Ice-T – the gangsta rap icon who spewed the venomous "Cop Killer" with his heavy metal band Body Count and became a First Amendment martyr in the Nineties – has since become a TV star and pop culture darling, playing a police detective on Law & Order: SVU and himself on Ice Loves Coco, a reality show about his married life.
In his new documentary The Art of Rap, out on June 15th, Ice-T returns to his roots and does candid interviews with some of hip-hop's greatest lyricists, including Rakim, Grandmaster Caz, KRS-One, Q-Tip, Nas, Raekwon, Eminem and MC Lyte. On his way to a screening of the film in Chicago, the veteran spoke at length with Rolling Stone about the meaning of "real hip-hop" and dropped knowledge for the next generation.
The Art of Rap is a personal project about your peers in hip-hop, but the story is also relevant to fans. As a filmmaker, who did you create this film for?
I created it for both. The artists want to be represented for once in a good light, to see themselves as artists and not what's usually portrayed in the press. Fans get a chance to see these guys candidly and hear how they feel about the art form. It's me giving back to hip-hop and doing a film that shows us in a good, positive light.
A lot of the MCs showcased in this film predate the formative years of young hip-hop fans. For those who didn't grow up with Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, what do you see as the takeaway?
They need to know their history. If I'm going to be a jazz player, I need to understand Miles Davis. They need to understand what this train is that they're jumping on and they're following; where it comes from. You gotta remember that hip-hop was a youth movement. [Grandmaster] Caz says in the movie, "I started when I was 13" ... we were all kids when we started. Now you guys are kids and you guys are taking it from here.
You also document the rhyme-writing process, from Grandmaster Caz's penmanship to Rakim's 16-bar strategy. Rappers today often brag about not writing their verses down, and like Naughty by Nature's Treach says in the film, it shows. When did it become cool to stop writing?
Jay-Z did that. Jay-Z is like a rap savant. He has that ability to do very intricate stuff in his head and he was the first rapper to say, 'I don't write," and now everybody is trying to act like they can do it like Jay-Z. Most people have to write it out. It's not that easy to do it well off the head, as they say. You'll get an interesting rhyme, but it won't be anything near something you can write. So to me, Jay-Z is the one rapper who can do it. Everybody else, like Treach says, needs to pick up a pen and take a little time and make it sound right.
It seems like the phenomenon of lyrics taking a backseat to beats coincided with the rise of hip-hop producers as stars in their own right. Did the producer kill the rapper?
Nah. I mean, if you have a supernatural track, you don't really have to do much to rap on it to sell it. The track is so intense. Sometimes when the beat is so loud or incredible, people don't get to the words; they're just having so much fun. When you got that mega-production, you can hide behind that production. No disrespect, but some of the biggest records … If you take the music from MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This" and listen to the rhymes, Hammer was just having fun. He wasn't rhyming incredible, but the track was so intense and that was one of the biggest rap records in history. That's no diss towards Hammer, but if you get on the right track, the track will take you for a ride. These producers got smart and they're charging an arm and a leg for a track now, 'cause they know: "You can't rap really, so I'm gonna charge you!"
There's also been a marked change in the last few years, with artists like Drake and Nicki Minaj singing as much as they are rapping. Do you feel like that dilutes the art of rap or broadens it?
A good emcee will rhyme a lot of different ways. Don't limit yourself. Maybe on this record, you're on something a little bit different, a little house-y, and then for this one you go to DJ Premier for some real hardcore beats, or then you have that big, super, grand DJ Khaled production that's so incredible. You gotta learn how to change your flow so you're not doing the same thing over and over again.
Just last week, Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg dissed Nicki Minaj by implying that her song "Starships" isn't "real hip-hop," and she responded by pulling out of her headlining slot at Summer Jam. Some have applauded him, while others say his point of view is outdated. What do you think "real hip-hop" is?
I think it's all "real hip-hop." You have the core hip-hop, which would just be beats and breaks, more something like what you hear with DJ Premier. Then you get into the more highly produced hip-hop, which is something like what DJ Khaled does. But at some point, it starts to get kind of pop. It goes into this other realm.
Nicki went on tour with Britney Spears, so she's on another channel. But to me, it all comes from hip-hop; it's like a growth of hip-hop, whether you agree with that growth or not. Like me, I'm not the biggest Nicki Minaj fan but I think she can rhyme. She does her thing. She has her own way of doing it. She has an ill vocal delivery. She kind of reminds me of a female Busta Rhymes, like how she throws her voice in different directions – but she's no Lil Kim. I think when people say "real hip-hop," they want it more buried in the streets. They want it more connected to the streets and the grime and the roughness of the streets. They don't want the fluff.
How can artists talk or represent the streets when they've physically and financially moved beyond that? Is that real or inauthentic?
It's fake. Me, I've always tried to stay current with my life. As my life grew, my raps grew with it. Rap is like any other art form. There will be critics. For Rosenberg to step out and make that statement, we know people will say, "You out of pocket anyway. You a Jewish kid trying to talk about hip-hop and its realness." He's probably taking a shitstorm of hell, like, "What do you know about real hip-hop?" I know Rosenberg and he's what you call a hip-hop head – he knows hip-hop backwards and forwards. There's always going to be that dilemma. Me, I think it all comes from the same seed.