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At Tribeca Festival, Nas Looks Back Film Festival Opens With Rapper's Performance at the Beacon Theatre By JOHN JURGENSEN April 17, 2014 10:10 p.m. ET

Nas, in blue, performed after the world premiere of 'Illmatic,' a documentary about his debut album. With the rapper, from left, are One9, the film's director; Jungle, Nas's brother; and writer Erik Parker. Matteo Prandoni/BFA

In 1994, Nasir Jones shifted the rap world with "Illmatic," an album that captured a New York neighborhood engulfed by crack cocaine and violence that had killed his best friend. Twenty years later, his cinematic portrait of Queensbridge was celebrated at the gala opening of the Tribeca Film Festival. On Wednesday night at the Beacon Theatre, the premiere of the Nas documentary "Time Is Illmatic" and a performance by Nas functioned as a live retrospective of his early career. The 40-year-old rapper paced the stage and sent shout-outs to music producers in the audience—hip-hop gamechangers in their own right.

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At Tribeca Festival, Nas Looks Back -

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It's the second year in a row that the Tribeca Film Festival opened with a music-related movie, following 2013's "Mistaken for Strangers," featuring members of the Brooklyn band the National. Festival organizers said they selected the Nas movie not only because it tells a New York success story, but because it also received support and funding through the Tribeca Film Institute. More on Tribeca Film Festival Five Films Worth Catching A Cinematic Hat Tip to Everything New York Following a Dancer's Steps to Success Bitcoin and Messed-Up Teens Photos: What's Playing

"This movie has been homegrown," said festival cofounder Jane Rosenthal as she shared the red carpet Wednesday night with rappers such as Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon the Chef. Her fellow co-founder Robert De Niro, holding hands with his wife Grace Hightower, admitted he didn't know any Nas songs (he grew up listening to groups like the Shirelles). Later he would introduce the movie with a joke about "Illmatic" coming out 20 years ago, "when I was already 20 years too old" to be a hip-hop fan.

WSJ's Barbara Chai speaks with Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, co-founders of the Tribeca Film Festival, about the future of film and the many music films in this year's festival.

Faith Newman, the talent scout who first brought Nas to Columbia Records, recalled a time when major labels still saw rap as a dangerous business to be in. "I was summoned to the [label] president's office and was told we couldn't have Nas there. I talked him off the ledge," she said. "But what I wanted to say to him was, why don't you live in Queensbridge for a month

and see through his eyes?" Nas said he'd been reluctant to delve into nostalgia for the movie, and to revisit an era that left many friends dead or incarcerated. Wearing a pale blue suit, he said, "We opened up on this thing. Sometimes you just have to walk off the plank. They're memories, so they mean everything." When he took the stage after the movie, he didn't look much different than he did in the "Illmatic" days, wearing baggy black cargo pants and loose Timberland boots. A keyboard introduction by Alicia Keys led into Nas's violent scene-setter, "N.Y. State of Mind." During one song, Nas's two young nephews joined him on stage with his brother Jabari "Jungle" Jones, who stole sips from his Nas's bottle of Hennessy, just like he stole scenes in the documentary. When Nas and his DJ, Green Lantern, launched into the woozy "One Time 4 Your Mind," marijuana smoke drifted through the Beacon Theatre—perhaps a first for a Tribeca premiere. Write to John Jurgensen at Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1-800-843-0008 or visit

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