When Seymour Stein was honored with the inaugural CBGB Icon Award this year, it was only right for Ice-T to pay respect. The rapper explained, in a recent press conference for the second annual CBGB Music and Film Festival, how the veteran music man signed him to Sire Records in the late Eighties when "nobody thought West Coast could rap."
Over 25 years later, Ice returned to pay homage to Stein and the landmark venue that once hosted acts such as the Ramones, Blondie and Patti Smith. Rolling Stone caught up with the hyphenate who has diversified from gangsta rapper to Law & Order: SVU favorite for a brief, intimate conversation about the state of hip-hop, his inner demons and how rebranding keeps him relevant.
You said in the press conference tonight that journalists never ask rappers smart questions. What's a question that nobody's ever asked you that you wished they had?
When I was saying that, I was saying the average interviewer isn't even skilled enough to ask a really good question. That was a good question. Thank you. Most interviewers are looking for a headline. They're not skilled. They're looking for shock value. I think by now people have asked me most of the questions, you know. One person asked me what I was afraid of. I had to think about it. I said, "I'm afraid of something happening to the people I love." I mean, I'm that guy, you can put the gun on me but if you put it on my wife . . . "What hurts?" Betrayal. Friends that you believe in turning their back on you.
Your past is still very much a part of your music.
I'm normal. I just had a different occupation for a while, and when you're in a different occupation, you have to carry yourself a different way. Most of my art is me bringing you stories from that era of my life. My life now is kind of boring. [Laughs] So it's different.
That criminal life still haunts you, and you said earlier that you have a recurring dream of being shot and killed. How often does this happen?
Are you killed the same way every time?
Not really that, but my brain is wired different. [Points] If that door opened and I ask you, "Who's coming through that door?," somebody could say "My mother" or maybe "somebody from my past," but I'd say, "Some dudes in ski masks." I've been in heavy situations. When you lived it, you're paranoid. I carried guns so much that I had a bruise on my leg for a year after I stopped. It's that life that I wouldn't wish on anybody. You think you want to do it until you get into it. Then you're like, "Lord have mercy." My music is warning you. It might seem like I'm promoting it, but I'm really warning you against it, like, "You don't wanna fuck with this."
You seem to have it all now – fame, money, the gorgeous wife – but you're still paranoid.
I think the most successful are the most paranoid. The first thing people do when they buy a mansion is they build the biggest wall you could possibly build around it. What happens is, now you become a target. If I go into the hood, I'm at a disadvantage. They could carry guns. I can't. They can hit me in the face. I can't. I hit them in the face and they could fall on the ground and sue me. I don't have all the options they have. That lack of that edge makes you vulnerable.
Do you ever regret the life that success brings?
No. I'm so happy I'm not in that life. It's a different way you have to operate. My friends in here can say anything and do anything, but I can't. I'm not bitchin' about it. You have to embrace your evolution. You have to be "I'm the best that I can ever be at this age, at this time in my life." If you're like a Paris Hilton, you're not as paranoid as me, because you're really unaware of how diabolic[al] these people are. I'm from the other side. I rolled with the diabolics.
Does that mentality affect your relationship with your wife, Coco, who wasn't raised the same way?
Totally. I felt early I was corrupting her, because she comes from a bubble. She comes from a great place where blacks, whites, Mexicans, everyone came together. I brought her to another world, but I had to give it to her in New York. Coco's the kind of person that'll meet somebody and befriend them and be real cool and they'll just do low. It's a wakeup call, like, "Yo, people are real fucked up out here. I hate to break your bubble, but you have to be aware of it."
I feel like we lack a retirement plan in hip-hop. Most rappers don't know how to age gracefully.
I'm going to say this: you can rap forever, but you have to have broken by 30 [years old]. If you broke by 30, you can tour forever. Big Daddy Kane is out touring. Raekwon, me, Ultramagnetic [MCs]. You have a fan base, like Frank Sinatra. Tonight, nobody wants to hear my new music. They want to hear something I did. They want me to take them back and transform them back to that moment. I don't have any desire to put out the hottest record, because my mind is really on film and television. Music is something I do, but my Body Count album is gonna kill, because I'm passionate about that.
So music still excites you?
I'm just disillusioned with the hip-hop sound right now. It's too materialistic. You know, I'm the kind of guy . . . I can't do that. If you track my movement, you'll never see a picture of me with any girl that wasn't mine, or my own car. My jewelry, my clothes. What kind of gangsta rapper has a stylist? A stylist?! So now that game? I gracefully bow out, but then you got beasts. You got Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick [Lamar], all these cats that can really spit. I don't know. I'm just different, and I'm cool with it. The key to the game is "do you."
What happens when "doing you" is what everyone else just so happens to be doing?
What's the secret to staying fresh in the game, then?
Think of it like this. You're on a merry-go-round, and there's a gold ring. I can lean off that horse so far trying to get that ring that I fall off that horse. So why fuck my fan base trying to do a pop record? See? I know the key. I make a group called Club Monster and do hot dance records and people will go "That's Ice-T with them!" But it's [under] another name. Create a new identity and do that, but not fuck with mine.
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