Interview: Ice-T on The Art of Hip-Hop

The legendary rapper discusses his new star-studded Hip-Hop documentary.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson


Anybody who even dabbles into the world of Hip Hop knows the name Ice T. He’s one of the truest and most accomplished old school soldier’s of the rap genre. From his multiplatinum albums to his long running stint as detective Odafin Tutuolaon Law And Order SVU, Ice T is constantly moving forward. Now he’s entering the world of filmmaking.

His first venture is Something From Nothing: The Art Of Hip Hop, a documentary that delves deep into the craft of rhyming. Everyone from Melle Mel to Kanye West is in the film and they all have different ideas on how to approach writing and creating their art form. I got to sit down with Ice T and talk about the movie, his life, and the difference between being a rapper and an MC.


CRAVEONLINE: Most documentaries about a musical genre are historical timelines. The Art Of Rap is more a look at the craft of being an MC. How did you set about making this movie?

ICE T: First I called all my friends. I only wanted to talk to people I know because I wanted it to be conversational. I told them this is what we’re not going to talk about, money, clothes, jewelry, cars, beef. We’re going to talk about the craft. They were all like “Well nobody ever asked us those questions” and I was like good. Then I had fifteen questions that I wrote, that I’d never been asked and that’s how I did it. I went in and asked everybody those same questions.


CRAVEONLINE: Did that make it easier to edit the film?

ICE T: No. We had no idea how we were going to put the movie together. We just wanted to get the content and then figure out how to puzzle it together and fit it into a movie.


CRAVEONLINE: How hard was it to get the film’s arc together?

ICE T:HA! Are you kidding me? We had three hundred hours of film. The first edit was six hours. It was brutal. Then I had to cut it down to two hours for Sundance. There’s a lot more footage, I have an hour, hour and a half on each artist. There’ll be more incarnations of this film but for now we don’t want to push that, we want people to go see it in the theater.


CRAVEONLINE: Maybe more on the DVD/Bluray release?

ICE T: It’s crazy. There might be a television show here, there’s lots of options. All the footage from this film will see the light of day sooner or later.


CRAVEONLINE: Was there any one artist that you had trouble getting to open up?

ICE T: No, nobody. They all trusted me with the film and they all knew it was going to have a good look. Everybody just got open. I didn’t know what they were going to talk about. Eminem started talking about overdosing and KRS One told a wild story about how he started rapping. I mean, Run, Reverend Run is talking about eating French toast in a tub in a presidential suite. They just kept it real and I love ‘em for it.


CRAVEONLINE: What’s the difference between a rapper and an MC?

ICE T: An MC is somebody who can control the crowd. An MC is a master of ceremonies so not only can you say your rap, you can rock the party. You know how to get the people to move and you’re not afraid of the crowd and you can take it back if you need to, like Run-DMC, Chuck D, and  KRS One. A lot of the younger kids now can rap, but they’re scared of the crowd. Mastery of that stage is an MC. I don’t know if you’ve seen any great MCs on stage but when you do it’s like wow, this is more than the words to rhymes. They got me just going with it. That’s like getting your PHD in rap when you get the title MC.


CRAVEONLINE: The first truly amazing Hip Hop show I was Run DMC back in the day. It was clear they had a different take on what to do with a crowd.

ICE T: Exactly. When DMC comes out and says, “Can I have your attention please”, that’s not rapping, that’s MCing. DMC rolls his arms up and then Jam Master Jay starts scratching “run, run, run, run”, you’re like wow because you’re watching a full show.


CRAVEONLINE: Was there anybody you wanted to talk to that you didn’t?

ICE T A  lot of people. The phone calls went out. I wanted to talk to Little Wayne; I wanted to talk to Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, etc. Nobody said no, it was just that everybody was moving. I had a camera crew from London and I’m in New York doing Law And Order and sometimes I wouldn’t be available. Busta, one of my best friends, he saw the movie, he didn’t make it, and he says, “I’m buried in regret”.


CRAVEONLINE: One of my favorite sections of the film is when Trech from Naughty By Nature talks about rappers writing down their rhymes and how most can’t freestyle. When did it become cool to not write down your raps?

ICE T: I think that started with Jay-Z. Jay-Z is like a rap-savant, he doesn’t have to write the rhymes down, he can create complex raps in his head. I mean he does memorize it, he just doesn’t write it down on paper. He doesn’t freestyle onto the track, it’s all thought out. The greatest raps in history were all written down. The Message, Tupac’s work, Biggie Smalls. This is written music. People who can freestyle, that’s like a parlor trick. Some of the greatest freestylers, like Supernatural, that’s something you do to show off. When it’s time to make a record, you break out the pen and the pad.


CRAVEONLINE: A film about the greatest rappers and their craft without Biggie Smalls in it seems off. Did you think about that for the film?

ICT T:Not really. This wasn’t a movie like see your favorite rapper. It wasn’t about the greatest rappers. This is a film about taking a group of rappers who have basic cred in the art form and getting their views on Hip Hop. I couldn’t make the See Your Favorite Rapper or The Best Rappers ever movie, that’s impossible to make. My comment is this, you may not see your favorite rapper but you’ll see your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. There was no mindset of I have to reach these particular people. I just needed to get the people in my address book; I thought that was a good enough cross section.  Somebody else can make the movie The Greatest Rappers Who Ever Lived.


CRAVEONLINE: Did you have a favorite moment that didn’t make the film?

ICE T: I don’t know. There are so many great conversations on there that I can’t put my finger on one of them. I tried to hold on to everything and I tried to catch people differently. I tried to catch people in a mode you’re not familiar with. Like KRS One, you’re not really used to seeing him tell crazy stories about himself. I tried to show a different shade of people.


CRAVEONLINE: Whose freestyle surprised you the most?

ICE T: Probably Kanye West, he just went in. People look at Kanye and say “Oh Kanye’s pop” but he can rap his ass off. He’s put under the gun and I’m like c’mon Kanye give me something new, and Kanye just kept rhyming. I think he rhymed like 30 bars and you couldn’t stop him until he was done. That’s the art of rap.


CRAVEONLINE: Turn the camera on yourself. How does Ice T go about creating rhymes?

ICE T: I started writing rhymes first and then put it to the music. I figured out I could lock it to the beat better if I heard the music first. I like to get a lot of tracks, put the track up and let the music talk to me about what it’s about. Sometimes I have a concept and I’ll write the concept down and make a record around it. I like to work with the music first. I sit down, close my eyes, tell Coco don’t talk to me and I just start writing. Sometimes it takes an hour to do a full song, sometimes I write a little and come back to it.


CRAVEONLINE: One thing that’s clear in the film is that all the rappers have respect for Ice T. You’ve sold records, been on TV, now a filmmaker. How did you manage to stay so highly regarded in the ever-fickle world of Hip Hop?

ICE T: You know the term never forget where you came from? I never forgot. When people put me on the point and they want me to diss the hood or diss the gangs, I won’t do it. I understand the complexity of that. I’m on Law And Order but I’m still Ice T. I could have changed my name to my real name but I want people who watch Law And Order to say, “Why is he Ice T”? Oh he’s a rapper. “”I don’t like rappers”. You do now. Even now I’m reaching back. Just keep it real, stay in contact and don’t lie. When I was in the streets I was in the streets, I’m not in the streets anymore so I don’t have to portray that. I’m still the same guy; if you walk up on me you might get punched in the face. Just keep it honest.

My latest thing is Ice Loves Coco where you see me being me, playing X-Box, and loving my wife. With me it’s not an image, this is me, and either you like it or you don’t. I don’t respond to the fans, I respond to what I want to do with my life and y’all either come along for the ride or you don’t. I think fans can tell when you’re doing something just for them and they don’t dig it.


CRAVEONLINE: There’s always talk about what’s real Hip Hop and what’s not. Some say pop influence bad and so on. With the success of the genre, is there such a thing as Hip Hop that isn’t real?

ICE T: It all comes from the same tree. If you’re taking time, writing your lyrics down and respecting the craft then its Hip Hop. See Hip Hop is the culture, rap is a vocally delivery, you feel me. Anybody can rap, Dr. Seuss can rap like Kane said, but if you’re Hip Hop you should know the culture and where it came from. A rap purist will say if it’s not just beats and raps and breaks then its not real Hip Hop. Now you have more pop involved. Snoop Dogg is rapping with Katy Perry but it’s all from the same tree so I don’t have a problem with it. There’s hardcore Hip Hop, original sounding Hip Hop, its gone in a million directions. As long as you respect the craft and the history, then you cool with me.


For more on Something From Nothing: The Art Of Hip Hop check out Ice-T's official website.