Twenty five years ago, Ice-T made his entrance into the rap game with his debut album, Rhyme Pays. Since then, he’s ventured into an acting career that spans two decades, including his role in the film “New Jack City,” his recurring role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and his current reality show, “Ice Loves Coco,” he stars in with his wife Coco.
After years of being in front of the camera, it was natural for Ice-T to switch gears and get behind the camera. He kicks off his directorial career with his film, “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” a project that allowed him to delve deeper into the skill and craft of rap music. The topic is one the rapper-turned-actor felt had been lacking from the conversation of hip-hop recently.
His quest to chronicle this conversation began two years ago, when he went through his cell phone and tracked down some of the best figures in the genre including Doug E. Fresh, Nas and Kanye West. The result: over 300 hours of footage, which would be edited down to a two-hour Sundance-featured documentary released in theaters nationally. Ice-T sat down with The BoomBox to speak on why he created “The Art of Rap,” the reason why only two female rappers are featured and his role as the “black Tarantino.”
What do you mean exactly by the term “the art of rap” and exploring what that means for this film?
Of course I got the idea from the “Art of War,” the book. I just looked at rap and hip-hop as it is in culture in today and said people don’t really respect it like it’s an art form. And it truly is. Anyone that’s ever tried to rhyme or wrote a rhyme or wrote a song, knows it’s not easy. And I said, “Let’s do a film and not base it on what they usual base rap interviews on, which is how much money you got, who you’ re sleeping with, let me see your watch.” But I said, “Let’s talk about the craft.” And everyone I interviewed says, “No one ever asks us those questions.”
Like I came out of an interview just now. This guy wanted to know drama. It’s like, what about the work? I feel like, if you look up “art” in the dictionary, it’s anything that requires skill to do. Hip-hop is a skill based culture; you know, to be a great graffiti artist, to be a great break dancer, to be a great DJ, so and it’s born by kids in New York, and it’s competitive to make you get better. And it’s a great art form and a great culture and I wanted it to be respected.
Tell me more about that exact point when you said, “I need to create this film. It has to be made.”
Well two things happened at once. I wanted to direct movies; I wanted to do features. I was watching the world and I’m seeing the weatherman rap and I’m just like, do these people really know where this comes from or do they really respect it or are they making a mockery of it. And hip-hop always told me to give back and now I’m making television and I’m doing things, and I’m far from hip-hop, I haven’t had an album in three years. But I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for hip-hop. So I want to give back. I want to keep the culture alive and I want to keep it strong.
Some would say, “Oh, Ice-T, you dissed us.” Yeah, because I want to keep y’all strong, I don’t want it to become weak. I want it to become something that has that degree of difficulty and this was my way. I said, “I could write it as a book. Nobody would read it. Make a record, nobody would play it. Or I can make a movie, they can’t do that, but I can.” So I think now I have the means to make a movie, when every rapper can’t make a movie or know how to make a movie. So it’s my job.
So how did you go about getting these rappers onscreen?
I just went in my phone and said, “You know what, I’m not going to go out and try to track down people.” I just called everybody I knew and I went through my phone alphabetically and every single person said yes. But now trying to get them, that’s a different story. Because I had a camera crew from London. I’m on “Law & Order” full-time and I’m trying to meet these people. Trying to get people who are moving is difficult.
How long did it take you to get this project finished from the first person you interviewed to wrapping up the movie?
Two years. And not two solid years but shooting for a couple of months and then shooting this and then catching people when they were free and then I had to go to L.A. I shot all the L.A. footage in one weekend.
What was the most common sentiment or theme that you picked up from the rappers that you interviewed?
Everyone said they busted their ass to get where they were. They said that they started off getting dissed. They said that originality is so important. Step away from the crowd. And they just all had admiration for each other. They just respected each other so much, you know. And it wasn’t as the way it’s portrayed, “Oh, we don’t all like each other,” or “We all beefing and we all hate each other.” It’s not like that.
They all wanted the young rappers to know that’s coming along that this is something really, really important to us that the integrity of this is maintained. They want hip-hop to last forever like jazz, and it’s going to be around forever. Don’t let it be taken from you. Don’t let somebody come around and say, “It’s silly and it’s stupid.” But people will call it how they see it. So if you’re a female rapper and you’re over here, do you wanna be the silly girl or do you want to be Lauryn Hill? You know, the baton is being passed.
Speaking of female rappers, Gaye Theresa Johnson did a great review of the film on The Huffington Post, praising the film’s timeliness. She mentioned Salt-n-Pepa being the only representations of women in the film. Do you think that topic has been explored enough or is there more room to tackle in that area?
Oh definitely. There’s so much unexplored terrain. There’s southern rappers, there’s more. I could only do so much film. The female rappers that I’m closest to — I know Salt-n-Pepa, I know [MC] Lyte, that’s my dog. I know Lil’ Kim, I know Queen Latifah — those would be the girls that would be like, “Ice is my n—-,” because we toured with them. Those were the people I was trying to reach, but Latifah’s doing a film. I couldn’t get Kim. You know it was difficult.
But in reality, all those guys and two girls, that’s really the market share that women hold in rap. It’s difficult for women to be rappers. I think there’s a film for women, at least somebody should investigate the female’s plight because it’s difficult for a woman to be a rapper, because rapping is so aggressive but then you have to maintain your femininity. So people look at Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim. It’s like two different people. Nicki Minaj can really rap, but she’s more like Busta Rhymes to me and she’s outrageous and very pop. But Kim is the chick dragging the mink through the club. Two different images and it’s all good. But you can’t just compare them because they’re girls.
With your first film finally out, what can we expect from you next as far as directing?
I don’t know if I’m going to do another documentary. Documentaries are hard. That’s 300 hours of film. It’s a lot of work. I want to do a feature. I got ideas. I got stories. I want to be like the black [Quentin] Tarantino. I want to put some nice, cool, fun shit on the screen that deals like an Ice-T record and I think it’s time. It’s been 20 years since “New Jack City.” I did my time on “Law & Order” and the business. I think when you look at my film, you say, “OK, he knows what he’s doing.” This is really just my first step into this arena, so maybe I’ll bring you another artistic film but it’ll be a story this time.