As 'The Art of Rap' earns a release date, the 'Law & Order' actor goes back to rhyming roots
Your author with Ice-T at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
For a man so well-versed in reality television, Ice-T didn't want his directorial debut to look anything like "what's on MTV." The actor/rapper has co-starred in "Law & Order: SVU" since 2000 as Detective Tutuola; the second season of "Ice Loves Coco," his reality television show with wife Coco on E!, just premiered this week.
And yet documentary "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap" had no drama, no competitions or current events cut in to the narrative to create arc. In fact, there was no narrative; there's only a couple cinematic structures in place -- of artists talking, artists rapping and then a sweeping aerial view of rappers' hometowns of Los Angeles, Detroit or New York.
That also means there was no archival footage or old music videos, or even much of a hip-hop history lesson -- just some well-loved songs and the hip-hop royalty that made them. Repetition is the hitch of this style of documentary, but it was also a rapper roundup that only somebody like Ice-T could muster. Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Eminem, Nas, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, Chuck D, KRS-One, Run-DMC, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and more engage in spirited, intimate conversations about the literal art of rapping over a beat, and then each spitting a favorite verse from another rapper.
Because all of the footage was fresh for this film's can, that makes for a lot of rare and singular moments for rappers to tip their hat at one another.
Ice-T and "Something from Nothing" co-director Andy Baybutt wanted to "keep everything unique," the rapper told me during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival this January. The doc made its bow there.
"If I’m making a film, I wanna shoot everything with frames -- no [still] pictures or old film, no nothing. What we did was we shot them cinematically, and then we'd let it breathe, with shots of New York or whatever."
The result, he said, is like a big long list of everybody's legends, with more than 100 artists interviewed, around five dozen making it into the film and even more waiting in the wings to be included.
"All you can say is, 'I didn’t see my favorite artist,' but that'd be impossible to include everybody. When I got the nod for Sundance, I had a three-hour film. I had to cut it to two hours," he said. "Everybody’s doing the movie to be in the movie."
Of course, to see contemporary chart-topping acts like Em and Kanye getting sentimental about their art is a stunning insight. I asked Ice if anybody from the Young Money crew was invited in.
"Wayne was moving around, I was shooting 'Law & Order,' the camera crew was in London... Getting people in the same place at the same time was really, really difficult. We called Wayne and they'd be like 'OK, we can do it at 3,' and then I’d get my camera crew and they go 'Now it's at 9,'" Ice-T explained. "We’re not paying [Wayne], it’s a favor. So then it’d be like, 'Let’s do it tomorrow...' We got what we could."
Rap fans will be able to check out the film large-scale when it bows this summer on June 8, via The Indomina Group.