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Interview: Nas looks back on his 20-year-old masterpiece with 'Time is Illmatic'

With the new doc "Time is Illmatic" now in theaters, rapper Nas looks back at his 1994 debut "Illmatic" and how it reflects the times as well as now.

Nas looks back on Queensbridge in "Nas: Time is Illmatic," in theaters now. Credit: Tribeca Film Nas looks back on Queensbridge in "Nas: Time is Illmatic," in theaters now.
Credit: Tribeca Film

Nas wasn’t sure filmmakers One9 and Erik Parker would ever get “Nas: Time is Illmatic” off the ground. The two had approached the rapper years ago about making a documentary about his landmark 1994 album, widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of hip-hop. But when One9 and Parker showed up years later, still working on it, he knew he wanted to help out.

“I had to see how serious they were about it,” Nas recalls. “A lot of people want to do stuff just to make money. I was never into that. This was something that was real, between these two guys. Once I sensed that, and I was in.”

The result, now in theaters, doesn’t just look at the record. It looks at what wrought it. Nas wrote the album as an unglamorous, harrowing portrait of the Queensbridge projects, in which he was raised. The script by Parker — formerly Vibe’s music editor — looks at not only Nas’ own experiences, but at how white flight helped make the area dangerous. It also breaks down the tracks, detailing how “New York State of Mind” portrays violence and “One Love” families broken by incarceration.

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“It took me back to why I even got in the business,” says Nas. “It showed me a time period when things were mad different. Back then it wasn’t ‘I’m gonna get rich tomorrow.’ It was about money, but it wasn’t about getting super rich. That would be against the mission. The mission was to give people the story after Chuck D, after Eric B., after Kool G Rap, after Ice Cube. The ’90s were opening up and there was a new world. We were like reporters that came after those greats from the era before me.”

Nas imagines hip-hop as one in constant flux, welcoming in new generations that take up the mantle. But he’s not done, especially after watching the movie.

“It made me want to do a new record,” he says. “It reminded me where I am today. I needed this movie so I could say, ‘This is where I am now. Look at where you started.’ It gave me my footing today, so I could continue to do what I’m supposed to do — do what I’m supposed to do in this day and age.”

He gives that credit to One9 and Parker: “I told my story and now these guys tell THE story for us to see and to have. And that’s cool as f—.”

Bonus: Nas goes to school

Last January Harvard announced the “Nasir Jones Hip-hop Fellowship,” named after Nas’ birthname and intended to attract those involved in the arts. That it’s named after someone who dropped out of school — although whose work is regularly studied in universities — is not lost on him.

“If you’re from the street you feel like prestigious schools are not for you,” Nas explains. “It’s not that they don’t want you. But they train people who are going to eventually out in the world and forget you. So to bring me there was saying to America, ‘We are here and we’re American and we have to bridge the gaps between those guys in the street and the education world.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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