I was in fifth grade when rap music made its way to Oklahoma. Seemingly overnight I became less interested in Huey Lewis and Boy George and quickly obtained the soundtracks to Breakin’ and Beat Street, both on vinyl. I spent the greater part of that summer wrecking my knees and back in an attempt to learn how to spin my body around on sheets of cardboard while wearing parachute pants covered in zippers. By the time seventh grade rolled around I was listening to the Fat Boys, Run DMC, and the 2 Live Crew.
I never switched over to exclusively listening to rap, but it was always there. I got my driver’s license around the same time gangster rap hit and my friends and I would cruise the Oklahoma suburbs listing to violent tales from the city of Compton. We crammed our trunks, hatchbacks and rear seats with giant speaker boxes and wired them up to amplifiers from pawn shops and flea markets. (Most of that equipment most likely had just come from other people’s trunks, hatchbacks, and rear seats.) Our initial goal was to be able to rattle and vibrate the mirrors on our cars, although it quickly escalated into being able to vibrate the cars around you. I wasn’t happy until I was able to slow roll through a parking lot and set off car alarms with the power of my subwoofers. Never before has someone been so proud while permanently wrecking their own hearing.
I could write a book (or at least several blog posts) about my memories associated with rap music. If I made a movie about it, nobody would watch it. Then again, if *I* made a movie about it, I wouldn’t be able to get 50 famous rappers to appear in it. Ice-T however can, and did. That brings us to Ice-T’s 2012 film, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap.
The Art of Rap is Ice-T’s self-proclaimed “love letter to rap”. In that context I suppose, it succeeds. For two hours Ice-T parades who he refers to as the masters of the craft in front of a handheld camera. Most of the rappers “perform” before the camera, either spitting freestyle rhymes or reciting old lyrics that made an impression on them. Ice-T also interviews each person about the history of hip hop and their contributions to it.
I stopped counting somewhere after three dozen, but for two hours Ice-T parades rapper after rapper in front of the camera. Hopefully not the intent, the impression after a while becomes “guess who else I was able to get!” The first hour is spent between some of the earliest rap artists like Doug E. Fresh and Melle Mel, and to be honest, several people I have never heard of.
And, my God, what I wouldn’t give to have access to the uncut original Ice-T captured. In an attempt to give as many people as possible screen time, each rapper is limited to only a minute or two, half of which is spent rapping. At one point Ice-T gets most of the Wu-Tang Clan crammed into a small room for an interview session. After one question, zoom, we’re off to the next interviewee. I realize the film would be about three days long if the interviews weren’t cut, but two thirds of the interviews Ice pulls off could have been movies of their own. What a hell of a series that would be, with Ice-T giving old school rappers an hour long interview once a week. I’d watch that in a heartbeat. And it’s not like he can’t track these people down; in one scene, after complaining to one interviewee about not being able to track down Xzibit, the interviewee picks up his cell phone, calls Xzibit, and tells him Ice-T is on the way. Yes, it’s true — all famous rappers have all other famous rappers on speed dial.
By the time we get to the last third of the film, the heavy hitters are being paraded in front of the camera. Eminem, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Run DMC, Chuck D, and Snoop Dogg all appear in front of the camera. But again, some of this talent seems wasted. After asking Ice Cube to describe his style of rap, boom, we’re off to the next person.
It’s hard to talk about who all is in the film without talking about who isn’t. Despite getting love from some of the interviewees, the Beastie Boys are oddly missing. No 3rd Bass, either. In fact, if your favorite rapper is white and he’s not Eminem, he’s not in the film. Several of my favorite MCs from the 80s are missing, too — no Biz Markee, no 2 Live Crew, and no Fat Boys. Tell me the Fat Boys are too busy right now to be interviewed, I dare you. The only two female MCs interviewed are Salt and MC Lyte. There’s also no Jay-Z, no LL Cool J, no Flavor Flav, and although 2pac is mentioned, no Biggie. I walked away wondering if those people aren’t considered skilled MCs, or if Ice-T simply doesn’t have their digits.
Although not the focus of the film we do get a glimpse of how rap has paid off, at least for some. Dr. Dre is interviewed looking over Hollywood from his castle-like compound. Doug E. Fresh, on the other hand, is interviewed inside his restaurant, Doug E. Fresh’s Chicken and Waffles. Others appear in their small apartments or standing on the street corner.
I can’t shake the feeling that Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap. is less about rap and more about Ice-T parading his friends in front of the camera one by one. By giving so many people the opportunity to say something on camera in this film, Ice-T squashed their ability to say anything substantial. After almost every interview I said to myself, “Is that it?” In the end, this is not a documentary about this history of hip hop. At best, it’s a two hour collection of snack-sized sound bites that left me hungry for a meal.