Ice-T has done the musical world a service with Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012), which as a documentary is only average, but as a document of the most important musical movement of the last 30 years is remarkable. There’s a suggestion in the film that hip-hop and rap are less respected than jazz and rock ‘n‘ roll and after seeing the movie I know that‘s true. Here is a documentary that was released in roughly 150 theaters for 17 days, and all it accomplishes is a chronicle of the craft of making rap music that features interviews with a dizzying list of important artists in the genre. Tell me, if a movie was made with candid interviews from The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Elvis (which constitutes only a fraction of the equivalent giants Something From Nothing presents), do you think it would be hidden in a handful of theaters for less than three weeks?
“Hip–hop didn’t invent anything,” admits Grandmaster Caz. “But it reinvented everything.” This is just one of the pointed opinions from any number of the luminaries of the genre who Ice-T, a luminary himself, assembles for his documentary, which attempts to tackle the mysteries of the skill of rapping. Naturally, each of the interviewees have their own theories, some of them contradictory, so the movie becomes less of a practical guide and more of a tableau of the stories and theories of the people who irrevocably changed American music.
Big Daddy Kane, for example, lets us know that Dr. Seuss met the requirement of being a rapper (one simply needs to be able to make a rhyme), but that it takes a dynamic personality to be an MC. Chuck D of the seminal Public Enemy informs us that in the old days, that personality had to be enhanced with a big voice; otherwise you’d never be heard through the primitive equipment. “If you had a 3‘6“voice,” Chuck explains, you were liable to get drowned out. We get more opinions from the likes of Redman (“Music don’t got no color”), Mos Def (“[Hip–hop] is folk music”), and Ras Kass (on his intellectual lyrics: “You know who’s got enough time to learn? People in college and niggas in jail and those are my fans.”). We learn about beat boxing from Doug E. Fresh; sound dynamics from Melle Mel, who Chuck D asserts was able to go far in the early days because of his “Wilt Chamberlain voice”; the importance of pitch from MC Lyte and B-Real; and politics with Afrika Bambaataa.
We learn how KRS-One got his start (he was in the audience when a free-styling rapper targeted him out of the crowd to pick on him, and he decided right then and there to get back at the rapper, making up his own rhymes on the spot; a story like this is the equivalent of Lennon meeting McCartney at that summer fete in 1957). Dr. Dre tells us what it’s like to be in the studio with him, and Rakim, the greatest of them all, explains how the transcendent qualities of jazz influenced his style, relating a story about cooking a favorite meal from childhood for his wife that made him think of his upbringing and that he’d like his music to have the same transportive power. In addition, we get interviews from Nas, Salt, Q-Tip, Eminem, Kool Mo Dee, Ice Cube, Run and DMC, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and more. The filmmaking is basic and straightforward, but what Ice-T is able to do is assemble an impressive list of the heaviest hitters in the history of rap, all talking candidly and openly about what they do, and for that he should be thanked.
My biggest complaint is that the movie doesn’t dig very deep into the social and political ramifications of the music, which is a shame as hip–hop is a social and political animal. Many of the artists Ice-T speaks to are middle-aged or older; they’ve left the business in many ways and have settled down with families. Whenever one of the artists talked about their wives, I wanted to know who they can balance an equal relationship against stage personas that are misogynistic or sexually aggressive (there is a funny moment when Ice-T and Salt commiserate that their spouses only listen to the music, not the words). There’s real poignancy when KRS-One reveals that rap battling known as The Dozens has its origins in slavery, where deformed slaves were sold in dozens, but there isn’t a follow-up question about whether continuing a practice that has its roots in a national shame isn’t actually furthering slavery’s power of division, or if the ownership of a skill with odious beginnings is liberating, so the meaning of this revelation remain unexplored.
Just the same, this is a celebration, not a critical work, and Ice-T isn’t trying to fool anyone by claiming to be objective. He’s with his friends and colleagues and we’re happy to follow along with him. I found it interesting that a number of the artists had real trouble talking about what they do; they stammer and mumble inarticulate clichés and you’d never guess they have the ability to smoothly fire off verses like a machine gun. Many of the interviews are done in outdoor settings, walking along city streets, sitting on front porches, and as the movie went on, my ear became extra sensitive to the natural sounds. Car horns and sirens punctuate a point in New York while the screams of eagles accompany an interview on a hillside in LA.
Something From Nothing isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s an important catalog of a musical movement that deserves serious attention. Hip–hop, in its far-reaching forms, is the prevailing music of the country; this isn’t a niche oddity. Here are its heroes and they’re alive and dynamic, the people whose innovations and reinvention, as Grandmaster Coz would put it, have shaped the musical landscape of the country. For these reasons and more it’s a shame that a movie with this pedigree would get cast aside for a theatrical run of only 17 days. Besides, it’s got the best soundtrack of the year.