The Art of Rap: don’t apologise, don’t explain

Ice-T's paean to the hip-hop emcee is a joy for aficionados, but doesn't explain the antipathy towards this hugely popular genre.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

Directed by gangster-rap pioneer Ice-T, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap sets out to document the craft of emceeing with help from a few dozen of hip-hop’s most influential and popular wordsmiths.

Undoubtedly benefiting from Ice-T’s significant clout, both in the world of hip-hop and the mainstream media, the film became an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and even gained a limited theatrical release in the US and the UK. Not since Tony Silver’s Style Wars (1983) has a hip-hop documentary gained such sizeable attention and, as such, this rare feat has given a host of major critics the chance to air their ignorant and misguided opinions on the genre, which remains to this day the black sheep of popular music.

The film itself has two quite straightforward objectives: to explore what makes a great emcee and to pose the question why, despite being almost 40 years old and one of the most lucrative genres of all time, hip-hop is still not canonised and accepted alongside the likes of jazz and blues. In his opening narrative, Ice-T explains that this film is about the craft, not the beef, the money or the girls. Yet, despite announcing from the outset that his focus lies solely on the music, several reviews have criticised the film for not confronting the controversies that, in their eyes, define it.

In the Independent, Anthony Quinn wrote: ‘Ice-T utterly fails to address the serious issues surrounding the music, such as the glorification of violence, rampant misogyny and the fact that so many of its practitioners have died early deaths.’ In a similar vein, Philip French oh-so-pithily pointed out in the Guardian that ‘the rubric RIP…is very close to RAP’. Both reviewers saw fit to dismiss the film almost entirely in order to mount their respective soapboxes, maintaining the now tired misconception that hip-hop is only remotely interesting as snapshot of a debauched and decadent culture, inhabited by juvenile, misogynistic and bloodthirsty criminals.

It speaks to this significant prejudice that, even in a society where we have long since given fiction, film and even certain genres of pop music enough credit to deal with terse subject matter dutifully, rappers are still deemed too stupid to do anything more than mindlessly promote the shocking realities they choose to portray. However, in some ways these critics aren’t entirely to blame for their wildly ignorant condemnations. Hip-hop has always presented itself as one complete culture and, as a result, the darker and more abrasive anthems have tended to steal most of the attention and lead us to tar the entire genre with one brush. With this in mind, the fact that a fair few artists under the enormous umbrella term that is hip-hop have passed away is really no surprise. If someone were to set out to document the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll, the list of untimely deaths would certainly be just as lengthy.

By the sheer nature of the variety of performers on show, The Art of Rap goes some way to challenging hip-hop’s image problem. Never before has a film managed to attract so many influential rappers, and they have clearly been assembled by a man who, aside from his own hand in its development, has remained an avid fan and student of the culture since its birth in the Seventies. The interviewees range from visceral gangster-rapper Ice Cube to the thoughtful and socially conscious Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), and with each interview followed by a performance of their favourite 16 bars, Ice-T manages to showcase a variety of styles and outlooks that are contained within the culture. Stripped down to its rawest, unadorned essentials, the to-the-camera acapella performances physically confront the audience with the unique oral poetry which is at the core of hip-hop’s appeal and worth.

While The Art of Rap rightfully refuses to waste time addressing the qualms many have with the genre, it is somewhat guilty of simply preaching to the converted. Ice-T’s dedication to his chosen format – which eschews old footage and explanatory narration in favour of a series of off-the-cuff interviews – is admirable, but one could see how it could be alienating to the uninitiated viewer. Names are dropped without the slightest explanation, records are mentioned as if we should already know them, and after a while it begins to feel like a series of wholly uninformative anecdotes that only a seasoned fan could appreciate.

While a handful of the talking heads attempt to explain the genre’s origins, all they produce are a few tenuous and rose-tinted musings and when it comes around to answering the question of why hip-hop still isn’t fully accepted, The Art of Rap ultimately fails to offer a decent explanation. Legendary producer Marley Marl furthers his theory that the culture of battling and competitiveness has come at the cost of any sense of unity which would help to elevate the genre. Yet, in many ways the film pays tribute to the unique camaraderie of hip-hop, in which rappers with wildly different styles and content gain one another’s respect purely on the basis of their skill, which is itself borne out of fierce competition. Soon after, DJ Premier, one half of the duo Gang Starr, suggests that hip-hop is alienating purely because of how unusual and revolutionary it is, conceding that, to the unversed listener, the combination of heavy beats and spoken-word poetry understandably wouldn’t make any sense. But, of course, at first jazz and blues offended the ears of many music fans, yet they were eventually given their due, even by those who may not have fully understood the genres.

In truth, hip-hop will only take its rightful place in the history of pop music when the likes of Quinn and French overcome their own prejudices and recognise that, even though they may find it unpalatable, the genre has its own distinct worth. Despite its almost exhaustive commitment to documenting the craft of rapping in all its different forms, it is unlikely that The Art of Rap will do much to change the minds of naysayers. Nevertheless, it remains a faithful portrait of a genre that rightfully refuses to apologise to anyone.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap here:

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