Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 16, 2012 3:05 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
Aerial shot of LA for The Art of Rap by Ron Chappell

Hard rhymes

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap has a beautiful simplicity about it. "From nothing" because this is an art of the ghetto and poor families haven't the money for a piano or a horn, nor in the stripped down public education will their kids have access at school. They were stuck with their voices and a record player and they made an art form out of just that. Milieu is important so there are two halves, East Coast (NYC) and West Coast (LA, especially Compton), and visual interludes of hot, intense digital aerial views of the two centers by Ron Chappell that beautifully counterpoint the hard edge or rap music. If you only got these landscapes, especially the New York ones, the film would be worth watching. Otherwise, in fact, it's not much for the eye, just a long string of chunky black men with razor mustaches, outsize shades, and baseball caps, interrupted on the way from NY to LA by a stopover with a thin white guy and astonishing rap star from Detroit noted for internal rhymes, hypnotic rhythms, and soul-bearing autobiographical musings and known as Eminem. How crazy life is, when for a while anyway the best rapper was white and the best golfer was black!

I don't think this movie is necessarily for non rap fans. "Made by a hip hop fiend for hip hop fiends," said one review. Film summary: "This performance documentary goes beyond the stardom and the bling, to explore what goes on inside the minds, and erupts from the lips, of the grandmasters of rap." That may be too much, and too intense, for a newcomer, and while hardcore fans will be adding up the roster and noting who's been left out, the unrolling of similar-looking and uniformly loud and aggressive and profane rappers is a little too much to take in. But if you feel excluded, that in itself can be an attraction, a goad to make you want to penetrate the mysteries.

Anyway, this is a work of admirable integrity and focus. It seeks to inform and educate more than to entertain. Its focus is narrow. Don't look here for a chronicle of the money, violence, drugs, or fame, or tragedy, though there is a list of the dead rappers at the end that's shockingly long, almost as long as the list of live ones. Don't look for a lot of rap history, except what comes up rapidly in conversation. Ice T, long a Hollywood actor now but as himself a pioneer gangsta rapper has "unparalleled access" to "a who's who" of the most notable practitioners, and whom does all the interviewing and thus is in every people-frame, is interested in repeating a few questions to each interviewee about how the form came about, who started it, and how rappers work and what they strive for: their topics, their standards, their influences, their writing and improvising and what they hope to pass on to future rappers. This is a motivator and a handbook, not a history, not a background piece, not an intro. There may be livelier and more colorful or smarter or more varied or even more informative films about hip hop, but maybe none so serious and respectful of the medium of rap and the skill that goes into it.

The language is of the street, of course, and the F word and more than anything the N word abounds, as do testosterone-soaked images of sex and provocations and boasts. There are discussions of rap contests: rap is not so much a game, though word play is highly valued, as it is a battle, with one speaker explaining about the old black tradition of "dozens," men (sometimes women) trading insults till one backs down, breaks into tears, or is declared the loser. Eminem describes being booed at his first public performance, which was "very traumatic," and caused him to swear off rapping -- but only briefly. Again and again one learns that for rappers rapping is not the best thing but the only thing, what they live for, what gets them through.

Some rappers boast of and show off their skill at improvising (freestyle). Others say unwritten raps sound like it, and we see one rapper write a rap on the spot and deliver it, and others talk about how they write and where. One used a pupil's desk stolen from his school and dragged home as his place of composition. Pioneer rap producer Dr. Dre (the only one seen in fab surroundings if we discount Eminem's handsome wood studio) says he succeeds by being a "chameleon," blending with the various personalities of the rappers he records. Dre describes "Pac" (the late Tupac Shakur, about whom there are several documentaries) as so richly talented he habitually wrote his songs in the recording booth, one after another, in a constant flow. Ice T contrarily mentions composing in spurts, with long dry periods in between.

However composed, raps range from simple in vocabulary to showoff displays of fancy verbiage, and from jaw-dropping directness to near-total obscurity. One of Something from Nothing's key strengths is is that it's an artist interviewing other artists, with excellent rapport and inside knowledge of the form. It all goes on a little too long, due no doubt to the desire for completeness, over two coasts, and having many of the interviewed rappers perform on camera (precisely its value to fans, however). It becomes pretty relentless after a while and hard to attend to every word, but some of those words are pretty choice.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap debuted at Sunance January 2012. It went into limited US theatrical release June 15.

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