Ice T's critically acclaimed, independently produced, hip-hop history documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, which opened in the States last month, just opened here in Europe on Friday last. The evening before (July 19) there were a series of premiere screenings in London and other select European cities including Dublin, Ireland when I caught it at the IFI (Irish Film Institute) where the film was followed immediately by a Q+A & concert performance via live satellite from London's Hammersmith Apollo. There Ice T, along with Melle Mel, Chuck D, and Raekwon were all in town for the UK debut. During this Q+A from the audience (a tough crowd) Ice T fielded most of the questions in which he spent a fair amount of time in defense of his great film: something he was well able to handle.
But first the movie which I had heard and read all about and was most anxious to view. I thought it was really excellent; especially on the big screen with the film's ample use of panoramic aerial views of NYC, LA, and Detroit, all lovingly shot in breathtaking widescreen at various times of the day from helicopter, that nicely broke up the dialog segments of the documentary.
Sure the film didn't have all my favorite rappers in it but it was not my film, it was Ice T's. And as the OG (original gangsta) turned rapper, turned actor, turned filmmaker - stated before the film was even screened at Sundance earlier this year; he was not trying to represent all things rap (especially the bling & swag elements) but rather simply focus on the art of the rapper / emcee, and from his own personal perspective. This he did in loving detail, casually catching up with old friends in the rap game, and having them spit a verse or two from their own or other rapper's favorite rhymes, and share a little insight on how they approach their craft. In all 47 artists made the final cut including such talents as Afrika Bambaataa, Rakim, Raekwon, Ice Cube, Chuck D, Snoop Dog, Kool Keith, KRS-One, Eminem, Q-Tip, Chino XL, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel - the latter two getting perhaps the most shine and props in the film.
Among my favorite bits in the film included Immortal Technique's freestyle on the streets of Harlem, the entertaining Doug E Fresh segment at the chicken spot, lingering decrepit downtrodden inner city urban blight shots that accompanied Joe Budden's moving acapella, Kanye West spitting a nice raw rhyme that was totally atypical of the image (personal & artistic) that he exudes of late, Dr Dre giving props to Ice T's "Six In The Morning" as been a major influence of early NWA, Ras Kass talking about those who can make or appreciate intricate rap rhymes are either those in college or in jail, and when Treach of Naughty By Nature was talking about how some rappers brag about how "they don't write their raps down on paper" but that, he quipped, "maybe they should since it sounds like they don't." Everyone laughed out loud at that point. Another funny part was Ice T sharing some of his trade secrets about how when things go wrong in concert. He confided that sometimes if he goes off beat or forgets lyrics he pretends his mic cut off and just mouths words silently till he picks up on the the beat again or on the lyrical thread again. He also admitted that from the beginning of every show he does he finds that one guy in the audience up front near the stage who clearly knows every word of every song and he hones in on him. "The human teleprompter" he nicknamed this person since he looks to him mouthing the words should he ever go blank on his own lyrics. When he completely forgets his lyrics he'll pass the mic to this guy to rap into it the correct lyrics.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap official trailer (2012)
The film ended with credits that included a long list of the deceased rappers in hip-hop's history including such Bay Area soldiers as Mac Dre and Mr Cee of RBL Posse. Right after the film ended in Dublin, Irish viewers were invited to send questions over to London to Ice T via Twitter. As it turned out he never responded to any of those questions - just to ones from those present in the Hammersmith Apollo. Joined onstage by Raekwon, Melle Mel, and Chuck D, Ice T spent about 20 minutes fielding questions. In response to the question of what they thought of UK rap Chuck D said, "it needs to be respected [more] both on its home turf and in the States" and recalled how it came into its own back in the 90s once British rappers found their own voice.
"The way that y'all spit in your diction and your language and once the UK rappers started representing their own turf, then clearly its been on top of its game. I salute you all and respect you all," said the Public Enemy front man. Raekwon weighed in voicing solidarity for those who feel on the outside. He recalled that even when Wu Tang Clan first started out they felt excluded and somewhat dismissed because they came from the one New York City borough that you could not take the train to. And that turned people off, he said. "You had to get on a boat to go there [Staten Island]".
The film, which was made with the backing of British producers, was done "on a shoestring budget" said Ice T, "but that's how it is if you want to keep it raw. Every inch of this movie is how we wanted it exactly and you can tell by the way muthafuckas is talking in it. And you can see it's grimy. No big studio would have funded this grimy shit. You never are going to see that many black people talking, talking whatever the fuck they want to say, probably for the rest of your life on a movie screen," Ice T laughed, expanding on this point by saying, "Making the movie allowed me to show off my friends' intelligence. I knew all these cats were incredible but I know when you look at a rapper on television or in the news we're caught in the soundbite. That's all you hear. You don't realize we've got a sense of humor or we are fun or whatever. Usually they put a microphone in my face and say '15 seconds: tell me what's happening?'" Of the film he dubbed "a love letter to hip-hop" he said he wanted to make a movie that his subjects would be proud of and one that "hip-hop would be proud of."
Of course not everyone was as satisfied with how the rap documentary turned out as its maker was. Many of the UK audience members who posed questions were vocally critical. "How come Jay Z is not in the movie?" one woman demanded. "I just called the people in my phone book. I called the people I know. You should do a movie and have Jay Z as the star," Ice T shot back at her. "The one thing about this film is that it's not about coming to see your favorite rapper. It's just me getting 30 or 40 rappers together and them talking about their passion for hip-hop. So if your friends come to see this movie to see their favorite rapper then they're coming to the wrong movie. And trust me if you didn't see your favorite rapper, you saw your favorite rapper's favorite rapper," he said to loud applause.
One woman said she didn't like the film because there wasn't enough women artists in it. "There were two women in the film [Salt and MC Lyte]. And if you check the ratio of women in rap they were correctly represented. For every ten guys there's maybe one girl," said Ice T reiterating that he only reached out to artists he personally knew. He said he had reached out to both Lil Kim and Queen Latifah but due to logistics they could not make it. "There weren't that many female rappers there early in the game and I'm sorry that you didn't see what you wanted but sometimes medicine don't taste good." More loud applause.
Then someone asked how come the Beastie Boys did not get mentioned or included? "The Beastie Boys did get mentioned by Cypress Hill," corrected Ice T, noting that during the filming that "MCA was sick [diagnosed with cancer] and real shit was happening" and hence they didn't want to film. By this stage Ice T, tired of having to be in defense mode, pulled out of his back pocket his wallet and holding it up to the audience he said, "You can tell me what this is not. You can say it's not white, it's not red, it's not big, it's not long. It's not a radio, it's not a car. Tell me what it is. It's black and it's a wallet! You can stand up all day and tell me what this movie is not. Let's talk about what it is. Alright." Then the crowd cheered loudly in support.
The concert that followed, which included Ice T's longtime DJ Evil E, started off with Melle Mel doing a tight set that included "The Message" and a megamix of snippets of hip-hop hits by such other artists as Kurtis Blow, Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, and Naughty By Nature. Chuck D, always a UK crowd favorite, served up both classic and brand new protest songs: "Fight The Power" and "I Shall Not Be Moved" respectively, while Raekwon surprised everyone when he was joined onstage by fellow Wu Tang member Ghostface Killah who treated the crowd to "C.R.E.A.M." Ice T was equally well received as was his (unannounced) former Rhyme Syndicate (Ice T's old collective) UK member Hijack - the Brixton MC once signed to his label.
Since Ice T said that he and the filmmakers spent two years filming and had about 70 hours of final footage that there would be lots more to come from The Art of Rap. "Call that the teaser," he said of the hour-and-half film.