Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)
One of the more important docs about music you’ll likely ever see.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is a documentary by Ice-T about the craft of his craft: hip-hop. From the East coast of New York to the West coast of LA, he interviews just about every emcee you can imagine to hear why hip-hop matters and why hip-hop matters to them. Then he has them freestyle into the camera, and it is awesome.
So being that I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs of New York, it should come as no surprise that I also like hip-hop. If for some reason that doesn’t make sense, go to a rap concert and check out the crowd. I rest my case. But it wasn’t always that way, as there was actually a long period of my youth when I loathed the stuff. Not to mention that even if I did like it, there was no way in hell my folks would ever let me own an album with “PARENTAL ADVISORY” on the cover. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. I’m over it now. I wish I had a more concrete explanation as to why I didn’t like hip-hop, but when you’re a kid, you don’t need to explain yourself on these matters. I didn’t “get it,” and that was good enough. Little Aiden was all about the Spin Doctors, baby.
This went on for a while, and it wasn’t until I started going to high school in the Bronx that all that changed. Just like that, I was inundated with the stuff, and no matter how hard I tried, it was simply inescapable. I had suddenly become the musical minority, and I was left with two options: A) Try giving hip-hop a fair shake because there’s no use resisting it; or, B) Try getting your new classmates into Nine Inch Nails. I actually tried option B one time. It did not go well. And so here I am, 12 years later still sitting at my computer trying to learn the words to “Children’s Story.”
But by the same token, it’s been a long-ass time since I’ve bought a hip-hop album. Maybe Tha Carter III four years ago, but that’s about it. The reason being is that I feel hip-hop has changed a lot from what it once was to what it is today. Now, I like hip-hop, but I don’t claim to be an authority on the game in any way, shape, or form. Still, the music that has always resonated with me, especially when it comes to this particular genre, was the music that actually meant something. Go listen to Biggie talk about how “Things Done Changed,” or Wu-Tang’s struggles to get by when cash ruled everything around them. On top of having fantastic beats to work with, the artists who got me into hip-hop were the ones who had something to say and used the mic as a soapbox to say it.
Not to say those artist are extinct, and for every awful band that floods the airwaves there will always a great band to even things out (write that one down kids), but I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve heard those artists on the radio. I know they’re out there, I think I just need some guidance to find ’em. Still, these days, I feel like I’m part of my grandparents’ generation, the ones who hear clicks and whistles every time the dial makes its way to HOT 97. These days, I feel like you need a bare minimum of talent to have a hit record on the hip-hop charts, so long as folks dance to it and you’re cool with getting auto-tuned. These days, I feel like its more about the lifestyle than the music. These days, I long for the old days. Woe is me, I know.
But I don’t think I’m alone on this one. I think there are a lot of people who feel like this and have always felt like this for that matter – that, to an extreme, hip-hop is nothing more than a bunch of foul-mouthed fools who don’t play instruments. Even if you don’t feel that way, haters gonna hate, and in semi-defense of those haters, the hip-hop game has done a bang-up job of earning its criticisms over the years.
And that’s what I think is gonna make or break this movie for a lot of people: the mindset they’re going in with. And since there’s nothing all that technically impressive about it, the lasting impression is really dependent on the expectations it defies. If the interest isn’t there and the mind isn’t open, fat chance they’ll stick around when Grandmaster Caz starts freestyling with the N-word like it’s a makeshift comma. But if the interest is there, even in the slightest, there’s a lot to be learned.
Aside from all the positive reviews this movie got, the thing that first caught my attention was all those names on the poster. Man, when Ice-T makes connections, Ice-T makes connections. Save for The Beastie Boys, 2Pac, and Biggie, this dude talks to freakin’ everyone. A lot of them were familiar, some of them were brand new, but then again, how familiar can you really be with someone just by memorizing the lyrics? Turns out, not very.
And as an interviewer, Ice-T’s actually pretty solid. Was fully prepared to hear him ask the same set of questions ad nauseum for two hours, but instead he does a swell job of tailoring the questions so that they pertain to who he’s interviewing and what makes them unique. And even on the few occasions when he does ask the same question, he always gets a very different answer that’s even more insightful than the last one. But as you can probably guess from the synopsis up there, Ice-T’s working with a pretty simple formula here. Ask a couple questions, cue the freestyling, switch to some B-roll of NYC or LA (maybe throw in a voice-over if he’s feeling feisty), then move it on over to the next rapper. On second thought, this is a ridiculously simple formula, one that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. But it does work. It works like gangbusters in fact.
There are a couple reasons for why that is, the first of which goes back to that whole “clicks and whistles” comment. Despite how many times they do it and how long some of them do it for, watching and listening to these guys freestyle is just mind-bogglingly impressive. It never gets old, not even once, and it is amazing watching them think up these outrageously intelligent rhymes on the fly and then string them all together without skipping a beat. This alone will give you a whole new appreciation for the gifts these men and women have, gifts that they’ve clearly honed to perfection. Just wait to ’til you get to Joe Budden’s segment. Ree-diculous.
The second reason is how incredibly well-spoken and thoughtful these individuals are in creating a conversation. From the origins of battling to the many different ways that they go about creating their rhymes, their words and their creative processes are not only fascinating to soak up, but they completely betray the “money, cash, hoes” mentality that keeps their art form operating on such a base level at times. This, more than anything, is what elevates The Art of Rap to something truly special. Like I said, there’s only so much you can learn about someone from what they say on a record, and if that’s all you’ve got to go on, you’re shortchanging them and you’re shortchanging yourself. Just look at Eminem, perfect example of someone who worked their way up to “grandmaster” status and matured exponentially in the process. Make no mistake, these are fresh, original, skilled artists who work just as hard at their craft as any other musician, and they deserve to be taken just as seriously.
On top that, they’ve all got so much love and respect for one another. Maybe that’s just the magic power of Ice-T, but for a genre that’s been rife with conflict, rivalries, and bloodshed over the years, it’s wonderful to see everyone so congenial and familial over a subject that’s both united and divided them at times. All that East coast/West coast shit? Non-existent. It’s like they’re all this together, and that right there’s a beautiful thing.
Still, not everyone out there likes hip-hop, and that’s cool if they don’t. Might prevent a good deal of folks from giving this a chance, but the great thing about The Art of Rap is that it isn’t a popularity contest. It’s not out to convert anyone, it’s not trying to make friends. The Art of Rap is a matter of respect. Respect for an art form that’s just that. For all its accomplishments and everything it reinvented, hip-hop has never really gotten its due in ways that other, older genres have. It’s a shame, and when you see what its innovators are capable of, you’ll be echoing that very sentiment. All in all, there has never been a more effective movie in terms of dispelling the preconceptions of this art form and those who’ve made it what it is today. Not sure if it’s the best way to introduce someone to hip-hop, but it’s one hell of an education all the same.
And what a sweet poster, huh?