Back in March, footage of an inane debate between two Florida state representatives went quasi-viral. In the video clip, Democrat Alan B. Williams expresses his support for a bill that would refine Florida’s evidence code by quoting Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”: “I know my rights and you’re gonna need a warrant for that / Aren’t you sharp as a tack? / You some kind of lawyer or something?” Spoiling for a fight, Republican Dean Cannon, who opposed the bill, proceeds to misquote the lyrics as, “You should try for a lawyer or something.” Then, he inexplicably lectures Williams: “It’s an unspoken rule: If you’re going to invoke Jay-Z, you must get the lyrics correct.”
Gangsta-rap pioneer Ice-T and 2 Live Crew frontman Luther “Luke” Campbell hopefully got at least a chuckle out of this exchange. Twenty-plus years after President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle denounced “Cop Killer,” by Ice’s rap-rock project Body Count, and a Florida District Court judge ruled 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be “obscene,” elected officials are now quoting rap lyrics for authenticity points. But meanwhile, hip-hop’s most vilified free-speech martyrs are recasting the genre’s contested history in their own image: Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, a documentary helmed by Ice-T, and Jillian Mayer’s experimental short, Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, starring Campbell, both premiered at Sundance this year.
Something From Nothing features everybody from the Cold Crush Brothers’ Grandmaster Caz to Common, hanging out and discussing the intricacies of their craft. Ice-T’s OG status gives him the access that similarly styled “art of rapping,” straight-to-DVD docs could never obtain. And Rakim’s explanation of how he goes about writing his airtight raps…he starts with 16 dots on a piece of paper, which he intently toys with until he finds the perfect word…is fascinating. Even more so, since Ice himself is as baffled as we are by the God MC’s almost mystical approach.
Particularly touching moments include Kanye West, grinning and unguarded, laughing it up as he tells the story of losing his first rap battle in middle school (the line that beat him: “Yo, my name is Chris / Let me tell you one thing…you smell like piss”), and Eminem solemnly explaining the therapeutic role that rapping played in his recovery from drug addiction. The documentary’s tone is earnest, even provincial, and it suggests that if someone were to one day do the ten-hour history of hip-hop in the style of Ken Burns’ Jazz, it could very well be Ice-T.
There is, however, a certain self-seriousness to Something From Nothing, so after nearly two hours of hip-hop shoptalk and wordy dudes furiously spitting rhymes into the camera, it’s a pleasure to experience Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a 13-minute expressionistic take on the booty-bass innovator’s colorful career. The 1990 obscenity trial and Campbell’s 2011 run for mayor of Miami are acknowledged, but Mayer plays fast and loose with facts…even reality.
In her film’s version of Luke’s life, he wins the election, turns his hometown into a utopia, and all is well. Or, at least until Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station melts down. After the nuclear holocaust, Luke, the only survivor, becomes Miami’s own Omega Man, battling radiated zombies before getting nabbed by two scientists from the future…or maybe it’s the past…who send him back through time to spread his seed so that others will survive the meltdown.
If the bare bones of this plot sound familiar, that’s because Freaky Times is, like Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a twisted but quite faithful remake of Chris Marker’s 1962 short film, La Jetée. Adding to its avant-garde pedigree are the Kool-Aid–colored, two-dimensional sets with holes for actors’ heads and limbs…like living folk-art sculptures…which makes this bizarre, charming biopic turned Tim and Eric–esque spazz-out a visual treat as well.
Dropping Uncle Luke’s odd, obnoxious personality into this artsy milieu actually feels somehow truer to rap’s subversive, smart-dumb spirit than Ice-T’s sober, pure-facts examination. But when viewed together, Something From Nothing and Freaky Times, both out of the box and Sundance-approved, form a boldly instructive example of how to redress the misrepresentations that have traditionally marred the genre’s mainstream record.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of SPIN.