Typically, the first time someone hears an album that they know is about to become a favorite, they say it is like being taken somewhere they have never gone before, both sonically and emotionally. Erik Parker could not have had a more opposite reaction when he pushed "play" on his brand new Illmatic CD in 1994. Instead of feeling like this was something totally unfamiliar, he says, "I felt like I already knew it…as if it had always existed."
For Parker, what made rapper Nas's debut so familiar was what also made it groundbreaking. "Yes, it was a great album, but more than that, it was also a soundtrack of poetry to represent an entire segment of a generation that didn't have a voice—their frustrations, hopes, and desires, articulated in a way that was so poignant." A decade later, when Parker was editing a feature on the album's 10th anniversary for Vibe magazine, where he was the music editor, he knew it would be difficult to capture its complexities—and he knew they weren’t getting it right. "The article didn’t have enough dimension to it," he explains. And although the Columbia School of Journalism graduate had spent zero hours in film school, he realized the strongest story would be a visual one. The result is a documentary called Time is Illmatic, which he wrote and produced over the course of 10 years. It premieres on April 16th, in the coveted position of opening night at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the screening will be followed by Nas himself performing the album.
Time is Illmatic tells the story of Nas’s journey to becoming a legendary MC, but also the conditions, realities, and cultures that shaped his debut. Originally Parker and his film partner, director One9, simply wanted to tell the making of the album that he calls a "living historical document that bridges the past to now." But after interviewing Nas's dad, Olu Dara, they knew it needed a broader scope. "His father is from Natchez, Mississippi, and is a jazz and blues musician. Nas is from Queensbridge and a rap artist. These two generations, they cover the Black northern migration, hip hop as a popular music for young black men, people living in projects, drugs because crack had come on to the scene, the education system and its failures—the different obstacles that young boys who want to become men have to face. This is what shaped Illmatic."
Parker had spent his journalism career documenting and telling stories, so he felt equipped with the necessary skills to shift mediums from print to film. That included knowing how to get Nas from being "distant" to enthusiastically onboard to participate, open up his archives and give on-screen interviews. Parker, One9, and the others who were working on the project "started shooting different people, a lot who we'd already talked to for the [Vibe] article. It was very organic," he says—until they realized that the story was also bigger than their budget.
The dilemma of juggling a 9-to-5 job, a growing family, and limited financial resources led to a cycle that Parker explains as "pick up camera, put it down. Reach out to people, pick up camera, put it down again." He was surprised to discover how much it cost to make a documentary—and how hard it was to find financial backers. In 2010, years after the first images were recorded and right before another round of "put the camera down," they had a meeting with Orlando Bagwell, who was then the head of JustFilms, the division of the Ford Foundation created to support projects that have social justice themes. That meeting led to a research and development grant that gave Time is Illmatic the financial security it needed to keep the cameras rolling. Parker and One9, the last men standing of the original team ("everyone else went back to work," Parker says) were also accepted into Tribeca All Access, a Tribeca Film Institute program for filmmakers. The grants from Ford and All Access meant that after 10 years of work on the film, Parker could finally dedicate himself to it full-time. So in 2013, he left his job as a content producer at CBS Local and relocated his professional life to the Manhattan office of his production company, Illa Films.
Once there, he knew he had a deadline to make. "A piece of art as complex as the album, we could have worked on the film for another 20 years and wouldn't be done," Parker admits. Yet they were determined to have a final cut finished in time for Illmatic's 20th anniversary. "You never finish," he cautions. "You're just done with it." So they declared it done enough to submit to festivals, but not complete in a way that lets Parker mentally shift to thinking of what is next for him professionally. Though he's sure that he wants to continue working in film, he is unable to plan beyond that. "It's difficult to see the next baby when this one is so new," he explains. For now, on the eve of Illmatic's next lifeline, Parker is sure to experience that "Never Been Here Before" feeling when audiences enjoy his film.
[Images, Stills Courtesy of Time Is Illmatic, Erik Parker]