Review: “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap” is More Nothing Than Something

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.

Free Advice (and Commands) for the [Online] Hip-Hop World

Hip-Hop Bloggers: 1) Spell-check your shit. Writing with a dialect or nonstandard writing style doesn’t justify being sloppy. 2) Stop acting shocked when rappers “reveal” that they hang out with musicians from other genres. If you are genuinely surprised when this happens, you shouldn’t be writing about music. 3) Read/watch other interviews before you conduct an interview. A million webpages with the same boring ass question (e.g. “So who are your influences?) does nothing for anybody. 4) Respond to your comments. Not everybody is a troll. 5) Don’t be scared to criticize your favorite artists. Thinking through your preferences is engaging and rewarding. Being a fan doesn’t mean being a publicist. 6) Read about hip-hop outside of hip-hop sites. For example, The NY Times, Grantland and other sites that are not solely dedicated to hip-hop have cool (and uncool) things happening all the timel. 7) Be nicer to commenters (I’m currently working on this myself). 8) Stop comparing female rappers solely to other female rappers. Sure, they influence each other and are in conversation with each other, but they shouldn’t be reduced to their sex. They don’t have specially-designed radios that solely play music from female artists. They listen to and are influenced by the same music as everyone else. If we are going to take gender seriously when discussing rap, it needs to be taken seriously for all artists, not just ones with vaginas and/or breasts and/or inexplicable bikinis in music videos.

Hip-Hop Blog Commenters: 1) Stop using the term “real hip-hop.” No one understands what you’re saying, including you. 2) Stop unnecessarily discussing the 90’s. The 90’s were cool, kind of (not really), but they’re gone. No one listens when you shout about how great they were, so chill out. 3) Stop making claims about who is the GOAT (greatest of all time). People say discussions about the GOAT are just for fun (after all, it’s a dumb idea), but no one leaves 400 comments on an article “just for fun.” You are all being hella serious.

Rappers with Twitter Accounts: 1) Stop telling us about your adventures with the ladies. We get it; we listen to your music. 2) Use Twitter strategically. You’ve only got one shot and if you fuck up because of some dick pic gone viral, you’re going to feel incredibly stupid.

Everybody: Stop saying “You didn’t see that on Instagram?” as if everyone else is always on Instagram. (We aren’t)

Rap Genius: Just stop. Seriously though, change your name, keep transcribing songs (You folks are really on point with the transcriptions) and get rid of the whole Rap IQ thing: it is the dumbest concept since reverse racism.

World Star Hip-Hop: Take Hip-hop out of your title and fuck off. Also, fuck off.

Kanye West: You should probably just get a tumblr or something. “Twitter essays” are silly.

Chris Brown: You can sing. You can dance. You can’t rap. Unless you’re doing covers, you should stop.

Childish Gambino: Rap about some different stuff. Yes, you were alienated as a kid because you operated outside of the accepted parameters of Black masculinity. I personally know that it sucked and is hard to forget, but using rap to reverse that history can only go so far. Being accepted by the people who abused you will never satisfy you because the terms are always in their hands. As Frantz Fanon said, the best way vanquish those ghosts from your past is to “skim over this absurd drama that others have staged.” In other words, don’t try to improve a shitty play with stellar acting or rigorous re-writing: just move on. Hip-hop can be your stage, but not as long as your ghosts are your director.

Rihanna: 1) Hi Rihanna  2) Your tweets are weird as hell. 3) None of this is advice.