First off, if you are a fan of Rap and/or Hip Hop Culture then you should see this film. If you are a fan of raw MCing then you should definitely see this film. For better and for not better, this is not a Hollywood production. This is the capturing of real life moments, honest commentary, and great lyricism.
That’s really all you need know, so go buy the DVD and enjoy. However, if you want to hear me ramble on your brain about specifics, stories, and theories then read on…
When I first heard about this documentary I was very excited. Truthfully, I’m generally amped about any Hip Hop documentary I hear about, until I get info that makes me lose faith. It’s a spin on the guilty until proven innocent theory; awesome until proven not awesome. The fact that Ice T was behind this project offered some pluses. First off, he’s an MC himself. It’s clear he understands the craft, so he can speak the language and ask the right questions. Secondly, I knew he was a true fan of great MCing. I told this story before, but one of my greatest memories of Ice T was being at large stadium concert in ’88. I was positioned in an elevated seating area and where I was you had a direct line of sight to the highway all the artists had to walk thru to get on stage or they could watch the show from backstage. While Eric B and Rakim were on stage Ice T stood by the back door the whole time. He also sung along to every word to every Rakim song, even the ones not yet released! Not only that, he acted out the words with the same intensity as if he was the one performing them on stage himself. This was a time when Rakim was being criticized of being uninteresting to watch because he just stood there and Rapped. For that show I listened to Rakim and watched Ice T, it was perfect*.
I had also interviewed Ice T once in ’97, talked to him in great length after a concert in ’87, and had a couple other interactions with him. Those experiences further cemented the fact that he was a true fan of lyricism. He talked about other MCs with the type of appreciation only a pure fan could have. When he spoke to me about Toddy Tee, Mobb Deep, or BDP, I knew he truly respected them as vocal craftsmen and/or what they did in the Culture. That is the kind of passion you need in the person who is directing the cameras. With that kind of feeling you are bound to catch something great.
Another thing that made Ice T an excellent candidate for the job was access. His years of relationships, popularity, dues paid and respect meant there was probably no one he wouldn’t be able to lock down for an interview. When I saw the preview for the film it further proved that. He did a great job of covering the various eras of Hip Hop, as well as various styles of Hip Hop. Perhaps not to the extreme, but diverse coverage none-the-less.
However, this benefit also lends to some challenges. Shooting a documentary like this is quite an undertaking. It’s a very broad subject with decades of information and unlimited amount of resources to pull from. Truth be told, this should have been a TV show. It would have been able to fully and properly expound on these topics on a per episode basis. In the documentary form you re trying to jam-pack all of this info, while being well rounded as possible, in less than two hours. Let’s do some math. The film is actually 111 minutes long. There are 40 names of appearing artists on the front cover of the DVD, so 111 divided by 40 = 2.77 minutes per artist average. Of course, it isn’t broken up that way. Some artists get significantly more time than that, but that just means in order for that to make some artists are only getting a minute of screen time, sometimes less.
On top of that, you have to assume that what we are seeing in the film is only a fraction of what was captured on tape. I’d venture to guess that the largest challenge in this was the editing. Trying to determine how to cut 40+ interviews down to a comprehensive film. That would probably drive me mad. It’s one of those things that you might have to remove your personal preferences out of the equation and let some outside people make decisions on what to cut and keep. That can be maddening within itself, but a necessary compromise to get something like this done.
Some of the other things that caught my attention are admittedly personal preferences. I’m sure some of the things I would critique others thought are what made the film entertaining. I don’t want to dwell on negatives, because like I said I feel you should see this film and beyond that, I definitely enjoyed it myself, but there is one thing that particularly stood out to me. Every since Hip Hop’s inception it has had to deal with outside forces trying to condemn it, stop its growth and all out shut it down. The major culprits have been politicians, the media, and out of touch older generations. What has been their major ammunition? Mostly, they like to point to it being violent and misogynistic, but those aren’t Hip Hop issues, those are Country and World issues. More specific to Hip Hop, but again not entirely, they have long loved to call it non-musical noise and to point to the fact that the artists are ill mannered and uneducated.
As for the noise issue, Hip Hop handled it perfectly. It increased the noise! Producers like Marley Marl, Bomb Squad (IE “Bring The Noise”), Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, and RZA, continued a legacy of making the music chaotic, turning shrieks, sirens, and true noise into music. The impact was undeniable, as it sounded less like conventional music it got more popular. Hip Hop wins.
As for the ill mannered and uneducated accusations, there is mixed results. As for the education, clearly Hip Hop has produced countless proof of intellects in the Culture. Many great writers have emerged, comparable to great writers in any other field of music. Furthermore, Hip Hop has a wealth of artists who made education one of their foremost missions and topics; Chuck D, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, KRS One, Mos Def and the list goes on. However, for the most part, these artists are vastly overlooked by the alternative, which is also important, but there is a lack of balance. Oddly, but unfortunately not ironically, those same so-called negative voices are the ones most widely supported by the same media outlets that condemn Hip Hop for the subject matter.
As a Culture where we have struggled the most it seems, which this documentary sort of underlines, is on the ill-mannered perception. I remember in the late 80s/early 90s being annoyed with interviews with some of my favorite MCs. They answered questions with the juvenile humor of a twelve year old and these were guys older than me or at least the same age. On top of that, every other statement was “YouKnowWhatI’mSaying…” or profanity. It was often painful too watch. Of course, it doesn’t apply to the Culture as a whole, so it is still an unfair criticism, but it was an issue regardless. Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed too much.
There were points in the “Art Of Rap” where I lost focus of whatever was being presented because I became mystified by the number of times I heard “f**k” or “Ni**a”. Honestly, some of it can’t even be properly expressed by using the word excessive. All I could think, as I sat there, cringing while absorbing the criticism of the Culture (which I know I don’t need to do….), “This film is being shown all over the world and it is just going to reinforce that negative perception.” Of course, not every artist was like this, most weren’t in fact. It was just something that happened a few times very early on and so I continued to brace myself for the most of film.
I understand being raw and uncensored as an artist, as well as just being natural on camera. I get it. I’m also not talking about censoring. My issue is not about the rhyming portions of the film. For the most part, the rhyming segments are the near flawless parts of this film, as they should be.
There were moments with artists, who are not in the same spotlight that they once were, and I was thinking, “This is going to be their biggest opportunity to reach the masses in a long time.” That was exciting and I was curious to see how they would maximize that time. I was surprised how many spent those moments**. Again, that doesn’t go for everyone, there are exceptions. People like Doug E Fresh, DMC, Rakim and Kool Moe Dee were refreshing to watch. On flipside, people like Dr Dre, Eminem, and Nas, key pioneers of shock value Hip Hop, are also among the most well spoken in this documentary. They are also among the most successful. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
In any event, this didn’t ruin the film for me and shouldn’t for anyone else. It was just an observation I made that I have spent some time thinking about, too much in fact. This is my therapeutic release. Overall, if you get this documentary looking for a cinematic masterpiece, you will not get that and you should not be expecting that. However, if you watch this film to learn about the history of MCing, then you will definitely get the basics of that. If you are hoping to hear some of Hip Hop’s best deliver potent lyrics, you will get that as well. If you just want to see a bunch of famous and legendary MCs hang out and talk, you will definitely get that. I'd like to applaud Ice T for being in the game this long and still making it a point to give back to the Culture. You can tell by the range of artists he picked that was largely choosing MCs based on their skill and not just popularity. It was also great to hear many of the MCs pay Ice T his proper respect as well, some classic moments come from that. The "Art Of Rap" is one chapter in the ongoing book for a long legacy of Hip Hop lyricism. Basically…see this film.
Featured Artist include; Ice T, B Real, Kanye West, Grandmaster Caz, Eminem, Salt, Doug E Fresh, Xzibit, Chino XL, Joe Budden, Snoop Doog, Yasin Bey a.k.a Mos Def, Run-DMC, Ice Cube, Rakim, Q Tip, Nas, Immortal Tecdnique, Ras Kass, Redman, DJ Premier, Lord Finesse, Mele Mel, Common Sense, WE, Treach, Raekwon, Marley Marl, Dana Dane, Royce Da 5’9, Big Daddy Kane, Lord Jamr, MC Lyte, Kool Keith, Bun B, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, etc…
Written By Kevin Beacham
*Few other great Ice T stories, including more about that Rakim show HERE.
**It’s also fair to say that part of that could be due to the editing. It’s highly likely that this clips that I’m referring to are just small pieces of extended interviews and they are the ones that got chosen and their most profound statements and shining moments got edited out for whatever reason. That is the risk you take being in a documentary. The better you can keep your focus and try to give only what you want to be a representation of you, the better.