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Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Released 20 July 2012
Director Ice-T

Bun B, B-Real, Afrika Bambaataa, Busy Bee, Joe Budden, Grandmaster Caz, Common, Anthony ‘Treach’ Criss, Ice Cube, Chuck D, Royce Da 59, Dana Dane, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Doug E. Fresh, Ice-T, KRS-One, MC Lyte, Marley Marl, Darryl McDaniels, Nas, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Raekwon, Rakim, Redman, Joseph Simmons, Immortal Technique, WC, Kanye West
Producer(s) Paul Toogood
Origin United Kingdom, United States
Running Time 111 minutes
Genre Documentary, music
Rating 15A

Something from Ice-T.

The title of this film indicates what it concerns itself with. Mainly the craft of rapping and the art of its lyrics. But also, as a by-product of this exploration, I would imagine Ice-T, the director, hoped to recount the history of hip-hop and how this genre was born in New York in the seventies. He is successful in transmitting the extent to which DJing and rapping are very skilful pursuits and also the love its proponents have for it. He also gives the audience a real flavour of its history although I for one, was left longing for more history and less on the art of rap.

While many might think of hip-hop as a bloated, clichéd, shallow genre of music, this film serves to remind how it is a fascinating expression of black people’s lives in urban ghettos. Its origins at least were organic, a sort of fast-moving folk music for disaffected black people in New York City in the seventies. And in the beginning, it was almost entirely a positive thing, binging poetry and music to youth who would otherwise have been ripe for lives of crime. What is really striking about the early days of hip-hop is the resourcefulness of its pioneers. It is commented upon how black people always had instruments, but by the seventies, due to economic oppression, they didn’t even have these, so they took the one thing they did have, the record player, and turned it into an instrument. I’m not sure if it is a product of poverty or something particular to black communities but it is quite remarkable how many genres of popular music they have invented, be it jazz, blues, rock and roll or hip-hop.

It is the historical aspects of the film that most interested me. From an intriguing link between banter among slaves and rap battles to the origins of hip-hop in DJ Kool Herc’s block parties, to Grandmaster Flash innovating many of the DJ skills that are standard to this day, to break dancing and MCing, it is fascinating to see these street disciplines for what they are, a manifestation of the unquenchable drive human beings have to create, to progress and to enjoy themselves regardless of their situation. It is refreshing to be reminded of these positive origins of hip-hop as many today will have a very negative, often racist, impression of it.

Aside from the history, there are many, many talking heads. Ice-T, himself an early pioneer of Gangsta Rap, interviews many MCs and song writers about their craft. It is astounding how many of the major players he has managed to persuade to appear on film. While one would expect a lot of the early pioneers and legends of the genre to appear (a bit of glory and money is hard to turn down), it is very impressive how many superstars have lent their time. Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop, Nas, Kanye West are all here and what strikes you about them is just how passionate they are about talking about the art of hip-hop and their own origins in the game. They come across as just people, talking excitedly about their heroes and the music they love.

Some major players are inevitably not covered in huge detail such as Biggy Smalls, Jay Z and the Beastie Boys. One can’t help but wonder if Ice-T’s West Coast affiliations have contributed to excluding these East Coast artists although it would have been very difficult to cover everyone in detail.

Talking heads and interviews are mainly what this documentary consists of. In fact the style of filmmaking is quite basic. Atmospheric shots of trains, high rises and graffiti break up endless interviews, and while these interviews are fascinating for hip-hop fans, the film won’t leave movie fans gasping. It can be a bit mono-tonal at times, some archive footage or contemporary hip-hop or even media reaction at the time of hip-hop’s origin could all have helped to make this movie a bit more moving.

If you are a hip-hop fan, then the cast alone is going to bring you to watch this film. If you are a music fan generally but not necessarily hip-hop, I would say you should definitely watch this. If music doesn’t play a big part in your life then maybe this film is not for you.

- Eoin Murphy