On Blackness, Humanity, and <i>The Art of Rap</i>

In its revelation of the artistry and humanity that hip hop is at its best,places rap music in its rightful place: as one of the most powerful art forms in the history of cultural production.
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Blackness -- in style and sensibility -- has been one of the most admired, most reviled, most circulated, and least credited set of characteristics in the history of commodification. And there can be no better example of this than hip hop. When rap music first gained mainstream traction in the late seventies, its artists were dismissed and disrespected by politicians, pundits, and the music business itself. But by the late eighties, the same corporate bodies who had previously shunned it were making millions of dollars selling it. By 1990, label executives had created a "gangsta formula," a business hook that repackaged rap's depictions of black urban realities into a titillating buffet of hypermasculinity and glorified violence, relegating women artists to the margins and creating a new outlet of expression for what became its largest consumer demographic: young white men.

Increasingly rejected at the industry door were records penned with good-natured depictions of everyday black life, incisive critiques of urban renewal, or songs that illustrated lyrical or beat boxing genius, such as those by the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, or Doug E. Fresh. Women -- as artists, anyway -- were rendered nearly extinct under this formula, rarely allowed onscreen or on-air for any other reason than a sexual one. And somewhere in the sordid history of mainstream rap's promotion and production, the pairing of rap music and black humanity was, for all intents and purposes, lost.

Black artists were complicit in this in many ways, but there was nothing more powerful in or more capable of guiding the direction of rap music than record executives, who weren't artists. Or black, for that matter, with few exceptions. It's been a very long time since we've seen consistent depictions of black humanity in mainstream hip hop, and a longer time since we've been invited to appreciate black rap artists as artists, not just as caricatures of conspicuous consumerism, or consequences of trickle-down economics. This is why Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap, the new documentary directed by Ice-T, is so significant. In some very important ways, it has recuperated hip hop from the decades-long damage done to the art form.

Interspersed among the 42 interviews of rap musicians is Ice-T's narration of hip hop's history and significance in American life, intended to demonstrate the power that rap music has had to "change the world." The subtitle of the film, Something From Nothing, derives from the commentary by Lord Jamar, who recounts how federal budget cuts in the seventies and eighties dismantled art and music programs in public schools, forcing aspiring rap artists to create "something out of nothing." We learn from the legendary Grandmaster Casanova Fly that in listening to the records of their parents' generation, aspiring emcees and DJs, hamstringed with narrowing musical outlets in schools, turned the record player into its own instrument. And that soul music's indelible mark on rap made it into a genre that didn't invent anything, but "reinvented everything."

Broadly, The Art of Rap examines the origins and development of hip hop in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Discussions and demonstrations of the artistry, craft, and mutual influence among rap musicians, told from the perspectives of the artists themselves, make this film different from anything we have seen on rap music and black men in decades. Incisive critiques by Lord Jamar, Kanye West, and Ras Kass about how rap music is both used and abused make the film an important commentary on race in America. Marley Marl admonishes his contemporaries for the disunity found in hip hop, holding artists accountable for the lack of compassion and reverence shown to musicians from previous generations who made rap music possible. Nas offers a scathing explanation for why the success of a black art form is so reviled, and his stripped-down description of what people in power think of black artists ("I don't like you") is one of the most memorable lines in the film. Among the many demonstrations of the verbal genius and incomparable mental recall of rap artists, Doug E. Fresh, Joe Budden, Eminem, Grandmaster Cas, KRS-1, and Kanye West shine, and in this vein, Ice-T reminds audiences of his incredible value as a lyricist.

Far removed from overabundant depictions of rap rivalries, one of the most distinctive themes of the film is the way artists credit each other for inspiration. B-Real tells us how Public Enemy influenced the tone and style of Cypress Hill, Eminem names Treach as one of the most significant inspirations of his early career, Snoop Doggy Dogg pays tribute to Ice-T, Chuck D reminds audiences of the power and skill of Melle Mel's voice, and Doug E. Fresh reminds us why Kool Mo Dee is one of the greatest emcees of all time.

Critics will rightfully wonder if The Art of Rap re-marginalizes women, since only two -- Salt and MC Lyte -- appear in the film, and because explicit discussions of the elephants in the room (masculinity and sexism) are nowhere to be found. Both Salt and Lyte offer brilliant descriptions of what it meant to be female rappers creating a voice and lyrical style that was distinctive among both men and women, and it is because of this brilliance that the silence of other women's perspectives rings loudly. This is an issue that filmmakers like Ava Duvernay (My Mic Sounds Nice) has tried to remedy, and the development of this film into other projects promises a more balanced incorporation of female rap legends.

The high-definition cinematography emphasizes the importance of place in the hip hop imaginary, punctuated by Yasiin Bey's (formerly Mos Def) assertion that rap is a folk art whose sound is shaped by geography. The shots of the bodies of water around New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles are breathtaking and provide a seamlessness to the visual narrative that will be noted by audiences.

The artists interviewed in The Art of Rap are products of very significant (if varying) historical moments, from Melle Mel to Immortal Technique. We learn from the artists themselves how rap has recreated itself to become an important space for black collective commentary on contemporary social issues.

The Art of Rap writes humanity back into rap music in a moment when black people are more popular than ever in mainstream society, but in some incredibly damaging ways. We've mistaken the proliferation of black images in the media for the notion that there is some kind of equality of positive representation of black humanity. The death of Trayvon Martin and the commentary surrounding it (most notably Geraldo Rivera's stupefyingly racist comment that Martin's choice as a black male to wear a hoodie was the reason he was perceived as a threat) reveals that America is not post-racial, it is constantly creating racial problems anew.

In its revelation of the artistry and humanity that hip hop is at its best, this film places rap music in its rightful place: as one of the most powerful art forms in the history of cultural production. It's not a game. It's The Art of Rap.

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