No art form or genre has ever had to justify its very existence the way hip hop does. Whether it is the various accusations levelled at it as having negative effect on society, or the broad generalisations that question its very validity as an art form, it remains a source of huge debate from its very inception. It was always viewed as the new brash kid in school who always has to justify himself.
Well, this kid grew up and has become a force and is becoming harder to ignore as perhaps the voice of the 21st century. This is, of course, amazing considering where it all started. And this is what Ice-T‘s new documentary Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap attempts to tackle.
It is interesting to see that now that we have senior citizens, or ‘OGs’ as Ice-T likes to be referred to, we can have a retrospective look at this art form. Fewer people have the level of access that a pioneer like Ice-T has; he was part of its very inception and thus has an interesting vantage point of it all. While the film starts at the origin geographically to give it a historical context, this is not a historical piece on the genre itself but a look at the inner workings of an MC’s mind to see how they come up with the their words.
Ice-T is not an expert interviewer, yet he manages to illicit some rather fascinating insights of the thought process from the literal originators of the game. This is helped not only by his standing in the history of rap but also by the fact that these are all people he knows personally, giving the narrative a natural and candid feel which seems to have come about organically.
In addition, his admittedly gimmicky technique of getting his interviewees to spit a verse was effective and great to see. For anyone that never understood the art of MCing, it can only be enlightening to hear how Rakim is so multilayered or how Eminem is complicated in his delivery.
We also see the subtle variations that came about as the game progressed and evolved; the older rappers established the foundations through sheer creativity while the younger ones continued to polish it to what it has become today.
Speaking of younger rappers, there is a notable absence of them in this documentary. With the exception of Immortal Technique, all the people he interviewed are either veterans or have been on the scene for quite a while. I initially wondered if this was a subtle comment by Ice-T as to what he believes to be the credibility of the art of MCing in the current atmosphere of Hip Hop. Who would he put along these greats as a current torch bearer of the genre he holds such deep affection for? I am not sure he would have a long list.
Where the film falters is not in its subject matter or its subject, but purely in its execution. For a seasoned man who has been in the film industry for so long, the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. The clunky pacing, excessive aerial location shots and repetitive questions all show inexperience. I also think that it missed a chance to talk about what truly motivates an MC to write what they write; it asks how but never why.
However, the main flaw has to be that this ultimately a Hip Hop fan piece. You will enjoy it if you love Hip Hop already, but if you don’t you will not leave the cinema with a new perspective or insight. DJ Premier has an interesting point in the film where he says that Hip Hop has a certain language [he doesn’t mean vocabulary or slang here], that if you don’t understand will make it impossible for you to enjoy. I feel this documentary is the same in that respect.
VERDICT: An affectionate love letter to the art of MCing, without any new perspective. But any film that has wordsmiths of this calibre discussing their art will always be worth a watch.
The Art Of Rap is screening in select theatres, with DVD release planned in September. Visit theartofrap.com for details.