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In 1992, Ice-T was considered a menace to society. His band, Body Count, had just released the song "Cop Killer," which drew the ire of law enforcement agents, the NRA and even President George H. W. Bush. Groups tried to ban his album, Tipper Gore condemned him in public, and he was almost barred from playing a concert in New Zealand. But, as is the case with most rap-related controversies, the situation soon blew over into nothing more than a small (though no less important) footnote in hip-hop history.
Since then, Ice-T has spent most of his time acting in films and television, including a recurring role as -- fittingly -- a detective on "Law and Order: SVU."
Now, twenty years after "Cop Killer," the actor/rapper is returning to his roots (minus the controversy). This Friday, Ice's directorial debut, "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap," hits theaters. The documentary follows Ice interviewing some of the greatest emcees in history -- Grandmaster Caz, Rakim, Eminem -- about how they got started and what they've learned. The film isn't just a history lesson for hip-hop heads, it's a love letter; a time capsule for a groundbreaking genre of music whose debut shook the foundations of popular culture.
Moviefone recently sat down with Ice-T to discuss "The Art of Rap," his thoughts on hip-hop today and his work in the film "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo."
So I watched the movie last night and... How did you watch it?!
The studio gave me a link to the film. You know it's funny, because certain people don't see it and certain people see it and I am like, OK, that means you're important now [laughs].
[Laughs] I think that means Moviefone is important, not me. I promise you I didn't watch a bootleg or anything. Please don't. This movie, out of any movie, would bootleg real well.
The film doesn't follow a typical documentary structure. It was almost put together like a cipher -- a two-hour freestyle featuring all of these legendary rappers. We didn't have any idea of how we were going to put the film together. I went out and interviewed all the artists and I asked them 15 questions, all the same. And then we had all this footage. (We had interviewed 50 people, and I had 20 people waiting to be interviewed, and we just had to pull the plug.) Then we had to figure out how to format it. We didn't even really have a way to format it. I just knew I needed the content. And then it just started to come together. I said, Well we've got to start at the beginning, so we started with [Grandmaster] Caz, and we laid the foundation. And then we started to work our way across the country and it just ended up we did New York first, and then we did Detroit and then we went to the West Coast. We kind of made the questions connect to each other. It was a really weird process, but it worked.
Grandmaster Caz pops up a couple of times in the film -- it's almost like it's through his point of view. Well, Caz was a very important person in my career. When I met Caz, I saw all his notebooks and perfect penmanship and I realized this wasn't a game. One thing this movie isn't about is "Go to see your favorite rapper." If anything, it's "Go to see Ice's favorite rapper." I just went in my address book for people I knew and said, Look I am just going to call my friends. Caz was just a standalone. He wrote "Rapper's Delight." Everybody knows of Grandmaster Caz, but I thought it was best to feature on someone a lot of people don't know. Like an unsung hero of hip-hop to base it around, to kind of go You think you know rap but you really don't even know it.
From a fan's perspective, it's enlightening to hear these guys discuss hip-hop on camera. What was going through your mind while you were watching them do this? I was really happy that they were able to relay what I wanted to relay. It was kind of like, I could say it, but then people would be, Well that's just your opinion Ice. But then I would go to Big Daddy Kane and then I would go to Rakim ... they were all saying the same thing. So it's kind of like one train of thought that moves through the film.
Did you have a favorite freestyle from the movie? The thing of it is, this movie was shot [over] two years. So at the time, I was like, spit something nobody has ever done before. So that's what rappers do, they have raps that they're working on that they'll spit, and then it will turn out on a record. And Eminem of course [was a favorite]. He's incredible. You don't know what is going to come out of his mouth.
I have to admit, I don't think I've ever pressed rewind on a documentary I am watching, but I did that during Eminem's freestyle. The thing of it is, none of them knew they were going to rap before they got there -- that was just one of the questions: "Can you spit a rap for me right now that nobody's ever heard?" And then I asked, "Can you spit anybody else's rap that sticks in your head?" So that's how we got some good rhymes.
There's a scene in the documentary where one of the guys you interview talks about rap not necessarily getting respect. Do you feel that way now? Do you think rap has come a long way in getting respect from an outside culture, or does it still have a ways to go? The bottom line is rap gets respect from who it wants to get respect from, meaning it's its own culture. Rap is a counterculture, so you're not going to get respect from the mainstream, because you counter the mainstream... I think one of the main things somebody said is, it's just too new. They didn't respect blues when it was happening, they didn't respect jazz when it was happening, so it's still a baby. It's only 25 years old. And I think in the world of hip-hop, it's so highly respected. People sit on Internet forums and debate shit for hours. So it gets respect where it's supposed to.
Was the film almost like a time capsule for you? Somebody told me it's like if you took all the great artists -- Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh -- there's no one place where they're side-by-side talking. So the fact that we are dealing with mortality ... it's just, like, now we have living legends, and to capture them all in one place [you have to] do it while you can.
Was there anybody from the film that you tried to interview but couldn't? A lot of people, but no one said no. It was just difficult because, you're trying to get Busta Rhymes and he's in Africa. And then I got a film crew who's coming from London, and I am shooting "Law and Order" full time, and it's difficult to make all the pieces connect. So a lot of people, I am getting calls now that the movie is coming out like "Yooooo, what happened?" And I was like, "I called you but you were busy." And they'd be like, "Ohh mann. Is it too late?" And then a lot of people we shot, we have to hold them for the director's cut because it's just so many people.
So there's going to be a director's cut? Oh there will be more director's cuts than any film in history [laughs]. There's a lot of footage. Everybody you saw, I got like an hour-and-a-half of each one of them.
You asked all these rappers about the first lesson they would give to an up-and-coming rapper. What would your first lesson be? Originality. It's like, look and see what everybody is doing and don't do that. Don't mimic anybody. Find your own niche, your own angle of who you are. Make a decision early. Are you a pop rapper? If you're a pop rapper, just sing what everybody else is singing, just go right down that lane. If you're doing your own thing, it's going to be more difficult but it will be more rewarding at the end.
Do you think rap still has the ability to shock people? [Pause] Yeah I am sure it can shock people, it's just [about] people having the nuts to do it. You know, it takes a lot of courage to step across the line. It's very easy to sing within the guidelines of radio. You're not going to shock people saying something I said. The best way to shock people is to shock them with honesty. Say something that everybody knows but nobody's saying. It has that ability. I just think right now many artists don't want to touch it, they'd just rather play it safe.
Before you leave I have one random, movie-related question. OK.
When's the last time you saw "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo." I haven't seen that in 15 years.
Do you still own the outfit? No [laughs]. I couldn't fit in it anyway, I am about 20 pounds heavier. But, "New Jack City" was on last week on television, so I watched that.
How did that hold up for you? Oh, I love "New Jack City." That was a classic, if I may say so myself.
[Ice-T's publicist cuts in]
Publicist: "Hey Alex, as a funny aside, my girlfriend was actually the second female lead in 'Breakin 2' -- that hot little Latina is my girlfriend right now."
Ice-T: "But she's 300 pounds now. No, I am playing [laughs]. She still looks the same."
Publicist: [Laughs] Yep, she does.