For what had to be the first time in the festivals's 13-year history, DJ Premier kicked off for New York City's Tribeca Film Festival. Just not in person.
Inside the Beacon Theater, film critics and ticket-buying fans filed down the aisles among scattered music industry folks before the world premiere of Time Is Ilmatic, a documentary about Nas and the making of his classic debut album. In front of the stage, Wale, rocking a black baseball cap and short-sleeves, talked shop with a couple of older business-type men dressed to impress with sweater vests and button-ups. Miss Info chatted with some friends as Angie Martinez passed by and waved hello. Representing Hollywood, actor Nate Parker (Non-Stop) spent the entirety of the film's 30-minute delayed start time seated, clearly there for one reason only—to pay tribute to one of the greatest rap albums ever recorded on its 20th anniversary.
To set the mood, the Beacon's sound guys played a random selection of '90s rap, mostly by either Gang Starr or A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe's "Buggin'" led into Guru and Preemo's Moment of Truth single with K-Ci and JoJo, "Royalty"; a couple instrumentals from J Dilla's lyrics-free masterwork Donuts were also heard.
Immediately following "Royalty," a Moment of Truth skit played, the one where DJ Premier rants about people who attack him for how much he samples old records. The heated, heavily profane monologue concludes with, "Y'all motherfuckers don't know what this hip-hop shit is all about!"
Considering the Tribeca Film Festival's traditionally stuffed-shirt demeanor, it wasn't a reach to pretend that Premiere was addressing the Beacon Theater crowd. For every Wale or Miss Info, there were at least five older, clean-cut cinephiles in attendance, one could presume, just because it was Tribeca's big opening night gala. Had any of the hardcore Nasty Nas fans in the building asked one of them to recite a single bar from "It Ain't Hard to Tell," the results would have been cricket status. But the overall mood in the room was, at least before the film started, strangely surreal. It's a trip to nod your head to Gang Starr's "New York Strait Talk" in a room crowded with highbrow filmgoers who are probably biding their time before seeing other Tribeca films like Land Ho!, the one about two best geriatric geezer friends, or Love Is Strange, in which John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play fifty-something lovers.
The oddness escalated once the festival's co-founder Jane Rosenthal stepped on stage to give her formal introduction. Doing her best John Travolta impersonation, Rosenthal called the film "Time Illmatic—not quite on the level of "Adela Dazeem" but an egregious intro fail nonetheless. At least she seemed like she wanted to be there, though.
With the same amount of pep he showed in Righteous Kill, Robert De Niro shuffled into a speech and put Time Is Illmatic into a Big Apple context. He praised the film for telling a "New York story" and pointing out that Nas' album was released in 1994, "20 years since I was already 20 years too old to admit I've listened to hip-hop." A joke that, in De Niro's defense, earned bigger laughs (read: more than a few faint chuckles) than Rosenthal's follow-up about the ready-to-roll film's content: "We're just tripping down memory lane." Let's just assume she'd just skimmed over Illmatic's back cover and whipped up a quick reference to Track No. 6.
The night's vibe then changed from slightly awkward to a rap lovers' euphoria. Once De Niro and Rosenthal vacated the premises, thankfully, Time Is Illmatic director One9 and writer/producer Erik Parker enthusiastically gave a quick intro of their own and shouted out the man of the hour himself, Nas, dressed simply in a sharp gray suit and black tie.
The film is great. It's is a pure crowd-pleaser, especially when said crowd quickly proves that they're all about that "hip-hop shit" DJ Premier spazzed about. What could have easily been an extended Behind the Music episode is a passionate, thorough, and wholly entertaining triumph for One9 and Erik Parker, the former an award-winning multimedia artist and the latter an O.G. in the hip-hop journalism game.
It's an 80-minute tribute to the young man Nas once was, the mature and grounded icon he's become, his beloved, formative Queensbridge stomping grounds, and an era in rap lore that feels Jurassic in comparison to today's glossier, more mainstream hip-hop climate. All of the album's supporting players are accounted for, each offering their own stories. Q-Tip discusses how Nas requested some of the Tribe Called Quest frontman's signature "mystic shit" for the "One Love" beat; MC Serch, Illmatic's executive producer, breaks down the contextual significance of Nas' "waving automatic guns at nuns" line from Serch's posse cut "Back to the Grill"; Large Professor remembers how he helped Faith Newman, Illmatic's A&R, track down that young, unknown Queensbridge kid who tore apart Main Source's "Live at the BBQ" with talk of "snuffing Jesus" when he was 12.
While those moments should be catnip for rap heads, Time Is Ilmatic is even better when it's personal. The first 30-some-odd minutes focus on Nasir Jones' pre-music upbringing, his days growing up alongside brother Jabari "Jungle" Jones and under their cultured jazz musician father, Olu Dara, and hard-working mother, the late Ann Jones.
Dara, one of the film's most frequent talking heads, shares several intriguing anecdotes about his son's early years. The Dara/Jones household was loaded with books—as a youngster, Nas read everything from The Egyptian Book of the Dead to J.A. Rogers's From Superman to Man. When he was barely pre-school age, Nas loved playing the trumpet and would constantly do so outside their project building, so much so that Dara told him to stop and wait until he was at least 7 years old, when his lips were "mature"—when Nas turned seven and Dara suggested he take trumpeting lessons, Nas said, "No, dad, I got something else." The rap bug had him. Even franker, Dara, Nas, and Jungle all recall how pops convinced his sons to drop out of school when Nas was around 13, believing that their teachers didn't care enough about them and that they'd be better off putting all of their energies into their passions.
Time Is Illmatic's family-driven content provides most of its strongest moments. The biggest reaction from the Beacon Theater crowd last night came in response to a Jungle soundbite. Acknowledging that the outspoken and semi-famous Olu Dara has been hailed as the most influential presence in Nas' childhood, Jungle struggles with his words before giving Ann Jones, who passed away in 2002, her long-overdue public salute. "I wish she was still here," he says, "so she could get as much praise as my dad. Without her, we wouldn't be here."
The livelier, filters-off complement to Nas's more reserved personality, Jungle nearly steals Time Is Illmatic from his brother and the film's numerous guest pundits. He's the film's spark plug, always candid and often funny. At times, though, his recklessness uncomfortably off-sets moments of deep sadness. Recounting the time when he, Nas, and Nas's best friend Will "Ill Will" Graham saw Alien 3 high off weed before a street-corner confrontation led to Will's tragic murder, Jungle caps the story off by saying he told Nas, "Don't tell mommy!" when his brother found him outside their building with a bullet-hole in his right leg. Most of the Beacon audience laughed hard at "Don't tell mommy!"; Nas, of course, doesn't find anything about that memory humorous. (Welcome back, earlier Beacon Theater awkwardness.)
The film's most profound scene, however, didn't elicit any wrongly placed laughter last night. Near Time Is Illmatic's end, Nas and Jungle agree on the importance of the day in early 1994 when a photographer came to Queensbridge to shoot the album's now-iconic cover artwork and its insert photos in the projects. "Niggas who'd wanted to kill each other came outside and it was all love," says Jungle. He then holds up a copy of the Illmatic image in which Nas and QB residents young and old crowd around a bench, the hood's tall buildings seen behind them. Jungle matter-of-factly points to every person not named Nasir Jones and provides updates on what they've been doing since 1994—they've all been in prison to varying lengths of time. One9 then cuts to Nas. He's seated in an unlit studio and staring to the side of the camera with a heartbreaking sadness in his eyes. "That's fucked up," he says. Then, he pauses. His thoughts collected, he adds, "If not for music, you might be telling a similar story about that kid in the picture," referring to himself.
For Nasir Jones, that realization is what DJ Premier's "hip-hop shit" is all about, and that's what Time Is Illmatic captures so well. The album that music historians will continue writing about, DJs will endlessly revisit, and rookie MCs will try to emulate represents something deeper than artistic genius. As Nas puts it, he made the album to "let people know I was here." And as he walked out onto the Beacon stage to perform Illmatic front to back right after the documentary's screening finished, the whole room celebrated with him.
Somewhere off-stage, meanwhile, Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal were listening to Illmatic's "Memory Lane," visibly impressed. (OK, that definitely didn't happen, but wouldn't it have been perfect?)
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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