One9 is an award-winning multimedia artist, director, producer, and editor. His clients have included Google, PBS, Viacom, Sony Music, and several non-profit organizations. His original artwork was selected by the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York to be presented to music talent in the 2013-2014 season.
Erik Parker is an editor, music journalist, writer, and producer. He worked as the music editor for The Source and Vibe magazines, as well as covering hip-hop music culture and politics for such publications as XXL, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and other digital and print outlets.
Nas: Time is Illmatic, One9’s feature-length directorial debut and Erik Parker’s debut film as writer, had its World Premiere as the Opening Night selection of the 2014 TriBeCa Film Festival. Produced by One9, Parker, and Anthony Saleh, the film tracks the cultural legacy of Nas’s groundbreaking debut album, “Illmatic,” on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. An intimate look into the legendary hip-hop artist’s career and impact, Nas: Time is Illmatic opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on October 1, 2014; screens at special one-night-only events across the United States on October 2; and is available On Demand and iTunes as of Oct. 3, 2014. In support of the film, Nas is touring the country throughout the month of October.
One9 and Erik Parker spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the decade-long production of Time is Illmatic, Nas’s iconic cultural status, and how calling in favors made their documentary come to life. This interview, made possible by TriBeCa Film, has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: To my mind, you have very different backgrounds from one another – One9, you have a career in graffiti and street art, while you, Erik, have worked for years as a music and politics journalist. Did your backgrounds ever come into conflict when making this film?
Erik Parker: I don’t feel so. We both appreciated the other’s skill sets, which were opposite but complementary. I appreciate One9’s strengths with storytelling and the filmmaking process, and I think he appreciates mine. Ultimately, storytelling is about having a vision – so once we agreed upon that vision and got on the same page, it was easy to fall in line with one another’s ideas.
One9: Erik and I knew each other through television work prior to making the film. We had common friends and common ground around our love for the music and culture of hip-hop. I used to read his articles for The Source, so [when we started] I was familiar with his writing and background. And we had common interests in the arts, too, having done shorter-form things in film but never features. So working with Erik on this film was great because he helped me, a first-time director/producer/editor, work through things. Our theme throughout the whole filmmaking process was to find what felt right for us, what felt like the honest approach, and what was going to resonate. Answering those questions together is what really made this work.
SM: I read that you started working on Time is Illmatic ten years ago, and the technology available to filmmakers has changed so drastically in that time. Did you have to revise your original ideas for how to shoot and make this film?
One9: It makes me laugh just to think about what we were using back then, in 2004. We didn’t have accessible cameras; at the time, all I owned was a little handheld Canon GL-1. Erik had a friend, a cameraman named Eddie (Ojeda), who was working at a local cable access television station. So for our first interview with [Nas’s father, jazz musician] Olu Dara, all we had was local TV beta equipment, audio, and my GL-1.
Erik Parker: Just to give you an idea of how things have changed, one idea that One9 had early on was to have a still photographer whose work could be used in the film. Nowadays, if you want a still photographer, the person who is shooting [the film] with a digital camera can take the digital stills – at the same time as footage – for us to have later.
SM: In my experience as an interviewer, filmmakers almost always tell me that their debut films would not have been possible without calling in favor after favor. Was that your joint experience on this project?
One9: I would say there was never a time when we did NOT call in a favor. *Laughs* We had such a great crew that I honestly believe would have done the film for free. Making a film really is like that, but if you love what you do, you are going to the find people to help you out. As a first-time filmmaker, you have to surround yourself with people that share your happiness. Everyone on this film, from the camerapeople to the editors to Erik and I put in more than they got paid – they were almost like volunteers.
Erik Parker: People get excited when you have a passion for something, and when they start to share in that passion, they will happily help you in any way.
SM: How much time have you spent working with Nas over the last decade to get this documentary completed?
Erik Parker: To clarify, we started work on the film in 2004, but we didn’t meet with Nas until 2006. At first, we were just filming everyone we possibly could that was associated with his album, “Illmatic.” I think we did a good job in a short amount of time tracking those people down and getting them to talk to us on camera. Originally, we thought we were making the album DVD or a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of “Illmatic,” and that we’d finish it in the same year to celebrate the 10-year-anniversary. That didn’t work out, but we cut a trailer and showed it to Nas’s manager, which brought Nas to the table.
Nas had seen the trailer, and he was impressed, so he met us – five of us were working on the film at the time – at Houston’s restaurant on Park Avenue. We explained to him that what we wanted to do had evolved beyond just the making of the music. It had become, for us, something bigger about the socioeconomic issues surrounding the album. So he looked around the table at us and said, “Well, keep doing what you’re doing.” It wasn’t much later that he started to become really involved.
SM: You both served as producers of the film. Was Nas involved in the behind-the-scenes production as a collaborator? Or was he only an on-camera subject?
Erik Parker: He was THE on-camera subject. Once, he came into our office so we could show him what we were working on, and of course tracking down his schedule had been difficult. One9 was playing clips of archival footage and little pieces we had cut together; Nas was so blown away that the twenty minutes he had had for the meeting turned into four hours. He called [his brother] Jungle to come up to the office, and they started reminiscing, having a great time. That was the moment, really, where he turned the corner on wanting us to continue what we were doing and promised us access.
SM: The finished film does feature those archival clips and other interesting footage. When the two of you were devising the visual style of the film, what were the other documentaries, artworks, or films you were looking to for inspiration?
One9: I love films that connect the grittiness of the image with what’s going on in the culture at the time. At the time, I was watching The Battle of Algiers [dir. Pontecorvo, 1966], I watched City of God [dir. Mereilles, 2004], films where you can see the kinds of environments they are coming from. Hoop Dreams [dir. James, 1994] is a big inspiration to me: that film’s really not a basketball story. It’s a human story that connects basketball as a thread. What we wanted to do with Time is Illmatic is to tell a story that uses hip-hop, or more specifically “Illmatic,” as a thread with which to connect to human emotion and lives. Visually, I was looking at a lot of close-ups, and how to use people’s eyes. It is important to eliminate the excess in on-camera interviews so you can get an extreme connection with the face. For that, I was watching a lot of Orson Welles, and the great documentary Visions of Light [dir. Derrickson, 1992] about Directors of Photography and cinematographers.
I also really wanted to use a Super-8 camera once I realized that a lot of our film was going to come from archives and B-roll. [Archival footage] shows its age, so I thought we should continue to shoot with an aged look. For that, we had the incredible Frank Larson, our Director of Photography, and Ben Kutchins, whose camera I borrowed for the more intimate B-roll in [Nas’s hometown] Queensbridge, New York. We also chose to use a lot of aerial shots out there; we went to the top of a storage facility in Queensbridge just to shoot birds for a while, to capture that feeling of being free. We wanted to use an image that would connect with that sensation without being too heavy-handed – so the birds were part of that visual language.
SM: I noticed the aerial shots, which are great, but I was most startled by the true intimacy of the B-roll you mentioned. The film features Super-8 footage of Nas in Queensbridge spending time with shy little kids and just walking through his old neighborhood. Now, Nas is an extremely famous, cultural figure – did his public persona and his fame ever impede your efforts to get that kind of intimacy from him?
Erik Parker: When I was working with The Source, I interviewed Nas back in 2000. This was at the height of his fame because he had just released another album called, “Stillmatic.” That was a time when he was at a crossroads in his career, and, I think, in his life. His mother wasn’t doing well and he had had obstacles in his recent career…a crossroads, you know? Up to that point, Nas was not known for being outspoken off-the-mic – he wasn’t adversarial, but he was known to most music journalists and the people that interviewed him as a man of few words. It added to his mystique. By the time we started shooting the documentary, he was still very reserved and humble. Even though he’s very famous and people heap great praise on him, he’s the sort of person that does not want the world to think that he thinks “Illmatic” is the greatest hip-hop album of all time or that he’s the world’s greatest rapper.
But that album has loomed large over his career and had a great impact on many people. Fastforward twenty years from its release, and all the madness that Nas was going through when he made it – at seventeen years old, nineteen years old – and finally, he’s able to make some sense of its [impact.] So over the years, we got to know him as he was evolving, and as his life was changing. For him, talking to us on camera was somewhat like therapy because he was never able to really analyze or talk about his career in a public way. Now he’s at a stage where he can talk about it, and I think we reached him at just the right time.
One9: I would say, in addition, that Nas connected to us as artists. When he came to our office on West 23rd Street for the first time, which had paintings all over the walls and was an interesting visual space, probably more like a gallery than an office space, he was in pain as an artist. He’s a very visual artist as well; most people do not realize that he used to draw and make comic books. He almost went to the School of Visual Arts in New York. So when he came in to that office with my paintings and style boards on the walls, and he saw documentary footage of his own childhood, he said, “Man, this changes everything.” That was the entry point for him: he had been unsure about how he wanted to proceed on the film before then, but when he saw those clips, it changed the trust he had for us. Nas had always been honest with us, but before that point, a little more guarded – after that, he opened up, and he’d call us when he was in New York to show us personal photos from his life. Some of those photos of his brother Jungle and his friend Ill Will ended up in the film, too.
By the time we shot the scenes you mentioned in Queensbridge, he was completely unguarded and there was no one around but him and a driver. The whole experience felt friendly and reminiscent. Nas had footage of himself walking around the same area from 1996, and he had wanted to go back to that block, where we found the young kids. The whole thing was just off-the-top, free-form shooting without any parameters – it was very experimental, actually, just saying, “Whatever we see wherever we go, we’re going to capture those moments.”