The Ten Year Journey…Behind the Scenes of NAS’ Documentary: Time Is Illmatic
Interview with Writer/Producer Erik Parker and Director One9 on capturing the cultural impact of Nas’ prolific debut album over the course of ten years.
AA: As a first time director, could you describe what your responsibilities entail?
One9: We went into it not knowing what to expect. I’m a former street artist so it was a natural evolution for me to pick up a camera and get into multimedia because it’s simply a different way of expressing yourself. When Erik and I first started the project we wanted to create a DVD for what was at that time Illmatic’s ten-year anniversary. As we started to shoot with borrowed equipment and no money, we had a passion to create something that was greater than us. Its something that we felt could really contribute to the culture. A lot of it was trial and error; especially as a first time filmmaker you don’t really know what works until you look at it on the editing sequence. So we shot as much as we could over the course of ten years. We’re very fortunate to have a great support system in place so it wasn’t just Erik and I; we got support from the Ford Foundation and the Tribeca All Access Program, which helps first time filmmakers. Those organizations really helped shaped this documentary.
AA: Based on your trial and errors in creating the documentary, what’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Erik Parker: One of the things we didn’t know was how long this process would be. There are probably a lot of short cuts that we could have taken but all things happen at the proper time. On a technical note we probably should have purchased some of our equipment as opposed to renting, which would have helped to cut down on some of the costs. We could have sought funding earlier but every year we thought the film would be finished the following year but it kept stringing along. If we had known in the beginning that it would have taken ten years to finish this documentary we may have been a little discouraged. But again, I believed everything unfolded the best way possible.
O9: When you have a passion for something the hours, days, months and years that it takes to complete the project becomes secondary because you’re working on something that you love. If we could only make one film we were hoping this could be it; something that contributes to the culture. Even though we didn’t have much money we knew it was important to see it through.
Also, when you reach out to people with your idea, don’t just tell them about it, you should be able to show them. We got rejected for a lot of grants because those applications are just words on paper. Once we started sending people video clips, it makes sense to them. They could actually see something being manifested that you’ve worked on and they can see how the story unfolds and that’s really important.
AA: There’s a scene in the documentary where Nas’ brother Jungle recalls the photo shoot for Illmatic where many members of the community came out in support. Jungle says that most of the people in the photo surrounding Nas have either passed away or are incarcerated. In your opinion, what was the calling on Nas’ life that allowed him to supersede his surroundings?
EP: That moment in the film when we showed Nas the picture from the back of the album cover was important to explain his place in the context of the people he came up with, and Jungle really does a great job of balancing that throughout the project. Everyone in the photo doesn’t have a tragic story assigned to them, some people did alright, but Nas is extraordinary under any circumstances. Great people rise to the top in spite of the odds. I think what separates Nas is that he constantly sheds light on the environment in which he came from. That’s why Illmatic is still relevant twenty years later.
O9: In the film, Nas mentions if it weren’t for music, he might have been another statistic. Since he was a kid he was using music as his way out. He dedicated himself to becoming greater than his surroundings. He dropped out of high school in 9th grade but he stayed educated; he’s a prolific reader. The quest for knowledge that he has is amazing. There are so many people in Queensbridge (the housing projects that Nas grew up in) that have gifts but he found his calling. Nas found something that he could put all of his time and energy into. With the death of his best friend and neighbor Ill Will, he felt an extra motivation to get away from everything around him.
We had a conversation that isn’t in the film about a photograph of Nas sitting on his bed and there’s an old Commodore 64 computer in the background. He said he asked his mom to buy it even though he didn’t know how to use it, Nas said he liked having it because it made him think like an entrepreneur; it helped him to believe he could become something. Early on we hear about these characteristics and there’s an inner drive that helps separate him and become something different.
AA: Illmatic wasn’t a commercially successful album. If there was another scene of the documentary about Nas’ life after Illmatic, what would it be?
O9: Illmatic was heavily bootleg and as a result initial record sales were low, but there was an immense street buzz and everyone wanted a copy. After Illmatic you see growth from Nas. His second album It Was Written was number one on the charts and it was also strongly tied to his roots in Queensbridge. He started to expand as an artist and collaborate with different people. That album included, the Grammy Nominated song, “If I Ruled The World”, with Lauryn Hill and he became more accepted as a mainstream artist.
Nas made Illmatic as a teenager and he’s always had a since of honesty reflective to what he’s going through at the time. You can hear it in Life is Good (his eleventh studio album) where he has a song about his teenage daughter and what he’s going through as a father. It’s rare to have an artist grow and develop with you over the course of the years, especially in hip-hop.He’s constantly evolving, now he’s focused on entrepreneurship, investing in tech stocks and start-ups.Nas is very honest but at the same time very private you don’t get what’s going on in his head unless it’s through the music. For us as filmmakers it was an honor to have that open dialogue with him about the first twenty years of his life.
EP: Illmatic had such an impact on those Nas spoke to and for that the commercial viability was an afterthought, if a thought at all. So much of the great and lasting works of art, at the time of creation, are not commercial pieces. But they grow in significance over time. In the film we showed that twenty years after his debut album, Nas has a fellowship in his honor at Harvard University. Today we find him as a sort of statesman who still represents our culture and our generation. And he’s also being recognized nationally and internationally for his contributions to the culture.
AA: What’s next for you following the success of this project?
O9: Erik and I are developing an educational curriculum for the film. We’re working with our associate producer and Tribeca Film Institute. We’re focusing on the issues that were raised in the film. From family to the prison systems to topics that are still relevant in today’s society. I feel like it’s important to not just create a film and leave it. You have to be able to use it to effect change in the community. That’s what gives the film and the music an impactful legacy.
Nas Time Is Illmatic can be seen On Demand and iTunes.
*Special Thanks to Bree at the Cashmere Agency!*