Though he rarely gets his due outside of hardcore heads, Ice-T has always been one of Hip-hop’s best storytellers. Songs like “6 ‘N the Mornin'” (1987), “Colors” (1988), and “Drama” (1988) set the bar high for poetic narrative. These songs were gritty tales from the streets of L.A., “gangsta rap” before it was so-called (back then Ice-T called it “crime rhyme”). Now he’s set out to tell the story of Hip-hop itself in the documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina, 2012).
In addition to his pedigree as an emcee, Ice-T also knows every veteran of the game. On the selection of rappers in the film, he told Soul Culture (embedded below; runtime: 6:48), “I just went through my phonebook, that’s all it was. It wasn’t an intent to cut out the young kids or anything. I just said I’m going to do a movie (and) I can’t offer money. I can only get favors, so let’s call my friends. And I called up the people I toured with.” That explains a lot of the inherent omissions of a documentary of this nature. With that said, the film is a fun collection of thoughts from a range of Hip-hop luminaries. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in breadth.
There is a literacy to Hip-hop. “It’s just like a language,” says DJ Premiere, “You have to know how to listen to it… And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” The Art of Rap is similar in that it helps to already have a knowledge of the history of the culture, its major players, and their relationships with one another. For instance, when fellow West Coast rapper Ras Kass asks if Ice is getting an interview with Xzibit for the film, Ice says he can’t find him. Ras calls XZibit at his house down the street, and Ice-T makes it his next stop. Or when he’s up in Eminem’s studio. After talking with Eminem at length, Ice is chopping it up with Royce Da 5’9″, and Em comes in rapping Ice-T’s “Reckless” from Breakin’ (1984).
When Ice-T sits down with many of these folks, it’s obvious that they’ve been friends and colleagues in this for years–especially people like Ras, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube, Rakim, Redman, MC Lyte, Q-Tip, and Lord Jamar. With others, Ice doesn’t even step in front of the camera (if he’s even there; it’s especially noticeable during the Kanye West spot). The Art of Rap gives one glimpses of the heavies in the game, but knowing a bit of their backstory helps those glimpses go together.
Of course, Hip-hop has been explored in previous documentaries. Peter Sprier’s The Art of 16 Bars (QD3, 2005), DJ Organic’s Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Bowery Films, 2000), and Doug Pray’s Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001) provide a decent overview of the complexity of this art form. But Ice-T brings a special touch to the film. He knows almost everyone in this movie in a way that other documentarians of same do not.
If you lack the interest or the time to read some of the great books written about the genre and culture, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap won’t school you completely, but it’s a fun companion piece to your further knowledge. As always, Ice-T tells the stories well.
Here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:33]:
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).