Before N.W.A's 1988 boom, there was plenty of bass
Ice-T was one of the creators of gangsta rap, building a hard-edged West Coast sound rooted in his own experiences hustling on the streets of L.A. But he became hip-hop's most controversial figure in 1992 after coming under fire for "Cop Killer," a song by his thrash-metal side band, Body Count. The lyrics painted a brutal picture of the strife between inner-city police and ghetto youth, and even drew criticism from then-President Bush. At nearly ever turn, Ice-T has been martyred or chastised, managing to offend both the left and right with his provocative words. In the minds of his supporters, Ice-T's violent, often misogynistic tales of mayhem are more sarcastic and even humorous than cynical or gratuitous. With his blunt vocal delivery, narrative-style writing, and mesmerizing B-movie images, Ice-T was one of the earliest West Coast rappers to gain respect among the New York hip-hop set. As an artist, he set the stage for N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, and the Notorious B.I.G. and mingled easily with underground rockers on the first Lollapalooza Tour in 1991. He founded his own Rhyme Syndicate label (distributed by Sire/Warner Bros.) and introduced the likes of Everlast.
Born Tracy Marrow in New Jersey, he was raised by an aunt in L.A. after the death of his parents. Inspired by ghetto novelist/poet Iceberg Slim, he began penning poems while attending Crenshaw High School. At 15 he started hanging out with gang members on the streets of South Central L.A. He was never a gang member himself but spent his days as a young criminal (committing anything from robbery to kidnapping, he later told interviewers) before spending four years in the army. By 1983, he had adopted the name Ice-T (in honor of Iceberg Slim) and recorded a sing-song rap called "The Coldest Rap" over a funky Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis backing track; the song, for which he received $20, came out on the independent label Saturn. The next year Ice-T landed a regular gig at seminal L.A. rap club the Radio and was asked to appear in the movie Breakin' (he also appeared in its sequel).
By the time of his 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, Ice-T had started incorporating poignant stories about inner-city street life ("6 'n the Mornin'," "Squeeze the Trigger") into his heretofore mostly light, sex-obsessed repertoire. Complaining that the songs glorified sex and violence, Tipper Gore's Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) persuaded Sire to attach a warning sticker to the album. Meanwhile, actor/director Dennis Hopper liked Ice-T's tales enough to ask the rapper to pen the title song for his 1988 gang-culture film Colors.
Power (#35 pop, #6 R&B, 1988) produced two minor hits, "High Rollers" (#76 R&B) and a personalized take on Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," retitled "I'm Your Pusher" (#13 R&B). Continuing to draw fire from cultural watchdog organizations, Ice-T teamed up with former Dead Kennedy's frontman Jello Biafra, who'd had an earlier run-in with the PMRC himself, for the sarcastic kick-off track of his subsequent album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say (#37 pop, #11 R&B, 1989). Although the album was well received, Ice-T later said he had been too preoccupied with the censorship issue. In 1991 Ice-T released his magnum opus, O.G. Original Gangster (#15 pop, #9 R&B), a ferocious, 24-track album that chronicled the life of a ghetto tough in songs like "Home of the Bodybag," "Straight Up Nigga," and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous." O.G. also introduced his thrash-metal band Body Count on the song of the same name.
Body Count's self-titled debut album came out to little fanfare in 1992. Then a Texas police group noticed a track called "Cop Killer" and threatened to boycott Sire's parent company, Time Warner. Within a year, Ice-T became a household name, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in a police uniform. After initially supporting the artist, Time Warner quickly accepted when the rapper offered to remove "Cop Killer" from the album; the label soon began asking other artists under its umbrella to remove similarly objectionable material. When the company rejected the artwork for Ice-T's next solo album, Home Invasion, the rapper elected to be released from his seven-album contract; he left the company in January 1993 with five gold albums. (In 1993 he released Home Invasion [#14 pop, #19 R&B], artwork and all, on the independent label Priority.) Warner's decision to let go of Ice-T provided a chilling symbol of how intense corporate fear of rap had become in the wake of "Cop Killer." Body Count (including high school friend Ernie C. on guitar) reemerged with a third album, Violent Demise: The Last Days, in 1997 on Virgin Records.
In 1994 Ice-T's autobiography, The Ice Opinion, was published by St. Martin's Press. By then, he had begun a successful acting career, appearing in several films, including New Jack City (1991), Ricochet (1991), Trespass (1992), and Surviving the Game (1994). He also played an ex-con-turned-crimefighter on the short-lived network TV drama Players in 1997. But Ice-T continued to rap, even as his sales noticeably diminished, releasing VI: Return of the Real (#89 pop, #19 R&B, 19966) and Seventh Deadly Sin (1999).
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Before N.W.A's 1988 boom, there was plenty of bass
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