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Sundance 2012: Ice-T's 'The Art of Rap' Has Head-Bopping Premiere

Chuck D, Grandmaster Caz and Coco attend the first public screening of the music-filled documentary.

Ice-T _ P (2011)
Jason Kempin

The Art of Rap screened Saturday afternoon at the MARC to a more bumpin’ crowd than Sundance usually sees. Stocked with rap artists and hip-hop fans, the audience spent much of the documentary head bobbing and breaking into applause whenever another rap icon threw down a bit of freestyle verse on screen.

The ringmaster, of course, was Ice-T, who conceived of the project and directed it, a first for the music, film and TV star. He made sure to bring several of the producers and subjects of the film to Park City for the premiere — Grandmaster Caz, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Ice's longtime partner Evil E, associate producer Seane Sean, wife Coco and son Little Ice. When the screening was over, Ice seemed genuinely pleased, having seen the film on the big screen with an audience for the first time. “What’d y’all think?” he said with a big smile. “Shit was kinda good...”

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The Documentary Premieres film, which was co-directed by Andy Baybutt and produced by Paul Toogood, takes a detailed look at how the best rappers of the last 30 years do what they do. While not exhaustive — icons such as Jay-Z, 50 CentQueen Latifah and Lil Wayne aren’t included, and rap scenes in Atlanta, the Bay area and Europe couldn’t fit into the film’s running time — Art of Rap manages to squeeze in 47 of the 54 subjects Ice-T and his London crew interviewed over an 18-month period.

Caz, Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, Nas, Salt, Raekwon, Q-Tip, Chuck D, Mos Def, Eminem, Common, Xzibit, B-Real of Cypress Hill, MC Lyte, KRS-One, Chino XL, Kool Moe Dee, Run and DMC from Run DMC, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg all submit to Ice’s questions and elaborate on their processes, their inspirations, their influences, their favorite rhymes and their philosophies about rapping’s place in the world of art. The movie intersperses urban imagery from stops in the South Bronx, Detroit, South Central, Harlem and L.A. with a huge sampling of hits from the last 35 years. Along the way, each rapper takes time to honor those who came before.

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Throughout the film there are multiple insights and a generous helping of laughs, some of it showing that many rappers have a sense of humor about some of the trappings of the culture, from baggy jeans to reflexive anti-intellectualism. Among the great bits were Cube and Snoop describing their styles as “street knowledge” and “tae kwon do,” respectively; Ice talking about hearing rap for the first time while in the Army; Big Daddy Kane’s claim that Dr. Seuss was essentially a rapper; Marley Marl’s theory that rap doesn’t get the respect of the blues and jazz because hip-hop has always been defined by its beefs instead of its solidarity; Chuck D’s admission that he was listening to a lot of Sly and the Family Stone when he was writing Fear of a Black Planet; Mos Def’s description of rap as “folk music”; KRS-One’s explanation that battling between rappers is a descendant of a slavery-era phenomenon called “the dozens”; and Ice’s confession that when he forgets lyrics during a show, he simply looks to the front-row fan that knows all the words as his “human TelePrompter.”

While the filmmakers deliberately stayed away from including any archival footage, what they focused on was the new, which materializes in freestyle raps that each of the subjects lets flow on-screen. During the Q&A after the screening, Ice-T said that from the beginning they wanted the raps to be “nothing you’ve ever heard before” and found nowhere else but in the movie. Caz in particular lets loose with some viciously impactful rhymes. The biggest complaints heard after the showing involved the movie’s limited scope. Even Chuck D during the Q&A said, “For us, this movie could be 15 hours long.” As it happens, the filmmakers have tons of unused footage.

Any potential distributor who comes up with a decent number and a creative plan for a theatrical rollout punctuated by city-by-city hip-hop shows involving some of the principals will make solid money on the enterprise and likely launch a brand in the process. (This may already be in the works, as there was talk during the Q&A about a TV series and a follow-up doc that takes a look at other rap subcultures.)

To show just one example of the film’s crossover appeal (much like that of rap itself): A white man stood up during the Q&A (after Ice had performed some of Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”) and thanked Ice, Caz and Chuck D by saying that their lyrics had raised him as a child.

“I hope you’re a good person,” Caz cracked.