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Put a hip-hop documentary in front of my eyeballs, and I’m a happy girl. Put a hip-hop documentary that’s essentially an Ice-T-guided tour of the influences, processes and intimacies of rap royalty in front of my eyeballs, and they’ll explode.
In so many words, that’s what happened when I saw Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Co-directed by Ice-T, the movie essentially blows open the rap mogul’s Rolodex and scatters it across a screen for 106 minutes. This is Ice interviewing just about every important MC in the game like only Ice can. Question-and answer-sessions turn into rap battles, recounting old stories, sharing anecdotes and divulging secrets that only a colleague in the industry could muster.
Although a bit more disjointed, it’s safe to say that The Art of Rap can stand alongside one of my favorites from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Michael Rapaport’s Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, when it comes to humor, knowledge and passion for the craft. The Art of Rap is a hip-hop lover’s dream, a revolving door of legendary stars spitting humorous and heartfelt advice.
Ice wastes no time getting into things, swaggering in slow motion during an introduction, expelling that, “Rap music saved my life,” and setting up the doc as an exploration of its craft. And then, the interviewing begins: He travels from New York City to Detroit to Los Angeles, and keeps a rough plan in mind when it comes to questions for each subject (almost every interviewee is presented rapping to the camera either at the beginning or end of their session). It’s a fun little showcase, and a few of the interviewees absolutely crush it — most memorably, Kanye West, who gave me goosebumps, and KRS-One, who roused my audience to a standing ovation.
Not only is the documentary chock-full of knowledge — my notebook is bursting with quotes hungrily scrawled as I watched — but Ice offers a glimpse into himself as director, sometimes required to calm an unruly interviewee (in one very funny case, Wu-Tang’s Raekwan), at other moments wrangling onlookers away from the camera while shooting outdoor scenes (his frustration during a street scene with Q-Tip is pretty hilarious).
So, if you’re the kind of person itching to know how Immortal Technique makes himself hungry to write (“You gotta fight with your words”), Doug E. Fresh beatboxes (“I’m moving with your rhyme”), Chuck D and his friends overcame the feedback-ridden sound systems during live performances in the ’80s (“We reconciled it by getting good”), Run-D.M.C. shot to fame for their live performances (“We turned the block party into a concert”), Ice Cube categorizes his style (“Street knowledge”), or Snoop Dogg’s advises young rappers (“Find your heart, find your art”), The Art of Rap is a must-see. Aside from all the greats mentioned, there are very concerted visits with pioneers in the industry, including Salt of Salt-n-Pepa, Eminem and B-Real of Cypress Hill.
The second-unit budget alone must’ve been as much as the rest of the film’s production combined — the sweeping, stylized overhead shots of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles practically pulse off the screen, and provide flashy transitional fodder between Ice’s endlessly entertaining interviews (conducted on street corners, in recording studios, at private residences and in front of major landmarks). Ice’s journey isn’t without a little self-indulgence: He bridges sections with slow-motion imagery of him walking the streets (in a way, creating thematic chapters with his voiceover), and there are moments when it feels like a slightly off-key hook interrupting the flow of a killer rhyme.
Small grievances aside, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap is a pretty monumental achievement on Ice-T’s part — endlessly enjoyable, enlightening and boasting a wicked soundtrack. The movie made me want to unearth all my archived hip-hop albums, as the lyrics take on a new meaning once you’re privy to the stories behind them.
The Indomnia Group acquired Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, and is planning an early summer theatrical release.