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.

On Entitlement and the Fiction of Diddy

In case you haven’t heard, Justin Combs, son of Sean Combs, aka P.Diddy, has received a $54,000 athletic scholarship to UCLA. Because of P. Diddy’s vast wealth, a lot of people are up in arms about UCLA’s decision. Many folks think that because his dad is rich, though Justin “worked hard,” he should waive the scholarship and have his father fund his education. Other folks think that he should keep the money because he “earned it.” In other words, he is “entitled” to this scholarship. UCLA has defended its decision by pointing out that Justin’s scholarship is based on athletic achievement and that it is completely funded by the athletic department, rather than by state dollars. In other words, the athletic department has its own money and can use that money to do whatever the fuck it wants.

Honestly, I don’t really care about whether Justin ends up relinquishing the scholarship or not. The political economy of college athletics is a beast that I’m just not willing to confront.  I’m more interested in how both sides of the fray are unquestioning of this idea of entitlement and how it plays into the fiction of Diddy.

This fiction is most apparent in Steve Perry’s recent CNN segment. In it, Perry explicitly says that P.Diddy “earned” his millions through his “own sweat.” It’s always weird to hear a Black man endorse bootstrapping  (last time I checked Timberlands had laces and not straps)  but coming from Perry, who has a history of endorsing meritocracy, this argument isn’t surprising. Perry eventually goes on to say that questioning the narrative of Diddy’s “self-made” success is “hate.” Implicitly, questioning Justin’s “earnings” is also hate.

Well I guess I’m a hater then. Accordingly, as a hater, I am obligated to point out that Diddy is not self-made. His success is the product of his efforts, his privileges and his fortune (in both senses of the word). It’s really important to emphasize his privileges because unlike many other rappers, Diddy went to college. Sure, he dropped out, but making it into college doesn’t indicate some innate smartness. Diddy also went to a private high school. There is undoubtedly a correlation between his family having money and him having access to higher education. The same goes for his son. Yes, Justin graduated with a 3.75 GPA that he probably worked to achieve and maintain, but the tools that enabled that success have been accessible since he was born. Neither Diddy nor his son are self-made. They have both been been crafted by the trifold forces of their ambitions, their privileges and their luck. To say that their success is the result of ambition is stupid and absurd.

To clarify, I’m not arguing for some absolute determinism where social conditions always dictate everyone’s ultimate fate. I’m just saying that this kid didn’t “earn” the scholarship in the sense that he pulled up his bootstraps and went to work. Nah son. His boots were designed by an NYU graduate, made in America and sold in a store where only rich ass people (aka his Dad) can afford to shop. Never forget.