Following up to our conversation with Nas about the Time Is Illmatic documentary, we met the producers behind the ambitious project — One9 and Erik Parker — in Los Angeles. Led by an introduction by Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro, the festival debuted the movie last week, documenting Nasir Jones’s rise from the Queensbridge projects in Queens, N.Y., to hip-hop legend. Parker and One9 started working on the project a decade ago, intending to produce a project that they hoped would highlight the full impact of the album’s influence. Read our conversation with the pair about their perspective of the making-of process.
When was the first time the idea of the documentary came up?
EP: I was a music editor for VIBE in 2004 and I was working on the story for the 10-year anniversary of Illmatic, and when that story came out we did an interview with Nas, what people thought about Illmatic and that sort of thing. But it just didn’t have enough weight to tell the story of Illmatic as I thought it might needed it to be told, so I got with One9 here and a few other friends who, One9 is a big fan of Illmatic, and comes from the same kind of world view and perspective that I do but he’s a visual storyteller, a visual artist, and I have a journalist background and we all got together and started shooting interviews. Booking interviews and just started interviewing people about Illmatic.
What made you decide to produce it?
One9: We decided, you know, Illmatic really deserved a legacy story. Something that was bigger than just a music doc — we didn’t wanna make a music documentary, we wanted to create and be able to tell a story that spoke to generations. It was bigger than a hip-hop doc, really. It was a story of survival, a story of being really historical with different cultural backgrounds. His father’s generation, the history of Queensbridge — something that deserved to be bigger than TV. We wanted to tell a long-form story of family, culture, history and legacy.
How did you approach it conceptually?
One9: Initially, Erik and I, we both come from different backgrounds. I come from a street art background, Erik is a music journalist and writer so we both took the best of our talents and looked at how do we both tell stories honestly. So we looked at Illmatic as 10 songs that looked at different issues and the main things we looked at was how can we tell the story of the history of Queensbridge houses? How can we tell the stories of the drug invasions? How can we look at the prison industrial system? They all had themes in Illmatic. “N.Y. State of Mind” looked at a bit of that New York history, looked at how drugs were coming in to Queensbridge. Nas told us he learned the definition of ‘fiend’ from crackfiend from the crack invasion, so he broke those down into categories. “Life’s a Bitch” looks at the family being torn apart; “One Love” looks at Nas’ friends being locked up. So he looked at bigger issues, and then we also deconstructed it from a music standpoint on how it related to him and how he penned those lyrics.
The documentary offers insight into Nas’ childhood lyrical genius to shots of Nas’ home territory of Queensbridge. What component of the documentary was the hardest to capture? Which one was the easiest?
EP: I think when you’re looking at somebody’s life, like Nas who has a lot going on — a lot of different complex layers to his life like most people, but he’s an artist on top of that. The most difficult thing for any documentarian is to make sure you have something honest, truthful and real. So what we had to do was build a trust level with Nas for him to understand that he had to be in a space where he can tell a story and be ready to reflect Illmatic 10 years later, so I think what most documentarians face is trying to get the most honest, real and emotional reality that you can get on a human level.
One9: In terms of what was the easiest, honestly there’s nothing really easy in the documentary. It’s more about how do you tell the story right, and so what we looked at was visually, how do we tell it right. We used a combination of really nice high-end cameras, but we also brought it back to Super 8, you know brought it back to a grittiness and authenticity that Super 8 kind of gives you. From a content standpoint, we felt like of course the easier part was to get the producers like the Pete Rocks, and the Premiers, and the AZs to talk about their process. The harder parts was getting into the truth and grit of what really went on in Queensbridge from the people who were there, from the family members; that part gave the authenticity. That was a challenge to get that, but it was worth getting.
EP: Also when you’re talking about documentary filmmaking it’s very difficult to raise funds, outside of telling a story. You know, most documentary filmmakers have the same struggle when it comes to making a film that has certain standards, and trying to do that on a budget that doesn’t come from Hollywood. And that’s difficult, trying to make a film with pretty much off a shoestring budget like most documentary filmmakers. We were fortunate enough to have a few grants, starting with the Ford Foundation (JustFilms) from Orlando Bagwell who was the founding director of JustFilms, and the Ford Foundation took an interest in our film and then followed up with Tribeca All Access who gave us grants to work on the film as well.
What makes Illmatic such an iconic album?
One9: I mean, when you look at what makes an album timeless is that it comes from the heart. It’s gritty, it’s honest, and it’s raw and I feel like anytime you put music into an album that truthful, I think that’s what really makes this album resonate with such a timeless feel. It really comes from a place where there wasn’t any marketing dollars to really push it out; there wasn’t any singles that were commercially acceptable — there wasn’t any ulterior motifs other than to make the rawest album for his people in the neighborhood, his friends, his family, for true hip-hop. Those components in itself is what made this album timeless.
What is Illmatic teaching us as a generation?
EP: One9 and I come from the Illmatic generation so for us it was something that we lived, it was something that we saw and we shared the world view with Nas. And I think what it teaches the new generation is that there’s a bridge there; something they can relate to that comes from where we come from. So when you look at that bridge it follows throughout the theme of Illmatic because that bridge goes to not just Mississippi where his father is from and it flows through Queensbridge, from that generation to Queensbridge which is our generation, and that passes on to the following generation which is coming behind them. If you look at the themes of Illmatic, they’re universal and they’re still here. He talks about on “One Love” his friend being locked up and he’s writing him a letter to jail. Those things are still something that people can relate to. You talk about “Life’s a Bitch” and he talks about how he wakes up early on his born day on his 20th; it’s a blessing. There’s an inspirational side of that: desperation. And these are some of the things that this generation can relate to so I think there’s a bridge that happens with Illmatic.
What do you want/hope the audience will take from the documentary?
One9: Inspiration. I feel like it’s bigger than any hip-hop film so it’s something that I think can resonate for generations to come. I’m hoping young kids can identify this no matter where they’re from whether it’d be Queensbridge, Compton, favelas in Brazil; I’m hoping they can look at Nas’ life as a true inspiration and connect to their identify and who they are and their family, and really should inspired kids from years to come musically and culturally.
EP: When you look at this album cover, it’s a young kid and he’s seeing this world, and his world view was shaped by all these things that he saw. But what we really want people to understand is that it wasn’t just about this person, he’s representative of this world in general. So he’s giving voice to the voiceless. We want the world to understand that Nas is only one of many, and we want them to understand who that ‘many’ is. When you see this film, you’ll understand why Nas is who he is.