Ice-T, Director, Talks Sundance Hip-Hop Doc Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

It says something about how far Ice-T has come since his gangsta rap days that his directorial debut, the hip-hop documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, premiered at Sundance to a house packed with hip-hop heads and white older moviegoers who likely know Ice better from Law & Order: SVU than “New Jack Hustler.” And it says something about the film itself, which explores the historical landscape of hip-hop in intimate detail with over 40 of Ice-T’s fellow rappers, that even the L&O-watching grandmas in the audience were bopping their heads the whole way through.

Taking a fresh approach to the music documentary, The Art of Rap sees Ice-T as a tour guide of sorts, navigating the viewer through home and studio visits with fellow MCs on both coasts as he has wide-ranging discussions about the roots of rap, what hip-hop means, and the skills and talent required of a truly great MC. (Among the hip-hop titans appearing in the film: Chuck D, Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-One, Melle Mel, B-Real, Mos Def, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, MC Lyte, Q-Tip, Redman, Immortal Technique, Nas, Common, and Kanye West.) As he travels from New York City to Los Angeles -- with a detour to Detroit to see Eminem, described as one of the greatest rappers of all time -- Ice asks his subjects to spit “something no one’s ever heard before,” resulting in a tapestry of astounding, off the dome freestyles and rare rhymes from some of the best rappers alive.

With the intention of keeping the film feeling fresh and present, Ice-T forgoes include archival or concert footage as he revisits hip-hop’s colorful past, a choice that turns The Art of Rap into something of a communal, if dense, oral history of the genre. The doc could be a bit brisker with further edits and more complete in its comprehensiveness (he began with a three hour film before shaving off an hour for Sundance, but has dozens of hours of footage left; an Art of Rap series has been suggested, though Ice-T declined to discuss the possibilities), but with legends like these on hand speaking comfortably to one of their own – spilling their vulnerabilities as artists, exposed beyond the typically hard façade of the genre – it’s all utterly fascinating.

Following the film’s premiere Movieline caught up with Ice-T as he and wife/reality TV co-star Coco breakfasted in Park City, where the rapper-turned-actor-turned-filmmaker explained what motivated him to grab his Rolodex and a tiny crew in the first place, why rap needed an Ice-T film more than another album, why the genre doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and how the film's success or failure will determine his future directorial aspirations.

How do you think things went at your premiere?
I wasn’t breathing the whole night before, I was so nervous. I put a lot of time and work into it, but you never know. Sundance was our goal when we made the movie -- I only wanted to make it to Sundance. This was it for me. And if I could make it here, I was in the right company of good movies.

Why Sundance? It was interesting to see it play well here for a crowd of predominantly white, older viewers, and last year Beats, Rhymes, and Life also did quite well.
Well, I didn’t know what films would be here when we submitted the film and got accepted. When you think about it, I’m an indie artist; I started out making hardcore records, so I wanted to make something that was raw. I said, I know Sundance is artsy but if I can get accepted there, then I’m on the right track. White people, black people, it really doesn’t matter. It’s just a matter of is it good? So when the movie came on and people started cheering and laughing and bobbing their heads, it was like oh my god – we got it! It’s kind of like not a normal documentary, it’s like a performance experience, an intimate concerts with a lot of the artists that people love. I was just happy.

You've said that once you decided a documentary on rap should be made it was easy to just call your friends to be in the film, but in terms of the actual filmmaking what was your approach? Did you study documentary form to develop the style you eventually used?
Not really. I mean, I’ve been watching movies and I’ve been in the film business for 20 years so I know what’s good. I wanted to shoot it, but I wanted to blur the lines of the filmmaking and behind the scenes. If the mic was exposed, that was good. A lot of the stuff, you see me talking to people; I wanted you to get the idea of what it was like to make it, not just watch it. People are into reality right now so this was like real reality; you’re with me, you’re on the set, I’m going to walk up to this guy and ask him a few questions. So as I edited, I just wanted the camera to feel like it might be anywhere at any moment. There are times people are talking and you’re showing the wall, or his hands, or his shoes. And then we shot with a Super 8 to kind of break up the cleanness of high definition. And we shot the big cinematic shots because I felt that if you just shoot the talking heads the movie becomes claustrophobic, so it’s just like, listen, listen, listen, breathe. Listen, listen, listen, breathe.

Those sweeping overhead cinematic shots, of the cityscapes over New York City and Los Angeles and the places you visit in between, also do well to connect visually to a sense of place and geography… even though that also makes it conspicuous when you don’t visit, say, the Bay Area or the South.
That’s what Mos Def said in the movie -- the music is dictated by the geography, and that’s why New York sounds different than Detroit, different than L.A. And you know, I couldn’t go to the South; the biggest problem I ran into with the movie was once we started, just the lack of time and the amount of film we shot. When I got the nod for Sundance I had a three-hour film and they said the longest they’d run them here is two. We had interviewed 54 [musicians]; even to make a three-hour cut we had 47, and I had 25 people waiting to be filmed when we had to wrap shooting! So like Chuck D said [at the film's Q&A] at being asked why this person wasn’t in it and why that person wasn’t, you know what? The movie’s not about that, it’s not about ‘Come see your favorite rapper.’ I feel every form of rap, every style, was represented.

Are you currently considering extending this two-hour film somehow into something else, perhaps a series?
I won’t speak on that, only because we don’t want to lower the integrity of this as a film. We want it to be a film, and once it does its dance as a film, whether it’s a theatrical release which looks like it’s about to happen… I’ll put it like this: We’ve got two hours on each artist.

Wow. That’s pretty incredible considering that many of the rappers we only see for a minute or two at most.
[Laughs] I have two hours! So you look at KRS-One; KRS-One talked about so much stuff, but my job is, let’s show the part where KRS talks about being vulnerable, like the moment where he got dissed. I want you to see the different dynamics of these artists. See, when you take young artists, right, young artists have their guards up. They never want to show any weakness, they’re scared. They’re worried about their persona. When you talk to people once they’ve been down the lane, they’ll tell you the story. They’ll say, ‘Wow, man -- I’m Public Enemy and Mel was dissing us!’ Now they’re comfortable with themselves. Even the stories, WC was talking about how I would use kids as teleprompters. Early in my career I wouldn’t have said that, but now I’m like, let’s laugh about it! I think that’s part of this film’s charm, too.

There’s a segment where you’re talking with Ice Cube and 50 Cent is referenced; Cube jokes that you don’t want to get rich and die trying. Was that a jab at Fiddy, or just an offhand remark?
No, that’s not a diss -– it’s more like saying, this is my play on what you said. I don’t want to get rich and die trying. 50 Cent said ‘Get rich or die trying,’ but you can get rich and die trying. So once you made it now, let’s not fuck it off. That would be part two of Fifty. The next one is Get Rich AND Die Tryin… I just think that the way that rappers speak about each other in the movie is very endearing, how they speak about how they were inspired by this one, and also I think really showing Grandmaster Caz as one of the unsung heroes. Grandmaster Caz wrote “Rapper’s Delight!” It’s important shit.

That’s a nice quality to the movie; it engenders appreciation not only between the artists that you interview, but having MCs spit live, directly into the camera without music really highlights rap as a performance and an art form.
And you’ve got to remember this: Nobody knew they were going to rap. That’s part of being a rapper. Nobody knew they were going to rap. It’s like at the [Sundance premiere Q&A] the guy said, ‘Ice, can you quote a rhyme?’ Yeah, I’m a rapper – I’d better know how to fucking quote a rhyme! I pulled Rakim outta my ass, and that’s it. But during the interviews I said, ‘You want to spit something – you got anything in the head, want to say something no one’s ever heard?’ And bam! They just, bam! I didn’t tell anyone, ‘You’re going to rap.’ I didn’t tell Kanye he was coming over to rap.

But you knew they could, because that’s what they do.
Exactly! That’s what they do. You can’t interview a basketball player on a basketball court, with a basketball within his reach, and he won’t take a shot. It’s just what they do. He’s going to want to dribble the ball – he’s at home! So when you get a rapper in a comfortable situation with one of their friends and say, ‘Spit something,’ they might go, ‘Aww, come on Ice!’ Then they might go, ‘Hold on…’ bam! And another thing I did in the movie, if you really watch -- some of the rappers in their rhymes kind of fuck up. They kind of slur words, because they’re connecting two rhymes together. That’s the art. You know, what you hear on records is something different. But when you hear it live, that’s all good. I mean, hopefully none of the rappers are so vain that they’re like, ‘Ice, you saw me fucking up.’ But that’s just what they did. That’s real shit.

Which of your interviews was the most challenging to pull off, or to break through to?
None. None of them. Every interview was just as easy to do, the only hard part was getting Ice-T, them, and a camera crew from London in the same place at the same time.

How did you find your crew?
When I came up with the idea, my manager said ‘I’ve got somebody who might be interested in doing it.’ We hooked up with a guy named Paul Toogood, he does a TV show called Songbook where they interview singers and they break down a song. It’s right up his alley. He said, not only do I want to do it, I’ll get the money to do it. I had to find somebody who was as passionate about it as me, and thank god – these guys are incredible cinematographers… the thing about this film is there were only five people that made it. There’s Paul, the cinematographer, myself, my guys that helped me wrangle the artists, Coco, Little Ice, and the sound crew.

It’s apparent how small your crew is in the film when you have trouble fending off onlookers and fans while interviewing Q-Tip in New York…
We just grabbed Q-Tip on the corner and we started shooting, I’ve got one of the homies out there blocking, I’ve got a camera guy and a boom, and we just go. So it’s very guerrilla, but I think that’s part of what makes the movie good.

That comfortable distance of time and age that you mentioned that allows you to be more open with your experiences – do you feel like the impetus for making this film came from a desire to revisit where you’ve been in your career, to reconnect with your roots after transitioning into acting and television and beyond?
I think it’s trying to do something for hip-hop, but do something that I am the only one who’s really capable of doing it. It’s kind of like, Ice-T could make another record, but we all know that. Now Ice is in another lane, he’s moved up, he’s got different credentials. So now it’s my job; I’ve got to make a movie. I’ve got to give hip-hop something they didn’t even know they wanted. Right now you make records and people don’t listen to them. You write a book and some people read. But people go to movies! And I wanted to direct; I have a lot of films that are in my sights, but I always learned in business that if you’re going to start a new business, go for the lowest hanging fruit. Start with something you know the best, first. And this is what I know the best. So I said, let me do something that’s important, that’s my way of giving back to hip-hop, and if it’s successful I’ll move on with my filmmaking career. If it’s not, I’ll re-assess my mistakes, maybe try again, or I’ll stop.

But what is your barometer for success with this film? When will you be happy or satisfied with the results?
It’s really just the response of the people. I never go by the critics, because critics’ jobs are to criticize. So a critic will look at you and how well you’re dressed but they’re looking for something they don’t like. Film journalists, I respect. But anyone who uses the word ‘critic’ in their description, I don’t fuck with them. But I can tell from the fans. Now, the internet and all the ways people can get back at you… you’ll know if you did something good or not. My first barometer is the hip-hop community. If they love it, and they’re like, ‘Man, you did something great. Thank you, Ice...’ That’s the first thing. Secondly will be the people and how they respond to it. So far, I went home last night and went through 30 reviews and didn’t get one bad, not one. I’m speechless! In the movie, we ask the question ‘Why don’t you think hip-hop is respected?’ Well, to have this film respected kind of says it is respected. It’s maybe not vocal, but it is, because people loved the movie. So it is respected.

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Get more of Movieline's Sundance 2012 coverage here.