Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

Ice-T talks to Dr Dre in Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap


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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap – at Amazon





Putin’s Olympic Dream

President Putin in Olympic track suit


“There was only a mountain, no road. A forest, a river, nothing else. Nothing there at all.” Oligarch Vladimir Potanin, a (former) investor in the Sochi Winter Olympics says with just a touch of residual pride about Sochi, a spa town on the Black Sea that is now home to the Winter Olympics. He got involved back in 2002, when it was a smallish private project, before President Putin, as he was then and is again now (having made himself prime minister for a spell, so as to sidestep an annoying constitutional restriction on being president too often) involved himself and directed the full force of the state onto the event, making it an advert for the former KGB strongman and his renascent country.

Sitting in London writing this, where we’ve just had an Olympics and have also watched as areas turned into lakes of concrete before becoming state of the art velodromes, or what have you, some of director Hans Pool’s almost entirely negative documentary looks initially like the carping of a man surprised to find the making of an omelette requires the breaking of eggs. And it’s tempting to say, “That’s what it takes, Hans”.

Pool has an eye for a telling image, and he gets about a fair bit too. He meets lots of locals, people who now have to cross a building site to get to the cemetery where their ancestors are buried. He talks to the engineers who are worried that the ski lift has been put up badly, who are concerned because its stanchions are obviously falling over. With environmentalists he visits parts of a village that have literally slid down a hill. He introduces us to the human rights activist (weren’t they once called union activists?) who are leafleting the workers, mostly incomers from Uzbekistan, who look as if they might be more interested in hearing what the activist had to say if the camera weren’t there. And he talks to the workers in the Metallurg Spa, one of those beautiful old palaces of tile and steam that were all over the Eastern Bloc in the old days, a sanatorium staffed by meaty women in starched uniforms who knew exactly what to do with you but it was going to hurt. It’s being privatised, and will no longer be affordable by the many.

The Olympic village is where the old communist USSR meets the new capitalist order, in other words. “Putin rules like the Tsars used to rule,” says one guy ruefully. Note that he doesn’t say “like Stalin used to rule”, because for this older generation, a return to the Soviet era would be like waking up in a warm bed after a bad dream. “Socialism is over, but capitalism hasn’t properly started yet,” says another – meaning the system is even more corrupt than it was in the old days, but the state no longer offers the protection (or jobs for life) it once did.

For the most part Putin’s Olympic Dream is a portrait of this old world bumping against the new and coming off badly, of poor people living simple lives, drinking tea and eating chicken, wondering how they can afford 1,800 euros for a mortgage they don’t even want, in a town that previously wasn’t much, but it was theirs.

There is little to celebrate here. Nothing in fact. And the film would benefit from a voiceover, something to offer context, or explanation, or even just a countervailing point of view – that the problem isn’t capitalism or communism, it’s the lack of the rule of law, just say for instance. And after we’ve met the former construction boss who now cowers in his apartment because he wasn’t prepared to go along with the corruption, we slide towards the end credits and some intertitles. The human rights guy is getting death threats, it seems, and between 50% and 70% of the migrant workers have been deported without being paid. Ugly. Let’s hope the Games themselves make some of this worthwhile.





© Steve Morrissey 2014





Napster founders Shawn Fanning and Shaun Parker with Alex Winter


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



7 December



Record Industry Association of America files lawsuit against Napster, 1999

This is the day in 1999 that the self-styled “music industry” started its fightback. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against Napster intended to prevent it from distributing music over its peer-to-peer file-sharing service. At the time the vast bulk of people didn’t know what peer-to-peer file-sharing was but the publicity that the case caused meant that many more of them soon did – thanks to helpful explanatory articles in newspapers etc. The suit came on top of previous attempts by individuals – notably members of Metallica and rapper/producer Dr Dre – to force Napster to stop sharing copyright music over its servers, legal processes which were still in the works when the RIAA went in with the big guns. Short-term, publicity around the lawsuit pumped Napster’s daily numbers right up – it had 80 million registered users at its peak – but on 5 March 2001 an injunction won by the RIAA forced Napster to stop facilitating the movement of copyrighted music across its network. In July 2001, Napster shut down its free file-sharing service and set about developing a pay model, partly as a means to paying off the settlement fees which the record companies had won in the court case. By spring 2002 Napster reckoned it had a business model and the technology that would work, all it needed was licensing agreements from the record companies. But the record companies, still living within an analogue mindset, refused to play ball. Napster went bust. File-sharing continued.




Downloaded (2013, dir: Alex Winter)

Alex Winter is a regular in the “whatever happened to?” game. The other guy in the Bill and Ted films, the one who wasn’t Keanu Reeves, Winter went off and quietly started building a reputation as a director, in TV mostly. Downloaded is his first film, a documentary about the digital revolution, file-sharing and Napster in particular. Telling the story from the very beginning, in 1998, Winter details Napster’s big idea (“A global internet community, with access to every music file on every hard drive, everywhere”), tells us why it was important (because it created the concept of large-scale internet communities) and then gets to the people responsible (Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, interviewed in a fresh-faced 1999 and in sleek-but-still-hip 2013) and the people affected (eg a “fuck you, Napster” Dr Dre). “Like it or not Napster has changed everything, and the music companies are sadly behind the curve,” as one music biz insider puts it. Quite how blind-siding Napster and its file-sharing technology was is expressed by Ali Aydar, Napster’s senior director of technology – “I was, like, nobody’s gonna open up their hard drive like that… nobody’s gonna allow their bandwidth to be used… no one is gonna share an MP3 – that was my quote. Boy was I wrong. I was so wrong.” Or as Parker puts it in a nutshell “suddenly you could be connected to everyone.” Undeniably pro file-sharing, Winter’s doc manages to find similarly pro voices in the unlikeliest corners. Chris Blackwell, of Island Records, points out that record companies had done very nicely thank you from changing technology in the past – as 78s became 33s, and vinyl became CD, companies had sold the same old music all over again to people keen to go with the new formats. And various biz insiders point out that record companies had started out as hardware manufacturers (EMI and HMV both originally produced phonographs) but that they had taken their eye off the technological ball. “It came back and hit them with a wallop,” as Sire Records’ Seymour Stine says. Winter’s doc isn’t without its odd unnecessary moment – the post-Napster stuff – but his access to the key players is impressive, his use of graphics to explain the techie stuff is neat and yes, it might be history from the viewpoint of the winner, but the file-sharing phenomenon was/is a cultural game-changer and it’s about time someone documented it.



Why Watch?


  • Great access, from both sides of the debate
  • Captures the euphoria of early internet days
  • An ABC of how this stuff works – for those who don’t know
  • Technical details for those who do know


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Dowloaded – at Amazon





Last Train Home

Chen Suqin and Zhang Changhua at the Guangzhou Railway Station, Last Train Home


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



8 November



Chinese engineers divert the Yangtze river, 1997

On this day in 1997, Chinese engineers diverted the Yangtze River, China’s longest, in order to clear the way for construction of the world’s biggest dam.
The Three Gorges Dam was designed to announce the return of China as a player on the world stage – 185 metres high, two kilometres wide, costing $23 billion, able to withstand an earthquake of 7 on the Richter scale, generating the power of 15 nuclear power stations, a tamer of the Yangtze’s catastrophic floods.
The project was not just huge in engineering terms but had also an immensely disruptive effect on the people who lived in its shadow. Between 1.3-1.4 million people were made homeless by it, 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,300 villages disappeared under its waters.
Some insist a similar energy yield could have been had at lower cost by building several smaller dams rather than one big one, and that the dam’s design is therefore politically motivated. Whatever the truth of that assertion, the river was only diverted into a culvert for a short while before being permanently blocked by the dam. Meanwhile, downstream at Gezhouba, a dam had already blocked the river in 1981, with far less fanfare. So in terms of a “first”, the feat fails to qualify. But in most other measurable terms it obviously does.



Last Train Home (2009, dir: Lixin Fan)

The biggest annual movement of people on the planet – the 130 million Chinese migrant workers trying to make it home for Chinese New Year – provides the starting point to a remarkable documentary that’s at least as much excited by the transformative effects of free markets as appalled by them. Focusing on a family of a mother and father who left their children at home 16 years before to work in a factory in the city, the film really kicks off when the parents arrive back at home. Having queued patiently for tickets, got through the remarkable throng at the station, been herded like animals onto crush-trains, they discover at home that their little girl is all grown up, has become quite hot, and is experimenting with new hairstyles, make-up, alcohol, eating out and (it’s implied) sex. Does she want to go on and make something of herself, through study? She does not. Instead, in an exact analogue of British kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s, we have played out a terrible battle between the parents who have skivvied their entire lives, away from their children, leaving an army of grandmas to raise them, to scrape together enough money so that the children don’t have to do the same. And then there’s the daughter, who would rather opt for the fleshpots of the new life that has suddenly opened up since the Chinese glasnost of President Jiang Zemin and the economic boom of his successor Hu Jintao. Last Train Home captures a pivotal moment in a culture, when Confucian calm is giving way to Capitalist permanent revolution, the order of centuries is being supplanted by an “I want it now”. And it does it with a combination of the most excruciatingly intrusive incursions into a family’s intimate moments, coupled with awe-inspiring scenes of massive crowds at the station, swaying obediently but erupting here and there with an angry “not putting up with this much longer” force that, from this distance, looks an awful lot like democracy.



Why Watch?


  • A multi-award-winning documentary
  • Astonishing access
  • Beautifully shot
  • A snapshot of a culture poised on the brink of change


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Network – at Amazon





The Gatekeepers

Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet


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



13 September



Rabin shakes hands with Arafat at the White House, 1993


On this day in 1993, Itzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, shook hands at the White House after signing the Oslo Accords. It was a historic moment. These modest proposals put in writing agreements about mutual recognition, the formation of a provisional Palestinian government, and Israel’s agreement to withdraw from some parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They wisely left thornier issues (the Jewish settlements, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees) off the agenda. Though Bill Clinton was the host that day and basked in the resulting glow of publicity, much of the behind the scenes work was done by Norwegian politician Johan Jørgen Holst, who had a stroke shortly afterwards, possibly as a consequence of overwork, and never recovered. Though still officially in effect, the Oslo Accords have over time come to be seen as just more noise in the signal. The two sides remain at loggerheads.


The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

A documentary comprising talking heads, almost entirely. But what talking heads they are – every living chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter terrorist service. And what a story they tell – the backroom view on every significant twist in the story of Israel from the Six Days’ War to the present day. They’re an interesting mix of people, urbane, thuggish, angry, calm, the many faces of the Bond villain, in fact. But what they say is even more interesting – about the use of torture, the nature of the Palestinian foe, the trouble they had/have with terrorists from their own side, what should be done about the settlements, and so on. It is eye-opening stuff, not least because you suspect that interviewer/director Dror Moreh was asking questions in the full expectation that they wouldn’t be answered, only to find his interviewees happy (some more grudgingly happy, admittedly) to set the record straight. Regardless of whether you are Jew or not, partisan or not, interested or not, The Gatekeepers is a fascinating and remarkable film providing acute  (and even entertaining) insight into issues rarely dealt with in such a head-on manner.



Why Watch?


  • Dror Moreh never expected any former or current Shin Bet head to take part. In the end they all did
  • People at the frontline of any conflict have knowledge and experience the rest of us don’t
  • In many end of year lists the best documentary of 2012


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Gatekeepers – at Amazon