After playing Detective Odafin Tutuola on the hit series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ” for the past 13 years, Tracy Marrow, who is better known as hip-hop pioneer Ice-T, was ready to step behind the camera. The documentary “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap” is his directorial debut and premiered at Sundance in January. It opened in select U.S. cities earlier this month.
The film gives a glimpse into the origins of rap through the lens of some of Ice-T’s closest friends, including Big Daddy Kane, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Chuck D, Afrika Bambaataa and Common. Art Beat had a chance to catch up with Ice-T and discuss his life-long love for hip-hop, his work as an actor and what it takes to get a Ph.D. in rap.
Why did you want to make this film?
I wanted to direct films. I want to do features down the road, and I was just looking at the state of hip-hop and was realizing that I didn’t really think people appreciated it as much as I do. I think now it’s part of global culture, and a lot of people don’t really know where it came from or how serious it was when it was nothing. So I just decided to call my friends and I said, “Let’s just do a film, but we won’t talk about the money, the cars, the girls. We’ll just talk about the craft.” And they were like, “Wow nobody even asked us those questions!” So it was just an idea trying to boost appreciation for the art form.
As a narrator in the film, you are sort of a journalist in a sense. Why did you take that approach in your directorial debut?
Well, it was important to get a conversation going with these cats. Everybody’s seen them interviewed before but not by one of their peers. And to get into the point where you’re just kind of having fun and talking, I think that’s what makes the movie unique. You get to hear lots of funny stories that I don’t really know if they would tell anybody else, and I think the comfort that all the artists showed in front of the camera was what makes the film special.
How did you select the artists to include in the film? I noticed you didn’t have the South represented.
I just really went to the people I knew in my address book. I didn’t reach outside of my peers and my friends that I personally knew. When we started shooting in New York City, we just had so many rappers that I was familiar with and we had gotten an over-amount of New York rappers. We were like, “You know, this movie can only be two hours? So we’re going to have to hurry up.” We ended up going to Detroit — I had to get Eminem. So what the movie does, it takes my path like how I came from L.A., went to New York and then ended up back in LA.
It was hard to get the girls [in the film]. I’m familiar with Little Kim, but we couldn’t tie her down. Of course, Queen Latifah is another good friend of mine, but she’s making moves so we had to get what we could. So thank God we got Salt and [MC] Lyte.
The South broke into hip-hop after L.A., and it’s kind of like another movie in itself, with Ghetto Boys, Master P and what Luke did. The key to the movie was not to show every rapper. It’s more or less get a group of rappers and let them tell a story about rap and where it came from, versus go to the movie and see your favorite rapper. If I had done that, then I would have had a different list. And I don’t think it was essential to the film or to the story in the film.
What do you think is the difference between hip-hop and rap?
Rap is a vocal delivery. Like Big Daddy Kane says, “Dr. Seuss could be sort of considered a rapper. If you can rhyme cat with hat, you could be called a rapper.” Hip-hop is the culture. It’s the five things that Afrika Bambaataa broke down. He said, it’s breakdancing, it’s graffiti, it’s DJing and emceeing and the knowledge. So anybody could rap, but a lot of people don’t know where it came from and I think that’s what I was trying to join. You’ll hear pop artists rapping and they don’t have the slightest idea where it even started.
What’s the difference between a rapper and an emcee?
An emcee is the crown a rapper gets once he can control a crowd. Like you might be able to rap, but you might only be a rapper in your bathroom. So you could have incredible display, word play, but you don’t get to be an emcee until we see you in front of an audience and you basically can hold that audience in the palm of your hand. That’s when you become a master of ceremony, so it’s kind of like the Ph.D. of rapping.
What was the creative process in making this film?
It starts with an idea, then a bunch of phone calls….Our only goal was not to use any stock footage and to make it into Sundance. That was our goal.
I was terrified with this project. This is totally uncharted land for me. Making a record –that’s one thing; you’re on a TV show, but it’s already an established show. Stepping out into this void of filmmaking, I wanted to show that I was serious about it. I wanted to make something that aesthetically was different and got good reviews. So far we haven’t seen one single bad review, so that’s a good thing. The only thing we’ve heard about it is people didn’t see the rapper they wanted. But that would have been impossible, that would have been a 12-hour movie. We knew that going into it, but we more wanted to tell the story in full. I think we did a decent job.
Acting has become a major part of your career. Was that intentional?
No, I didn’t have any ambition to be an actor until after I did “New Jack City.” After I started to do a few films, I kind of caught the bug. After having good success with my records, having lots of gold and platinum records, I said, “You know what, I’m not going to get off getting another hot record. I want to push this acting thing.” So I just focused on it, I kind of slowed down making records and I’ve been really focusing on it. Now I have my sights set on directing. I think as a man you have to continually create these new jobs, these new goals. That’s what keeps you awake, keeps you excited. So yeah, I didn’t know it, but now I want it.
Are you looking to continue with “SVU” or are there other film projects that you want to work on? What’s coming up next for you?
“SVU” is a good vehicle. It’s like a great day job and I’ll probably stay on there until they throw my black ass off. I don’t have any reason to leave that show. It’s a cool gig, people love it, and it’s given me the ability to work with directors every day, to be on the set. There is nothing you can do to get around experience, you know what I’m saying? You have to have experience and just being on the set every day for 13 years, I think that’s what helped me make my movie. To understand why you need to move the camera, why you need helicopter shots, all these little things come from working in films so long.
So are there going to be other films? Do you now have the directing bug also?
Absolutely. I got the directing bug! I want to do features, but now the problem is which is going to be my next? Because Frank Sinatra said, “If it’s not luck you can do it twice.” So to have this film and have critical acclaim — I’m not basing my movies on box office, because that has a lot to do with how much money you have to push on it and all that. But I will base it on what the people say, and people loved the film so I got to do it again. I’ve got to do it again. But I think the next film I’ll do the same exact way. I’ll set the bar at Sundance and try to rock that spot again, and then we’ll see what happens with it.
What do you hope that fans take away from this film?
I think just appreciation for rap and appreciation for hip-hop, and really understand that it did come from nothing. It was a youth movement, but now it’s a global movement. It’s part of the fabric of the world you know? Your mailman comes to the house, he’s got his hat tilted a little bit to the side. It’s hip-hop. It’s something that needs to be respected. It’s an American art form, and it’s a great one and it’s being copied all over the world, so just take ownership of it and appreciate it.