back, for a crowd that included everyone from TIFF founder Robert DeNiro to hip-hop luminaries Eric B and Kool Herc. And the words to songs like “Life’s A Bitch” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” somehow still resonated. Time may be illmatic, but Illmatic, it must be said, is now timeless.