LOS ANGELES — “Look around you,” says Ice-T. “Where are the Bentleys?”
Even amid the pleasantly neutral setting of a Hollywood press day, there’s still one topic that gets the 54-year-old rapper-actor riled up, and it’s not his 12 seasons on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“In rap, everyone is driving a Bentley and drinking Cristal,” says Ice-T, born Tracy Marrow. “That’s not reality. We have a war, we have a black president, we have people unemployed, we have people losing their homes, we have some pretty serious stuff and music is not reflecting it. It’s like everything is Lady Gaga and life is perfect.”
To remind the public of a time when hip-hop more regularly addressed societal concerns comes Ice-T’s directorial debut, “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap.”
The documentary — out this week — offers candid interviews with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Grandmaster Caz, Kanye West, Mos Def, Nas, Rakim and many others, probing the masters of the genre on their inspiration. The film stops short, however, of presenting a thesis. Still, Ice-T had a mission: To capture secrets of the craft from as many artists as possible, and remind artists, fans and moguls that rap is more than “money, cars, girls, jewelry or beefs.”
The film is arriving at a time when other hip-hop pioneers are taking a preservationist view toward the genre. In L.A., acclaimed indie artist Murs is staging a six-month long hip-hop performance series, “Through the Mic,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Superstar Jay-Z has also become a curator of sorts, and is programming a multi-genre, two-day festival in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend.
As one of L.A’s groundbreaking rap pioneers, Ice-T specialized in bringing a moralistic bent to inner-city tales. His 1988 single “Colors,” from the film of the same name, captured the toll L.A. gang life has on a family, and 1992’s “Cop Killer” was a ferocious reaction against the LAPD after the beating of Rodney King.
The latter, recorded with his rock band Body Count, galvanized those who fought for explicit content stickers on albums, and the violence-in-lyrics controversy ultimately led to his split from Warner Bros. Records. His 1993 “Race War” addressed whether any lessons had been learned from the L.A. riots (they had), and now “The Art of Rap” culls stories from many who had a hand in hip-hop’s countercultural beginnings.
Today, Ice-T’s acting and celebrity persona have arguably eclipsed his rap roots. His resume ranges from the tough 1991 film “New Jack City” to the blithe, unscripted E! series “Ice Loves Coco.” But despite venturing out of the studio and in front of the camera, Ice-T’s plea to return substance to the pop charts isn’t just talk.
“The Art of Rap” trains its eyes on dissecting the urban genre’s nitty-gritty details. Eminem, for instance, breaks down a rap and compares lyric writing to puzzle solving, and West details how he learned from failing at rap battles. There’s no stock or found footage, and Ice-T prodded each artist to give an original freestyle, often in public — Q-Tip on a New York street corner, Kool Keith in a chicken joint.
“I was watching the condition of hip-hop and our music,” Ice-T says. “The bar dropped really, really low, and it got silly to me. One day I was sitting there just thinking that people don’t respect this as an art form.”
The film became a labor of love for Ice-T, whose original vision was to have artists film themselves answering questions on hand-held or mobile phone cameras. Ice-T’s manager, Jorge Hinojosa, brought the idea to Paul Toogood, who in Britain created the music interview series “Songbook.” Toogood went to investors.
“We had a few hundred thousand dollars to roll with,” Ice-T says. “We were able to fly to Detroit and L.A., but we had to fly the camera crew in from London, so we weren’t able to pay any of the artists.”
A 23-song soundtrack was released this week by Sony Music, and though it doesn’t have all the film’s freestyles or music, it does contain tracks from the likes of N.W.A., Nas, Q-Tip and Public Enemy. Hinojosa says every artist was paid $1,000 to license songs for the film, and artist reps who demanded more eventually relented. Only songs that contained third-party samples became too laborious to include, Hinojosa says.
“No one was getting more money than Dr. Dre,” Ice-T says. “This is what we pay, and we paid everyone the same. There was no negotiation.”
There are a few signs, however, that have Ice-T optimistic regarding mainstream hip-hop’s future capacity to embrace social issues. One is Jay-Z’s recent public support of gay marriage. It was a pivotal moment, says Ice T., especially since the subject is at the center of a contentious, election-year debate — and Jay-Z isn’t known for being overtly political.
“People are so pop-orientated that it’s important that Jay-Z said it,” Ice-T says. “Jay-Z is at the top of this pop world. Things are only important if certain people say it. If two people want to get married, what’s the problem? Who cares? But people are used to me saying (controversial) things. It’s an odd moment when someone who doesn’t normally take a stand takes a stand. We don’t really know our pop stars and so many are afraid to stand for anything.”
Once someone takes a stand, others, says Ice-T, will follow. He saw it before with the over-commercialization of gangsta rap. “When I started rapping and was cursing, you couldn’t do that,” he says. “When it became a hit, it was like, ‘Everyone, go get a gun! Everyone, get shot five times! It’s the new thing!’ Everything will be a reflection, a copy of the original, but someone is going to have step out.”
Don’t try interrupting Ice-T on the subject. When he has a point to make, he’s going to finish it. He’s calm, even when he raises his voice, leaning forward for emphasis and turning to face his interviewer only when he has concluded his thought.
“I think Lady Gaga is dope, but she’s Madonna. I think Madonna is dope, but she’s Alice Cooper,” Ice-T says. “It’s escapism. We need escapism, but we need someone to hit us in the head with reality. Right now, that’s missing.”