Those are two very different ideas brought together by Ice T in his documentary of the same name. As Grandmaster Caz says to the camera, “Hip Hop didn’t invent anything, Hip Hop reinvented everything.” A very true statement, one lost on the current crop of money-obsessed MCs. Reinvention, taking from what was and making it into something new. How do you do that? How do you even attempt to find your own voice when so many clamor for their fifteen minutes on the mic? These are the questions Ice T is looking for answers to.
Unlike most genre documentaries that start at ground zero and work a historical timeline across to the present day, Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap is completely and totally focused on how an MC goes about the creative process of taking an idea and putting it into lyrical form. It’s an interesting concept, one that Ice T executes well, though there are some pitfalls to the movie. More on that later, for now lets talk about what works.
First is Ice T. You just automatically love him. He’s been around forever, kept his dignity and respect and he has an easy interview style that allows the artists to be open and honest. The stories you get from this film are worth the price of admission alone. Take that and add the sick freestyles done on the spot by most of the artists and you have a movie that will entertain die hard Hip Hop heads as well as newcomers to the game.
Ice T is smart here, he takes it back to the old school with Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambatta, then moves through the next generation with KRS One, Big Daddy Kane, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Keith (to name just a few) and then the next wave that gave us NWA, Tupac, Wu-Tang, Cypress Hill, Tribe Called Quest (to name just a few) and includes more current acts like Common, Eminem, Kanye West (again, just to name a few). At no point does Ice T ever follow a timeline, each artists comes out of nowhere. One second you’re watching old school masters like Marley Marl, the next you’re in full swing with Q-Tip and then here comes Eminem. That quick pace allows this nearly two-hour film to stay fresh throughout.
I have to be honest, I was expecting a lot of bravado and ego about “the craft” but instead I got real people laying down their personas to talk about how they write. Rakim’s putting 16 dots on a page, Snoop’s need to have old school funk or Hip Hop playing, or Kool Keith’s completely random style of writing his ideas down in ways that only make sense to him. These and the stories like it keep Something From Nothing interesting.
Some of the stand out interviews involve Melle Mel, who is either constantly fucking with everybody or legitimately insane. KRS One, as always, is incredibly intelligent and clearly passionate about Hip Hop. He also has one of the best freestyles of the whole film. Big Daddy Kane explaining the difference between a rapper and an MC, the difference between writing rhymes and actually controlling a crowd with lyrics and style. The story B-Real tells about how he had to develop his nasal voice in order to remain in Cypress Hill is killer as is Afrika Bambatta really piecing out the separation between rap music and Hip Hop culture. I must also pay respect to Marley Marl, who gives some compelling reasons why Hip Hop music has had it so rough.
I’ve heard a few say that Ice T is on camera way too much and that he should have just let the artists speak. I disagree; I think it’s the natural conversations and repartee between Ice and the artist that gives the film its edge. Are there too many shots of Ice T walking in slow motion looking tough? Sure. Who cares, it’s Hip Hop, there has to be some testosterone hype to it. Ice T is a natural personality; he has the respect of all these artists and can control the interview but not choke out the spontaneity or improvisation.
Everything isn’t perfect in Something From Nothing. First, there is a total lack of the South represented here. I’m not a fan of southern rap, but to largely ignore it seems wrong. There’s also no Fab 5 Freddy, one of the old school giants, nor do we see Jay-Z. Most conspicuously missing is Biggie Smalls. Yes, I understand Biggie passed away but to have no mention of him makes the film seem off. Ice speaks with Dr. Dre about Tupac so why not speak to Puffy or one of the JR Mafia about Biggie? I also would loved to see Ice T and LL Cool J sit down and talk, especially due to the feud they had all those years ago.
Another troubling section is Eminem because it goes on entirely too long. Give everybody else in the film another minute and cut this scene in half. I enjoyed hearing Eminem’s freestyle and his thoughts behind how he creates, it just seemed to drag on endlessly. The focus on Eminem as the white kid in the game was also weird due to the Beastie Boys not being showcased. In my interview with him, Ice T told me that he couldn’t make a movie called “Everybody’s Favorite Rapper” and so he couldn’t include every artist out there. I understand that but Beastie Boys, Biggie and Jay-Z all reinvented the game; their contributions are legendary and should have been in the film.
I also grew weary of the “Hip Hop doesn’t get respect” shtick that’s stuck in Something From Nothing. Look, rap is the biggest money making enterprise in music right now. It’s a global phenomenon that has become a staple of the world. Fashion, culture, film, they all look to Hip Hop for guidance, so please, spare me the “nobody respects us” routine, that just doesn’t fly.
Regardless of the pitfalls, Something From Nothing: The Art Of Hip Hop is a solid film and a great look deeper into the Hip Hop culture. The overall message is learn your craft, perfect your voice, write your shit down and then come out at all times with you’re A game. I hope the up-and-comers in the field see this film and learn something from it. If they do, it might stem the over-developed pop hold on Hip Hop right now.
Q-Tip puts it best: “Rap is not pop. If you call it that then stop”