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Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap

June 16, 2012
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

Rap music has, over the last thirty years, become a driving force in popular culture. If you expand to take in the wider hip-hop movement — subsuming rapping, DJing, graffiti, breakdance, and a certain ineffable mindset — you wouldn’t be too far off to call it the dominant influence. But the most popular facet of the culture is unquestionably rap music.

The longevity of rap as an art form has led to a whole subculture, complete with an oral folkloric tradition. And thirty years on some of the tribal elders are getting, well, elder. Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, Chuck D, and Flavor Flav are all in their fifties, for instance; Reverend Run and D.M.C. aren’t far behind. There’s no better time to commit some of this oral tradition to a more permanent record, and no better documentarian than Ice-T, whose directorial debut, Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap, tries to do exactly this.

My own interest in hip-hop music has always been more about the backing tracks and the remix culture than the raps themselves. I won’t traumatize T by saying I don’t listen to the lyrics, but they’re not what draws me to the music, and I can understand the point of those who are turned away by the sometimes angry or violent themes.

But, as one rapper opines, some people don’t like rap music because they don’t know how to listen to it. Even when they’re unpleasant — especially when they’re unpleasant — the rhymes come from a real, living culture. And it’s harder to dismiss an entire culture’s voice than any single expression.

Ice-T is himself foundational to the gangsta rap subgenre, so he can’t take the standard impersonal documentary approach; his interviews are all conversations with T sharing the frame with his subjects, tossing ideas back and forth, recalling favorite raps, and relating stories. Many of them are conducted in one studio or another, but just as many are out on the street. And, fittingly, they seem to have just rolled up on whichever corner is convenient and started shooting with no concern for permits or security; passers-by stop, whipping out their iPhones in full view of the camera, or even interrupting the shot.

The subjects run the gamut from original masters like Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, Reverend Run, and DMC to more current leading figures like Xzibit, Kanye West, and Nas. T sits down with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and even stops off in Detroit on his way from the east to the west coast to talk with Eminem. It may not be exhaustive, but the list cuts a broad swath across the whole genre.

As a film, the documentary is rough and raw, with obvious intercuts in the video to cover audio edits. This isn’t a highly polished gem, but again that goes along with the subject and with T’s own style.

Leaving the theater I’m still not a big fan of rap, and I’m still put off by violent and misogynistic lyrics. But whether I enjoy the art or not doesn’t make it any less of an art, and Ice-T has done the world a service in compiling these thoughts now before they slip away.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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