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Should I Watch..? Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap
What's the big deal?
Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap is a music documentary film released in 2012 produced and co-directed by rapper and actor Ice-T. It focuses solely on the craft and writing of rap music and how it became one of the most popular and prominent genres of music today. It is unusual as it features no archive footage at all - all interviews are filmed on location in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles and feature a staggering number of hip-hop artists. The idea of the project stemmed from a conversation between Ice-T and co-producer Paul Toogood who asked Ice-T how he wrote his more seminal songs like "6 In The Mornin" - he replied that nobody has ever asked him that in thirty years of performing.
What's it about?
The film follows Ice-T from coast to coast, examining the origins of rap and how todays artists develop their ideas. The starting point for any song is the lyrics, the rhymes, that form the basis for each rap song. These can be anything from an aggressive rap battle between two performers to social commentary on the lives of themselves or those around them, especially given the poverty many performers grew up in.
Interviewing a number of former and current hip-hop stars like Run DMC, Common, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, Ice-T delves deep into what has become a global success story and discovers that each performer brings something unique to the mike. It is an musical trip about what rap means to the performer and the listener and the sometimes surprising secrets that go into some of your favourite tracks.
Big Daddy Kane
Ice-T & Andy Baybutt
Release Date (UK)
20th July, 2012
What's to like?
For years, I considered rap to be nonsense as I stuck to my old favourites: rock (the louder the better) and the Blues. But at the turn of the century, I started listening to more and started to appreciate it for its lyrical complexity and some damn fine beats. I've no doubt that rap music is certainly worthy of a decent documentary and Ice-T has called in every one of his favours to assemble some of the biggest names in the business. Everyone from Rakim to Kanye is included and each of them contribute to the documentary in the form of a cappella freestyles.
Ice-T is obviously a knowledgeable host as he tours the US seemingly to visit every hip-hop artist out there. The soundtrack, for lovers of the genre, is absolutely first class - from classics like "Push It" by Salt-N-Pepa and "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang to Eminem's monster smash "Lose Yourself" and my personal favourite - Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day". It's testament to how successful rap has become that a white guy from rural England like myself can enjoy music composed by some questionable characters across the Atlantic. I had no idea where Compton was and felt no desire to fight the power!
- The film's soundtrack contained the track "Harder Than You Think (Just Like That)" by Public Enemy. This didn't feature in the film itself but the trailer.
- The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 2nd January, 2012 and was an official selection as well.
- Also appearing in the film are Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, B-Real, DMC, Nas, Q-Tip, Redman, Salt, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit and Mos Def under the name Yasiin.
What's not to like?
For all his obvious enthusiasm, Ice-T does stray from his original intent. Instead of examining the secrets behind the success of rap, it ends up becoming a long road-trip to meet up with old friends and have a quick freestyle in front of the cameras. I got frustrated that the questions I had about the subject - like the differences between East & West coast styles - went ignored. I was also keen to find out whether any one of these rappers felt a link between the violence they sing about in their songs and the untimely murders of two of hip-hop's biggest stars - namely, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG. For such a apparently significant event, Ice-T glosses over the subject without an explanation.
There was also a couple of notable exemptions from the guest list - Jay Z is widely credited as being one of the most successful rap artists of all time but we never hear his name mentioned once. And poor old Sean Combs (P Diddy, Puff Daddy or whatever he calls himself these days) never got the chance to explain how he went from record label boss to superstar rapper, actor and businessman. I don't know whether this was due to some previous beef between Ice-T and these global stars or not but for someone examining the art of rap, it seemed remiss not to consult two of its biggest artists. One wouldn't do a documentary about Scottish comedians without at least talking to Billy Connolly, would you?
Should I watch it?
Unless you are a die-hard rap fanatic, Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap proved to be something of a let-down. It starts out promising enough but apart from telling us what we already knew (like the fact that some rappers like to smoke weed from time to time, apparently), it stops trying to tell us something and settles for being a chummy get-together for Ice-T's friends and contemporaries. Frustratingly, what Ice-T has produced is nothing from something.
Great For: hardcore rap fans, Ice-T's homies
Not So Great For: non-fans of rap, musicians with instruments, rappers from outside the US
What else should I watch?
Believe it or not but Ice-T actually contributed to an earlier TV documentary I recall being shown way back in 1999. The Hip Hop Years had more informative insights from Ice-T as well as Chuck D from Public Enemy, RZA, Eminem, Vanilla Ice, Fab Five Freddy, Rick Rubin and many more. I suspect that it's out there on Youtube or some other video-viewing platform but honestly, I don't know - I can only recall that I learnt more from that than I did from this.
Documentary maker Nick Broomfield covered the murders of Tupac and Biggie in his own documentary called... errr, Biggie and Tupac (1) which suggests that they were linked to one man, the former CEO of Death Row Records Suge Knight. Jay Z had his own documentary as well - Fade To Black (2) is a concert film interspersed with snippets from the man himself as he prepared to walk away from the limelight. And if you're wanting to view some of the more unsavoury aspects of hip-hop then there is a trilogy of films called Beef (3) which detail some of the more aggressive rivalries and feuds that have helped fuel the genre over the years. Finally, Marshall Mathers - better known as Eminem - has his semi-biographical drama 8 Mile (4) which not only serves as a warts-and-all account of his beginnings but also looks at the impact that race, poverty and background have in the world of rap and hip-hop.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox