In the new film ‘Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,’ Ice-T reels in artists like Dr. Dre, Kanye West and Eminem to tell the story of hip-hop’s gritty beginnings.
“Look around you,” says Ice-T. “Where are the Bentleys?”
Even amid the pleasantly neutral setting of a Hollywood press day, there’s still one topic that gets the 54-year-old rapper-actor riled up, and it’s not his 12 seasons on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“In rap, everyone is driving a Bentley and drinking Cristal,” says Ice-T, born Tracy Marrow. “That’s not reality. We have a war, we have a black president, we have people unemployed, we have people losing their homes, we have some pretty serious stuff and music is not reflecting it. It’s like everything is Lady Gaga and life is perfect.”
To remind the public of a time when hip-hop more regularly addressed societal concerns comes Ice-T’s directorial debut, “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap.”
The documentary -- out this week -- offers candid interviews with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Grandmaster Caz, Kanye West, Mos Def, Nas, Rakim and many others, probing the masters of the genre on their inspiration. The film stops short, however, of presenting a thesis. Still, Ice-T had a mission: To capture secrets of the craft from as many artists as possible, and remind artists, fans and moguls that rap is more than “money, cars, girls, jewelry or beefs.”
The film is arriving at a time when other hip-hop pioneers are taking a preservationist view toward the genre. In L.A., acclaimed indie artist Murs is staging a six-month-long hip-hop performance series, “Through the Mic,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Superstar Jay-Z has also become a curator of sorts, and is programming a multi-genre, two-day festival in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend.
As one of L.A’s groundbreaking rap pioneers, Ice-T specialized in bringing a moralistic bent to inner-city tales. His 1988 single “Colors,” from the film of the same name, captured the toll L.A. gang life has on a family, and 1992’s “Cop Killer” was a ferocious reaction against the LAPD following the beating of Rodney King.
The latter, recorded with his rock band Body Count, galvanized those who fought for explicit content stickers on albums, and the violence-in-lyrics controversy ultimately led to his split from Warner Bros. Records. His 1993 “Race War” addressed whether any lessons had been learned from the L.A. riots (they had), and now “The Art of Rap” culls stories from many who had a hand in hip-hop’s countercultural beginnings.
Today, Ice-T’s acting and celebrity persona have arguably eclipsed his rap roots. His résumé ranges from the tough 1991 film “New Jack City” to the blithe, unscripted E! series “Ice Loves Coco.” But despite venturing out of the studio and in front of the camera, Ice-T’s plea to return substance to the pop charts isn’t just talk.