Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 February

Kanye West releases debut album, 2004

On this day in 2004, multi-instrumentalist, singer and rapper Kanye West released his debut album, The College Dropout, which is precisely what West was, having junked art school after one semester in favour of a career in music. The career in music went well, with West rapidly becoming a sought-after producer – Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Ludacris – and beatmaker, all the while working on his own solo album, whose release got pushed further and further into the future as West spent his time making music for other people. His sample-based singles Through the Wire (Chaka Khan’s Through the Fire) and Slow Jamz (Luther Vandross’s A House Is Not a Home) were indicative of the material on College Dropout – soulful, eclectic, bragging, lyrically smart – which instantly made Kanye West an international name and gained him ten Grammy nominations.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012, dir: Ice-T, Andy Baybutt)

Ice-T’s The Art of Rap is the best film about rap ever made. “This film isn’t about the money, the cars, the jewellery, the girls…” says the man himself as the film kicks off, “this film is about the craft.”

It is that focus on the actual practitioners talking about their work that makes this survey of the horizons of the form such a winner – even if your knowledge of rap is a ropy as mine. Ice-T brings to the party an insider’s enthusiasm, a lot of knowledge, his connections to almost everyone who has ever been anyone in the biz – from Melle Mel and Big Daddy Kane to Eminem, Kanye West and Dr Dre – plus a formidable interviewing technique. To Eminem he says, “You write complicated. Do they come complicated or do you complicate them?” A brilliant question, stabbed out in rapping metre. And Eminem looks at him, kind of nods, chuckles, and then answers. Doug E Fresh reworks other people’s raps for him, to emphasise how closely they resemble poetic forms (sonnets, quite often). As the film jumps from person to person, some themes start to assert themselves – the rapper’s almost chivalric code of honour (“your respect is built in combat” says Ice-T); that rap is a folk art not a pop art; on rap’s failure to win the respect accorded to other genres – jazz, for instance. Another motif is Ice-T’s throwdown at the end of every mini-interview, asking whoever he’s been quizzing to perform an impromptu rap – and I know these guys do this sort of thing for a living, but it’s easy to forget, with all the scowling and attitude, the sort of talent required to just verbalise this well. Best of all is the sight of men (Cheryl “Salt” James is the sole female) doing what they love doing that shines through, even when it’s someone like Rakim, whose rheumy eyes suggest an over-indulgence in 1980s recreational activities. And there’s the odd amusing tale, like Ice-T revealing how he busks through sticky stage moments when he dries – pretending the mike has gone, using a fan who knows all the words at the front of a gig as an unwitting human teleprompter, and so on.

Of course, down at bottom the film is an entirely partisan plea for respectability. But there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done with this much style, charm and humour. And there’s enough access to prime source material to make about five fairly decent documentaries. Ice-T is spoiling us.

Why Watch?

  • The full interviews on the DVD extras
  • Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Common, KRS-One, all here
  • Revelatory, fascinating, intelligent
  • To wonder why no sign of Jay-Z, 50 Cent or LL Cool J

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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