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 crystalizes that codirector 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 current hip-hop fans should study. Ice-T and fellow director Andy Baybutt go all the way back to ground zero, 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 himself, 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, finally, 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're all now in middle age, not necessarily leading the most saintly lives along the way.