Notebook: Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap
It’s true: Ice-T (a.k.a. Tracy Marrow, the rapper turned actor turned reality TV star) has made a documentary. Who’s next, Keanu Reeves?* For his directorial debut, Ice used his name recognition and industry connections to produce Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, an exhaustive compilation of helicopter shots, street footage, and interviews with more than 40 famous rappers from the old and new schools. Significantly chopped down from its initial four-hour running time, Ice’s two-hour theatrical cut remains admirably spare, an underrated accomplishment in the expanding wasteland of noisy, mediocre, and uninspired hot-topic mainstream docs.
Something from Nothing begins with the whirring sounds of a helicopter followed by a bird’s-eye view of New York City, the first of many instances in which sound precedes image. Constructing his film so as to encourage close listening, Ice-T engages his audience without condescending to them and allows his subjects to say their piece one at a time and without any supplementary clutter. Ice said in a promotional interview that he kept quick edits to a minimum because he wanted to allow the film to breathe, and the result is as much a work of performance art as it is documentary. No spoilers ahead, here’s what happens in Something from Nothing: Ice-T questions each rapper about their craft, namely their writing process, the evolution of their voice, diction, and approach to performance. Then each looks directly into the camera and raps a cappella, either freestyling on the spot, performing another rapper’s influential verse, or reciting one of their own raps. These sequences make up the backbone of the film, one rapper at a time until two hours have passed and the film is over. Some appearances are joltingly brief while others are long and contemplative.
Color-enhanced helicopter views and voyeuristic street shots give us something to look at while we listen to the performances. Rap music first came out of the hive of street culture, and so these neighborhood tableaus provide a more relevant backdrop than any archival footage or baby photos of the greats. The cityscapes and helicopter shots frame the interviews and help the film move from coast to coast—in due time. Once the interviews start to migrate from New York to California an hour into the film, the audience is ready to take in the weight of the commute.
Ice keeps his focus narrow and his conclusions open-ended. His stated purpose is to prove that rap requires skill, a deceptively modest goal that he accomplishes with ease. The only addition to his clean pattern of questions and answers/raps and helicopter shots is the inevitable though not entirely unwelcome Ice-T voiceover, occasionally sounding out over MTV-style clips of him walking the streets in slow motion and wearing his sunglasses at night. These corndog interludes are in line with the obnoxious shaky-cam cinematography that tends to contaminate the interviews. But in spite of such tragically contemporary flourishes, the editing upholds a careful and deliberate chain link of sequences. The repetitive structure and deliberate pacing train the ear to pick up on lyrics and inferences that might not normally be heard on first listen.
Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers is the only rapper that Ice-T features more than once, returning to observe him in his modest home studio in the Bronx. Widely regarded by the other rappers in the documentary as “the best,” the 51-year-old writes out and then raps a self-reflexive verse titled “The Art of Rap,” allowing us to watch him at work in approximate real time. It should come as no surprise that grandstanding and cocky attitudes abound in a documentary about rap music, but the few moments of intimacy and general expression of humility is unique to Something from Nothing, perhaps because many of the artists interviewed have long since peaked in an inherently boastful profession. When Bun B says that the best rappers tell stories about the drawbacks of being a high-rolling criminal, Ice-T contends that those raps tell the “B-side of the game” and follows their insight with an example. The next sequence is a crushing rap performed in its entirety and told from the point of view of a man who makes stupid mistakes in spite of his better judgment and struggles to make ends meet as he deals with his girlfriend’s unwanted pregnancy. It’s not until the final line of the verse that the rapper is revealed as Joe Budden, a minor player whose recorded output pales in comparison to the a capella performance just given. Then the film abruptly moves on to the next rapper without any further comment.
It’s gratifying how in his first outing behind the camera Ice-T follows the useful rule of thumb that less is usually more in documentary filmmaking. However he also possesses a clear understanding that even the most fascinating subject will fall apart under the faltering watch of an inattentive director. It’s already too late and too overwhelming a task to attempt a definitive documentary about hip hop, and I doubt that Ice-T is gunning to be the next Ken Burns (praise be). Suitably incomplete but still focused, Something from Nothing is a perfect introduction to the art of rap.
* Originally rumored to be the director, Keanu Reeves produced Side by Side, a documentary about the “history, process and workflow of digital and photochemical film creation” that premiered in the U.S. last summer.