It’s not the flashiest portrait of the art form, but Ice-T’s Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap makes for a damn insightful documentary nonetheless. Just as there’s little use doubting the director’s impact on hip hop, there’s little use doubting his passion for the art of rap and his dedication to the project. He ventures from coast to coast in the United States, talking to the biggest artists in the game about their craft.
What Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap really excels at is fighting for rap to be respected as much as other musical forms. Hip hop has had to fight an uphill battle the likes of which few other genres have taken on, having been discarded as “jungle music” or as not music period by a pile of ignorant fools. Throw in the elements of street culture and a little swearing and you’ve got a problem.
Ice-T’s documentary focuses on the fact that this problem exists for a reason. He’s not going to talk about the culture or aesthetic of hip hop; he’s going to focus on the art of emceeing, on what makes for a good emcee. He asks his subjects some good questions, like about the difference between a rapper and an emcee, and talks shop with some of the best in the business.
Something from Nothing also lets the artists show off in freestyle format. Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian sets the stride, but highlights are all over the place. Personal favourites of mine, like KRS-One and Immortal Technique, hold it down with Ice-T standing by like only he can. And Kanye West proves his own worth as an emcee, hammering down a hard-hitting freestyle rap that finds him lunging at the camera in fits.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is an engaging doc because we feel like we’re hanging out with these cats and learning their tricks. When Ice-T quizzes Eminem about how he writes and Slim Shady responds with some thoughts about how he wakes up and finds words tumbling out of his head, he’s not just speaking for hip hop but for all of us who live on the page.
Thanks to Ice-T’s hunger and a respectable collection of talent, Something from Nothing is an important music documentary. It has the cool soul of It Might Get Loud in that it shows us the masters at work, but it also speaks to the urge and history of rap. When Lord Jamar remembers how rap sprang out of music when they took the instruments away, it’s a poignant disclosure.
There are some omissions. Something from Nothing regrettably evades other scenes to focus on New York, Detroit (briefly) and Los Angeles. A sequel may be suitable to expand the horizons, as there are some rich rap scenes to be found in the South and in other countries. More focus on female rappers would’ve also been constructive, but it’s still really neat to see Salt and MC Lyte on screen.
While not a perfect analysis of the craft, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is one of the better documentaries on the subject. It isn’t just for rap lovers, but those with regard for the game will find a lot to dig about Ice-T’s ride. As a director, the Original Gangster is pretty basic. But he holds the project close to his heart and that does a lot to connect this art to viewers.