Ice-T has been an actor for nearly as long as he’s been an MC, so perhaps it’s inevitable that he would merge the worlds of film and hip-hop in his directorial debut. The legendary rapper’s documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap goes far beyond the standard talking head format, accessing the heart of rap music in the words of its greatest proponents. The film follows Ice-T ‘round the country as he interviews dozens of rappers and DJs – from Big Daddy Kane and Dr. Dre to Q-Tip and MC Lyte – about the art and history of their craft. It’s a revealing, entertaining documentary, full of incredible insight and off-the-cuff freestyles. We caught up with Ice-T the week before the film’s June 15th release date.
Why did you decide to make The Art of Rap at this particular time?
Directing is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and which is a spur of the moment thing. I was watching how rap was getting into a lot of the mainstream things. And a lot of these people probably really don’t even know where it comes from. So I just made the decision to make the film. I made the call out to my friends. I said “I got an idea. I want to shoot a film, but I’m not going to ask you about money, cars, girls, jewelry or beef. I’m going to ask you about the craft.” And they were all excited to do it. We took it to Sundance and it got picked up the first day, and now we’re going to be in theaters, so we’re overwhelmed.
Rhythm, rhyme and spontaneity are at the heart of hip-hop. Did you want to capture those qualities in the way you put the film together?
I wanted you to understand that hip-hop isn’t just the words that we say. It’s the way we live, the way we dress, and it is a movement based on a struggle. It’s an art form based on competition, which keeps it sharp, keeps it moving. I just wanted people to see inside the culture a little bit more then you normally see with the regular press that hip-hop gets.
Were you surprised by anything you heard from your interview subjects in The Art of Rap?
Yeah, I mean all those cats can surprise you. I mean, they are all funny and a lot of the stories were crazy. KRS-One, Eminem…all of them have interesting stories and tales from their careers. So once we got past rolling camera it just turned into lots of great conversations and inside stories and jokes. I mean, you never know what a rapper is going to say next.
From Wild Style to the Wu-Tang to The Art of Rap, hip-hop has had a long love affair with cinema and vice-versa. Why do you think the two art forms are so well suited to each other?
Well you got to remember a lot of rap is story-based, and it’s very visual in an audio sense of the word. We are trying to explain things to you through lyrics so you can see them. And Rakim speaks on that in the film. So when you are finally able to match images with the words, it makes it that much more exciting, and the dynamic changes into a whole ‘nother realm. It adds a dimension. So a lot of rappers rap about television shows, the films they’ve seen. You’ll see all kinds of film references. One of my most famous lyrics is when I say “I’m the illest / I die harder than Bruce Willis.” That’s part of hip-hop, if you can catch pop culture and twist it into the rhyme, to where everybody goes, “Oh okay, that was kind of fly!”
Afrika Bambaataa talks about the five pillars of hip-hop, with knowledge being the fifth. Could you tell us the other four?
I mean, there are five “elements” of hip-hop. Let’s call it that. Which is DJing, the ability to pick different records and rock a crowd and basically spin breaks, which are the breakdowns of records. Which Funkmaster Flex was spinning the other night at our party. Then you have B-boying and B-girling, which basically means dancing. Breakdancing, street dance. Graffiti, or what they call street art, or aerosol writers – that’s an art. And also MCing, which is the ability to control a crowd, stand next to the DJ, say some rhymes and keep the party lit. The fifth element is knowledge. You can be part of hip-hop, never done any of those four things, but if you understand the knowledge, then you are just as much a part of it.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is in theaters now.
Find out more about The Art of Rap at www.theartofrap.com