'Illmatic' hits the big screen

Documentary delves into historical impact of Nas' debut

Rapper Nas introduced himself as a street poet with his 1994 debut, Illmatic. The album shows, through a resolute optimism that still resonates with hip-hop fans, how the '80s crack epidemic had lingering effects on the New York projects where he grew up. When Erik Parker, former music editor of VIBE, revisited Illmatic a decade after the fact for a magazine retrospective, he realized that discussing the studio sessions wouldn't show why the album still matters. So he teamed up with director One9 to create a generation-spanning documentary, Nas: Time Is Illmatic, that features Nas, his brother Jungle, and his father Olu Dara to illustrate the music's historical significance. Before bringing the film to Atlanta for A3C, One9 and Parker took a few minutes to talk about exploring Illmatic's deeper historical significance.

Why make a documentary film about Illmatic?

One9: No one was covering Illmatic the way we thought we should. At the time it was released, Illmatic was overlooked by the mainstream, but to the people it spoke to it meant everything. We wanted to document it for generations to come. When we talked to Olu Dara, Nas' father, he showed us Natchez, Miss., where he's from. He's a jazz and blues cornet player, and he showed us that his father was a musician. He was part of the northern migration from New York City to Queensbridge, America's largest housing projects. After that we explored Illmatic in a different way.

What was the biggest challenge making the film?

Erik Parker: One challenge was streamlining a story so that it wasn't just a documentary for music fans, but a coming-of-age story that explains a piece of American history. Another challenge was actually making the film. For the first part of our journey we used money out of our pocket. Eventually we had a meeting with Orlando Bagwell, who was a director at JustFilms and the Ford Foundation. As first-time filmmakers, it's difficult to convince people that you have a good idea. But Orlando Bagwell believed in us and gave us a grant to do more research. From there we had enough to prove to the world that we can pull this off, including Tribeca Film Institute, who also gave us a grant.

Which scene are you most proud of?

O9: The most powerful scene was Nas looking at the Illmatic liner notes photograph of the people on the bench and hearing what happened to them. Jungle talked about who's locked up, missing, in jail for murder. I think that was the first time he saw what happened to them — his friends, his peers, the people he grew up with. It shows the cycle of what's going on not just in Queensbridge but across the country. That, to us, reflected what we wanted to convey in the movie.

EP: When we went back to Queensbridge, it was Nas in his natural environment. There were so many layers to every interaction: These two guys know each other from a long time ago, and they're happy to see each other — that's great. Look at these two people that come from the same place but are in different stations in life. Look at the love the community has for him. You could notice the people who were no longer there. That day was rewarding for us as filmmakers.