When Ice-T's documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap hits theaters Friday, he hopes the music genre will get something he feels it has long been lacking: respect.
In his directorial debut, the gangster rap pioneer-turned-actor interviews more than 40 hip-hop legends about how they craft the lyrics to the songs. The movie was picked up by Indomina Releasing for distribution rights after its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Sony just released a 23-song, digital-only soundtrack.
The Art of Rap provides a dynamic history lesson that has nothing to do with sales, beef or riches, but instead gets rappers to talk about what inspires and influences what they say on the mike.
"I was looking at the state of hip-hop, which has gotten a little pop for me, and I just wanted to document where we came from," says Ice-T, 54, who since 2000 has starred on TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "I don't feel that rap has been respected as an art form. Because people have seen rappers rap off the top of their heads, they don't think it is difficult."
He seeks to dispel that notion in interviews with Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane, Doug E. Fresh, Nas, Chuck D, Kanye West, MC Lyte, Kool Moe Dee, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Run-D.M.C. and others. Ice-T films them in a variety of venues -- street corners, studios, living rooms -- and makes use of the music and urban scenery as he catches up with his subjects in New York, Los Angeles and other cities. No archival footage was used.
Although only a few minutes of each interview appears in the film, Ice-T spent at least two hours with his subjects. He says he chose only people whom he knew personally, so the interviews would become relaxed conversations among friends. He asked the rappers to deliver on-the-spot rhymes from a favorite song or something they'd just made up.
Ice-T had several gold and platinum albums as a solo artist and with his heavy metal band, Body Count, in the 1980s and '90s. He began acting in the mid-'80s and had his film breakthrough in Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City (1991). But despite all his years in front of the camera, his directing experience was limited to videos. Going forward, he wants to do feature films but decided to get his feet wet doing something he knew about.
"A lot of the greats that helped start this art form from scratch are still alive -- Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaataa -- very powerful people who took gangbanging and turned it into hip-hop," Ice-T says. "They deserve to be honored. This is an American art form and should be respected.
"It's the predominate culture in the world right now, whether it's a Taco Bell commercial or a clothing line. Even the weatherman is rapping."
He says he hopes that younger rappers will take lessons from the film and get a greater understanding of how that art form evolved.
"The new kids are kind of jumping on a train that was started by these people," he says. "All I want is for the kids to see where it came from and have a degree of respect for it.
"It's like if I want to be a jazz player, I need to watch a film about Miles Davis just so I can appreciate what I'm doing."
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