In the 90′s, you might have heard scholars talking about Jazz as “the only form of music ever born in America”, largely ignoring a sub-culture that was in full swing just a few blocks away from their comfortable suburban homes. But today, rap music and hip-hop culture have invaded just about every corner of mainstream society, and it can no longer be written off as just a fad. But while the commercialization of hip-hop has helped it become accepted as a legitimate art form – however so reluctantly – it also has made way for an influx of one hit wonders and disposable acts, and in turn has confused the naive consumer. Chris Rock once said, “I’m tired of defending rap music.” What he meant by this, was that rap had got to a point where there had been so much garbage flooding the market, trying to explain the actual “art” of rap music to your parents or girlfriend had become a lost cause. Ice-T looks to correct this in his directorial debut, Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap.
The main thing viewers will notice in The Art Of Rap is the crop of emcees that Ice-T selected to interview for the documentary. From the founding fathers (Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaataa) to the walking gods (Rakim, KRS-One) to this generation’s rhyming heroes (Nas, Eminem), just about every living legend of rap music is spoken with. Ice-T digs deep, finding out details about each artist’s creative process, their personal early rap histories, or their favorite verses. This leads to plenty of rap nerd spaz outs – like Eminem reciting Naughty By Nature’s “Yoke The Joker” or Immortal Technique performing “New Jack Hustler” acapella, or Dr. Dre revealing that “Boyz In The Hood” was N.W.A.’s attempt at cloning “6 In The Morning”. There are also plenty of unheard acapella verses spit, most notably Eminem’s ridiculous as-of-yet unheard verse that suggests he has unlimited, jaw-dropping verses just lying around inside his head, or Joe Budden’s chilling acapella laid atop shots of the New Jersey slums.
The backdrop of Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap is a subtle snapshot of America, as Ice-T’s camera crew visits some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, with amazing shots of entirely graffitied blocks in New York, or everyday drug deals going down in the streets of L.A. Curiously, the south is largely ignored. Despite an interview with Bun B, the overlooking of Outkast, Goodie Mob, Ludacris, or Scarface seems like a glaring omission. And, despite his battle with LL Cool J – which is touched upon briefly here – L’s presence is missing here, in a documentary that speaks with most of the greatest, most influential emcees of our time. Jay-Z is also not present, but that one we kind of understand, for some reason.
The Art of Rap can be a bit disjointed at times, where T lets off-camera bloopers stay in the final cut, or lets strange segues go. For instance, after his interview with Eminem in Detroit, he poses the question, “Who ever thought one of the greatest rappers of all time would be a white cat?”, which leads to shots of Los Angeles with “Forgot About Dre” playing in the background, and then cuts to an interview with… Ras Kass? Nevertheless, the Dr. Dre interview comes later, and despite some strange editing, The Art of Rap never fails to keep you on your toes to see who Ice-T will speak with next.
While The Art Of Rap does have it’s nit-picky moments, largely it succeeds in defining the difference between “rapper” and “emcee”, and that was its goal. Ironically, the documentary picks many of the same faces seen in 1997′s Rhyme or Reason, which unfortunately suggests perhaps the art of rap itself hasn’t progressed much over the past fifteen years, thanks to it’s wide commercialization. But if this is the issue, it makes Ice-T’s film all the more poignant.
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