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





12 October 2012-10-12

Dr Dre and Ice T in Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

Out in the UK This Week

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Given how often rappers are being deliberately awkward, or cool, and how often an over-attachment to mind-altering substances can make speech too street even for the street, a documentary about rap sets alarm bells ringing in advance. Nothing could be further from the truth with Ice T’s overview, which kicks off with a declaration – “this film isn’t about the money, the cars, the jewellery, the girls… this film is about the craft”. And then it delivers. T’s strength is the access he gets, to everyone from Melle Mel and Big Daddy Kane, to Kanye West, Eminen and just about everyone who’s been anyone in the past 30 years. This is a fascinating, informed, good natured and intelligent documentary, with T showing himself to be a natural interviewer – he gets great stuff, speech, impromptu raps, out of just about everyone, even the obviously slightly over-refreshed Rakim. Entertaining, informative, surprisingly joyous, this is probably the best documentary on the scene there’s ever going to be.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap – at Amazon

Woody Allen: A Documentary (Soda, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

There was a shorter cut in the cinemas but here’s the three-hour original, exhaustive and revelatory – Allen hated the much feted Manhattan, for instance – a proper run-through of the man’s life as gag writer, stand-up, essayist, clarinettist, actor, writer and director. It has its “now that you say it, it’s obviously the case” moments, such as Woody admitting what a great influence Bob Hope’s coward hero has been on his work. And it replays some of those early Allen stand-up routines, many of which are just as funny now as they ever were.

Woody Allen: A Documentary – at Amazon

Dark Shadows (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/UV)

Johnny Depp as a reheated vampire who just doesn’t get the modern world. Depp is a nugget of goodness in Tim Burton filmic warm-through of the 1960s TV series. And it’s a lot of fun while the accidentally re-awakened vampire is trying to make sense of trash-talking USA. Nice touches include him mistaking the golden arch of McDonalds for the M of Mephistopheles. But, as is so often the case with Burton these days, he doesn’t set out his stall properly and so once the final third of the film gets going – when the fun has to stop and something, anything, has to happen – there just aren’t any properly developed characters to propel the action. A bit of a letdown, then, in spite of lots of Adams Family humour and a really strong cast including Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Grace Moretz. There’s even a cameo by Christopher Lee.

Dark Shadows – at Amazon

Kotoko (Third Window, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

With its horrific violence and nerve-jangling stylistics Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s drama about a woman (Japanese pop star Cocco) on the verge of mental meltdown reminds us that he directed the seminal Tetsuo films. As an evocation of paranoid schizophrenia it’s brilliant. As a drama it’s a bit of a bore because Tsukamoto won’t let us close enough to his characters, possibly because he feels we wouldn’t get them. Him wrong.

Kotoko – at Amazon

Wrath of the Titans (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/UV)

Giant fiery beasts, togas, a wingéd horse, the gods of Mount Olympus, noise, dust, beards, yadda yadda, this sequel about Perseus (Sam Worthington) heading into the underworld to rescue his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) writes the book on incoherent storytelling and direction. Feeling in every department as if it was made by the interns (though I suspect people with something to prove would have done a better job), it sparks to life only fitfully – when proper actors such as Ralph Fiennes (as Hades) and Liam Neeson are allowed to breathe godly magic into the damp clay of the script. And Toby Kebbel’s Agenor has a pretty good shake of the tree too. As for Sam Worthington, many words have already been written about his mystifying career. Let’s just say he’s utterly useless and leave it at that.

Wrath of the Titans – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012