NEW YORK -- The 1990s were a rich period for hip-hop, a time that saw the emergence of groups ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to N.W.A to Wu-Tang Clan (depending, of course, on which coast you favored).
There was no artist more influential in that era than Nas, who in 1994 released ”Illmatic” and promptly changed the game for hip-hop with his sharp beats, poetic descriptions of the street and larger philosophical musings.
On Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, organizers sought to transport us back to that more complex time. The festival kicked off its 13th edition at this city's Beacon Theatre with a showing of One9 and Erik Parker’s “Time Is Illmatic” and a performance by the rapper for the mainly consumer crowd that had bought tickets to the event.
Following an introduction by Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro (“It's been 20 years since I was 20 years too old to listen to rap," he said playfully), the festival unveiled the movie, which documents Nas, born Nasir Jones, and his rise from the Queensbridge projects in Queens, N.Y., to hip-hop legend. After dropping out of school at age 13 and watching many of his friends end up in the drug-dealing game, in prison or in an early grave, he began composing music, first informally and then eventually as part of a burgeoning Queensbridge scene. It culminated with his work with some of the top producers of the era on “Illmatic.”
The movie, which is seeking distribution at the festival, has a good story on its hands even if it’s not quite a fully realized piece of cinema. There is interesting back story and colorful footage here, though the film offers a somewhat familiar VH1-ish up-from-the-streets tale and a paucity of real insight into the creative process that yielded one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
After the screening, Nas took the stage, greeted with a keyboard introduction by Alicia Keys and saying, “Thanks for doing such a great job showing where I come from,” as he picked up a bottle of Hennessy.
He then proceeded to rap all of “Illmatic,” the gritty lyricism of “One Love” and “Memory Lane” and the rest, showing the energy that put him at the top of the heap, as a screen behind him flashed images ranging from cemetery headstones to city skyscrapers. The call and response with the enthusiastic crowd offered strong evidence of why the rapper has become so beloved (and, maybe why documentaries about music can be a little inert compared to the real thing).
The rapper had a few pronouncements too. He quipped, “I want to thank Robert De Niro. He plays me in all his movies,” and he also offered the earnest thought that “what you speak and put out in the universe is real life.” He also alluded somewhat vaguely to “not wanting to do” the movie until its directors convinced him.
Nas’ brother Jabari had perhaps the line of the night when Nas welcomed him to the stage by saying that Jabari was the true star of the film. Jabari looked at him and deadpanned, “I just came up here to get some Hennessy,” then proceeded to take a swig from the bottle.
Tribeca has opened with music events before -- the festival featured concerts and related screenings from Elton John in 2011 and the National in 2013. Nas did something bigger and broader, offering a look at what music meant culturally to a time and place, in the process cementing the gaps a movie couldn’t quite fill.
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