The Art of Rap: Something From Nothing DVD Review

As an English Lit grad, I spent my university degree slaving over heavy tomes, unyielding novels, and copious volumes of poetry.

The university faculty, geniuses though they were, comforted themselves in the corridors of tradition, toasting the canon of approved literary greats.

Had I decided, of an evening, to give up said greats in favour of Ice-T, Melle Mel, or Tupac, I’d have received a cannonball of laughter and a swift letter of dismissal.

But after teetering on the literal edge of my seat for the entire duration of Ice-T’s The Art of Rap: Something From Nothing, I’m inclined to forget everything I arrogantly presumed about “the poetic art” and shuffle back to the drawing board like a wet-shoed dumpee.

I’d humbly suggest you do the same.

The message is in the title, and Ice-T’s beyond-the-pale documentary takes the audience on a journey around the most enduring Hip Hop cities – New York, Detroit, L.A, South Central – and the personas that have helped shape not just a lifestyle, but an art form.

In fact, it opens with a sobering “this film isn’t about the money, the cars, the jewellery, the girls; this film is about the craft.”

Yeah, shove that in your Byron-clogged pipe and smoke it.

What ensues is a who’s who round-up of the most important, prominent, and respected hip hop artists of the last thirty years, and the passion and purpose behind their art.

The impetus behind the film was to expose the skill and at times mind-blowing intelligence of a musical culture often judged on its exhibitionist conventions.

You’ve got bugger all chance of convincing ageing Grandma whatshername that Ras Kass is an intellectual savant as she sits there fumbling her doilies, do you?

His “genius” will sound like Satan’s Chorus next to her usual Radio 4 choice, the well-known radio-play ‘Beige Inoffensive Boring and Bland’ (oh wait, that’s all of them), even when he spits out a line like “my third eye be the equivalent of algebraic pi”.

The film exposes the work behind the finished product, and the effort that goes into choosing every single syllable, every single rhyme.

There’s a pugnacious passion behind their words – a part of the craft Immortal Technique and KRS-One allude to: “Hip hop – you gotta fight with your mind,” from the former, and asserting rap is “verbal warfare through art” from the latter. Later the compere Ice-T himself chimes in saying “I look at the microphone like my weapon.

My ammunition is my intelligence.” Now throw Ice-T in a ring with Wordsworth, and who are you going to put your money on? I can tell you mine sure isn’t on the fey English Romantic, for all his yarns about big hills.

Sorry, mountains.

Language in this form is an aggressive assertion of identity; expletives are often used, yes, but so the fuck what?

When Eminem admits that without rap he’d be nothing, that rap helped him overcome his overdose, gave him “a voice, strength, an outlook”, it seems embarrassingly wet-nosed to complain about how many times he swears in his freestyle.

With that in mind, tell Grandma whatshername to get back in her incontinent pad-lined box and stop huffing about all the bad language that coats many rap songs like a layer of marmite; it’s only a flourish, like icing.

It doesn’t all come up smelling of roses, a major part of the culture is of course the display of sheer arrogance and unashamed vainglory, vibrating in Melle Mel’s courteous “Fuck you very much”.

It’s a behavioural habit alien to many, especially us dry sardonic Anglophiles, and coming from the great nation of irony it can be trying to sit through a roll-call of artists-formerly-known-as-self-satisfied.

Even with Snoop’s emotive advise for aspiring rappers to “follow your heart”, you know once the camera stops rolling he’ll probably go have a soak in a diamond-lined bath with a harem of fawning models to braid his hair.

There’s a time and a place to wear sunglasses indoors, and it’s called Neverland. Unfortunately, a hefty portion of Ice-T’s interviewees decide to sport the look and it does my head in.

But that’s a small gripe, one that many a musician belly-flops into, and a small price to pay; especially when the cinematography of Jeremy Hewson and Andy Baybutt is so breath-taking. Their aesthetically astute eyes turn even the grimmest urban areas into visuals of outstanding beauty, decadent decay.

I’m cripplingly aware that I am not a connoisseur of rap music, and can hardly dive into a social commentary on the politics of hip hop, or much else mind, without feeling hideously trite and gut-punchingly cringe.

I could wax lyrical about the poetic identity infused within rap culture, the cerebral act of writing lyrics, and the almost tribal importance that geography played in hip hop’s evolutionary sound. But I won’t, because I’ll sound like an old fart at a party trying to talk about dubstep in socio-anthropological terms.

I’d just be expostulating on the info The Art Of Rap gave to me; textbook bullshitting if you will.

The most poignant thing about the film was the sense that Ice-T was lifting the veil on what everyone thinks rappers get up to in their spare time; drugs, money, drugs, bitches, alcohol, cars, drugs, bitches, boats, money, drugs, and so forth.

He shows the audience the reality of rap, or rather what else it is they do.

When you see Treach, Ice-T and Dana Dane round a table excitedly discussing how they build their rhymes with glasses of wine, Mos Def analysing the origins of hip hop as a folk movement, Dre’s revelation of having been out of the studio a total of two weeks in his 27 year career, or KRS-One’s remarks on Battling rising from the Slave history of ‘the dozens’, you feel humbled and inspired.

Humbled as you realise that spitting a shit rhyme over a shit beat at a party does not make a rapper.

Inspired because of the passion and drive that has pushed a niche expressive art form to become one of, if not the, strongest cultural forces of our generation.

Seraphina Trent D’Arby

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Dates ‘n stuff

October 2012