Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap: Sundance Film Review

Ice-T Dr. Dre Something From Nothing - H 2012

Ice-T Dr. Dre Something From Nothing - H 2012

Rapper Ice-T profiles hip-hop greats past and present.    

PARK CITY — Few musicians are as qualified as Ice-T to direct a documentary on the accomplishments of some of rap’s top performers and legendary originators. After producing, acting and hosting roles in feature films, docs and TV, the original gangsta rapper brings his skills to bear on an insightful film about the creative talents that have made hip-hop an original, enduring American musical tradition.

With appearances by the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Run-DMC and Eminem, and revealing testimony on the origins of some classic releases, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap is poised to school a new generation of fans with insights from some of their favorite artists. Loaded with a cappella on-camera performances and a soundtrack of killer beats, the film already has a worldwide audience in place, as well as broad potential on a wide range of platforms, from theatrical to VOD.

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As a solo rap artist, Ice-T emerged on the hip-hop scene in the late'80s and went on to co-found Body Count before adding acting and producing to his resume. Something From Nothing pulls together all this experience with an inquiry into the skill and craft behind some of rap’s most enduring artists and performances. 

The film’s format is straightforward: On camera, Ice-T interviews rappers in studio or on street corners, exploring their musical inspirations and the impetus behind some of their best-known tracks, with a short a cappella rap accompanying the exchange. As several rappers note, the genre’s roots in jazz, blues and soul inspired a younger generation of musicians to adapt these forms for a new style of urban music. “Hip-hop didn’t invent anything,” observes Grandmaster Caz. “Hip-Hop reinvented everything.” Caz demonstrates the rapper’s requisite skill of quick composition and tight rhyming by writing and then performing an original piece on camera within 20 minutes.

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“Planet Rock” rapper Afrika Bambaataa outlines the four pillars of hip-hop: DJing, MCing, B-boying and graffiti art, noting that “Hip-hop is the whole movement” that unifies all these skills, and “the MC is the communicator who commands the crowd” during a performance, he asserts.

Female rappers are represented by Salt from Salt-n-Pepa, one of the first all-female rap crews, and MC Lyte. Working in a male-dominated industry, they recall the challenge of finding their individual voices, both in terms of performance and onstage persona.

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Moving on to the Detroit area, Ice-T hangs out with Eminem, one of the most successful and influential white rappers. In perhaps the most revealing and dynamic interview in the film, they explore Eminem’s process of writing, which involves rhyming as many lyrics as he can come up with in each bar of music.

“My mind 24/7 is thinking about ways to bend words” into rhymes, he says. They also candidly discuss the impact that drug addiction has had on Eminem’s life and career. “Without rap, I wouldn’t be here,” he frankly admits. “Who would have thought that one of the greatest rappers of all time would be a white cat?” Ice-T remarks after their interview.

Arriving in Los Angeles, he meets up with B-Real of Cypress Hill, KRS-One, Run-DMC, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Dr. Dre, completing the East-West hip-hop axis. Ice-T’s voiceover narration connects the artists and interviews, with most segments running under four minutes.

Neon-colored aerial shots of New York and L.A., scenes of graffiti art and bustling inner-city streets and archival performances provide dynamic B-roll footage. While the film showcases some of the biggest names in rap both past and present, Ice-T himself absorbs a good deal of screen time, both interviewing other performers and reflecting on the state of contemporary rap as well, which he feels has gone too “pop.” Repetition of questions and themes is also a distraction, but fairly minimal considering the stature and expertise of the talent onscreen.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Production company: Jolygood Films, Westmount Films, Final Level Entertainment
Director: Ice-T
Producer: Paul Toogood
Executive producers: Ice-T, Paul Toogood, Jorge Hinojosa, Ice-T, Simon D. Pearce, David Kaplan, Alison Toogood, Jelena Nikolic
Directors of photography: Andy Baybutt, Jeremy Hewson, John Halliday
Editor: Kieran Smyth
Sales: UTA
No rating, 107 minutes