June 14, 2012
Why doesn't rap garner the respect afforded jazz and the blues? Not without its share of self-interest, the question recurs throughout "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap," executive-produced, directed by and featuring Ice-T, who shares the screen with a strong percentage of the major rap and hip-hop artists of the last three decades.
The movie's just OK as a documentary, prone to generalities ("this film is about the craft"; "Run-DMC took the live show to a whole 'nother level") and willing to let the conversations run on, amiably, instead of capturing the crucial nuggets. Also, the "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star cannot resist keeping himself on camera a little too much.
But the interviews are often revealing and funny. And much of the music is tremendous. As Grandmaster Caz says in the film: "Hip-hop didn't invent anything. But hip-hop reinvented everything." Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, dating to the late '70s, speaks for many when he says the turntable manipulations were built entirely on "records we found in our parents' crates," from George Clinton to Sly and the Family Stone.
"Something From Nothing" is the opposite of a narrow-focus project such as "Beats, Rhymes & Life," last year's terrific chronicle of the reunion tour of A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe's Q-Tip shows up here too. It's a broad canvas, spanning the Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan, Detroit (Eminem is featured in an admirably unguarded interview) and then out to the West Coast.
All the way, Ice-T lobs friendly questions. "What constitutes wackness?" he asks one fellow rapper.
The artists with a sense of humor and perspective fare best. Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as Nas, says at one point: "I'm a grown man now. I have no business wearing saggy jeans. No business at all." But, he adds, "I might let 'em sag just a little bit" to annoy the blue-noses. "That's what got me here," he says, smiling.
The choicest anecdote comes in Ice-T's encounter with Run of Run-DMC, who recalls the moment he realized his stardom had gotten out of control: He's sitting in a tub in a hotel suite, eating French toast in the tub, "and the syrup's falling in the tub," and the bimbo's on the way, and the Rolling Stone interviewer's right behind her. At the start of "Something From Nothing," Ice-T states that the documentary "isn't about the money, the cars, the jewelry, the girls." It is, of course, at least partly. It's show business, and always was.
The best rappers and DJs also happen to be genuine poets, and although Ice-T's film is more infomercial than inquiry, it makes for a helluva soundtrack.
'Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug content)
Running time: 1:47