Hip-hop is reaching an age where more and more of its most high- profile practitioners never knew a time when it did not exist. That's one of the reasons that Ice-T felt compelled to make "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap." For his directorial debut, which opens Friday, he rounded up 38 rap legends to document an oral history of the genre's birth and growth. Through this method he unveils the creative process of an art form that is not often enough given the cultural credit it deserves.
"This film isn't about the money, the cars, the jewelry, the girls," he says at the beginning of the movie. "This film is about the craft, what it takes to write a rap, what goes on inside the heads of the masters."
It feels like this movie couldn't have been made at any other time. Most of the originators are still alive and vibrant, but they're not so entrenched in the game that they're above being nostalgic.
When you get to the point where hip-hop is old enough that people can look back at it and reflect, it's much better than catching it in the moment, because when you catch an artist in the moment, there's no mistakes. Everything is right, everything is on point, there's no weakness. I think that when you get older you've been through it, you have humility and you can laugh at it. At the end of the movie, you see all of the RIPs we put on there. ... This has been around long enough that we've lost many, many rappers. I wanted to catch this now.
It seems now like we're seeing the emergence of the first MCs to be born into hip-hop, whereas all of the people in the movie saw the beginning of it.
Yeah, and you know there will be a Part Two [to this movie]. I don't know if I'll do it. The next generation will write their legacy down. It wasn't time for me to go out and really start the movie with the new artists. I have to start it where I started, and my trek was that I was an L.A. rapper and I moved to New York and New York kind of put me in the game, and they told me that this requires skills. They also taught me you've got to respect it. They said, "If we're going to let you into hip-hop and we're going to give you the cosign, Ice-T, never turn your back on it, never disrespect this, because this is something that's serious." I try to do this with the film.
The film does have a serious and reverential tone, but there are also times when you're laughing at yourself, reminiscing about even the name of your first crew, which I'll have to remind readers was called the Eliminators Pimpin' Association.
[Laughs] The funny thing about that is that us -- me and Lord Jama -- we're naming off who we were before you ever heard of Ice-T. I was saying those rhymes before I even knew about rap, we were just the Eliminators Pimpin' Association, trying to talk some s--, and he was Kid Magic.
Do you have a lot of old rhymes that you're able to laugh at?
The rhymes I used to say, I would say them for the gang members, and it was like a form of what they called toasting back in the day. You say a rhyme and they would be entertained, and there was no music. And when I first heard the music, I was like, "I can do that! I'm already doing that!"
Would you have ever shared these memories with other MCs when you were coming up? Or would that be a sign of the weakness you mentioned?
You know, we always chop it up like that together. ... You saw the Eminem I know, not the Eminem on the records. ... We have a lot of respect in hip-hop. The rappers know who's who. It ain't just because there's a camera there; I got to capture my friends as I know they are, and I know they're all cool. I know the way Rakim is and I know how Kanye will be. If you say, "Go rhyme," he'll go crazy.
And he really did!
I know! He was like, "I'm in Ice's movie, and they wanna see me spit" and to me ... when you watch Kanye, it's like you're watching Jimi Hendrix in a solo. All of a sudden he's just in one of his runs and you can't stop. We kept the camera running and you know, if you mess up a word, it doesn't matter, because where the hell are you pulling these words from anyway? [Laughs]