Ice-T on His Rap Documentary, the Feud with Pop and the Future of Hip Hop

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Victoria Will / AP

The rapper and actor Ice-T is celebrating some big anniversaries in 2012: 25 years since his album Rhyme Pays was the first hip-hop record to bear the now-familiar “explicit content” sticker, and 20 since his rap-rock band’s controversial single “Cop Killer” put him in the headlines. Recently he’s been more likely to make news in front of a camera rather than a microphone—he has played a detective on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since 2000, and appears alongside his wife in the reality series Ice Loves Coco. Now he’s about to mark another rap milestone, the debut of Ice-T the director. His first film, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, an interview-based documentary about the history of hip-hop and rap music—featuring interviews with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, among with many others—opens in theaters on Friday. Ice-T spoke to TIME about making his first movie, the importance of history and the future of rap.

TIME: What inspired you to make the movie?

Ice-T: I wanted to start directing. I’ve been in film for a while and that’s something I want to do down the road, and I said, ‘Maybe this should be my first project.’ I was looking at the state of hip hop and I was like, ‘I don’t feel people respect it as much as they should.’ So I went out and called all my friends. I said, ‘I want to do interviews with you, but I’m going to talk to you about not the money, the cars, the jewelry, the beef. I want to talk about the craft.’ They were like, ‘Nobody ever asks us those questions.’

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What kind of audience did you have in mind?

Anybody who ever liked [hip hop] or was curious about it, been a fan or is a fan. If you’re a hater and you don’t like it, then don’t go see it. But if you ever had a rap record you liked and you wanted to know more about it, or you ever wanted to get into the business—I think that encompasses about 90% of the population.

Do you think that as rap becomes more popular people know less about it?

It’s like anything. You might ask somebody about rock and roll, and they go, ‘Wasn’t the first rock band The Beatles?’ They don’t know about Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Fats Domino. This is a chance for me to give you an idea of where it started.

Were most of the people you interviewed eager to talk about it? 

They were crazy eager to talk about it. I didn’t have any problem once the cameras rolled, and I got like a couple hours on each person just talking.

The editing process must have been difficult.

Are you kidding me? The first edit was four hours. Getting it down to two hours for Sundance was brutal, but I have a lot of footage so there’ll be more incarnations of this film down the road. You can look at The Art of Rap as a teaser for things to come.

Like what?

Who knows? TV Shows? I don’t know.

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Obviously you know a lot about the history of rap because you’ve been such a part of it. But were there any facts or stories you heard during filming that were surprising to you? 

Oh yeah, absolutely. Funny stuff. Like how KRS-One became a rapper and B-Real’s voice, where that came from, and MC Lyte—how she developed her style. One of the things I tell is that my wife told me she didn’t listen to the words of rap, and I’m talking to Salt and she says, ‘My husband does the same thing.’

In terms of the future of the genre, do you think rap is headed in a good direction?

I think hip hop is a vocal delivery and it can go in any direction. You can go rock with it; you can go techno. I think you’re about to see a reemergence of dance music and hip hop, because we all started as based off the DJ. You look at somebody like Flo Rida, he took that and ran with it. Most of his music is based on dance music. So I think there’s a unique connection between those two. But hip hop will continue. People will be rapping on records as long as we’re alive now. It’s part of global culture.

Last week there was some controversy between Hot 97 and Nicki Minaj about whether she’s too pop, and in the past you and Soulja Boy have had disagreements about something similar. Do you think rap and pop have to stay separate?

Rap will always be critical of itself. That’s just part of it. The Nicki Minaj situation, I think that was not a good call. If they don’t want to respect her, I don’t think they should have invited her. In the movie Mos Def quotes Q-Tip: ‘Rap is not pop. If you call it that, then stop.’ The true origin of rap is counter-culture. The true origin of rap is say something that they’re not saying on the radio. So when you kind of blend into what popular culture is doing, you’re losing the power of hip hop. We’ve got to keep rocking the boat. We’ve got unemployed people, we’ve got a black President, we’ve got election year, we’ve got Occupy Wall Street. If you’re just going to rap about ‘I got money and we balling,’ and all that, you’re not doing with it what it was meant to do. It’s meant to rock a party, but it was meant to change the world.

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So you think rap can be popular without becoming pop?

I think that a rap aficionado, the hard-core rap fan, will always go away from pop, in the same way a hard-core jazz fan will never think Kenny G is really a jazz artist. You gotta kind of know there’s always going to be that purist who’s going to be like if it ain’t beats and rhymes, if there ain’t a DJ, then that ain’t hip hop. I understand it. I’ve never really been into pop rap but, hey, if that’s what some of these artists want to do, that’s cool, but then they can’t feel like they’re going to be welcomed in that hard-core club where it’s really just spitters.

You said earlier that you think you might expand this movie into something else, using the footage. Do you think you’ll also explore what’s coming up next?

Nah. That’s not my job. You might want to make the next movie, the Art of DJing or the Art of Grafitti, or the Art of Breakdancing, or the future of hip-hop. There’s a lot of movies left. Me, I’m trying to go over and start doing my features. I’m the black Tarantino. I got s**t to do.

The film Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap is in theaters June 15. More information is available here.

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