Sunday 22 July 2012

Review: Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap

Year: 2012
Director: Ice-T

I came out of Ice-T's documentary to have my ears burn from younger viewers who were in the screening. "That film was full of dinosaurs!" referring to the aged but still prominent rap stars that graced the film moments before. I found the statement slightly frustrating as the younger hip-hop "fans" had clearly missed the point of the film. T's film is about the craft of being an emcee, and while the film features many artists that still preform, there is no point garnering info from younger artists who haven't spent enough time "in the game" to give you anything meaty enough for the subject. But then again I let the statement slide as the same young guns were making shadow puppets with their hands during the end credits. Clearly some of the films finer points where lost on them.

The Art of Rap is to Emceeing, that Scratch was to DJ's and Style Wars was to Graffiti. An important look at the craft of hip hop songwriting from people who know it intimately. It has one foot left in the past because the people interviewed are the people who truly shaped the form. Ice T is looking at the subject at the very foundations.

This isn't to say that T gets everyone that needs to be on such a list. It's odd to see a film like this without the likes of someone like LL Cool J (Feuding with Ice T aside), Busta Rhymes and only seeing Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan. It's also little disheartening to notice only two female emcees holding it down, while one of the biggest questions that I left on my lips was "where was Jay?" But beggars can't be choosers when the roster is still a Smörgåsbord of talent. A film like this is still worth watching for two minutes of Rakim and Immortal Technique free styling.

The Art of Rap is exactly what I'd expect from an Ice T film. The art of rap is full of bombastic head nodding beats, slow motion shots of the man himself and birds eye copter shots of the various cities the film visits. T clearly wants to show the scope and slickness of the production and it's there for all to see. I can't say all of Ice T's choices work; his narration isn't the best, while the fact he is in almost very shot of the film, sometimes distracts (the ego monster does rear it's head). However, the latter point is dependant of which interviewee he is with. Moments shared with some of the emcees are both insightful and hilarious. Top scenes include Krs-one's reason for becoming a rapper. Nas' sociopolitical reasoning behind rap not being on the same level as Jazz or Blues. Ras Kass touches on why his lyrics are so complex ("The only people who have the time to listen are people in college or prison"). Chuck D and Run DMC on being who they were at the time they were.

The thing is I could go on and on. The people T got involved with the project all have a nugget of gold for the audience. Redman and T muse on the fact that out of all the rappers out there, it's Eminem that towers amongst them. This then cuts to Eminem unleashing a freestyle in his studio, before mimicking T himself (listen to how his rhyme flow and timing change with ease). At one point Joe Budden raps about the hood over visuals of New York projects. It could easily be a small video in itself. These are just a few of the moments in which T's film excels. It gets the subject perfectly, it captures the artists at the right moment and being rappers they nearly always have the right thing to say.

The film does have its flaws. It is baggy. Spending so much time in New York help showcase the musics history and savvy of some of the Emcees but not all of it is essential. T's questioning becomes slightly repetitive, asking similar questions to various people. It's understandable, but it does limit some of the scope. The distinct lack of female voices (only MC Lyte and Salt from Salt n Pepa appear) highlight one of raps larger issues involving women. The film may also be difficult for those who aren't into hip-hop to except the more spiritual excepts from the likes of Common and Snoop Dogg (really). It's particularly hard when you've just seen Grandmaster Caz reel off a ton of bars (lines) all ending with the word nigga.  There's also the strange issue of the interviewees becoming brighter, much more relaxed and open when the film hits L.A. The reasoning behind this is mystifying.   

But it's not at all disabling. The film is far too quotable and funny to let it's small issues weigh it down. The Art of Rap, coming off the back of A Tribe called Quests documentary last year is showing Hip-Hop as the large cultural aspect it is. To watch how these writers perfect and perform their material is a marvel to watch. The stories they tell are constantly engaging and the approach and tone towards the material fits like a glove. The Art of Rap isn't a powerful documentary, but it's one that really gives hip hop the platform it deserves. The younger generation may only be interested in the new movers and shakers, but Ice T's film shows just how solid the foundations are.