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Time Is Illmatic opened the 13th annual Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday night, just days before the twentieth anniversary of Nas’ breakthrough album, Illmatic. While the ten-track 1994 release has been lauded as one of the most influential and important albums of hip hop — with many artists commenting that they’ve never put it down — the rapper himself said the project has allowed him to rediscover his own release with a fresh perspective.
“I think when it originally came out, I was so out of it — like, gone, in this party state — that I didn’t get a chance to enjoy much of it,” Nas told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s world premiere at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, presented by Hennessy V.S. and Beats Music. “Now, I enjoy it a lot more.”
Though the project has been more than ten years in the making, Nas told reporters that he only got involved a few months ago, and gave them more than a day of interviews and footage. “I don’t think it’s easy to get involved with a film that’s about your life — it was hard for me to do everything I did that was about my life, but they broke me out of that,” he explained on the red carpet. “I don’t know what’s going to happen or what people are gonna think, and that’s the exciting part about it … I’m happy I did it. I love those guys; they opened up my world and I’m forever grateful.”
Time Is Illmatic began when former VIBE music editor Erik Parker recruited multimedia producer One9 to shoot clips for the album’s tenth anniversary, but the two then stumbled onto a larger story. “We didn’t want to just make a music doc, we wanted to use the music the way Nas did with Illmatic to tell the story of the social issues that affected him and influenced him,” said screenwriter Parker, as the film includes a characterization of the Queensbridge Housing Projects, an interview with Nasir Jones’ father Olu Dara in Natches, Miss., and an eyewitness account from Nas’ brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones, of the death his early collaborator, Willy “Ill Will” Graham, which catapulted him into the Illmatic creative burst. With grants from the Ford Foundation and the Tribeca Film Institute, the two aimed to finish the project in time for Illmatic’s twenty-year milestone. “You know when to stop when you have a deadline!” admitted Parker.
Director One9 added, “Any type of music that stands the test of time — whether it be a classic Miles Davis album or Marvin Gaye — those albums reflect the time period, and they also speak to generations past it. Illmatic was a voice for the voiceless. This film covers a lot of people who aren’t here anymore, and people you never get to hear from. He speaks that language without preaching to you, but you feel it in your soul.”
Illmatic’s creative contributors were also on hand at the premiere, including Faith Newman, the Columbia Records executive who quickly signed him (“I was transfixed by someone who could be so young, yet with lyrics that were kind of crazy, deep and dramatic,” she recalled of first hearing him on the radio in 1991) and album producer Pete Rock (“This album is on a mountaintop and it can’t be knocked off; it just up there and it’s something to keep reteaching,” he said).
Rapper Wale hit the red carpet to praise Nas and his influence. “From his lyrics and the way he conducts himself — being able to write a song backwards, or from the perspective of a gun, pushing the envelope from a creative standpoint — my hat tips off to him and I want to follow those footsteps.” Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon the Chef called Illmatic “one of New York’s anthem albums.” Quoting Nas’ lyrics, he continued, “He’s a ‘golden child’ — he presented himself as an emcee format in a formal way, and he delivers, twenty years later.”
Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal told THR that, since the fest is opening with a music film for the second year in a row, “I don’t know if it’s a new tradition, but it certainly feels like a good one.” She then took the Beacon Theatre stage with fellow co-founder Robert De Niro to introduce the film. “This film tells the story of the making of an artist, and the making of an album in our hometown,” said De Niro to a cheering audience. “This film celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Illmatic, twenty years since I was officially twenty years too old to be listening to rap.”
After the screening, Nas took the stage his younger brother and a piano-playing Alicia Keys to perform the album in full — a set list similar to that of this past weekend, when the rapper took the stage at Coachella with Diddy and his one-time rival, Jay Z. Wale noted the trio of rappers’ performance as a milestone that sealed the genre’s place in music at large. “It validates us — we’re just as classic, and we can go down in history like The Rolling Stones, like The Beatles. We’re here too.”
But Nas commented that the performance was one of much more personal significance. “It felt like Illmatic times,” he told THR just before running into the screening. “Before Diddy was Diddy, and all of us made real names for ourselves, we were still just breaking the ice in a lot of places and territories. To be back, and to be there, older, was great.”
The premiere’s guests — including Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Anthony Mackie, Christine Lahti, Girls’ Jemima Kirke, Michael Rappaport and Nate Parker — headed south to Providence for the opening night after party, complete with sliders, small bites and Hennessy V.S. cocktails.
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