One9 and Erik Parker talk hip-hop, inspiration and community.
We all have that record that shaped us, understood us and reflected the world we came from. That album we played a billion times and then some; that cut through the mist of façade and into the guts of what was really going on. The record that inspired us. You know what album was that ally for you, right? For New York-based filmmakers One9 and Erik Parker, Nas's 1994 debut Illmatic was all that and more. Growing up in different parts of the U.S., they connected artistically over their love for Illmatic. In 2004, Parker (a writer and music journalist) suggested to One9 (a multimedia artist) that they make a film about their favourite album: the timeless hip-hop offering that established Queensbridge, NY-bred Nas––signed to a major label at age 20––as an icon. The film, Nas: Time is Illmatic took ten years to make. And in 2014, the pair's documentary feature debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film explores Nas's creative process, his family and jazz musician father, '90s NYC hip-hop, and the society and social challenges of the time.
"As a kid, I had to play [Illmatic] over and over and over again just to get into everything he was saying cause it was so dense and so layered," says One9, the film’s director. "In 1994, I was a street artist so I was listening to a lot of music and painting what I heard in my art. What I connected with the most was, you can actually ride with him in a track and see everything he's seeing. Also, he feels like an underdog and I love that! He wasn't trying to preach to you, he was giving it to you very philosophically. There was an intelligence to it.” Parker’s adolescent memories of Illmatic also reflect its thoughtfulness. "He used a common language but made poetry out of it,” says the film’s writer. “It showed me that our art, our culture, was worthy and had value on the same level as any art or culture. So, it shifted the focus from something that was localized and in your 'hood to something that seemed to be on par with any type of art movement."
In the trial-and-error process of making the film, inspiration came full circle as the first-time filmmakers poured their passion and creativity into honouring an album that not only inspired them, but reflected an entire generation, society and environment; their world.
"There's a moment in the film, which is really poignant, [where Nas says] he made Illmatic to let people know, 'I'm here,'" says Parker. "That's also the reason we made this film. We want people to know this world existed, and it's important and you can't sweep it under the rug."
As they travel the world with their film, they notice that many social issues brought up in the film––dropout rate, incarceration––seem to be global problems.
"Our young poet had the ability to use his music to bring him out of that situation," One9 says. "Not everybody has that ability, but that's what makes powerful art: when you're able to draw on something so oppressive and painful and find a way to use it as a healing tool. I think Nas did that."
Right from the start, One 9 and Parker approached the project from a place of passion and caring, which led them to a significant result. "We wound up making a movie that explained a people at a particular time in the world," Parker says. "We had a lot of passion at the beginning, which fueled us to continue on a journey that took ten years."
Led by Associate Producer Martha Diaz, the filmmakers also created a program called Illmatic Education; its community outreach includes schools and prisons. One9 really appreciated how Rikers Island inmates responded to the film. “It was very inspiring for them,” he says.
Illmatic remains a timeless album that inspired millions, an uplifting takeaway the filmmakers aspire to continue. As One9 says, "Twenty years later, still, it's mesmerizing how such a young kid was able to create such an atmosphere like you felt you were there. The album paints such a dark portrait of what was going on in Queensbridge at the time, but it also gave you a little bit of light."