Every writer has an audience in mind. Each piece is intended for someone. This time, I’m writing to Bill O’Reilly (as he's demonstrated his ignorance concerning hip-hop over the years) and his choir of archetypal white men who grew up unaware of their unearned access to social space and status, to whom rap music is nothing but loud noise with vulgar language about violence, guns, drugs, and women.
It’s not likely that reading this would make even a smidgen of difference in his perspective, for he will never know underrepresentation, though will continue to speak for the minority. However, for those who we have yet to lose, perhaps they can try to understand it before they criticize it.
When One9 and Erik Parker submitted their documentary, Time is Illmatic, to Tribeca Film Festival, they hadn't anticipated receiving the call that it would be opening the event. At its base, the film celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nas’s debut album, Illmatic. But it goes beyond showing how Nas, at 20, produced a defining album for hip-hop that would pave the way for more 20-somethings who surrender their entire lives to the heartbeat of the genre. As Odie Henderson points out, the documentary goes further and illustrates why Nas had to do it – why Illmatic will remain a timeless anthem for youths to come.
The 74-minute documentary brings us back to the beginning. The cameras aren't in the studio where Nas recorded the album. Rather, they are in his apartment where his father left him, his brother, and his mother. They stand on the sidewalk where the 20-year-old Nas saw his best friend die. They sit in the classroom where Nas got his “no money education”, where his talents, as his 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Braconi remembers, couldn't be cultivated. They walk the streets where he left school at the age of 14 and decided he would look out for himself since America was too busy looking out for others.
With this light shining on the stark reality of Nas’s childhood, the documentary reaches out to those who also never experienced the privilege of feeling welcomed, feeling appreciated, or feeling acknowledged. Many of us, especially those like Bill O’Reilly, had fathers since day one that encouraged us to become the best that we could. Many of us attended excellent schools with teachers that motivated us to excel, to believe in ourselves. Many of us lived in safe neighborhoods and didn't have to fear our lives walking home in broad daylight. Many of us genuinely can say that the police are here to protect us.
What Illmatic does, and what this documentary builds upon, is showing who Nas is and what the streets tasted like, felt like, smelled like for him and others alike. “When I was twelve I went to hell for snuffing Jesus,” were the lyrics that captured people’s attention. At year twelve, life had already pushed him far enough to question and doubt God.
His language doesn’t speak to everyone, but those who get it, get it. What’s unfortunate is that those who don't may jump to criticize it, judging it as inferior and unworthy of their listening. When Nas says he “wanted to do Illmatic to leave [his] voice in rap form as something that was proof that [he] was here,” he realizes those like Bill O’Reilly couldn't possibly understand the anguish in recognizing that he was perpetually stuck far behind in a race that was designed for the victory of the white man. He could only hope that the listener would leave with a better understanding of where he comes from, who he is, and what he has to say.
The truest moment of the film comes when a little boy approaches Nas sharing that his name is also Nasir. “For the rest of your life,” Nas says to him, “know that you’re a King.” That’s the essence of Nas’s Illmatic, and hip-hop: it carries the hope that these kids have been stripped of.
And for the finale, here’s Nas’s response to Bill O’Reilly himself:
The documentary is available in select theaters and on demand.