Everyone has their own origin story, and in the case of One9 it begins with graffiti art. Starting at the age of twelve, the now filmmaker spent his youth traversing the streets of Washington D.C. with his like-minded crew, channeling their pent-up rebelliousness through this provocative (if slightly illegal) art form. “I was rapping on the walls,” One9 enthusiastically told me in a phone call this past week.
Jump ahead two decades and here he is making a documentary about one of the most influential rappers in the genre’s history. Time is Illmatic explores how the visionary album came to fruition, and more importantly, what inspired the man behind the mic to create it. Making his directorial debut, One9 was eager to discuss his experiences going back to Queensbridge with Nas, the enduring power of Illmatic as a profound snapshot of a battered society and why his film is a response to the recurring nightmare that is Ferguson.
Samuel Fragoso: When did you first discover Nas?
One9: Well first, prior to Illmatic, there was a big buzz off of the Main Source’s ‘Live at the Barbeque.’ It was a track with Akinyele, Joe Fatal, and this young kid no one had heard about named Nasty Nas. You could immediately tell this kid was saying some amazing shit. It’s something so different, refreshing, and raw. I kept my ears peeled for when his album was coming out. I was glued to all the buzz coming out around Illmatic. When I heard he got D.J. Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor to produce his album, I was like ‘This is going to be one of the groundbreaking albums.’ And when I heard it it totally transcended hip-hop in general for me.
Fragoso: It’s interesting how even on your first listen you called it ‘groundbreaking.’ Mostly because it’s the exact same reaction I (and hopefully many others) had when they did the Illmatic reissue in April, 20 years later. It’s remains transcendent.
One9: You know anytime you make a piece of work that’s raw and honest to the times, it’s going to transcend its boundaries, and that album transcended boundaries for us. It really took us on a journey that actually inspired us to make a movie about it. When we started to make the movie Erik [Parker] was doing a ten-year [stint’ at Vibe Magazine. He was a music editor, and he realized that the story needed a bigger platform than print. So he reached out to me and asked if I was interested in making the film. Initially, it was just going to be the story of Illmatic, but once we got into it we realized it had bigger ramifications with the social issues and culture and the community.
Fragoso: What was it like when you took Nas, camera crew in tow, back to that community in Queensbridge?
To get that true history, the street history, we had to back to Queensbridge. It had to resonate with Nas to want to go back and once he saw what we were making told a bigger story, he was eager to go back. Initially he wasn’t sure what we were doing. He was curious to see how we were moving with it. But once we came by the studio he realized that told the story of the people who were missing or locked up or dead. He was eager to get back into that history and where he came from. And for us ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ wasn’t just music, it also looked at the housing projects and the history behind Queensbridge. The story of the drug invasion, the lives being lost. Everything that made and influenced Nas as youth growing up. And also we looked at the family being torn apart and the issues being told and how that affected Nas to write those lyrics. For ‘One Love’ we looked at the prison systems, and the people being locked up. So we looked at issues from that album and relayed it into a bigger picture.
Fragoso: Did the neighborhood you and Nas visit resemble the Queensbridge of Nas’s childhood?
One9: In a way it was very similar. But for Nas it was also about reflecting. A lot of those people are gone or locked up, but the cycle still continues. For us it was more of a metaphor that Queensbridge wasn’t just one of the largest housing projects in New York City, it was also a representation of what was going on in Chicago and Detroit. Queensbridge is Chicago, Queensbridge is what’s going on in Ferguson. These issues are resonating 20 years later, and for us to make a film we wanted to really examine this from their perspective, their lens to better tell that story.
Fragoso: The most heartbreaking part of all of this, asides from the prescience of Illmatic, is that not much seems to have changed since 1994.
One9: There has to be more of a dialogue of an understanding from the people who are going through it. One thing you always hear about in the news is the results of someone getting shot here, police shooting someone here, the dropout rates are this. They are statistics. But we wanted to show this from the inside-out, the root stems of the issues. It’s also related to how we can be influenced through media and through film. For us, we decided that after Illmatic came out we wanted to make a movie going inside the culture, not just doing a music doc that could be on VH1. Those happen all the time. But no one ever really gets deep into the issues. We’re hoping this film can open up that dialogue so people can see that, ‘Oh, I can shoot my story of my area with my camera equipment and have a potential platform for it.’ This is not just a hip-hop story, it’s an American story.
Fragoso: Does what Nas describe in Illmatic reflect your upbringing?
One9: I grew up in the D.C. area. I grew up living in hip-hop. As a kid (twelve/thirteen) I was doing graffiti art, street art, and I was getting into the whole essence of what the culture was about it. I was living it. I was dressing like it. I had the camouflage and the boots. You know, I was immersed in buying records. I was living a lifestyle that hip-hop affected. My father is from New York and we would come up a lot to visit. So I was always recording, making mix-tapes, pause tapes from like Stretch Armstrong. I was living that lifestyle. I was rebellious growing up. I bought air brushes and I was doing jeans and jean jackets. Early on I was always using hip-hop an a rebellious tool, but also a way of learning and becoming an entrepreneur in a sense. Doing things for myself. Eventually it got to a point where I just wanted to pick a camera up and use that as a different tool and began shooting a lot. I taught myself to edit. I edited a lot of this story myself. So a lot of the visual language in the film is something I wanted to really immerse myself into. We tried a lot of non-traditional stuff. I shot the Super 8 footage myself.
Fragoso: That rebellious spirit you’re describing is all over the rap of the 1990s, whether it’s Low End Theory or Illmatic. Have you noticed the medium change over the past twenty years?
One9: Every generation has its moments that really tell it’s own story. Growing up in the early 90s, hip-hop had cyphers. We didn’t have downloads. You had crews of people who you’d usually listen to music with, and it became a shared experience. Kids these days share that experience differently. Music is so accessible instantly. The minute it’s done, it’s up somewhere. What I miss is liner notes and reading about the track and seeing the cover art. I mean it’s still there, but it’s not quite the same. That’s not say it’s worse … it’s just more accessible. Today’s generation has their own Illmatic. It relates to what they’re going through right now. And whoever conveys that is going to have to do it on multi-levels. It’s not just the music. They have to use multi-platforms. They have to have a video component to it. When Illmatic came out it was really just about the music. There wasn’t Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or anything else. It was about the streets. Now it’s different.
Keyframe: And what is the new Illmatic?
One9: I would compare Illmatic to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. That came out in the seventies. It took twenty years to make something like that again. But people who may listen to What’s Going On may not listen to Illmatic. I don’t listen to anything right now that truly raises that bar, but that’s not say it’s not out there. I would probably ask a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old what they’re listening to now and what really impacts their lives. Because of the age difference I feel like I relate to music in different ways. I like what Kendrick Lamar is doing, some J. Cole.
Keyframe: I imagine most modern hip-hop artists have been influenced by Illmatic.
One9: You know any good music transcends it’s time. I still listen to Jimi Hendricks, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and so forth. Illmatic is going to transcend its time. That’s without a doubt.