I used to rewrite Nas‘ rhymes, replacing key words in his lines in order to make his verses apply to my life here in Oakland. On October 19th, 2014, I heard Nas make alterations to his own rhymes to make them apply to life here in Oakland. “Nothing is equivalent to the Oakland State of Mind,” said the MC from Queens, NY, changing the hook on his “New York State of Mind” track.
His words echoed through the Fox Theatre in downtown Oakland, as hundreds of fans bobbed their heads to the distinguished sound of a 90s east coast hip-hop pioneer. Nas hails from “The Golden Era,” an age dating back to the influx of crack cocaine in inner-cities, the social fall-out of Urban Renewal and the evolution of rap music from its predecessors – Funk and Blues. The drugs, the hood and the southern soul were all elements in Nas’ first album, Illmatic.
Two decades after the album was released, it has maintained a devout following. And now, thanks to a tip of the hat from Harvard University, and a push from Tribeca Films, Illmatic is the basis of a well-done documentary film. Two producers, Erik Parker and One9 came together to create a film which highlighted not only Nas’ debut album, but the environment from which that album grew.
Time Is Illmatic uses photos to illustrate that environment the same way Nas’ lyrics did. The archival pictures of young Nas in grade school, teenage Nas in the neighborhood, rapper Nas showing success, the slow pans, the usage of the Ken Burns Effect, and the way the stories and music work together to support the images drove it all home.
There was this one photo of Nas and his homies sitting on a bench in the middle of the Queens Bridge Housing Projects. The film shows Nas’ brother pointing to the individuals and revealing that many of them, if not all, had been incarcerated at one point in their lives. It was a very poignant anecdotal story, a strong example of how these young Black men’s lives turned out.
If the aforementioned point in the documentary would’ve been a lyric, I wouldn’t have had to rewrite it to make it apply to life here in Oakland.
After the screening, Nas came out and rocked the stage. He performed every track off of his 1994 classic release. Although noticeably winded by the end of his set, the Hip-Hop vet received a great response from a very racially diverse crowd.
The top three moments in the show:
1. When Nas and his DJ mixed the 2nd verse of “Memory Lane” with the beat from Too Short’s “Life is Too Short” (an Oakland favorite).
2. When Nas and his DJ mixed the 3rd verse to “One Love” with the beat from Notorious BIG’s “Sky’s The Limit” beat (a personal favorite).
3. When Nas took a moment to “get his mind right” before the song “one time for your mind”… he paused, accepted the kind offer from a member of the audience– and took a couple pulls from what appeared to be a lit blunt. “Thanks, God.” Nas said, as he exhaled “that Oakland Kush”.
The album, the film and Nas himself are all aspects of the American story. Although locations change and time passes, the basis of the story is the same. Thanks to Nas, all of these elements coalesced to make something timeless that will always be Illmatic.