Nasir Jones’ 1994 debut classic, Illmatic, will forever be remembered for its vivid storytelling and masterful production. Illmatic took the listener into a world of harsh reality combined with direction and hope for progress. I remember being captivated by his style and the beats by Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and L.E.S. The documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic documents the life of a young man coming up in Queens, NYC. We learn about his path in creating the legendary Hip Hop album which created an outstanding and long-lasting career. Saw the film twice, loved it. Excellent job by filmmakers One9 and Erik Parker. This post won’t cover the music, though. I’m sharing a few observations that stood out regarding the environment that gave birth to Illmatic plus the reach our culture has achieved.

Regardless of your surroundings …

Love Starts At Home

Despite the deadly environment in the Queensbridge Houses (where Nas grew up); there was never a shortage of love inside the Jones home. Nas spoke of the affection inside that apartment. If friends knew, Nas’ late mother, Fannie Ann Jones (RIP) was cooking – heads were there. His dad Olu Dara, an accomplished musician, would travel and perform to help support his family. But when present, he made an impact by teaching Nas and his brother “Jungle” about life and encouraged extensive reading. Many of us can relate to this blessing. No matter what’s happening out there – inside our homes we practiced love. That warm, constructive family bond offers protection and hope for a brighter future.

Follow The Road That’s Right For You

While uncommon – the decision for Nas and Jungle to drop out of school, fortunately, worked out. Mr. Jones stated he advised them to escape a negative system tailor-made for destroying young minds (of color especially). Mrs. Jones wasn’t pleased, but history has shown everyone doesn’t follow the same path. You have to follow the road that’s right for you. Nas hinted at the idea that maybe school would’ve been different had he been at Art & Design HS, for example. An environment that supported his artistic talents may have made a difference. Back in the day, (pre-2000) there were many vocational schools that helped youth learn a trade. Times changed and so did some of those educational options. Luckily, for Nas it worked out.

Life Is Humbling

Thinking of people from inner city and/or disenfranchised backgrounds, there have been so many lost lives.

1. Due to an apparent misunderstanding, Nas lost his dear friend “Ill” Will Graham outside the projects. The young man was killed right next to Jungle who then pleaded with his mother, “why don’t we move?” With the strategic flow of drugs and weapons into so many communities, it’s no coincidence this recipe for death still continues.

2. There’s a deep scene in the film where Jungle holds a picture of the friends/acquaintances photographed for the Illmatic album art. While Nas has crafted a memorable 20+ year career, others have had difficult lives with tragic results. Jungle holds the group photo and shares where many of the young men are. Wisely, the filmmakers never focus on a particular person. Jungle runs it down: “Life for murder, long bids for drugs, robbery …” I can only wonder about the slim line between the two different directions a life can take. Nas mentioned that had music not been there – maybe he would have walked a similar path.

Life is humbling.

Words Have Power

I’ve learned when we put thought into words that become actions – things happen. Words have the power to build and destroy, to inspire and predict the future. A beautiful example of this was Nas predicting in (my favorite Illmatic song) “The World Is Yours” that he would have 2 children: first a daughter then a son.

“Thinkin a word best describin my life, to name my daughter
My strength, my son, the star, will be my resurrection
Born in correction all the wrong shit I did, he’ll lead a right direction”

Take The Journey …

And Be Open To New Destinations

A kid from the mean streets on the Rotten Apple goes on to become a world-renowned star. He’s collaborated with many artists from different genres, including his father, engaged in a highly-publicized feud. Nas has remained a still relevant figure in the game. Then in 2013, Harvard University name a fellowship program after him.

The Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellowship supports scholars and artists who aim to make a difference through their work in the Culture.

Once we begin a journey, we have to be open to the new places we’ll arrive at.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic is a thoughtful, entertaining look at an important figure in our Culture. If you haven’t – please treat yourself to this wonderful experience.

Fabian Baez is a, New York City-based, Hip Hop Content Marketer focused on helping others succeed while advancing the Movement. Learn more about him, his work and connect: | @FabianBaez | [email protected]