Props to my former student Alec Fields, for elegantly analyzing “Time is Illmatic,” the new documentary on Nas. Below are his responses to my questions. Nice to meet kids out there that still appreciate 90s hip hop. Some legendary rap came out of that decade.
What does the documentary reveal about Nas, both in terms of how he grew up, and what inspired the album?
Time is Illmatic focuses on the creation of Nas’s famous rap album Illmatic and examines how his background inspired the album. Born in 1974, Nas and his brother Jabari were raised in the Queensbridge Housing project in New York by two loving, devoted and hard-working parents. His mother, Ann, impacted her sons with her work ethic, discipline and the love and laughter she brought into the home. Her husband, Olu Dara, an artist and musician who brought music into the home. Mornings at the Jones’ home were filled with music. As a child, Nas woke his brother to the sounds of instruments and new musical compositions he had created.
Yet, even though Nas had a strong foundation, he was a product of the projects where he grew up. Personal experiences with gangs and violence had a profound effect on him and inspired him to express his emotions, thoughts and outrage through rap music. Drugs, especially crack, were sold everywhere in the poor, rundown projects. Anger and aggression became part of the culture, as police brutality escalated and hope evaporated. Expelled from one junior high school and dropping out of another, Nas pursued his artistic expression and his budding music career. When his closest friend, Ill Will, was shot and killed on the streets, that became further impetus and motivation for Nas’ need to express his outrage through rap. All music stems from the different sources of inspiration, and for Nas, much of the inspiration for Illmatic came from his upbringing.
How would you judge the quality of Nas’ lyrics, compared to other great writers and poets?
Nas’ complex lyrics make him one of the greatest lyricists of all time, even when compared to writers and poets. Since his first lines in the song “Live at the Barbecue,” Nas has managed to send messages through his rhymes, “Poetry attacks, paragraphs punch hard.” Here, Nas explains how words and music can act as violence and hurt someone. The idea that poetry can make a difference is not only a bright idea, but it encompasses what Nas tries to do with a song, which is change something. While others may produce their works in the form of book or poem, Nas uses music and rhythm to emphasize his points. Even though writing a book or poem is difficult, composing a song requires not only the right diction, but also the music accompanying the words. Fitting a rhythm to a group of words is a unique skill, which Nas has achieved to perfection. In N.Y. State of Mind, one of the hits of the 1994 album Illmatic, Nas describes the ghetto life in New York, “It’s like the game ain’t the same /
Got younger niggas pulling the triggers bringing fame to their name.” Through his lyrics, Nas says that the people growing up now resort to violence out of egotism and not because it is necessary. These lyrics are possibly a product of his friend Ill Will’s death. Rapping about ghetto life, he also discusses life in general, “Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined.” Nas is saying that intelligence cannot tell the meaning, or definition of life. His lyrics bring to life the devastating reality of the streets, the violence that is part of daily life, and the hopelessness felt by so many young Black men today.
What was the most distinctive/unique part of the documentary?
The most distinctive part of Time is Illmatic, is that even now, after Nas’s great success as a lyrical rap artist, he has not forgotten his roots. He is driven by everything he saw and experienced as a child and teenager in Queensbridge. Nas constantly discusses Ill Will in his music, and says “Rest in Peace.” Possibly, he named his album illmatic, as a tribute to his friend, or in reference to the “Ill” or sick streets that he came from. Along with Ill Will’s death, many of the people Nas grew up with went to jail or are still on the streets. One Love, by Nas, references his many friends in jail, “What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid / When the cops came you should have slid to my crib.” Nas’ is speaking to a friend of his that is serving time (“doing your bid”), and is saying that he should have hid with Nas when the police were searching for him. The cruel streets define who he is as a man and an artist. Though he has moved on to success, his past will always be a part of the man he has become. Illmatic’s album cover is a picture of Nas as a boy, with the background a screened image of Quensbridge. Tragically, most of the boys whose pictures were taken for the album are dead, in prison or on parole for committing murder and other violent crimes. Nas continues to speak for them in his powerful, groundbreaking rap.