Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

I had been looking forward to seeing Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, a documentary directed by Ice T, and I went to the live premiere which was screened in three cinemas across Dublin on 19th July. Ice T interviews many of his peers and friends including Eminem, Dr Dre, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Chuck D, Mos Def, Nas, Melle Mel and Ice Cube, and the theme of the documentary is the creative side of rap, how rappers structure their lyrics and the inspiration they have found in artists from the past.

After a while the viewer gets the sense that the film is merely skating along the surface, giving a superficial overview rather than a detailed breakdown. There is little given in the way of social context which was so important to the evolution of hip hop and rap. None of the interviewees talk about the gang feuds, poverty, drug dealing and pimping which was in many cases part of their lives before music provided an alternative. I had expected the film to be the rap equivalent of Scratch, Doug Pray’s phenomenal documentary released in 2001 which explored turntablism, but while Scratch is comprehensive and instructive, Something from Nothing is light in comparison.

Rap is certainly a male dominated art form but even still women were woefully underrepresented in this film. The only women interviewed in the film are Cheryl “Salt” James from Salt n Pepa and MC Lyte. Where were the interviews with Eve, Lil Kim, Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shante and Da Brat to name a few? The most glaring omission was Missy Elliott who is arguably one of the most influential women in hip hop and given the fact that she is a producer as well as an artist I think her viewpoint would have provided much needed gender balance.

My favourite thing about the film were the freestyle raps that each of the interviewees did to camera. Kanye West’s in particular was surprisingly brilliant and filled with attitude. I also loved Eminem’s interview segment as he comes across as much more thoughtful and considered than one might expect given his abrasive and sometimes juvenile public image.

All in all Something from Nothing is entertaining and will have much to interest hip hop fans, but for those looking for an insightful and contextual documentary about rap this may disappoint.

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