Hip-hop legend Ice-T hasn’t released an album since 2006, but he’s established himself as an actor, appearing in NBC’s highest-rated drama, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and a slew of other televison shows and films, including “GOATS,” which premieres tonight at Sundance in the Premieres section.
What Ice-T is a stanger to: directing. With the documentary “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap” (playing in Sundance’s Documentary Premieres section), Ice-T steps behind the camera for the first time (with help from co-director Andy Baybutt) to pay respect to the industry that brought him worldwide recognition. Featuring appearances by Grandmaster Caz, Mos Def, Eminem, Nas, Chuck D, Kanye West, Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre and more, “The Art of Rap” is full of great music, freestyle rhyming and surprising reveals from the biggest masters in the game.
Indiewire caught up with Ice-T in Park City the day following the film’s jam-packed premiere to talk about the state of hip-hop today and why he felt the need to make this documentary.
Caught the film last night…
You were there?
Wow, that was like — you don’t understand, man. Prior to that movie, I was walking around like a zombie, you know. My goal in making the movie was just to get to Sundance. So when it got in, I got crazy, but then it sunk in… now it’s got to screen.
I had never seen it on a big screen. I’ve been in editing bays, on my laptop watching it. My production crew’s from London, so they’ve been shipping stuff back and forth. Then when we got the nod for the film, the film was three hours at that time when they said yes. So we had a lot of work to do.
The way that the crowd responded and the way they responded to the raps… it’s like as I watched the movie, I saw the medicine sinking in. I was able to notice that people were starting to listen to the words. The words started to just kind of come off the screen in a way I don’t think that people kind of ever listen to rap. So I’m just overwhelmed and excited.
You’ve been in the game for a good long while. Why did you feel the need to make this movie and more importantly, why now?
I think that as you grow in the game, it’s your job to do things that you’re now capable of doing. I mean, when we all start off we’re in the same place. But you know, me being on film now for over 20 years and having access and having the ability to do this, it’s like my duty. To me, doing another record is like hustling backward because I’ve done it so many times. I’ve had gold and platinum records. The accolade isn’t really going to ring true.
I’ve always wanted to make films. I want to do something that compiles all the things I’ve been in. My raps have always been very visual, I want to put it in one package. But, say when you start a business, go for the lowest hanging fruit. So let me start with a documentary about something I really know, so I can control it. I just felt like it was something I should do, to give back to hip-hop.
In introducing the film, you spoke of how pop music has negatively affected hip-hop. Did that play into why you made this movie?
I wanted to reintroduce what the music was about. It’s kind of like when you’re making music and you’re breaking ground, everyone’s fighting, we’re all trying to fight the power to get the music out. Now that the music is accepted, it’s like now you can just walk onto a terrain that’s already been battled for. It’s easy. You don’t know that we struggled for this.
Pop music is cool, but I mean, my point is: I don’t really feel that they’re using the music at full power. Yeah, you’re making rap records, but you’re not using it at full power. Rap is a very powerful tool, if used correctly.
I don’t want to sing about girls and parties. I want to sing about movements; I want to sing about Wall Street; I want to sing about the shit that’s happening in the war. I miss that. In a way, y’all wouldn’t be where you are if someone hadn’t done that. So don’t just not think it’s necessary. It puts you guys in a position to do this.
I went in to your film expecting a record of the evolution of hip-hop and “The Art of Rap” is not that. It really just gets at the core of the art. What was your reasoning behind that approach?
Well, I had 15 questions, like, “Rap is a masterpiece, what stroke did you put on it?” Different questions. I tried to ask the questions that I’ve never been asked. We’re always asked: “Who you fucking? What car you drive? When’s the last time you got arrested? Who don’t you like?” Gossip questions. Nobody sits in front of me and goes, “Man, where were you at when you wrote this song?” They don’t care.
When I’m on the phone telling the guys I was making this movie, everyone was like, “Yo, thank God, man.” We just let it flow and then after we got the interviews, of course we made decisions. We didn’t want to go back and forth between New York and LA, we wanted to let it migrate. Since it started in New York, we started to film in New York and then we tried to let it show its migration across. We had to make it flow.
You’re so used to doing what you’re doing right now — being in the spotlight. What was it like to be on the flip side of that in this film?
Well, you know, it wasn’t really an interview because when you talk to your friend, it’s a conversation. One of the things was, I only went to my address book — everyone in the film I have a personal relationship with. So when we start to talk, it’s like Derek Jeter interviewing baseball players. You’re going to get that story that they’re not going to tell anybody else. I know how to just keep that conversation going.
When Eminem opens up, he’s opening up to the big homie, he’s opening up to Ice. At some point, they forget the camera’s there and we’re just talking. So that’s the one thing I want to do. I didn’t want to go after rappers that I didn’t know, where they felt like they’re being interviewed. It was all about having a conversation.
Given that you knew all your subjects well, did anything they say surprise you?
Not really. Just funny stories. Like I love Run’s [of Run-DMC] story. Run is now a reverend. He went right back to when he was a rapper and started talking about weed and hoes. He wouldn’t of did that for anybody else.
I think that’s the same story for any rock star that makes it to the top. You’re just rolling, then all of a sudden you wake up and say, “What the fuck is going on?” He said if you don’t keep focused, this is what happens.
There are so many great stories. You can apply my movie to anybody that’s in business. It shows that anybody you look up to as stars, they have moments of doubt. It just humanized us, I think.
During the Q&A, you talked of following this up with a horror movie. Was that just said in the heat of the moment or is that something you’d really like to pursue down the line?
Yeah, I got a lot of scripts. I got thrillers, action movies. I’m a “Reservoir Dogs,” “Trainspotting” type of man. I like edgy, gritty stuff.
I just had to test the waters. I mean, when you do see “The Art of Rap,” you are looking through Ice’s eyes. When you see those big montages, that’s my shit – people like it.
People that like my music, my films will have to reflect that. I want people who come to my movies to sit down and be like, “Come on Ice, do what you do. Take us some-fucking-where else and don’t hold shit back. Just catch that topic the way it hasn’t been caught yet.”