Monday 25 September 2017

The life and rhymes of the great rappers

Paul Whitington

something from nothing: the art of rap

(15A, limited release, 112 minutes)

Director: Ice-T Stars: Ice-T, Chuck D, Eminem, Dr Dre, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def

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These days Ice-T is best known for playing surly cop Fin Tutuola in Law & Order: SVU, but once upon a time he was a big cheese in the music business, and a seminal figure in the development of rap.

Born in New Jersey but partly raised in California, he became involved in the gang culture of South Central Los Angeles before turning to music and releasing an acclaimed debut album, Rhyme Pays, in 1987. His gritty lyrics on songs like 6 in the Mornin' helped define the gangster rap era, and his metal band Body Count also had a huge hit with a controversial ditty called Cop Killer.

He's something of a legend among rappers, and thus uniquely placed to conduct this rather scholarly investigation of the culture and practice of rap.

Instead of embarking on a straight history of rap and hip-hop, which rose from the mean streets of the Bronx in the 1970s, Ice-T travels between New York, Detroit and Los Angeles interviewing the genre's great protagonists to see what rapping means to them.

Ice-T's pulling power is extraordinary, because practically every rapper of note from the last 30 years or so agreed to talk to him -- apart from those, like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls for instance, who died prematurely in East Coast/West Coast spats.

The language and lore of crime seems inextricably linked with rap, and some of Ice-T's subjects engage in tiresome braggadocio. Others are more honest, and witty.

In the Bronx, rap royalty like Grandmaster Caz chat with Ice-T on the street and engage in impromptu raps. Brooklyn rapper Mos Def, who now goes by the name of Yazin, unblinkingly shoots out one of his pithier songs, and Jersey's Joe Budden performs a very impressive rap about a character's deficiencies as a father that reminded me oddly of Squeeze's song Up the Junction.

Chuck D is regal and laconic, and he and Ice-T seem like veteran soldiers swapping war stories.

In California, Kanye West performs a lengthy and spirited rap, Ice Cube recalls the glory days of NWA, and Cube's former bandmate Dr Dre is interviewed from the splendour of his luxury home in the Hollywood Hills.

The legendary producer is one of the movement's intellectuals, but the same cannot be said of Snoop Dogg, who seems like a caricature of himself and makes inevitable references to his "bitches".

Ice-T's interview with a nervy and shy-seeming Eminem is much more interesting; he talks candidly about his struggles to prove himself as a white rapper, and his battle with drug addiction.

Despite some self-consciously 'edgy' camerawork and occasional outbursts of hubris, Ice-T's documentary gives a fascinating, freeform insight into an intensely competitive world and is full of great music and rhymes.

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