I saw Ice-T’s documentary “The Art of Rap” this week. When I went, the theater wasn’t very crowded.
This wasn’t surprising. No one expected “The Art of Rap,” a documentary about hip-hop focusing on the genre’s originators, to light up the box office. But when I went, there was literally no one else in the theater. I had the place all to myself.
A lot of that has to do with how poorly hip-hop treats its elders. More than any other genre, hip-hop is no country fold old men, and once rappers hit their expiration date, they are discarded and dismissed. Sorry pops, you got old. What’s an old rapper to do? There’s no retirement home for rappers, and once they’re taken off the shelf, they’re often relegated to nostalgia package tours, or maybe reprising their hit single in an ironic TV ad campaign. Hip-hop is obsessed with youth and who’s hot now, which is why fans are endlessly debating Top 5 MC lists and revising them every other day. Earlier this month, I heard Atlanta rapper of-the-moment 2Chainz referred to as “legendary” twice in the span of two days. The “legendary” 2Chainz has yet to release his solo debut album.
“The Art of Rap” talks to many of hip-hop’s architects, but it doesn’t address what they’re doing now. Kool Moe Dee spits a furious rhyme and is talked about by Doug E. Fresh as one of the greatest ever, but we’re not told how he now fills his days. Eminem tells a stirring story about the first time he heard Naughty By Nature’s “Yoke the Joker” and how it made him unable to write rhymes for a whole summer, but Treach — who is interviewed in the film — isn’t given a chance to react, or talk about what he’s currently up to. These guys are still around, hanging out in hip-hop’s trenches, but what happens when the spotlight fades?
It also struck me that Ice-T bit off way more than he could chew with this movie. He talks to an amazing assemblage of rappers in the film, from Big Daddy Kane to Ice Cube to Dr. Dre to Eminem to Kanye West to Treach to Melle Mel to Q-Tip to Royce da 5’9″ to Common to Chino XL (Chino XL!) to Nas to Rakim to B-Real and on and on and on. Your favorite rapper is probably in it, and so is their favorite rapper. But that’s the problem; the film is only two hours long, and Ice-T has enough footage to do a Ken Burns-style documentary on rap. Whittling it all down to a coherent two-hour movie seemed like a challenge, and the resulting film is kind of a jumbled mess. It overwhelms you with information, and you leave the film in a dizzy hip-hop haze.
Yet the music, from Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” to Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thing” to Cypress Hill’s “I Wanna Get High,” is downright intoxicating, especially when bumping out of very loud speakers (and AMC Star Southfield has very loud speakers). So if Ice-T’s overall intention was to get more people to appreciate old-school hip-hop, in the end, it worked.