Music documentaries are plentiful to the hardcore fan searching to know more about their favorite artist or movement. But great music documentaries are much harder to come by. So imagine my delight when Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap not only met my expectations, it exceeded them.
In the vein of It Might Get Loud and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Ice-T’s Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap takes a look at the underside of Hip Hop. Not the underbelly. Not the seedy, pathological, exploitative side of Hip Hop. No. The place where few fear to tread because it may challenge stereotypes and knock your conscience. The Art of Rap is a wonderfully honest look at the creativity of lyricism.
For years rap has been disparaged by the media and the mainstream public. Despite its worldwide reach and financial success, Hip Hop is still characterized by many as “not music.” “Talking” over a drum machine or sampled record can’t be qualified as music. Therefore, rappers aren’t real artists.
Ice-T exposes this thinly veiled prejudice of Hip Hop’s naysayers and shines a light on the process of writing rhymes. And every rapper has a process. Immortal Technique’s method involves making himself hungry, literally and figuratively, before focusing on the thoughts that allow him to create. He cuts off all food, drink, conversation, you name it. He believes the lyrics only come to him when he’s “starving.”
Grandmaster Caz — one of the most respected pioneers of Hip Hop — takes to the bud. Marijuana, that is. Notepad on the desk, black pen in his right hand, and blunt in his left, Caz writes a song saluting the creativity of rap and the skill it takes to become a great MC. Weed + pen & paper + 20 min = One of the strongest rhymes in the film.
As interviewer and narrator, Ice-T asks a host of questions to each artist, but some are clearly more poignant than others. One of the most thought-provoking questions is “Why doesn’t Hip Hop get the same respect as Jazz and Blues?”
One rapper believes it’s because Hip Hop lacks the camaraderie and respect among the artists in the game. A valid point. You never hear any stories about Tommy Dorsey beefing with Lionel Hampton back in the day. But my favorite answer to the question was the simple truth: “Because people don’t know how to listen to it.” It’s an inspired and raw reply, much like Hip Hop itself.
Hip Hop heavyweight Rakim offers another brilliant truth. Before revealing his disturbingly complex process to writing — he takes a visceral art form and breaks it down into an almost mechanical algorithm, Rakim preaches about the birth of rap. About the same time art and music classes were being cut from inner city schools in New York, rap music came on the scene. According to Rakim, this is no coincidence.
He speaks plainly of a Black community that made music with instruments for generations. Jazz. Blues. Rock. But when they took the instruments away, Blacks found a way to keep making music. Kids started taking records from their parents’ collection and began making a new form of music of their own. They had nothing, so they made “something from nothing.”
Don’t worry. The Art of Rap isn’t profound all the time. It has its playful moments too. It wouldn’t be a tale of invention if you didn’t have Doug E. Fresh declaring once again how he invented beat-boxing and sharing his unique style. KRS-One tells the story about his start. Who knew the rap legend only got into the game as retaliation against a dude who clowned his clothes in front of crowd of people? Somebody find that guy and buy him a drink.
All joking aside, the film’s biggest credit is its insight into the depth of the creators. Many look at Hip Hop and see nothing but bling, swagger and ego. But The Art of Rap reveals MCs coping with self-doubt (DMC), finding their voice (B-Real, MC Lyte), knowing their audience (Ras Kass), and struggling with their past (Eminem).
In other words, rappers are artists just like every other creative freelancer specializing in making something from nothing.
Creative freelancers come in all shapes and sizes. We pursue dance, fashion, fiction, sculpture, poetry, theater, design, photography, you name it. Yet rarely are our creations demonized by mainstream culture and blamed for the ruin of polite society.
Hip Hop carries that weight on its shoulders and continues to be the voice of a generation that has now given birth to a new generation. With every region adapting rap to its own aesthetics and style, Ice-T talks to rappers from New York, Detroit and Los Angeles. Although I would’ve also liked to see Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston represented, the message never stumbles or fades.
It’s understandable that not every rapper can be in the documentary. There’s Kanye, but no Jay-Z. There’s Doug E. Fresh, but no Slick Rick. There’s Salt, but no Pepa. The true Hip Hop fan will appreciate the attempt to include MCs of every style: from Yasiin to Ice Cube, Joe Budden to Q-Tip, Bun B to Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee to Royce da 5’9”. Every one of them delivers an important perspective on the lyricism of a genre still fighting for respect 37 years in the making.
Hip Hop was never about the visual or the bling. Presentation counts, but it’s nothing without the lyrics. The lyrics are the art of rap, and the artists are just like you and me.