Rapper turned actor turned apparent documentary filmmaker, Ice-T, makes it very clear from the beginning of his first film, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, that he wants to focus on the music. He doesn’t care about the money, the girls, the swagger – he wants his film to focus on the passion.
To do this, he implores dozens of interviews from who he calls “The Masters,” the men (and a few women) who started a movement and helped changed music. Ice-T travels from South Bronx to Harlem to Detroit to Los Angeles, asking the originators of rap a handful of provocative questions. “If rap is a landscape painting, what was your stroke on it?” is a typical question he asks the likes of Treach Criss, Doug E. Fresh, KRS-One, Dr. Dre, Eminem and many more. Their answers are varied, well articulated and, to me, fascinating.
With his interviews, Ice-T isn’t looking to solve any mystery, he’s just trying to tell a story, which he succeeds at doing rather well. But there’s one major catch here that I suspect is the reason the film has had such a tiny distribution: if you aren’t a fan of rap music, or at least interested in how it came to be, then Something from Nothing won’t do much for you. Fortunately for me, I’m an ardent fan of hip-hop. Good hip-hop, that is, which is pretty much the exact opposite of the majority of “hip-hop” played today.
I find it remarkable, for instance, to hear KRS-One tell the story of how rap battling came to be. It goes back all the way to slavery, in which mentally or physically impaired slaves were sold by the dozen, and, while waiting to be sold, would playfully mock one another about which one was better, and why.
Equally intriguing is watching Eminem explain through a cracked voice what rap has done for him. Proudly sporting a diamond-studded Alcoholics Anonymous medallion around his neck, I found it unspeakably moving to see Em choke up while detailing how rap, quite literally, saved his life. But, again, part of me being so moved is because I consider Eminem to be one of the most talented musicians to ever live. You don’t have to like his music, but I find it damn hard to not respect his audacity.
And that, in fact, sums up the movie as a whole. You may not enjoy the film if you don’t already enjoy the music, but it’s damn hard not to appreciate the struggle. B+