Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap Review
by Gabriel “Big Gabe” Alcantara
This might very well be the best documentary on the subject of Hip Hop music.
There are two things I have to confess to before I start this review. The first is, I am not really too comfortable with reviewing documentaries. That’s mostly because I really don’t know how to review reality. I can review fictional films because I can say whether the material is convincing or not. I can critique the writing, the acting, the emotion or lack of, you know… the basic stuff. The best way I can critique a documentary is to say whether I was interested or not. I have to really be into the subject matter to go any further than that. Which brings me to the second thing I must confess to. I am a bit biased… no, I’m very biased on the subject of Hip Hop music and culture. Hip Hop is my world. It’s helped me through some tough times in the past and continues to do so. If I had any skills as an emcee, I’d be making Hip Hop music today. But enough about me and my missed opportunities, my point is even though I love and appreciate this documentary as a Hip Hop head, I am confident that even non-Hip Hop fans can find this pure, honest and raw film engaging.
The film is directed by legendary rapper/actor Ice-T, along with some dude named Andy Baybutt.
There is so much sincerity in this film because it’s all told through the artists. Not by so-called experts on music, journalists, critics, record execs and C.E.O.’s but rather the emcees, the producers, those who work their asses off to put out the best music they possibly can. You can just tell Ice put his heart, soul and full attention into this project. He reached out to some of Hip Hop’s greatest artists such as KRS-One, Marley Marl, DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Ice Cube, Immortal Technique, Nas, Chuck D and Rakim, just to name a few and he basically has candid conversations with these cats on what Hip Hop means to them and why they do what they do while the camera is rolling. That’s the beauty of this film. There’s nothing fake or manufactured about it. All of the artists are truthful and blunt. One of the most honest segments of the film comes from the one featuring Grandmaster Caz as he explains that the music of Hip Hop comes from the foundation of Funk, Soul and Jazz. A DJ would cut up the music and mix it while the emcee raps over the beats. It’s at that moment he says the most honest thing an artist can say about Hip Hop and that’s “Hip Hop didn’t invent anything but it reinvented everything.”
The film doesn’t even use stock footage other than some old clips of New York, the Bronx and various cities and locations. Also, they did film parts of the cities where each segment takes place just so you get a feel for the environment. You’ll see stuff such as basketball courts, trains, graffiti art, cops, slums, you know, all the usually stuff you hear about in Hip Hop music. These shorts are only meant for transitional purposes though because once the artist is shown on camera, that’s it! The focus is all on them. It was so refreshing to see each artist talk about their lives as artists and not have the film cut away to concert footage or music videos, magazine covers, photo shoots, bling, big booty hoes… well, that might have been nice to see.. um, what else? Oh yeah, court appearances, unrelated material, etc. To have the cameras remain solely on Ice-T and the artist he’s interviewing is one of the key elements that not only separates this from other documentaries but cause you to stay fully engaged on what each artist is saying.
The greatest strength of the film, of course, is the hearing the artists talk about their experiences, their reasons for being involved in Hip Hop, how they got into Hip Hop, their techniques on writing and rapping, their influences, etc. And while some stories might be similar to others, everyone’s tale feels unique. Some of the segments are quite funny as well. The first segment has Ice interviewing Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian. Jamar explains how he and a friend as kids would flip over a record of Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” to the “Do it Yourself” version which is what they called the instrumental version on the record. They would spend all day trying to rap like Kurtis Blow but couldn’t. Another funny segment has Xzibit just being the wild and outgoing cat he is. Every segment is fun to watch because every artist has their own unique personality. No one ever appears to be negative or let their ego overshadow their words. Everyone appears to be down to earth and their love for Hip Hop is undeniable.
To some, rappers have a bad image. The media often showcases their faults and controversies rather than their good intentions and talents. This film does such a great job at showing the audience on how human these artists are and how passionate they are towards their craft and the music they make. Some emcees are even given their moment to shine as they freestyle acapella. Eminem has one of the best freestyles and segments in the film. Em explains how he almost quit rapping after losing rap battles and being intimidated by Naughty By Nature’s rapping style. As a bonus, we get a brief interview from Em’s Bad Meets Evil partner Royce Da 5’9′ who’s chillin’ in the studio with Em. It’s just a great segment all around. Other standout segments include Dr. Dre, KRS-One, Kanye West, Doug E. Fresh, pretty much all of the fucking segments were great. Ice Cube, my idol, has a short but sweet segment which I wish would of ran longer.
Which leads me to some minor complaints. Now these complaints don’t effect my love for this film and in all logic, it’s understandable that these issues could not be avoided. Obviously Ice-T couldn’t get all of Hip Hop’s greatest artists but there were some I wish could have been a part of this documentary. I won’t bother to name them though. The next thing is I almost wish this film had an extra hour. You can tell they had to cut a lot of content just to fit in what they could into a feature film. I really wish I could watch some of these interviews uncut or at least extended. Especially Ice Cube’s interview. I can only imagine how much footage was shot and will never see the light of day. One last issue is the lack of female emcee’s but it’s not really the fault of the film’s. It’s the sad reality that there simply aren’t enough women in Hip Hop. Certainly, I’d never expect to see Nicki Manaj in a film like this. In fact, I’d be appalled if she were. We do get to see Salt from Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte though and that’s fine with me.
What’s presented in Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap is well edited, simplistic, devoid of lies, flashy imagery and negativity. This is an excellent documentary about a subject that I love but I believe it can open the minds of naysayers and paint a positive image for Hip Hop as well as inspire upcoming emcees or even well established emcees to be original, be creative, work harder and care about your craft more. Hell, this film should inspire just the average person to better themselves and aspire to be something great.
This film has left quite the impression of me. It actually makes me appreciate the music genre and artists that I already love even more than I did before. With this film, Ice-T and the artists involved have done more for Hip Hop then what most new rap cats will ever do in their careers. They’ve proven that Hip Hop is not a game. It’s an American art form that has expanded around the world and influenced many. It has the ability to save lives, to inspire, to entertain, educate and as long as there’s talented rap cats like the emcees shown in this film… it’s here to stay.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap scores a 5 outta 5.