There’s a moment in One9 and Erik Parker’s excellent documentary Time is Illmatic, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival last night, that sticks in the memory. Nas and his brother Jabari are discussing a photo that was taken in 1994, not long before the album release. It was snapped outside the building in the Queensbridge projects where the brothers grew up, and eventually appeared in the CD booklet. It captures a moment when friends and foes alike united behind a local boy who’d made them proud. There are maybe 20 people in the photo, some in their late teens, some little more than boys. Jabari points at face after face: “He’s doing life. He’s doing 20 years. He got shot. He just got out after doing a long time.” Nas is silent, although his eyes betray his horror. Eventually, he sighs, and speaks to the camera. “That’s fucked up.”
In a way, there’s nothing unusual about Nas’ story — indeed, it’s all depressingly familiar. Some of the most poignant moments of the film involve his recollections of his youth, when local DJs would throw parties in the parks, a time before Marley Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” put Queensbridge on the hip hop map. His early years sound relatively positive — a father who had a bookshelf full of fascinating literature and a healthy stash of musical instruments, a loving and supportive mother, a life that, if never entirely comfortable, was at least happy. And then came the social disintegration that the crack epidemic wrought; Nas’ father left, his mother was forced to support two kids on a minimal income, his brother was was injured in a shooting that left his best friend dead.
Illmatic is a record of those times, a document as compelling now as it was 20 years ago. Its songs are a window into the experience of surviving in that environment, a place where school is “like enrolling into hell,” a place where the only economy is based around crack, a place where, as Nas put it in “NY State of Mind,” “every block is like a maze.” Seeing a smiling, 40-year-old Nas spit those tongue-twisting, incendiary lyrics last night on stage at the Beacon Theatre while hip hop royalty like Kool Herc and the aforementioned Marley Marl watched from the front row was… strange, put it that way. Sure, it was a privilege and a thrill to see arguably the best hip hop record ever performed in its entirety by its creator. And Time Is Illmatic is a worthy and fascinating tribute, and well worth seeing when it gets a general release.
And yes, in the meantime, that film opened Tribeca. Choosing this film was an important move for the festival, although that’s not to say that it entirely got the point — festival founder Jane Rosenthal looked kinda uncomfortable introducing the film, and her statement that “the nature of the [film] is about surviving and thriving… That’s what New York did post-9/11” smacked of a need for justification beyond the film’s subject, which should have been justification enough. Still, opening night was a definitely a sight to see, with a bunch of respectable film-industry types in suits bobbing awkwardly to tracks like “NY State of Mind” and “Represent,” a vision of two worlds colliding that was both comical and rather touching in its own way.
But it also emphasized the persistent, ever-widening chasm between these two worlds. In one respect, it’s great that Illmatic is being appreciated for the 24-carat classic that it is, and that it’s the subject of such an excellent documentary. But the very existence of the album in the first place is testament to a profoundly broken society, one that has only become more broken in the last two decades — and its continuing relevance is proof that nothing has really changed in the last 20 years.
There are many, many Queensbridges, and very few Nasir Joneses. And those Queensbridges are home to a population born into debt, a population that is disproportionately African American, a population for whom incarceration is a fact of life. (Another particularly powerful scene finds Nas discussing “One Love,” a song that evokes the experience of writing letters to incarcerated friends, and how the prison system distorts and destroys not only the people it devours, but also society, family, and social cohesion — paving the way, of course, for another generation of the same thing over again.)
Again, none of this is any surprise — but then, that’s perhaps the saddest thing of all, that a system that dictates that people born in places like Queensbridge are essentially born into the prison-industrial complex has become so entrenched, no one really questions its existence any more. It is an accepted fact of American life, like health insurance being a luxury rather than a universal right, like the minimum wage being insufficient to live on, like the fact that wages have stagnated over the last 40 years even as production continues to grow, like the fact that the wealthiest one percent control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Like the fact that if you grow up in the projects, most of your friends will be dead or in prison by the time you’re in your 30s. If you make it that far yourself.
As Parker, the film’s screenwriter, said last night, “If you look at conditions then and now, not much has changed for the people Nas represented. But so much has changed in the world. What was important for us to tell is that Nas is a genius, but he’s one of just a few that made it out.” Indeed. For the other people in that sad old photo, nothing has changed at all. And that’s perhaps the saddest and most powerful message of Illmatic — that it could have been made yesterday, and that something like it may well be made tomorrow.