- Terelle Jerricks
By Danny Simon
In Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, directors Ice-T and Andy Baybutt succeed in threading a difficult needle in their quest to showcase the perspectives of famous musicians on their craft. This documentary eschews the expected celebrity egomania and gets at the process of how complex wordplay is inspired and constructed to fit the beat. And along the way, the film exposes a central truth often obscured by posturing and media noise. The artists that create rap are the biggest fans of all.
“If you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense. My mother is 80. She doesn’t know how to listen to no hip hop,” says DJ Premier during his short appearance. Like jazz, hip hop demands an open and patient mind to appreciate the subtle variations and stylistic differences that make each artist’s contribution unique.
Rap neophytes like myself are provided a brief education on the historical and cultural origins of the artform. Competitive trash talking on the streets, or playing the dozens, gave rise to MC battles where the sharpest minds won by using, in the words of Kool Moe Dee,“vocabulary as a weapon.” From pugilism, rap evolved into varied forms of storytelling.
Like in any arena, not everyone is equal in ability, so each artist has to hone their skills to compete in whatever way they can. Popularity is fleeting and entirely subjective.
“My fans are people who have a lot of time on their hands. College students and guys in prison,” says Raz Kass, whose complex and technical work seems to be perceived by some people as over intellectual and so not reflective of how people actually speak on the street, a style championed by the film’s creator.
Thankfully, the film mostly steers clear of what has become stale territory like East Coast -West Coast feuds and the harrowing journey to acceptance. Rap has been a legitimate artform for decades and its practitioners face many of the same career obstacles that confront entertainers of all stripes.
Totally unpretentious, The Art of Rap is not pretending to be an ecumenical rendering of rap as the directors focus only on famous rappers from New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, and this geographic hopscotch leaves artists like Georgia based Outkast out of the story.
It takes a respected artist to assemble a collection of other famous artists and cut through the celebrity bullshit. As one of the most successful practitioners of the craft, Ice-T is likely one of the only people who could do the job. And strangely, after decades in the entertainment industry, he seems to have retained the vital street sense that made him famous in the first place.
Go see this film. Even if you don’t like hip hop, you’ll still be entertained by the often hysterical observations and distinct perspectives of the artists. If you don’t care about them, you can marvel at the directors’ success in executing a really ambitious and difficult task. And if you don’t care about that, go see Madagascar 3, you moron! This is the best documentary of the year.