The most powerful scene in Nas: Time Is Illmatic doesn’t include Nas. Near the end of the documentary about the classic 1994 album, Nas’s brother, Jabari Jones, better known as Jungle, inspects a photo from Illmatic’s album art. He points to the men and boys sitting on the benches inside the Queensbridge Houses. Then, with emotions swelling, he notes that, with the exception of Nas, nearly all of them are dead or in jail.
“He doing 15 years.”
“He’s fighting a murder.”
“He’s doing life in prison.”
“He just got locked up — no bail.”
“My man, he just did a shitload of time in North Carolina.”
“The shit is real, it’s the projects.”
Time Is Illmatic bursts with energy, danger, and truth each time Jungle appears onscreen. As Nas said following the premiere, Jungle is the star of the film. But who is Jungle? Until this point, he was often considered Nas’s ne’er-do-well little brother — a pedestrian rapper, the muscle in the entourage, a bit of a hothead, the Roger Clinton of rap in some ways. But with Nas: Time Is Illmatic now running on Showtime, Jungle called from Los Angeles to tell his own story, as well as why he thinks Illmatic is really Nas’s third-best album.
A lot of people couldn’t believe how different you are from your brother. He comes across as quiet and pensive; you seem forthright and more candid. Are you guys total opposites?
We are. Yeah, he’s laid-back and I’m very wild. But if you get around us, you’ll go, “Oh, y’all brothers.” We have the same actions, beliefs, and theories, but I’m way different with how I act and what I say. I like telling jokes a lot. I am way wilder as a person.
[Speaking] as someone who has followed Nas’s career from the start, you guys always had this weird dynamic. It’s like, even though you are the younger brother, you never acted like the little brother.
I am really overprotective of him. It’s almost like he’s my little brother. It’s been like that since we were kids. He was always more laid-back than me, so as kids sometimes I would fight a big guy because [Nas] wasn’t a fast fighter. I would fight at the drop of a hat.
Once his music career [started], I knew what kind of person my brother is. He’s not soft or nothing, but he’s just laid-back. Coming out of Queensbridge, you had all these guys that wanted to be down, or wanted to extort you or take your chain — all of this stuff will mess up your career. I made sure nothing happened. I did anything to make sure nothing happened. I would have laid my life out to make sure nothing ever happened. If someone pulled out a gun, I would step right there. That’s my big brother, but I’m his big brother, though.
The night of the premiere, Nas called you the star of the film. How did you react to that?
It’s hard to be the star of a film when you in the film with Nas. I took it regular.
Why do you think you connected with the audience?
I think I was myself so much. A lot of people, when the cameras come around, they don’t be they self, they be some other person that they think the world can relate to. I was myself. I think everybody just loves to see someone be raw, say it like it is, and not care.
You were so honest recollecting all these painful memories. Was it difficult to revisit those times?
Yeah. I had done a few interviews before, so that made it a little easier. I just didn’t know [Time Is Illmatic] would be that big of a film. We had done a few documentaries before, that had ended up on VH1. I thought it would be like that. I’m glad I didn’t know. If I did, I would’ve dressed up, talked proper, and probably thought a little deeper about what I was going to say. But yeah, it does hurt to reminisce about that stuff.
At times in the film you’re holding a cup and kind of slurring your words. Were you drunk in some scenes?
I had to drink. Every time people ask about my mom or the shootings, I definitely need a drink to express it without getting emotional. Hell yeah.
In the film you said that your mom always spoke to you as if you were an adult. How did that shape you?
I was smarter than the average kid. I knew how to talk to grown-ups. I knew how to spend money at the store. I knew how to do everything. I thought all kids could think like this and move like this, but I was doing amazing things at a young age and didn’t even realize it. I remember when I was 10 years old, my mom gave me money and I went Christmas shopping and bought my own toys. I was doing things that kids weren’t doing. I had older friends that I could send to the store for me. I was way smarter than them. I had friends who didn’t listen to their parents anymore; all they did was listen to me.
Nas dropping out of school in junior high is such a vital part of his origin story. We learn in the movie that you left school around that time as well. Nas did music. What did you get into?
I was into sports like really heavy at that time. I was in the AAU tournaments. I played with the Gauchos, Riverside, Aim High. I used to go to basketball camps all over. I scored 40 points when I played. I had the crazy And1 Mixtape moves. In my mind, I could’ve went pro if I stuck at it. I went down South and there were giants dunking everywhere. I was a good scorer and a good guard but that intimidated me. Guys were dunking. I was like, let me get the hell out of here. I played against Stephon Marbury, Skip 2 My Lou [Rafer Alston]. I don’t know if [Skip] would’ve been dribbling like that if he didn’t lose to me in the championships.
But I went the wrong route when I dropped out of school. I became the drug-dealing gun guy. Then I got in trouble. Then my brother got his record deal. Then I started fixing my life up. I went out and got my GED. Then I got around my brother.
What are your memories of Nas recording Illmatic? Did you realize how great it would turn out?
I thought it would be something cool that only Queensbridge people would like. I didn’t understand the music business. It took him two years to finish the album. I thought that was normal. I didn’t know he was taking way too long. When the album got bootlegged, I thought that was normal. I thought it was cool for the streets to have it first. I didn’t think it would be this. I thought it would be the little Queensbridge crew on TV real fast and then we’d stay in Queensbridge for the rest of our lives. I never thought it meant this — a future where you can be successful forever.
What did Illmatic mean to Queensbridge?
It represented hope. A lot of people saw that these rappers weren’t just rapping, but also starting businesses. That let the people know that you can go out and be somebody and not a drug dealer. I think every ghetto across the world starting realizing that.
One of the saddest scenes in the film was you talking about Ill Will’s murder. You watched him get shot. Does that memory still haunt you today?
Yeah, yeah, that’s something that I remember more than all of my Christmases. I can picture that day more than my birthdays. That was a real traumatizing day. That was crazy. That was the first time I ever experienced death like that, and that was somebody I knew and looked up to, my neighbor. It shocked me so much that I didn’t even run when he got murdered. The guy turned and shot me too. I could’ve ran and got away, but it was like the deer in the headlights — you don’t know what to do. It definitely changed who I am. It made me a different person.
Your dad said that Nas began carrying this almost despondent aura afterward. How did it change you?
It made me a harder person, way harder, and made me defend myself in the streets in a way that I didn’t know I could do. I was always the tough, brave guy but that turned me into a Rambo movie.
Did you always want to rap?
I knew I wasn’t a rapper. I knew I loved music and had swag, but I couldn’t kick freestyles and sound good. People in my family would say, “Nas is doing his thing. What are you going to do?” I would say, “I’m a manager.” But I didn’t know what a manager did. I read up on it and went into the streets, found an artist, took them to a record label, got them a deal, and started managing them. I didn’t like managing. I felt like I was just as good as the artists, so I started rapping. It was tough at first. I didn’t like being in the studio for hours. I didn’t understand why we didn’t just walk in there and make a record and walk out. I felt like it was a waste of time. But I ended up loving being in the studio and loving the music business. If Nas wasn’t my brother I probably would have did way more stuff for myself. Hanging with him and following him, his career, it’s like I live through that. It makes me not do as much as I want to do.
Was it tough trying to be a rapper in his shadow?
When I first started doing it I was embarrassed, like, “What the hell can I say? As good as he is at rapping, why would I even attempt [it]? People are going to listen to me and be like, “This is trash. You don’t sound like your brother. If that’s your brother, you should be half as good.” I don’t think about that anymore. I think I should just be me, the person I am, and whoever likes that will [like it], and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t. I used to care about that, but not anymore.
Did you think Bravehearts could get really big after “Oochie Wally”?
I think so. But we didn’t have a manager. We didn’t do a bunch of business stuff we wanted to do. We put out the wrong records.
Do you still rap?
I make music so easy. I was going to do another film and do my own music with it. I have an idea, but my brother’s life is so cool. I always chill out and start living in his world instead of my own. I got a bunch of ideas and a bunch of stuff I want to do, and I think the world will love it. I know the world will love it.
And you are painting now. I saw it on your Instagram. It’s really good!
I know I’m an artist. I can draw. I can make sculptures, anything. My brother has this paint, a canvas, and everything sitting there. Every day would pass and I never painted anything. I would set everything up and sit there, but never paint. That night, I wanted to paint something and didn’t know what to do. The world is going through so much stuff with police brutality, and as soon as I put the paint on the canvas that is what came out of me. That was the first time I ever painted anything in my life.
What role do you play in Nas’s artistic process? Are you like his sounding board?
Yup, yup. Every time. Yeah. We go to the studio and we work together. We talk while he’s writing. If it gets boring I might tell him something, or remind him about life. It helps, and he can go from there.
On Nas’s latest record, The Season, he addresses rumors that he’s used ghostwriters. He says, “Jungle the only brother I take shit from.”
Yeah. He said something about people writing for him or something? Nobody. He don’t need a writer. He could write for the whole music business if he wanted to. If I say stuff, he knows what I mean for the song that he’s trying to do. If I say something, he’ll listen to that. Nobody else really can tell him what to say.
In the movie you said, “I knew [Nas] was the best as soon as I heard him rhyme.” Is your brother the best rapper of all time?
To me, yeah. The best lyricist to ever rap is Nas, then 2Pac.
Is Illmatic the best rap album ever?
It’s up there. I like It Was Written better.
Ugh, you’re one of those guys.
I ain’t gonna lie. It Was Written is my favorite Nas album, then Stillmatic, then Illmatic.
Why do you like it better?
To me, they were bigger songs, bigger and better ideas. I remember living the moment, and that moment was more fun than the Illmatic moment. Illmatic was so ill and everyone was praising it and loving it, but when It Was Written came out, everything was so excellent.
Illmatic documented the struggle. IWW was about the spoils. As someone who lived through it, of course you’d prefer the music associated with the spoils.
I liked the album, though. When It Was Written came out, even though I had heard all the songs already, I bumped that in my car every day.
Did you learn anything from the film?
It showed me who I am again. It showed me how strong we are in the world and all the things we had to overcome. Life is still just beginning for me. I have a new fight. It’s different. The fight never ends, you know?
Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vibe, and Complex.