Whether it was a deliberate action on behalf of the MIFF schedule organisers or purely kismet coincidence, but the back-to-back screenings of Marten Persiel’s This Ain’t California and Ice-T’s (yes, Ice-T) Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap proved to be a winning double. The former is documentary following the very literal clash of East meets West from a time in the 1980s where Californian skate culture blossomed under the shadow of the Berlin Wall in East Germany. Meanwhile, the latter is another East meets West documentary, this time as the legendary rap star turned director traverses the East Coast (New York) and West Coast (Los Angeles) rap scenes from their inception in the early 1980s to discover what it takes to write the perfect lyric.
Persiel’s film is ultimately the more fascinating due to its immense wealth of stunning home movies taken from behind the Berlin Wall. A world that has been rarely seen is given a youthful makeover by the rebellious teenagers who have gathered together once more as adults to mourn the death of their one-time figurative leader. The documentary examines how the American hip-hop movement–exposed to those of the GDR via hip-hop dance films such as Beat Street and Wild Style, two personal favourites–and in particular skateboarding and beatboxing were seen as creative outlets for the oppressed youth of the nation that had succumbed to “grey boredom”.
The super 8 video footage captured here is truly astounding as these kids perform their acrobatic skating routines for nobody’s amusement but their own and the pavement to which they lose copious amounts of skin, only to see it develop into a popular and even profitable craze. What happened to the leader, Dennis, is a vague mystery, but involves the GDR Stasi police, the war in Afghanistan and a tragic sadness. Persiel’s film is filled with an energetic soundtrack of must-have tunes, as well as a contagious anarchic spirit. And, yes, the ‘80s fashion of denim jean shorts and male perm haircuts is worth a few giggles, too.
The hip-hop movement’s home front, however, was very much the same. The genre of music that was born out of the Bronx and other New York boroughs was a way for the African American youth to create “something from nothin” that was theirs and as a way to tell their stories, springing forth from a government and society that had forgotten them. Much like jazz and blues, hip-hop has extended far beyond its origins and an exhaustive examination of the movement would be much more at home as an extended television series. As amazing as that would have been–given the number of rap identities assembled here (Dre, Snoop Dogg, the Grandmasters, Common, Nas, Doug E Fresh, Run DMC and over 30 others) I am sure there was enough footage to do as such-it’s a relief that Ice-T (and co-director Andy Baybutt) has chosen to focus his directorial debut on what goes in to forming the perfect rap. At nearly two-hours there still isn’t enough time to go into things with too much depth and most of the interview subjects are on screen for only 2-5 minutes each (not to mention the many who weren’t involved: Queen Latifah, Beastie Boys, Eve, Whodini, Jazzy Jay, The Treacherous 3, Lauryn Hill), but the refined subject topic was a nice way to distinguish the project from the others. With Ice-T at the centre of the whole project–“Colors” remains one of my favourite songs of all time– audiences know they’re getting a masterclass.
Where the film falters is, unfortunately, in Ice-T’s direction. Favouring repetitive establishing shots and blandly put together talking head interviews (some of the interviewees don’t even both to clean their houses) over live footage, music videos and other vintage videos that would have made the film a treasure trove. For a film discussing the art of constructing a perfect rap there are no opportunities to experience the masters actually rapping. Sure, they do their own a Capella renditions for the camera, but there was a great opportunity to let audiences into the world of 1980s hip-hop and it wasn’t taken.
Since the film is determined to focus on the rappers in their modern incarnation, it’s a relief then that they are so gosh darn entertaining. Extravagant personalities, hilarious anecdotes, and all the crazy fashions that go with them are front and centre. Despite its relative shortcomings, the film is a must see for anybody like me who worships the golden era of hip-hop where the artists actually had something to say, and an important one for anybody who thinks the genre is little more than “bling” (see Grandmaster Melle Me’s “White Lines” for a perfect example of an anti-drug song, the sort of song this era frequently served up). Basically, it’s just a whole lot of fun!
Director: Marten Persiel (This Ain’t California) and Ice-T (Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap)