When it comes to appearances on the big screen, rappers don’t get much love. Rap music itself gets love – it is now a weird trope for rap to be the often ill-fitting soundtrack to Hollywood comedies – but rappers themselves are often quarantined into one-dimensional roles where they are either ultimately the punchlines to jokes or bizarrely funny gangsters. The examples abound: Method Man in The Sitter, P. Diddy in Get Him to the Greek, Queen Latifah in Bringing Down the House, Mos Def in Next Day Air, Cam’ron in Paid In Full. Of course, these kinds of limiting roles have been hurting all black actors for decades, but rappers represent black people and rap as a genre, so even though they cash in with these lame roles in Hollywood movies, this money comes at the expense of these rappers’ own artistic respectability and the respectability of rap as a genre.
With this history of poor representations in mind, I was excited about seeing the Ice-T-directed feature, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. Finally, rappers, and subsequently rap, would be portrayed with some depth.
Most of my expectations were met. Speaking with veterans, novices, legends and retirees, Ice-T really tried to demonstrate the range of approaches to creating and performing rap [lyrics]. The geographic range of these interviews was somewhat limited, with the South being noticeably underrepresented, but there really did seem to be a genuine effort to include a range of voices in the film. And most importantly, these voices said interesting things, notably Joe Budden, who had his verse from “Are You in That Mood Yet” featured over a montage of footage from the streets of New Jersey.
Unfortunately, Joe Budden’s memorable verse underscores my main problem with the film: overwhelmingly, these voices gave monologues rather than participating in dialogues. I know that this film’s novelty is its willingness to actually hear and record and show what rappers have to say, but at the end of the day, rappers are rappers! They express what they want to say all the time through songs, music videos, tweets, Instagram and more. As someone with unprecedented access to rappers and as a rapper himself, Ice-T had the rare opportunity to push beyond their self-presentations and really interrogate what these folks are doing when they make and perform rap. In other words, Ice-T could have started a conversation. He did not. Instead, his insider access just brought us inside rappers’ homes and hotel rooms. Accessing these sealed chambers is an accomplishment, but only if you’re what Chris Rock calls a “low expectation having mother fucker.”
To clarify, I am not saying that the documentary isn’t worth watching or that it isn’t a positive and sobering in lieu of the history of rappers and rap on film. I’m just saying that as an unknown grad student interning at a small magazine, anytime I interview an artist, my questions must be strategically crafted in a way that ensures that the interview is actually completed. After all, to these artists, I’m likely nothing more than another forgettable asshole from the press. They can walk out of an interview at anytime and there is nothing I can do about it. Ice-T doesn’t have my impotency. As a respected and known rapper and actor, he can not only get these interviews, he could have ensured that these rappers take these interviews seriously. He could have questioned these rappers when they made claims about the legacy of their music and their roles in the birth of hip-hop. He could have made the best rap documentary I’ve ever seen. He did not. And that’s a damn shame.