There's a moment about halfway through Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap -- a deft documentary about the twisted roots of hip-hop -- when it crystallizes that co-director Ice-T was a man of his word when he states at the beginning of the film that this is not a movie about Benzes and bling. That moment is sparked by a powerful yet heartbreaking rap by Jersey MC Joe Budden, used as a voice-over for scenes of urban blight, in which he catalogs life's disappointments and bad choices, ending with the despairing line, "tried to fix my shortcomings, I just came up short."
It's a bracing reminder of where hip-hop came from, as is this film, which, despite being too long and overly focused on New York, is like a textbook that hip-hop fans should study. Ice-T and fellow director Andy Baybutt go all the way back to the beginning, talking with many of the Big Apple pioneers: Chuck D, Kool Keith, Doug E. Fresh, Melle Mel, Rakim, Salt of Salt N Pepa, KRS-One and many more.
Because Ice-T is a rapper of stature, the chats come off less like a journalist asking questions and more like a friend who has just dropped by to reminisce about writing raps and what it was like back in the day. Later, Ice-T travels to Detroit to hang out with Eminem and, lastly, to his L.A. stomping grounds, where he gives Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Cypress Hill's B-Real their due. It's fun to see some of these rappers let loose with off-the-cuff, freestyle flow, and it's amazing how good most of these performers look considering they are all now middle-aged and not necessarily leading the most saintly lives along the way.
Yet, as good as Something From Nothing is, it feels a bit like a time capsule, as if hip-hop stopped in the early '90s. Even though Kanye West and Common are briefly interviewed, there's not much of an attempt to connect the history with the present, as if what's going on now doesn't owe its existence to what came before. Neither the genre-busting success of Jay-Z nor the underground savvy of L.A.'s Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, one of the most controversial acts in hip-hop right now, are mentioned. Miami, Atlanta, Texas and the whole Dirty South are not even whispered (though Houston's Bun B is interviewed).
Plus, anyone easily offended by repeated use of the f-bomb and the n-word should stay far, far away.
Still, Something From Nothing is a timely reminder of how hip-hop upended pop music in the late '70s/early '80s, bringing American street poetry and culture to the radio, dance floor and beyond. As the Cold Crush Brothers' Grandmaster Caz says here, "Hip-hop didn't invent anything, but hip-hop reinvented everything."