In his new documentary, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, Ice-T sets out to defend hip-hop from an army of unnamed, unseen detractors. Over the course of nearly two hours, the rapper-turned-actor-turned-director visits with an impressive array of artists and asks them why their music doesn’t get the respect it deserves. None of his interlocutors has the heart to point out that hip-hop is no longer the scrappy upstart it was in 1986, when Ice-T released his influential (and still excellent) gangster rap track “6 in the Morning,” but rather a dominant force in both popular music and culture.
One reason Ice-T may not have noticed hip-hop’s ascendance is that his own tastes clearly run to the old school. The majority of the rappers he visits flourished in the era before Ice traded in the .12 gauge sawed-off he brandished in “Cop Killer” for the detective’s badge he wears on Law & Order: SVU. He’s most animated in his conversations with Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz. He does visit with a few younger artists, but they tend to be ones who have an abiding respect for rap’s so-called golden age: In a brief interview, Mos Def quotes with appreciation Q-Tip’s maxim, articulated in “Check the Rhime” (1991), “Rap is not pop—if you call it that then stop.”
Despite its strange premise and questionable production choices (Ice-T has never seen an aerial shot of the Bronx he didn’t want to include in his film), The Art of Rap produces some moments of genuine enjoyment for a rap fan, particularly one whose fandom was forged in the era when Ice-T was still rocking fuzzy Kangols. KRS-One tells Ice-T the winning tale of how he got into the rap game: He was standing around watching some other MCs battle when one of them started mocking KRS’s jeans, prompting him to enter the fray and defend himself. (In other words, we may have a pair of ill-fitting Jordache to thank for “Criminal Minded.”) During his interview with Q-Tip on a Manhattan street corner, pedestrians seem more curious than star-struck as they watch the two men enthuse like schoolboys over their mutual respect for Treach’s virtuoso rhyming on “Yoke the Joker.” The charmingly laid-back B-Real, speaking in flat, accent-less tones, explains how Cypress Hill struggled until he adopted the pinched nasal voice that became the group’s signature.
Ice-T also asks each of his interviewees to recite a favorite verse by a fellow rapper. Several oblige by performing lyrics from Ice’s own catalog. Q-Tip does a bar or two from “New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme),” and Snoop offers up a possibly better-than-the-original rendition of “6 in the Morning.” Ice-T seem untroubled about whether the MCs have chosen this material out of genuine admiration or just to be nice—but you’d need a hard heart not to take pleasure in seeing an original gangster soak up the adulation.