Ice-T, the rapper and actor, wants people to think about the craft of making rap music. He has directed and starred in a documentary called Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap that takes viewers from Harlem into the South Bronx, to Detroit and South Central Los Angeles. In the film, Ice-T talks to musicians like Doug E. Fresh, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Run-DMC and asks these early heavyweights how hip-hop musicians create rap lyrics and make beats.
"This film isn't about the money, the cars, the jewelry, the girls," he tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "This film is about the craft — what it takes to write a rap, what goes on inside the head of the masters."
He says he had to make the movie, because rap music saved his life. "Before rap came along I was actively in the streets," he says. "That was my first step into the legitimate world. Now people look at me like, 'Oh I love him; he's so respectable.' I was a pretty bad person early in my life."
From the beginning, rap was a way for Ice-T to express his anger at his life on the streets. He compares the release he found in hip-hop to the release some people get from rock music. "Rap is rock and roll. Rock is when you push the buttons in the system," he says. "That's rock — whether it's done with guitars or done with just beats. There's anger in rock; there's anger in punk. It's a real voice uncensored, and you will hear anger when you uncensor the voice."
In the documentary, he calls on rappers like Big Daddy Kane for a brief history of rap music as it evolved from rock 'n' roll and poetry. "A rapper is someone who rhymes. You could consider Dr. Seuss a rapper, " says Big Daddy Kane. "You rhyme cat with hat then you know you can be considered a rapper. An MC is someone who has that party-rocking skill, or that lyrical skill."
"I guess you consider us poets," says Ice-T. "I would say competition poetry — a verbal gymnast — because a lot of the great poetry doesn't rhyme and here rhyming is essential."
Knowing that many people don't know what an MC is, he gives a brief etymology of the title. "The MC would say, 'Hey, the DJ's good, but I'm kinda fly.' And he slowly stole the show when he's supposed to be rapping about the DJ," says Ice. "So when we say a rapper, a rapper can say a rhyme but a MC can rock a party."
Ice-T says he has noticed the changing terrain of the music industry since he first stepped in the game 20 years ago. "I think all music, not just rap, has fallen into this very diluted, delusional state where everyone's singing about money, having cars and having fun when really people are losing their homes," he says. "We've got wars. We've got unemployment. But the music doesn't reflect that. I challenge anyone to find music on the radio that reflects that."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's hear, now, about a documentary with quite a soundtrack. The hip-hop artist Ice-T wants you to think about the art of making rap music.
ICE-T: This film isn't about the money, the cars, the jewelry, the girls. This film is about the craft, what it takes to write a rap, what goes on inside the head of the masters.
GREENE: Ice-T has come a long way since the time 20 years ago when his lyrics to the song "Cop Killer" sparked a huge national controversy. He has a new documentary out that took him from Harlem and the South Bronx to Detroit and South Central, Los Angeles.
Ice-T talked to artists like Doug E. Fresh, Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Run DMC. And he focused on how these artists go about creating rap lyrics and beats. Ice-T joined us from member station WABE in Atlanta.
Good morning and thanks for talking to us.
ICE-T: Hey, thanks for having me, man. It's cool to be here.
GREENE: This is your first film and you said this was a film that you just had to make because, as you put it, rap music saved your life. Can you explain that?
ICE-T: Well, you know, before rap came along, I was actively in the streets getting in trouble - doing the wrong thing. My father died early. My mother died early. I started hanging with the gangs. I'm out in the streets. I'm committing crimes. And the music came along. And this music just took me on a different road. I mean now you see me, I'm on television. I'm on "Law & Order," I'm playing the cops.
I mean if it wasn't for rap, that was my first step into the legitimate world. Now people look at me and go, Oh, I love him - he's so respectable.
ICE-T: You know, I was a pretty bad person early in my life.
GREENE: Rap, there's a lot of - I mean there's a lot of anger that you can hear. Was it a way to express the anger and frustration of, you know, a tough life on the streets?
ICE-T: Well, rap is rock and roll. Rock is when you push the buttons in the system - when you say I'm not going along with what you're saying. That's rock, whether it's done with guitars or it's done with just beats. So rap is rock and there's anger in rock. There's anger in punk. It's a real voice, uncensored, and you will hear anger when you un-censor the voice.
GREENE: Let's talk about the creation. You do call rap an art and I wanted to play one clip of what rapper Big Daddy Kane told you in the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE ART OF RAP")
ICE-T: What's the difference between a rapper and an MC?
BIG DADDY KANE: Well, a rapper is, you know, someone that rhymes. I mean you could consider Dr. Seuss a rapper.
KANE: You know, that's someone that rhymes, you know? You rhyme cat with hat, you know, then you can be considered a rapper. MC is someone that either has that party-rocking skill or that lyrical skill.
KANE: Doug E. Fresh, Busy B...
GREENE: I don't know if Dr. Seuss would love every bit of the rap that you guys make. But I guess I wonder, I mean do you consider you and other MCs poets? Is that the art that we're talking about?
ICE-T: Really, when you say the word MC, people don't even really know what that word means. See, back in the day - I'll give you a little quick history lesson.
GREENE: Yes, give it to us.
ICE-T: Back in the day, DJs found out with the use of a mixer that they could play the breakdown of a record. That's the part where the record goes (Singing) Get down, do-dum, do-dum, do-dum.
And there usually there's no words over the break. When you're at a club and the breaks happens that's when you try your best moves. That's when you dance the best. So the hip-hop DJ found out that since that's the best part of the record, why play any other part of it. So before you know it, the DJs are spinning Steve Miller Band. They're playing Aerosmith. You know, I used to have my DJ play Black Sabbath, like (Singing) Dun-dun, do-dun, dun, boom-ta, boom-boom-ta-boom-boom.
OK, the kids that really danced off it were called break dancers - that's what breaking means, the dancing off the break of a record. Now, the DJ is doing this incredible thing. He hands the mic to somebody and says, tell them how great I am.
ICE-T: That's an MC, a master of ceremonies. Now, the MC would say, hey, the DJ is good but, you know, I'm kind of fly. And he slowly stole the show, and he's supposed to be rapping about the DJ. So when we say a rapper, a rapper can say a rhyme but a MC can rock a party. You know?
And I guess you consider us poets. I would say competition poetry - verbal gymnast, because a lot of the great poetry doesn't rhyme.
GREENE: Here rhyming is always important.
ICE-T: Here rhyming is essential.
GREENE: The evolution of your life was kind of, I thought, captured in a New York Times Book Review when you came out with a memoir last year. They said you'd gone from robbing people to rhyming for them, from singing about killing cops to playing a cop on camera. And you, of course, on "Law and Order: SUV" as Fin.
And I guess I wonder, being a cop on screen so often and looking back to "Cop Killer" of 20 years ago, I mean what do you reflect about?
ICE-T: I mean, honestly, I've never been a cop hater. You know, when I was breaking the law, the cops were the opponent. I just thought I could outsmart them. Anybody who speeds think they can outsmart the cops. So at that time, you know, I was breaking the law. I knew what the law was - I was breaking it. Why am I mad at the police?
"Cop Killer" was a song about brutal police. It was a year before Rodney King, and I was living in a world where the cops were snatching people out of the car and beating their ass. So I was like, what if somebody went on a binge after y'all, after the brutal cops. How would you feel about that?
GREENE: I want to play one more clip from Big Daddy Kane in the movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE ART OF RAP")
ICE-T: If you were going to personally train a rapper to be great - you met a new cat - what would be the first lesson you'd give him?
KANE: Well, the first thing I would try to teach him - the very first thing would be originality. You know, I say I think it's so important because it's like it is - whenever you're following a trend, trends come and go.
KANE: So, when that trend is gone, you're gone.
You're basing your career on a banging beat and a catchy hook. So, you know what you just did?
ICE-T: What did you do?
KANE: You just made your producer a star.
GREENE: And I - that last bit right there: You just made the producer a star. I guess I wonder what is rap and hip-hop today. Is it less about lyrics and is it more about the beat and the producers getting more attention?
ICE-T: Yeah. Truthfully, you know, a weak rapper can hide behind a lot of production. And that's why, in the film, we didn't have them rap with music. We always did the a cappella version so you can actually hear the lyrics.
I think all music, not just rap, has fallen into this very diluted, delusional state, where everyone's singing about money and having cars and having all this fun, when really people are losing their homes. You've got the Wall Street situation, the sub prime situation. You got a black president. We've got wars. We've got unemployment. But the music doesn't reflect that. And I challenge anybody to show me a music that's on the radio that reflects that.
GREENE: Ice-T, thank you so much for talking to us.
GREENE: That's rap musician Ice-T, speaking with us from member station WABE in Atlanta about his new documentary "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.