As an actor, Ice-T is a longtime screen irritant—an incorrigible ham who invites unflattering impersonations from unkind viewers. (Then again, you try to sell the New Jack City line “I want to kill you so bad my dick’s hard.”) With Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, he reveals himself to be a not-bad documentarian as well as a laidback, likable host. In his filmmaking debut, Ice drops in on a good few dozen MCs, with an eye on breadth, not merely newbie-friendly familiar names. Though Something culminates, inevitably, with the one-two-three punch of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, things kick off with Grandmaster Caz and peppered throughout chats with Kanye, Mos Def (sorry: Yassin), Redman and ilk are pioneers like Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte and Ras Kass. (On the MIA list: Jay-Z, Queen Latifah, Outkast, Wu-Tang save Raekwon.)
The one-interview-after-another approach can be a touch monotonous, but the other way—dicing up the interviewee’s sound bites by, say, subject matter—would kill the rappoire and intimacy our host radiates with his colleagues. Ice-T briefly alludes, in a joke, to the genre’s violent past, but one of the main takeaways from his film, apart from great stories, is how warm and chummy rap has become as it, as a potent form of music, approaches middle age.
Traditionally, the way to defend rap as an art form has been to emphasize the social consciousness angle: that rap isn’t a glorification of thug life but a presentation of it, expressed by those who’ve escaped it (or tried to). Although that’s frequently touched on, Something From Nothing mostly argues for it from a technical standpoint, and specifically from the standpoint of MCs. (Producers will have to get their own doc.) Eminem talks about “bending words” and how “words are like puzzles,” while Xzibit and others discuss the difficulty of memorizing their raps while still retaining a sense of spontaneity. For nearly all of its target audience, learning that rappers are wordsmiths and perfectionists isn’t news. But the occasional 101 summary is a requisite for any viable art form, and even better when they’re as attractively, comprehensively and thoughtfully put together as by that guy from Johnny Mnemonic.