More than once throughout The Art Of Rap a question is posed: "Why doesn't hip hop get the respect it deserves?" Now, one answer that wasn't given, but that is relevant I think, is because of how new a genre it is. The novel was viewed as "low art" in comparison to poetry when it first emerged as a form, films began as a carnival sideshow, derided in comparison to theatre. Even now, when speaking in terms of book to film adaptations, the stock response is that the film "will never be as good as the book". Hip-hop is still a baby in artistic terms, hell, a foetus in musical terms. However, an answer that was given, and that stuck in my mind, boiled down to the idea of mutual respect, the implication being that whilst MCs and DJs rap and beefs and feuds, whilst there's no apparent mutual respect between artists within the genre, then no respect will be afforded to the genre. The Art Of Rap's greatest triumph therefore is that it attempts to address this issue, to bring together a vast, varied, intelligent and hugely influential community of musicians to illustrate the different movements and generations in the rap game, to give credit where credit's due, to foster respect.
So let's talk about this as a film, specifically as a documentary. Many people will go and see The Art Of Rap simply because they want to see Kanye & Snoop waxing lyrical about their life, and that's fine, the more people who go and see it the better. However, to say the film is just a collection of monologues and rhymes is to do it a massive disservice.
What Ice-T, through his narrative and line of questioning, is attempting to emphasize is the enormous amount of craft that goes into a rhyme or a beat. Chuck D once said: "If man is the father and son and the centre of the earth, the middle of the universe, then why is this verse coming six times rehearsed? Don't freestyle much but I write 'em like such". It makes sense then, given the director is so focus on structure, that the structure of the film is note perfect. The early scenes talk about the origin of the genre, showing how hip-hop began as a reaction to social situations. The development of the record player as an instrument as born from a lack of Government funding for musical instruments in inner city schools, and a lack of space to keep instruments at home anyway. The records they played were the blues and jazz their parents listened to, this is what sampling was born out of.
The development of the record player as an instrument as born from a lack of Government funding for musical instruments in inner city schools, and a lack of space to keep instruments at home anyway
The built environment too is credited, particularly when the film is located in New York in the first half. Ice-T and co-director Andy Baybutt brilliantly convey the rhythm of the city through the cinematography and direction, the raps to camera echoing Spike Lee's great monologues in Do The Right Thing, the artists interviewed on street corners, diners and housing projects, not stopping filming at the sound of a car horn or the intrusion of passers by, resulting in one particularly hilarious moment when a little old lady is seen filming Q-Tip on her iPhone while he does his thing. Frequent helicopter shots of the city intensify the importance of New York for helping to create and shape this sound.
From the East Coast we then get flown over to the West, not before stopping off in Detroit to chat to Eminem in the studio. His positioning within the film is clever too, as it links him both with the east and west coast style. The bassy beats and record scratching that dominates the score in New York is suddenly replaced by the heavy, almost metally guitar intro of "Lose Yourself", a far more aggressive, angst ridden sound, yet with all the lyrical and vocal acrobatics of the east coast acts he grew up listening to. The aggression seems to be more of a west coast phenomenon, and indeed this section of the movie is where the "rap battle" is introduced, with freestyle KRS-One arguing that this battling is merely an extension of a slave tradition known as "The Dozens", where physically or mentally ill slaves sold in dozens would verbally spar with each other. Though it's not interrogated in the film, perhaps this battling tradition is the reason behind artists publicly dissing other artists in their music? Who's to say.
The fogged up diner windows and bustling 24/7 streets of New York are replaced by vibrant street art and skate parks of L.A. Social housing locations exchanged for mansions in the Hollywood hills, but even massive stars like Kanye and Dr. Dre show extreme love for their work, Dre saying that he's only been out of the studio 2 weeks in the past 20 years and giving fans a valuable and rare insight into the work of Tupac. The overriding message of The Art Of Rap is that the genre means a different thing to everyone, and yet with everyone you can follow the thread right back to the origins of the genre. A tribute is given at the end of the film to those who couldn't be included: Adam Yauch, J Dilla, Nate Dogg, Tupac, Gil-Scott Heron, and countless others. Maybe hip-hop doesn't get the respect it deserves, but if anything's going to change it, then it's going to be this film.
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