Ice-T's living room looks out over some of the glitziest real estate in the world, the American fantasy-land of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. But if you look past the bungalows and the boutiques, look a little farther out into the Los Angeles sprawl, you can see Ice's old neighborhood, the "killing fields" of South Central L.A.
The inventor of "crime rhyme," born Tracy Marrow 30-some years ago, got out of South Central, but South Central never got out of him. His three gold albums – Rhyme Pays, Power and The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech... Just Watch What You Say – chronicle the L.A. gang life Ice-T knows firsthand from the years he spent as a hustler, petty criminal and occasional prison resident. He paved the way for younger rappers like Ice Cube and the members of N.W.A, who turned Ice's no-holds-barred language and brutal depiction of the streets into the growing subgenre known as "gangster rap."
Those performers are often accused of glamorizing and exploiting urban violence, but such charges won't stick to Ice-T. Gangster rappers maintain that they are reporting on the life they see every day; Ice has consistently taken the next step and backed up his words with constructive action. His gory gang tales and street-corner sexual boasting – from "I'm Your Pusher" to "Street Killer" – are regularly used as examples of rap's excessive sexism and violence, but Rhyme Pays was the first record to be voluntarily stickered for its explicit lyrics. He testified before Congress about the L.A. gang situation, and he has been an active spokesman at schools and conferences, as well as on television, against music censorship, especially the work of his nemesis, Tipper Gore and the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC).
Now Ice-T stands at the center of a new controversy. He stars in the crack-gang saga New Jack City, and his riveting performance as undercover cop Scotty Appleton has received widespread acclaim. New Jack City has been a surprise smash, bringing in $16 million in its first two weeks, but it has drawn more attention for the violent incidents that plagued its opening weekend in several cities, including a much-publicized riot in the streets of L.A.'s Westwood neighborhood that broke out after a show was oversold. Movies have always been important in Ice-T's career. His first national exposure was a cameo in 1984's Breakin'. The inclusion of his rap "Reckless" on that movie's soundtrack was his first step toward leaving the life of a street criminal. His theme song for 1988's Colors remains his single most celebrated rhyme. With New Jack City it seems Ice-T the movie star has arrived. Already, he has begun filming Ricochet, a big-budget action picture starring Denzel Washington, and he is currently weighing several more Hollywood offers. Ice-T's strongest work, though, is still his music. Next month he will release his finest album to date, O.G. (which stands for Original Gangster). A scathing 24 tracks, O.G. plays out violent street adventures and warns of their consequences with equal strength. It's Ice-T at his best – his trademark razorsharp delivery rips through rhymes that are evocative, even terrifying, but never preachy or humorless. A new obsession with rock & roll has put Ice in the studio with the members of Jane's Addiction (with whom he plans to tour this summer) and with a black hardcore band called Body Count. Megadeth's Dave Mustaine wants to work with him, and Ice's neighbor Axl Rose has expressed an interest in a collaborative, hip-hop remake of "Welcome to the Jungle."
At the time of this interview, Los Angeles was still in turmoil following the brutal beating of motorist Rodney King by local policemen. The release of a videotape showing the assault on King adds a new dimension to gangster rap. There can be no more denying that these artists are speaking to ugly urban realities and giving voice to a population that is otherwise silent in the mass media. "So many more things are going to come to light that rappers are talking about now," says Ice-T. "People just don't understand that rappers speak an entirely different language, like French or Swedish." New Jack City's success shows that America is starting to listen; O.G. proves that we still need to take some lessons.
What do you think the problems during the New Jack opening weekend were all about?
It's just hype again, really. It only happened the first night, when the attendance was just too much. That Westwood incident was bullshit – they sold 1,500 extra tickets and took the kids' money. And the Rodney King situation didn't help shit. That made America tense.
In L.A., you got gangs, and gangs live in territory. You create a magnet that draws them across territory lines to one place, you're going to have drama. They're not used to looking each other in the face.
It was a rare event for them. It's gotten so hard to book rap shows, and there aren't many other movies for city kids.
These kids were geared up to see this movie for about two weeks. They came, their adrenalin was pumping. You're gonna close the door on them?
I was up at a Total Recall show in New York. They was fighting out there, too; just didn't get the press. I don't trust the press. My attitude is, pit bulls stopped biting people. Remember when the papers were full of pit bulls biting people? They stopped, I guess.
Despite the bad publicity, most of the response to the movie has been positive. How did you feel about making New Jack City – how does making movies compare with making records?
Much more scary. When I started making records, I didn't have anything at risk. Plus, I never got into making records with the idea that you could make money doing it, because in the days when I started rapping, there weren't any rich rappers. Now, making these movies there's a lot at risk. You could make one wrong move in this business – one wrong statement, one wrong anything – and it can just fuck you up.
How did you get your first big chance, the appearance in the movie Breakin'? Nobody was paying much attention to Los Angeles rappers.
I had a record out that I never got paid for, and this guy with an underground club in L.A. asked me to come perform. I was rapping there every weekend, but just for fun and to get girls. During the week, at the same time, we would continue doing our crimes and hustling.
After about a year of that, these dudes walked in talking about being in a movie, and I was like, "Fuck you," because I had already been ripped off once. But the guys in my crew were like, "Go for it, man. You got a chance. White people like you, Ice." We were supposed to be going to Palm Springs the next day to rob jewelry stores. We were on our way, and they said: "You ain't going, homes. You going to that audition."
I never really was a violent person. No matter what part of the hustle you get into, though, eventually violence comes into it. Even if you sell dope, you're going to have to kill someone because they didn't pay you. I wasn't with it like that – I just wanted to get my money, maybe hurt an insurance company here or there.
The fact that I didn't want to kill nobody made it unsafe for me, because that little hesitation might take you out. Like when you're in prison, it's the good behavior they hang over you that will get you killed. When that guy's coming at you to move on you, you want your good behavior, so you don't react in that violent manner, and he takes your life.
You were in street crime before crack took off. How much did that change the rules?
Totally changed it. It rewrote the rules. Crack really revolutionized gangbanging more than anything else. Only elite players could get their hands on blow. The gangbangers didn't have access; they sold weed or dust. But crack is available for every kid on the street.
Much broader. The difference between a gangster and a player is that a player has finesse. My crew really honored ourselves in being up on finer things. We knew all about designers, the best jewelry. That was the only way we could get up around some of the shit we was stealing. We couldn't walk in like "Yo, man, let me see your rings."
Gangsters don't have finesse. They just know how to take. My crew up in Quentin say there's motherfuckers in there now saying, "Yo, the kids on the street in L.A. are just making my money." They're gonna wait till they get out of prison, find some young rich kid and just do him and take the money. It's just madness. It's never been this crazy.
Do you see the change all across the country?
When we go on tour, we'll get to these cities down South where there's no drugs, and the kids can't buy T-shirts or nothing. We were out touring and I kept saying, "Damn, why are these motherfuckers so poor?" Because there's no dope down there. You go to Detroit and you got kids coming up saying, "Give me 50 shirts!" I had one kid walk up and buy 25 hats, 30 shirts for his whole crew.
A real strength of New Jack is that it addresses the attractiveness of dealing. Kids know that's the reality, but critics say that it glamorizes crime.
Well, it is glamorous! When I was 19 years old, I was in a motel room. I was with some players, older than me, and them fools dumped $410,000 out on a Motel 6 bed. There were big heaps, wet bills. I was scared, but witnessing that kind of money is real crazy.
Very few of these kids are really out to hurt each other. They're more out to get paid than they are to hurt. That's a key. It's got to be understood that these kids in our cities are just paperboys. They're not bringing it in, they have no control over making it.
I use this scenario: Put five people into a jail cell and give them all the death sentence, which is like living in the ghetto – you got a death sentence. Now you're in this cell, and I come to you and say: "Look, I'll get you out of here, just poison them. They're gonna die anyway; just poison them and I'll let you out of here." How many people would have the morality to say no?
How much have you changed since you got out of it?
A lot of my attitudes are still the same. If Al Capone was writing books today, would you call him a writer or a gangster? But I learn, and a lot of shit on my albums will contradict itself over the years. When I did Rhyme Pays, I had a very closed brain. I was from South Central, I thought my whole world was there. Now I'm a little older and see things differently, so my stuff expands.
Rap is so competitive that very few rappers are willing to say, "Maybe I changed my mind, maybe I was wrong."
I'll give you a good example. I used to fuck with gays a lot. But then I realized that I'm not getting anything out of fucking with nobody for their sexual preferences. That's their thing. We used to do this thing on the stage – "All the ugly people be quiet! Everybody with AIDS be quiet!" And then this guy told me: "Yo, Ice, that ain't cool, man. AIDS is something you die from, it's not no joke." I thought, "Yeah, that's true," so I don't fuck with that no more. But it's something you grow into. You can't expect a motherfucker from Brooklyn or from Watts to understand this shit; you're over there, you're dumb. Same way somebody from West Hollywood might be dumb about them and call them names.
Rappers are really ahead of our time. We attempt to foresee what's going to happen. What a rapper usually talks about is today or ahead of today, not something from back in the day.
But hell, yeah, I knew about "Freedom of Speech," I know I'm No. 2 on the FBI hit list. N.W.A got a letter and made a big thing out of it, but when me and Big Daddy Kane went out to do a tour of schools, the feds called up and said, "We don't think Ice-T is the appropriate person to speak to our kids." The FBI list is nothing new to me.
Do those threats of censorship just come from racism?
First off, the racism isn't necessarily the black and white races; it's the conservative race versus the nonconservative. In America, if you're reaping the benefits and you love the flag and everything, then you're white. If you say, "Fuck it," and ride a Harley-Davidson and listen to Motörhead, you're black regardless of what you think. You're not in.
But the educational system in this country is the real problem; it breeds racism. You don't learn about nothing but white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The white kid needs to learn that I'm something so he can respect me, and I need to learn that Oriental cultures, Indian cultures are great, so that we can all respect each other. But they have to keep Jews and blacks having problems, and they don't want blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans realizing that if you're not white, you're black.
It's a fucked-up game, but rap is trying to sort it out. They've got to stop it; it can fuck up the entire structure. My record was rated Number One at Harvard, and these kids are gonna be sitting on the Supreme Court. So the censorship issue is really a smoke screen to me for a lot of that good old keep-people-separate shit.
You've taken on the PMRC over the years....
The PMRC is about the most worthless piece of an organization. Why don't they have a Parents' Homework Resource Center, where parents stay home and help kids with their homework? Or a Parents' Non-drinking Center? But what the fuck you got a bunch of bitches playing records backwards for? It's the stupidest, most ridiculous, dumb shit to think that musicians are attempting to fuck with kids' minds with some subliminal shit. All musicians want to do is rock & roll and make motherfuckers happy and trip motherfuckers out.
We've been yelling about the police for so long. It's just funny when this shit finally shows itself. Now it seems [N.W.A's] "Fuck tha Police" should be the anthem, but now it's late.
One thing I feel bad about is, I make a lot of statements about the police, but I can't really say that about all cops. I've been to New York and the cops out there were kinda different. They have to coexist with the people. Whereas in L.A., these cops travel in these little capsules called police cars, and when they do get out, they're so unused to dealing with the people that they communicate almost on a Gestapo level.
The LAPD has never been so nice as they are now. A memo must have come over the damn desk saying, "Stop fucking with these people." It's unfortunate it took [the King tape] to make them change. And the next time they do something like that, motherfuckers need to get busy. People say, "Oh, you don't need to be violent," but sometimes it takes some kind of action.
What do you think about [N.W.A founder] Eazy-E's visit to the White House at the invitation of the Republican party and his contribution to the party's campaign chest?
He went out like a sucker. I don't think Eazy really understands what he did. The only reason he might have done that was to gain some kind of leverage this year for touring or something. Little does he know that they don't give a fuck about that little bit of money he gave and they'll come down on him harder just to prove that they're not buying it.
But I'm not trying to knock Eazy, because that's counterproductive. I hope N.W.A have a big album. I was out here so long with no rap groups to help out. I'm just happy to have more groups.
Oh, it's great. I'm happy for all that shit. I don't like Vanilla Ice, though, because he's too arrogant and talks too much shit. He says he's street – that encompasses a lot; that means maybe you were on welfare or didn't have a place to sleep. He ain't from no street – what street's he from, Sesame Street? A lot of black people can't say they're street.
But it is expanding the rap market. When M.C. Hammer moves 10 million records, a kid can go out and sell one record to every ten Hammer fans and go platinum. That's got to be good. Hammer is pop, like the Fresh Prince. I would get mad at Hammer if he tried to rap hard. I can't be jealous or mad at him – I'm just happy to see somebody get over.
I figure I got 400,000 solid, die-hard Ice-T fans, people that will get into the street and fight if you say something bad about me. I can live off that, and that's really what I was all about in this game – longevity, not the one big hit.
On O.G., there's a white guy talking about "niggers" who gets popped. But you're talking about working with Axl, who got in all that trouble when he said "nigger" on his album. Is that a problem for you?
No, I didn't really have no problem with Axl. I've got to meet him and hang out with him before I make judgments. Because records aren't the truth – records are another person, another identity. In the record "Pulse of the Rhyme" [from O.G.], that's what I'm dealing with. In "Pulse" it says that during the course of a rap, do not attempt to determine fact from fiction. It's impossible.
Dig it. You know why? Because rap initially was rapped about yourself – "I got a house on the beach, I got a Jeep." But most people don't understand that most of that was lies. I hate to say it's a black thing, but it is a black thing. You hang around black kids long enough, they'll start talking about each other's mamas. If you really believe that shit, you also believe the black guy when he stands in front of a liquor store and says, "I could wrap my dick around that fire hydrant ten times, down through the subway, back up and fuck your mama."
At this point, do you feel the violent raps are a way to set up the more serious stuff on your albums?
Not only as a tool, but because the ill stuff is fun. I got to be able to make records with no message, or else you can predict the message and it's no fun anymore. We worked hard on this album, trying to get all that in, under the impression that the movie would be a flop. We said: "Okay, the movie flops. Now what the fuck is gonna hold my career together?" The only thing I really did differently this year is make the music more entertaining. I never made records to dance to, it's more to sit and listen to. But now I'm thinking I'm going to publish my shit, do some literature shit.
Is there any single message you want to come from this new album?
Every album, I do a different thing in my liner notes. Before, I wrote about gangs and dealing drugs. This year, I say: "No one lives in the ghetto by choice. Go to school, build your brain. Escape from the killing fields." That's what the whole shit is about.