Ice T’s Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap – Film Review

If you don’t mind listening to swear words, slang and violent talk, and watching baseball-capped, jeans-sagging, skull-wearing former gangstas for a couple of hours, this film is for you. If you don’t, this film is still probably for you. Nas, regarded as one of greatest rappers alive, remarks in the film: “I’m a grown man now, I have no business wearing saggy jeans, but I might let it sag a little bit just to annoy you few stiff motherf******.” Hyperbole aside, The Art of Rap, a film directed by Ice T, is all about intelligence.

Axiomatically, the film title, The Art of Rap, tells us that there is a skill, and according to Ice T, a “craft” involved with rapping. We tend to forget the deep thought that goes into many rap songs. The film, says Ice T, is not about the “money, cars, jewellery or girls…but what it takes to write a rap and what goes on inside the heads of the masters.”

For those familiar with the greatest rap lyricists of our time: Rakim, Tupac and Nas (to name a few) they will be familiar with the most profound meanings embedded into their songs. This is why hip-hop lyricism has gained a measure of respect within academic and literary circles. English academic, John Sutherland use to teach a course in rap at the California Institute of Technology called “Offensive Literature”. It was “wildly popular with the geekiest geeks in the country”, he says. Sutherland, who looks the antithesis of a rap listener (he’s an old, white guy) believes Tupac will be regarded as “one of the great American poets in 20 years time”. Sutherland has one final thing to say: “West Coast!”

The documentary film follows one of hip-hop’s pioneers, Ice T, on his peripatetic journey throughout the boroughs of New York, the Mid-West and Los Angeles. He interviews 50 rappers – from the old school he talks to the likes of: Melle Mel and Afrika Bambatta, the next generation: Doug E. Fresh (“I invented beatboxing”, he says), KRS-One and Run DMC and the next wave: Common, Eminem and Kanye West, among others.

The Art of Rap explicitly focuses on how an MC – a word pioneered by rapper Melle Mel – goes about creating an idea and expressing it lyrically. Rakim, for example, puts 16 dots on a page and fits his rhyme within the structure; Immortal Technique makes himself physically hungry, because hip-hop is about “fighting with your mind”; Snoop Dogg needs “lots of weed, old-school music and some females”; Eminem who conceded that rap “saved his life” from his drug addictions, explains how he uses internal rhymes (rhymes occurring in a single verse); while Grandmaster Caz, who started rhyming aged 13, says he needs complete silence to write his best lyrics. Producer Dr Dre even describes how Tupac would go into the recording booth, enter into his own zone, start writing lyrics and then record track after track.

While Dr Dre talks about Tupac from his pad up in the hills, there is, strangely, no mention of The Notorious B.I.G. throughout the film, nor do we see Jay Z – two omissions which make the film slightly lacking.  Although, in Ice T’s defence, tracking down every great MC is a near-impossible task.

KRS-One, meanwhile, elucidates how he became a rapper: one day, he was standing in a crowd watching a rap battle, then, all of a sudden, he is randomly selected and ridiculed by one of the rap battlers because of the clothes he was wearing. Feeling humiliated, KRS-One jumps in and starts rapping to defend himself. This, he says, was the start of his career.

“I don’t think people really understand the culture or where it [rap] came from. We called the film Something from Nothing…because it’s the stories of kids who took themselves from nothing to something,” Ice T says on the The Wendy Williams show.

There is also a distinction between the rapper who sits at home writing his or her lyrics and the performer who comes on stage. The latter, often with his or her chest puffed out and displaying obscene levels of bravado, is not necessarily the same person as the one behind the scenes. This is best illustrated in the film by Kanye West’s extremely relaxed demeanour as he talks to Ice T, who elicits honest answers from his interviewees with his easy-going interview style. “On stage they perform but behind the scenes they are exquisitely well-mannered,” Sutherland said at a debate called Hip Hop on Trial at The Barbican, London, last month. Brooklyn born rapper, Talib Kweli says: “Jay-Z the rapper is different to Shawn Carter. The same way as Arnold Schwarzenegger is different to the Terminator.”

This film has a little for everyone. It’s a nice introduction for rap newbies to understand the art; it’s an interesting dissemination of rap for the more hard-core fans; and, for Illuminati conspiracists, there are quite a few shots of pyramids and one-eyed pyramids.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is out in UK cinemas now


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