Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie Review: Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

Last night, I finally watched rapper Ice-T's directorial debut, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap.  I've been waiting for months to finally be able to rent it on DVD.  I myself am a casual fan of hip-hop.  I've honestly probably spent more time consuming African-American pop culture than actually hanging out with real black folks.  I don't know that this says anything about me.  It's just a coincidence of where I grew up and how my social circles, mostly anchored around religion, played out.  Ice-T made this documentary to establish some respect for rapping and the artistry and work that goes into it.  Ice-T not only directs, but narrates this entire film and conducts the interviews.  Ice is known as the OG, the original gangster, because he was the first popular gangster rapper.  In this movie, he looks at the history of rap, what goes into rapping and different elements of the hip-hop culture.  Ice-T interviews what seems to be nearly every big name in the history of rap music.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about rap, Ice avoids talking about controversial elements of the genre such as the harsh lyrics.  Ultimately, for what it is and what it's trying to be, it is a solid movie that likely won't win over many converts or increase many people's interest in its subject matter, but I liked it.

This documentary is an in-depth look at rapping.  It goes through the history of rap and all the different subgenres like party rap, gangsta rap, political rap, etc.  He interviews many different rappers, looking at their various writing processes, the way in which they perform and how they memorize their lyrics.  There's also a look at how they flow.  The distinctions of rapping versus MCing are explored, with rapping being done in a studio and MCing being done on stage, rocking a crowd.  Perhaps, the most common theme going through all the interviews is the competitive nature of hip-hop.  These are all artists trying to outdo each other, both in their craft and on the charts.

The best thing I can say about this movie is to mention the high quality of the interviews.  Only someone with the stature of Ice-T could have put together an interviewee group of this caliber.  He has rappers of all different styles and eras.  This movie has Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Yasiin Bey, Dougie Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Kanye West and a number of lesser names.  It's not just about who shows up, though.  Ice-T has such a special rapport with all these people.  He pulls out a comfort level and a level of insight, enthusiasm, great stories and impressive freestyles that a generic interviewer from a television show could never do.  The movie puts you in their world.  You could spend hours combing through YouTube looking for interviews of this caliber with rap stars of this caliber.  I especially like the interviews with Salt from Salt-N-Pepa and Chuck D.  Salt comes off as the kind of classy lady that you would want to go over her house for dinner and meet her family.  Chuck D is also a real cool guy and seeing his writing process was neat for me.  With such a huge group of people, though, some of the interviews feel rushed.  Whenever the cast is this large, also, the first thing you think about is who isn't in it and I have to say I wish the Beastie Boys had made an appearance.  This is, of course, nitpicking.

Do not expect Ice-T to moralize over the lyrics of rap music, his own being some of the most controversial, in this movie.  The only controversy he addresses is why hip-hop music isn't respected enough.  The only time an issue is even touched is when the answer to the question of no respect is posited by Marley Marl as rappers are always feuding with each other.  He says they have to band together.  From what I know from television interviews, etc.,  Ice views lyrics as expression and sees no problem with expressing a terrible viewpoint, such as the vantage point of a drug dealer.  The lyrics are meant to be viewed with intellectual detachment as social commentary, but to me, that sort of objectivity is not the nature of music, especially when you put dope rhymes on an awesome beat.  Music draws one in.  Not that I'm necessarily blaming the music for anything specific because how would I know?  For the sake of this movie, though, I'm almost glad he avoided such issues because that would have been a whole other can of worms to open up.

Ultimately, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is a great movie for what it is and what it's trying to be, but the viewer will likely leave with roughly the same interest level they brought in.  It's almost too insular to even care what outsiders think which to me makes it more genuine on the whole and superior, but occasionally pretentious with its goals.

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