Ice-T Leads a Journey Into the Trenches of Hip Hop

Director Ice-T at the premiere of Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.

Nate von Zumwalt, Editorial Coordinator

Some three decades after his emergence as a pioneering hip hop artist, Ice-T is once again beefing up his resume as an entertainment extraordinaire. Having worked extensively in front of the camera on Law & Order, the reality series Ice Loves Coco, and a heap of feature films (including New Jack City and the upcoming Goats, which is playing in the Premieres section at this year’s Festival), Ice-T has now migrated behind the camera to the role he seems destined to play: director. His debut documentary, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, screens in the Documentary Premieres section of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and offers an intimate glimpse into the creative process of making rap music.

Along with co-director Andy Baybutt, Ice-T shapes a narrative that strips hip hop music down to its bones, eliminating the showbiz and giving proper credence to the artistry involved in writing and producing rap. Something From Nothing spans the country and introduces audiences to some of the seminal rappers of our time, including Nas, Dr. Dre, Run-DMC, Chuck D, Eminem, Snoop Dogg. The result is a visceral document of the ‘Art of Rap’ and a moving tribute to an artistic movement crafted by one of its most beloved rappers.

Something From Nothing transcends the glamour of the rap industry and opts for something with more substance: an exploration into the raw process of making rap music. Why does this story need to be told?

It’s historic, it’s American history. It’s a film about music that has been dominant for the last 20 years, but no one really knows the true history of it or where it came from. A lot of people have planted views and ideas of how it’s done. But I wanted to try and lay it down from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, in a way that people will know that rappers did this about themselves. It’s definitely important. This is a moment in history.

You and co-director Andy Baybutt examine both the production side and the writing side of making rap. I suppose that’s essential to accurately conveying the creative process?

Yes, I would say for rap, and for making a movie truthfully. If you’re looking at blank piece of paper and you decide you’re going to create something, and you’re not going to rip somebody off, you’re definitely doing something from nothing. And when you go into a recording studio and there’s no beats, there’s nothing, and you look at those speakers and you walk out at the end of the night with a song–well that’s just what happened. I think more so in hop hop ‘something from nothing’ means a music that’s born from a situation that was kind of raped of music, or removed of music. It’s kind of like if you go to some war-torn country and you see a kid sitting on a corner with a couple of sticks beating on the bottom of a pot—you can’t stop the music. Music is eternal. They’ll figure a way to make music.

Is this an audience specific film—a ‘rap fans only’ movie—or is it digestible by the general population as well?

It’s totally digestible for the general population. If you like any form of music or have the slightest bit of curiosity about rap or what your kids are listening to, or where it came from, or the music you grew up on, you’ll enjoy this film. You’ll enjoy the rappers you know. You’ll enjoy the ones you don’t’ know.  It’s not at all made only for rap fans—far from that.

There is a faction of the public that looks at the rap industry with disdain. Does Something From Nothing employ an agenda to change these perceptions, or did you make this film purely because the ‘Art of Rap’ is an untold story?

People that have disdain for the music, fuck ‘em. I’m not out to try to make someone who dislikes something for no good reason, like it. That’s not the agenda. My agenda is to make people who might appreciate it or are curious about it, appreciate it more. Because I think somebody who looks at rap with disdain will come out of it and find the negative parts of the film, so they don’t’ need to come see my movie.

You compiled an ineffable list of hip-hop icons for this doc. What was the general mood and response among those artists when you told them about the project and requested their participation?

Excitement. The people I compiled come out of my address book. So everybody I called I already had a relationship with as a friend. And they all said they were down. Now, the question was trying to get them and me in front of a camera. That was slightly difficult.

Considering the places that hip-hop has taken you, do you feel like this is your way of giving back?

I think it’s a way of me giving back more than I can with another record. Even though I am working on a new album, I think music right now has been kind of watered down so that people don’t even look to it for any heavy content. So the record might just slip through the grates. I used to sit down and listen to Public Enemy albums and I would be totally prepared to learn something. I think now when you say you’re making a film, people say,  ‘Ok, I might get something out of it.’ So I think people give it a little more time and thought. And yes, it’s a way for me to give back. It’s a way for me to say this is what I was a part of and I want it to be documented.

How do you hope this film will resonate with audiences?

It’s called a documentary. I call it a performance doc. I hope people cheer when they hear the songs they like. I hope they cheer when certain rappers just pop on the screen, before they even talk. And I hope they walk out of the movie, if they are hip-hop heads, proud to be part of something that was so revolutionary. Because even the fans, they were part of a movement, they helped change the world. The white kids, the black kids — all of us that came together and we changed the world. And I want them to say, “Yeah, these are some of my heroes right here.”

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