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Ice-T has been many things over the last 25 years — a groundbreaking rap star, a hard-working TV and film actor, a lightning rod for controversy — but Sundance filmmaker would seem a stretch. And yet, the 53-year-old’s first stab at feature-film directing, the documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, will have its world premiere in the Documentary Premieres section of the 2012 film festival along with work from Rory Kennedy (Ethel), Joe Berlinger (Under African Skies) and Amy Berg (West of Memphis). The Art of Rap will first screen Saturday, Jan. 21, at the MARC (formerly the Racquet Club Theatre) at 2:30 pm.
Ice-T’s look at the roots and influence of rap includes masters of the form such as Ice Cube, Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Afrika Bambaataa, MC Lyte, Mos Def and Kanye West talking about how the craft of writing rap works. And here, the erstwhile Tracy Marrow talks with THR about what it’s like to have diplomatic immunity in the hip-hop world, screen a movie for the first time in Park City and watch American Greed with Coco.
The Hollywood Reporter: What sparked you to make the documentary?
Ice-T: Being in hip hop so long and the way things started to change and everything, I started to realize that I wasn’t gonna get anybody to listen with music, as far as making a song about it. And I figured people don’t read enough. Film is something I always wanted to get more involved in, and I wanted to direct one day. I know that when you’re getting ready to start a business or do something new, the best thing to do is reach for the lowest-hanging fruit, and hip hop is something that I’m the most familiar with. So I said, Why don’t I make a film that shows people the passion that we had when hip hop started — because I think a lot of that is gone now, it’s become very commercial — and go out and interview some of the people that got this thing off the ground? And maybe people will look at it and say, Wow, this is a real art form, and it’s something that needs to be appreciated.
THR: So in this film, you’re not trying to encompass the whole of hip-hop? You’re focusing on the beginnings?
Ice-T: Just rap. Just rap. There are five elements to hip-hop. There’s graffiti, there’s the dance, there’s the DJ, there’s the rapping and then there’s the knowledge of the entire culture. You can have somebody that can’t do anything — can’t rap, can’t DJ, can’t break dance, can’t do graffiti — but he understands it. Well, he’s hip-hop, too.
THR: Who would you put in that category, somebody like Cornell West?
Ice-T: Yeah, Cornell West, or somebody like Fab Five Freddy, he’s hip-hop. There are people like that that are part of the culture and they move the culture because they’re almost like historians.
THR: Why title your movie Something From Nothing? What’s that mean to you?
Ice-T: Because during one of the interviews, Lord Jamar from Brand Nubian said that. And it was just so poetic what he said. He said, “We created something from nothing.” And while we were shooting, everybody looks at each other and says, “That’s gotta be part of the title.” Kids didn’t have instruments, so they took their parents’ turntables and they figured a way of making music out of other existing music. It came from nothing. And it came from poor people, too.
THR: What made you think you could make a documentary? I’m guessing you probably felt a responsibility to your contemporaries, like Chuck and all the guys that started it with you.
Ice-T: I hate to say this, but I’m kind of at a point now where I pretty much feel like I can do anything I really put my mind to. Because I wasn’t confident when I first started rapping. And then the next thing you know, I’m acting. I’m like, “Damn, I can do that.” And once, I’m on set with this photographer, and I was looking at her lenses and she was like, “You should take pictures, Ice.” And I’m like, “Why?” She said, “Because everyone has the same camera. It’s all perspective, and you have a unique perspective the way you see things.” And once she kinda gave me that game, I’m like, Well, I could probably do stand up comedy, right? And so I’ve never really been afraid of things. I have another friend who’s a director, Tim Story (Fantastic Four), he used to be a rapper in one of my groups called TDF, which was on the Rhyme Syndicate. I asked him, “How the hell do you direct Fantastic Four?” And he said, “You surround yourself with experts. I don’t know how to do all that digital stuff, but I know the story, and I get to a point where I can’t do it anymore and the experts step in.” So I said, for me to direct this film, I just have to connect myself with experts. Fortunately, my manager hooked up with Paul Toogood from the U.K. and his team, they’ve done documentaries before, and they were overly excited to be involved in this project and they came in and they gave me what I needed. And all I really had to do was get the artists and get them engaged in the conversation as necessary.
THR: Who was the hardest subject to get on camera and why? Was there anyone who was resistant?
Ice-T: Nobody was resistant but people were difficult because of the schedule. And when you’re shooting a documentary, it’s not like you’re throwing money around, you’re asking for favors. So everyone was equally difficult, but not by their choice, it was us trying to hit moving targets.
THR: So it wasn’t that anyone was resistant because they weren’t sure they wanted to talk about it?
Ice-T: No, not really, because of the relationships I have. And this movie definitely is not “Meet your favorite rapper.” It’s more like “Meet Ice’s favorite rappers.” I went right into my address book. So everyone in this movie I have a relationship with. It wasn’t like I had to say, “Oh, there’s this particular rapper that I don’t know, and we have to try to negotiate and find him.” My book has everybody. I mean, I got Kanye West, I got Eminem. We didn’t get Jay, Jay was busy, but we got Dr. Dre, we got Cube. At the end of the day, we ended up with interviews with fifty-four rappers, and we couldn’t cut to ninety minutes.
THR: You’re gonna have to make a sequel, I guess.
Ice-T: We have a television show that will show the long versions of the interviews. We already have that in place. A series where, “Tonight on The Art of Rap you’ll see MC Lyte…” Let’s focus on two rappers, KRS-One and Ice Cube, “tonight on The Art of Rap.” And you’d see the long interview. Because I have two hours on every one of these people you’ll see in the movie.
THR: Did you make sure to cover your own contributions and accomplishments in the film? How did you handle that?
Ice-T: The thing of it is, I do every interview. Every person you see, you’ll see me talking to him, so it’s like we exchange stories. I get my back rubbed enough in this movie.
THR: Did any old feuds get sparked while you were doing the interviews or going back over old territory?
Ice-T: No. I kinda have always had diplomatic immunity and never really got involved in the beefs. I was able to get people that normally wouldn’t necessarily be together because of beef or whatever. They didn’t care. So you’ll see people that you’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t think they got along.” But they all get along with Ice, so that’s all that matters. Even Cube and Dre have gotten back together. They did “Chin Check” with NWA, they rejoined together. I remember Chino XL had a little beef with Em for a while, but that stuff is all small. There’s no real heavyweight beefin’ going on like back in the day.
THR: Did you learn anything new about someone you had known a long time during the process of making this?
Ice-T: Oh, absolutely. I learned that KRS-One got his name, Kris, from following the Hare Krishna for a while. He got into that religion and was studying it and that’s where people started to call him Kris from the Krishna. So little things like that. But that we didn’t even use in the movie. We used a part about KRS-One explaining how he started to rap by just standing around some guys that were rapping, and one guy just picked him out of the crowd to start talking about his shoes. And he was like, “I was just minding my business, and all of a sudden I was the center of attention.” It’s a funny story.
THR: What’s your take away from having made this and seeing all that history all put together in one place?
Ice-T: You know what it is? To me, it’s just one of those things that I’m glad I was able to capture and put together, because a lot of these guys will be considered the masters — people like Run DMC, KRS-One, Melle Mel, Bambaataa. And when you think about art, there is nothing where you can see Rembrandt sitting next to Michelangelo, sitting next to Leonardo, talking. It just didn’t happen. So forever there’s this film that has all these people in one place. And one thing this movie is about is what it’s not about. It’s not about the money, it’s not about the cars, it’s not about the girls — it’s about the craft. And for twenty years I got interviewed and never got asked one question about the craft. People just figure you shit it out, but they wanna know what car you’re in, what girl you’re fucking, your beefs. But they don’t care how you do it. No one asks Eminem, “How the hell do you do it?”
THR: Well, to be fair, a lot of the material in the songs is focused on the bling and the cars and the guns and the money and the pussy.
Ice-T: True, true. But it’s kinda like, that’s what the song is, but how do you write the song? Now, if we were to interview Bob Dylan, we would concentrate on the songwriting process.I mean, it’s funny, people are like, “Oh, Ice, you gotta go do an album. Okay, go shit it out.” Like I can go sit on a toilet and write half a million words. And I ask people [in the film], “Are you high? Do you need to be alone? Do you need to be angry? Do you need to do the beats?” And when you listen to Rakim break down how he writes rhymes, you’ll be amazed.
THR: Do you ever miss being more controversial and stirring shit up?
Ice-T: The thing of it is, I don’t miss it because what people saw as controversy wasn’t a stunt, it was kinda like, “This is my view…” When you’re ahead of the curve, you tend to be controversial. Like, things that I did wouldn’t be controversial now. I think I’m still controversial in my own way. I still kinda go against the grain naturally. I’m sure this film, somebody might find some controversy in it, I don’t know. Everything I did, I didn’t think it was controversial, people found controversy in it. I just kind of say what’s on my mind, and people that say what’s on their minds are considered controversial. The other day I wrote on Twitter, “I never made records for women, I always aimed my music at men.” Oh, women got pissed at that! I’m like, Is that controversial to say that I never made love records? What the fuck?
THR: Would you ever let Glee take on one of your songs?
Ice-T: Wouldn’t that be funny? I don’t know. Glee to me is kinda like the Disney Channel of television. It’s just so squeaky clean. I don’t think they would wanna fuck with my shit. I don’t know. Some shows are just too all-American clean for me. I’m more of a Breaking Bad kinda guy. But the thing about Ice-T is, I can tell you what I might not be able to stomach, but I know that there are people out there that love it, and more power to ’em. So I’m very familiar that my views aren’t the absolute view, but I’ll let you know how I feel about it. I’m like, “I can’t watch that shit.” But then Coco could be like, “Baby, that’s the best.”
THR: Does she convince you to watch shows that you wouldn’t normally watch?
Ice-T: No, we don’t have to. We have quite a few televisions in the house. We have shows that I watch, we have shows that she watches, and then we have shows we watch together. She likes Toddlers & Tiaras. I’m like, that shit is child abuse.
THR: What do you watch together?
Ice-T: We like all the crime shit, American Greed, the one where the rich people always go to jail. It’s like, people that are so rich and they’re still stealin’.
THR: Have you been to Sundance before?
Ice-T: No, I haven’t been to Sundance, but I know it’s the Big Show, and I’m very honored to be there. I can’t wait to see the film in an audience of people that wanna see it. That’ll be a great moment for me. I’ve been around a long time, and I’m kind of jaded because I’ve done a lot of things. But the truth is, this will be a first, and I’ll truly be excited to see this with the audience.
THR: Is anyone from the movie going up with you?
Ice-T: A lot of the rappers want to come out there, so we’re gonna throw a little party and we’ll see who we can get. We’ll see what we can do to make it funky up here for the people.
THR: Are you going to ski?
Ice-T: Nah. I’m gonna try to stay safe. I don’t need to go up and bust my ass on those slopes. I gotta go back and act in Law & Order.
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