How the Griot of the Hood Became a Rap Storyteller for the Ages

Celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the classic Illmatic, the documentary Time Is Illmatic illustrates how far Nas and hip-hop have come.

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Screenshot from Time Is Illmatic documentary

April of 1994 equaled 30 days, from start to finish, of emotional highs and lows for those of African descent. The fourth month of that year saw the start of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi being massacred in the Rwandan genocide. On April 29, South Africa held its first interracial election, in which Nelson Mandela was voted president. And during all of this, on the 19th day of a month known for bringing showers, Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones sprinkled the world with intelligent spit by dropping the five-mic masterpiece Illmatic.

His unforgettable debut was hip-hop’s gritty version of the New York Times, filled with clearly colored commentary on life in the hood. Nas was an unapologetic master weaver of mental visions illuminated on pieces of paper. Effortlessly, he sewed together the ills and black epidemics of generational incarceration rates, project crack whores pining for more, and fatherless boys fast-tracked into becoming emotionally numb men.

That social progression evolved into now, 20 years later, as one of the greatest MCs of all time celebrates the release of rap’s pivotal classic with Illmatic XX. A double-anniversary album, it’s filled with reminiscent original singles and remixes of longtime hits of the past, as well as rare tracks that crackle and pop to specks of dust beneath turntable needles. This two-decade tribute to Nas’ introduction to the world is coupled with the global premiere of the documentary Time Is Illmatic.  

Directed by One9 and written by Erik Parker, Time Is Illmatic kicked off this week’s Tribeca Film Festival. Its historic, opening-night debut took place three days prior to the exact date when llmatic was released on April 19, 1994.

The film begins before Nas is born. It highlights the roots of his father, jazz musician Olu Dara, in Natchez, Miss. A Southern man with Northern Negro tendencies, he was accustomed to Ku Klux Klan occurrences and colored-water-fountain sightings. Working the chitlin circuit as a struggling jazz artist, Olu fell for postal worker Fannie Ann Jones and moved with his lady love to New York City. They eventually found themselves living in the clustered, crowded projects of Queensbridge.

Their two-parent home allowed for shared resources and inner-city luxuries of the ’70s and early ’80s, like color TV and a fully decorated living room of furniture. But Nas, a bright and aware voracious reader of his parent’s library of historical and biblical books, slowly became conscious and saw that his blessed lifestyle was not the neighborhood norm.

Read more at the Shadow League.

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