Hip hop icon Nas describes his notoriously troubled hometown, the Queenbridge housing project in Long Island City, Queens, as a “buried diamond.”
The rapper unearthed that gem on Wednesday at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles, as he and filmmakers unveiled their documentary “Nas: Time Is Illmatic,” part of TheWrap’s Award Season Screening Series.
The doc takes a look at the inspiration behind and production of Nas’ 1994 debut album “Illmatic,” regarded as one of the most influential albums in the genre’s history. The work is praised for it’s unflinching portrayal of his youth surviving Queensbridge.
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“When we first sat down with Nas and showed him some footage, we initially thought it was going to be a father-son story,” director One9 said in a post-screening Q&A with TheWrap’s Greg Gilman.
There’d be a compelling argument for that theme: Nas’ father, jazz musician Olu Dara, is a prominent figure in the film. He’s also credited with injecting a literary sensibility into his son’s flow.
“But Nas expressed to us how important it was to talk about his mother,” the director said, “… and to really look at community. Look at issues.”
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Which is precisely what the rapper, real name Nasir Jones, did on the groundbreaking record: rap honestly about a home where education was an unfulfilled promise, crime was commerce and death or jail time rampant.
“Some of the issues we addressed in the film are going on now twenty years later. The dropout rate is crazy, the prison system is just out of control. What you see in Queensbridge is very relatable to what’s going on in Chicago, Detroit, L.A., Ferguson.”
Nas’ music became the thread for this larger documentary narrative, and the film presents a beautiful oral history with the people who brought it to life.
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Like the A&R exec from Columbia Records who ventured out of Manhattan in search of Nas after hearing one of his early tracks, eventually signing him. A record deal offered him extraction from those rough streets, but Nas did the unexpected: he brought everyone to Queensbridge.
Hip hop luminaries like Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz and Busta Rymes discuss the music’s impact respectfully and without fawning.
Esteemed academic Dr. Cornell West even chimes in, crediting Nas with being the first in his time to use the genre for such heavy social issues. And published professors won’t be the only ones studying the album for long.
Nas, One9 and the film’s writer Erik Parker said they’re developing a program to include “Time Is Illmatic” in high school curricula nationwide.
“We can’t sit and wait for somebody to come help, we have to fix the community,” Nas said, “hopefully if they see this … they can learn from our mistakes and how blessed were to get out of there.”
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The possibility of a course on Nas excited one 16-year-old in attendance: a Chicago boy catching the screening with his family used the Q&A to ask Nas for advice on breaking into the business. The star invited the boy to the front of the theater to rap for the whole house.
The kid’s moment fit nicely with One9’s parting thoughts, about encouraging a new generation to use their smartphones for more than texting — open their video cameras to document the world around them.
“We rely on the media too much to tell our stories,” he said, “we should be telling our own stories.”
Find more on “Nas: Time Is Illmatic” here, and catch the cable debut December 12 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.