Rap has come of age and flown the nest, but now a monumental piece of work by Ice-T takes viewers back to the source: a time when rap was still subversive and underground.
Ice-T shows us the real hip hop scene and it’s far cry from the cars, the bling, the girls, the paint-by-numbers lyrics and posturing which slowly infiltrated mainstream radio pop in the last 15 years, making rap invisible, predictable and safe.
To those for whom rap has become a mainstream adornment for pop, Ice-T has one message: “This isn’t a game. This is the art of rap.” The definition of art is “works produced by human creative skill and imagination” and Ice-T’s venture certainly demonstrates that rap fits the bill.
It celebrates the creativity and imagination displayed by disadvantaged youths in the New York projects back in the eighties, who from an environment of poverty and a cultural wasteland “created something out of nothing”.
Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian sums it up perfectly when he describes that rap was born from a lack of instruments. “It burst out of us, we took a record player, the only thing that was playing music, and turned it into an instrument, which it wasn’t supposed to be.”
This is the kind of documentary a lay person could never make. It mixes the shaky, stripped raw footage from a handheld camera that followed Ice-T through New York and Los Angeles as he put his network of connections to the test. He takes the viewer along as he seeks out and meets with some of the giants of hip-hop culture in studios, homes, stairwells and sidewalks.
He gets them talking about their inspirations, their writing and delivery technique and quoting each other’s rhymes, enjoying and tasting them like experts at a wine tasting convention. Through those lightly edited conversations – which show interesting snapshots such as Ice-T having to herd the Wu-Tang Clan boys into interview and admonish them for not taking it seriously – the viewer gets to witness first-hand the intellectual thought process that goes into the creation of rap: the mathematical construction of sentences and words, the precision of delivery and the often very classical methods of storytelling, which naturally emerged from the sharp minds of these self-taught modern poets.
“How are we making poetry out of this broken English? How are we finding a voice? Why are we proud? Why is street conversation becoming main stream?” Those were the questions of society when rap emerged, according to NAS, who admits he has no business wearing his trousers low at his age but still does it sometimes to irritate the establishment.
In a relatively balanced manner, Ice-T and his counterparts pick apart the code words, the in-house vocabulary and the inspirations of rap, not shying away from the more dangerous, angry aspects of ‘gansta rap’ and the darker sides of the coin such as drug culture, crime and the vicious poverty trap, far from the money and fame.
The interviews are interwoven with breathtakingly slick aerial cityscapes made for the big screen, underlaid with pumping classic rap tunes. Sometimes however, the documentary gets a little self-indulgent, a little self-congratulatory: Snoop Dogg, I’m looking at you.
And despite the impressive line-up of big names, some of big names are missing such as the Beastie Boys or De La Soul, replaced by artists that could hardly be considered “classic” yet. Kanye West, really? The documentary also ends a little abruptly, lacking an analysed conclusion. Perhaps it’s too early for that? An overview of the non-American rap movements of the 90s, such as France’s vibrant scene, was also missing.
All in all however, it was time for the history of rap to be documented in some way. As art, as a form of expression, as a cry for revolution long before the emergence of the internet.
Those who remember the emergence of rap will be taken down memory lane and blown away when they hear the pounding beats of The Next Episode or they hear the giants quote and perform Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “Beat Street Breakdown”. And those who are too young to have known it the first time around may discover something beyond the housecat rap they’ve been fed and go online to discover some good old-school poetry.
The Art of Rap is now available on DVD and iTunes, for more information please visit the film’s website.