By Adam Knight

In 2006 Brooklyn MC Nas declared hip-hop was dead. Six years on, it’s selling out stadiums.

The unspoken concern for rap is that it’s having its own Rocky III moment – the worst the thing a fighter can do is get civilised.

‘Art of Rap: Something from Nothing’ looks at the way-back-whens, the long road from the Marcy Projects to Paris, what that means, and most importantly the lyrics, the words that Grandmaster Caz says ‘reinvented everything’.

Ice-T walks that road, going mic in hand to the people and the places that shaped rap over the last 30 years – but this documentary is less an aural history as it is an aural science.

From Rakim’s 16 dots to the wood-panelled walls of Eminem’s studio, the film pulls back the curtain on some of the tracks that defined generations, giving you a glimpse into the mind and the notepad of the lyricist.

On his directorial debut Ice-T points the camera at legend after living legend inviting to drop 16 bars, a capella, of a track they ‘carry with them in the head’.

In candid chats with gangsta rap pioneer MCs reveal the quieter half of an uneasy balance they face; their pride in the intellectualism inherent in composing layered rhymes and deliveries, that stands against street culture they speak to.

Ever the self-promoter, Kanye takes on his own track, ‘Gorgeous’.

For three minutes he builds and builds a raw “inter-century anthem….based on the way we was branded” that challenges anyone to call this art poetry; this is rap.

‘Ye – always both hero and villain – more than any modern MC has a foot in both camps, old and new, soul and swag, but his call for respect for rap as art is no different to this film – he just does it a little louder.

Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def – a hero of politicised East Coast back-pack rappers – explains that rap never had pop ambitions, that at its soul it’s a “folk art”.

But like Dylan going electric, artists by their very nature will not stand still for long.

Like any great record, especially those that soundtracked the invention of a culture, ‘Juicy’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘Yoke the Joker’, all these records will stand up as documents of a moment, both creating and defining it.

If rap’s soul is threatened by made-for-MTV records or the likes of West’s sold-out Watch The Throne  world tour – Ice-T’s camera documents that it is not due to the death of the lyricist.

The former West Coast rapper goes line-for-line with Eminem on his ’86 hit ‘6 N the Mornin’ in an impromptu moment where the superstar-rapper-slash-recovering-addict finally relaxes on camera, losing himself in a love for the words.

Rap is not slowing down, and waiting in the wings there may yet be the greatest lyricist ever to hold a mic, but the chances his or her words will have the energy and the relevance to shake the world – as they did in ’86 – get smaller with every documentary made.

DJ Premier talks about needing to ‘speak the language’ to listen to rap, and now more than ever the UK has turned up the volume.

Jay-Z headlined the BBC’s largest ever music festival a month ago, and asked the screaming Hackney crowd ‘Who been on this since the start?’

It’s a question echoed throughout ‘Art of Rap’ by Premier and half a dozen hip-hop godfathers unknown to a generation of UK hashtag rap fans.

It’s a question that doesn’t impart elitism, or even ask the viewer to have been there since the start – but underlines that, proudly, they were, and that it meant something.

Whatever your understanding of the word ‘rap’, this is a great film that reveals real insight into the common factor in an evolving culture.

It’s also a chance to see the game’s finest spitting their finest with no 808’s or auto-tune, but stripped back and rapping like they were back on a street corner.

While older hip-hop heads try to place their culture between Charlie Mingus and a kind of organic ‘punk-ness’ that “hits you over the head with a sledgehammer”, Ice-T successfully makes an effort to follow the advice of Treach and “write it down.”

About The Author