Ice-T raps about the LA Riots, the 'Cop Killer' controversy, and getting political
George Bush calls his work "sick." Dan Quayle says it's "obscene." Sixty congressmen signed a letter pronouncing it "vile" and "despicable." "Ugly, destructive and disgusting" says New York governor Mario Cuomo. Oliver North, of all people, wants the organization behind this man who stirs up "hatred and ... violence" brought up on charges of sedition.
Who is this villain, this enemy of the state? Saddam Hussein? Muammar el-Qaddafi? Is he an international terrorist, a spy, a drug smuggler?
No, this menace to society is rapper occasional actor Ice-T, and the cause of the uproar is a song recorded by his speed-metal band Body Count, called "Cop Killer." In June, several months after the song's release, a Texas law-enforcement association noticed such lyrics as "I got my 12-gauge sawed-off And I got my headlights turned off/I'm 'bout to bust some shots off/I'm 'bout to dust some cops off" and threatened Time Warner Inc., distributor of the record, with a boycott. The media conglomerate has firmly upheld Ice-T's right to speak, and at press time, a group of police officers and their families were planning to protest at the annual Time Warner stockholders' meeting. Three national record-store chains, a combined total of more than a thousand stores, have pulled the album Body Count from their shelves. In this election year, as the battle for control of "family values" has taken center stage, it didn't take long for the political attacks to start flying.
So what is Ice-T doing in the midst of all this outrage? Well, this particular steamy Los Angeles day, he wants to shop for glass doors for his new house in Beverly Hills. One of the motors on his new boat is running a little hot, so he needs to find someone to take a look at it. He checks in at the Porsche repair shop he owns and puts in some time on the Macintosh at his home office, changing the format of his fan-club mailing list. The hubcap on his Rolls-Royce is rattling a bit, so he swings by the shop. To quote a title from his album O.G. Original Gangster, it's a day straight out of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous."
As he steps out of the Rolls to grab some Chinese food for lunch, a fan yells, "Yo, Ice don't let this 'Cop Killer' shit get you!" Ice-T waves, a smile crossing his face, and drawls, "Do I look like I give a fuck?" Though Ice says he never wanted this hype and fears giving the appearance of "grandstanding the issue," the controversy has sent Body Count back up the charts. As Ice's Rolls dealer tells him: "My friends were asking what was going to happen to you because of all this. But I told them, 'All it means is that soon he'll be in here looking at that new Corniche.' "
There are moments, though, when it's clear that the man who invented L.A.-style gangsta rap, who three years ago wrote a rhyme called "Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say," would relish a rest from the notoriety. He stands on the balcony of his new house, a sleek, three-story beauty at the crest of the hills with a breathtaking view of the ocean, and shakes his head. "Man, I'm going to build a swimming pool up here," he says. "Put a studio in the basement and make my records right here. Then I can tell everyone to kiss my ass."
Ice-T (born Tracy Marrow thirty-some years ago) has kept up an inhuman work schedule for the past eighteen months. Last spring he released O.G. Original Gangster, his blistering fourth gold album. He contributed highly acclaimed performances to the movies New Jack City and Ricochet. He spent last summer on the triumphant Lollapalooza tour, on which he introduced Body Count and, without much notice, "Cop Killer" to a national audience.
Soon after, the longtime metalhead lived out a rock & roll fantasy and brought Body Count into the studio to record its debut album. During the winter, he shot a new film, his first starring role, with costar Ice Cube. The working title was Looters, but in the wake of the L.A. riots the name has been changed to Trespass; release is currendy scheduled for Christmastime.
Aside from keeping his various businesses running, these hectic days, Ice is focusing his energies on completing his new album, Home Invasion, which should come out in October. Despite recent events, the new songs are less overtly political than those on O.G., more squarely aimed at his traditional hard-core audience. The first night mixing the album at L.A.'s Sound Castle studios where, Ice proudly points out, Prince and Metallica have recorded starts off somberly. Producer D.J. Aladdin shows up late after helping make burial arrangements for a friend's brother who was killed on the streets after getting out of prison. For an L.A. rapper, even a star living in a mansion on the hill, such stories are never far away.
The mood lightens, though, and soon Ice and his studio team are trading anecdotes about some of rap's more outlandish characters the bugged-out slasher fantasies and Texas accents of the Geto Boys (who have faced plenty of controversy themselves) and the booming voice of Tim Dog, whose hit "Fuck Compton" neatly encapsulates his worldview.
Ice's imitations get big laughs. He pauses before stepping up to the mike to cut a new vocal for a track called characteristically "Ice Muthafuckin' T." "Rap is really funny, man," says our latest Public Enemy No. 1 before getting back to work. "But if you don't see that it's funny, it will scare the shit out of you."
So how does it feel to get dissed by the president?
It lets you know how small this country is. Maybe I underestimate my juice, but there's people out there with nuclear bombs, people with armies, and the president has time to sit up and get into it with me? But I'm fully aware that the president still has no idea who I am. He has advisers, people with their ear to the street. They're listening to everything that's going on and reaching for straws, especially during a presidential race.
I guess it's something I'll remember the rest of my life. Very few people have their names said by the president, especially in anger. It makes me feel good, like I haven't been just stanthng on a street corner yelling with nobody listening all this time.
Why all this response to this record right now?
This is not a rap album underline rap album. It's a rock album, it's an album that got into Texas and got inside suburbia a little deeper than a normal rap record would. It's a rock album with a rap mentality. And it has a brain this album's mentality is a progressive mentality against racism. It's hate against hate, you know. It's anger. It's not necessarily answers, it's anger with the same force of their hate. It scares them when they see it being kicked back at them.
I think by being rock it infiltrated the homes of a lot of parents not used to having their kids play records by rappers. Then they found out the music was made by a rapper. There is absolutely no way to listen to the song "Cop Killer" and call it a rap record. It's so far from rap. But politically, they know by saying the word rap they can get a lot of people who think, "Rap-black, rap-black-ghetto," and don't like it You say the word rock, people. say, "Oh, but I like the Jefferson Airplane, I like Fleetwood Mac that's rock." They don't want to use the words rock & roll to describe the song.
But the main reason they went after this record is because of the shit that was coming down and is still going down today. They're yelling about a record that came out in March, and just yesterday the cops were killing people out in the street. They're under the gun, and the best defense is a good offense, so what they've done is taken Americans' minds and said, "Look at this record, look at how people are treating us."
But why all this noise? Why all this protest about a record that speaks about killing cops and not protest against the cops killing kids out there in the streets?
Is censoring ideas just easier than fighting reality?
There's freedom of speech, but you can't speak out against the government I listen to all the people's gripes and their complaints, they're like "Well, I'm down with freedom of speech, but he shouldn't have said that." That's all bullshit I have the right to say how I feel. I have many days of my life that I wanted to just get dressed up and go out there and kill the fucking pigs. They are totally out of control. There's no jail terms for them, there's nothing.
Why aren't there any cops on death row? Why aren't there any cops doing any severe prison terms? They're above the law. We saw Daryl Gates tell the mayor to kiss his ass, the city council to kiss his ass, and say, "I'm not going out of this office." I think people should have looked at that and realized how much power he's got.
If you really want to know what the record's whole angle was, it was just a check on them. It is a threat record, and they need to be threatened.
Point-blank, does this record condone or glorify killing cops?
No. The way the record could pose a threat would have been if the lyrics had been "Let's go cop killing, let's all go cop killing. Let's put our shit on, let's all go out tonight and do it." That's obvious, right? But I didn't say that. I could have written the record like that, but I said, "No, I'll try to come on as a psychopath that's had enough."
It's a record about a character. I know the character, I've woken up feeling like this character. When I saw the riots on TV, I wanted to get out there, but I've never clicked over. People say, "Well, you didn't make that clear enough on the record," but most records you can't even hear the fucking lyrics.
And that's an aesthetic question; the point isn't whether it's a good song or not.
Right. The record says, "I've got my black shirt on, I've got my black gloves on, this shit has been too long." That's a very important line. He's saying, "I'm sick of it, I know your family's grieving, but our family's grieving, too." It's like there's no mercy in this situation it's time for me to go out and get even. He's not trying to get one-up, he's just trying to get even. We've got lots of people in America feeling like getting even everybody wants it to be even. Why do we feel that it's not even? Because we know that they kill us and they don't go to jail. It ain't even.
There were two big "rap" controversies this summer; one came from a rock & roll song, and the other from statements Sister Souljah made in an interview. Neither actually had anything to do with a rap record.
Neither of them had anything to do with true politicians, either. These are musicians, nothing to do with Quayle or Clinton or the people who are supposedly worried about this country. They have their aides coming to them saying, "Look, I just heard her talk about killing white people" or "I heard him say this" or "Axl Rose said that." Then they start turning that into a political platform? That's some shit. Maybe we should be running for office. I'm not even in the race, and they're tripping off of what I say.
Why do you think they make so sure to attach that word "rap" to these things? Is that just a straight racist ploy?
You could say that, but personally I hate to go into that racial shit. Everything in America has a racial tone to it, so it's not even necessary for me to say that. It's a black guy, a rapper, making this type of record, so it must be making black kids want to kill cops. Why hasn't anyone made a statement that ninety-nine percent of the Body Count fans are white? That's being covered up because it's not in the interests of the people who are attempting to create the drama.
Somebody is definitely trying to run for office. Maybe that particular cop down there in Texas who's trying to show that he's supercop, that he was the cop that went head up against me, this would give him something later on in his career to use.
At one point you were talking about calling the album 'Cop Killer,' right?
Yeah. I thought that would be a good title because it's the best song on the album, that's the one everybody remembered the group by. But when we were going to do that, Warner Bros. they never censored me, but they told me: "Ice, if you name it this, you're going to have problems in stores, the stores will censor you. They won't accept the record." So I just said, "Okay, cool, we'll leave our artwork the way it is, with Cop Killer written on the guy's chest." I didn't want people to stop the record because they don't like a word on it. At least let it get out.
But Time Warner didn't stop you?
They didn't say no. They told me, "This is what might happen, dude, if you want to do it." But they know by now that I have a lot of integrity in the stuff I do. I don't do shit just for shock value. I got reasons. So they don't really fuck with me creatively. This is so ironic 'cause now everyone's sweating them, and all they did was let me do what I wanted to.
How has their support been through this controversy?
It's been incredible. Jerry Levin [Time Warner's president and co-chief executive] wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal that was the dopest shit I ever seen in my life. All the record is is an editorial. It's a particular thought pattern of one artist, and in art other than music, like paintings and theater, this particular idea had been acted out, drawn, sketched or shown; it's nothing new. But when it's done on a record, it's in your face, and there's loud guitars playing, and it'll scare the shit out of you.
And these cops, since their so-called disapproval with the record, they have been threatening Time Warner with bomb threats and shit. These are supposed to be the people that uphold the law, and when they get threatened, they turn into some of the most scandalous people. I mean they've been threatening my life since I started making records, so it's nothing new. I got mail back here from cops saying, "You come to New York, I'm going to box you" what kind of shit is that? Then they don't put their names because they're cowards.
People forget that you played a cop – a good one – in New Jack City. Nobody came and pinned a medal on you for that.
Well, you know, bad news travels so much quicker than good news. To play the cop in New Jack, I had to do a lot of apologizing to my hard-core fans. Me playing that was sacrilegious in the ghetto. "Why did you have to be a cop? You could have hated dope, we all hate dope, but why do you got to give credit to the Man? Why couldn't you have just been a brother that went out there and handled it?" I had to tell them it wasn't my movie. I had to get in the movie, and this is the laws of Hollywood: The only way you can run around with a gun is to be a cop.
The attitude toward police from my followers has always been the same. I don't hate all police, and everybody knows that, it's just a matter of certain ones that are police for the wrong reasons. I was talking to a friend of mine this morning, a young lady, and she wants to get into law enforcement. She said, "I know you don't want to hear that," but I'm like "Well, it's not that. I know you want to do the right thing, you want to help people, and that's cool. But once you get in there, you'll see all the corruption that's inside that particular brotherhood of police. There's somebody in there that gets high or, you know, somebody who's in there that's shot somebody, while you're steadily putting people in jail. Then you're going to be more of a criminal than anybody on the street."
Have you gotten a harder time from the police since you've made it?
It's not worse or better. I still get the same treatment, only now I'm not afraid of them, because I have lawyers. I'm not as frightened because, by having a little more money, I know they can't hold me. But I still have the fear of being killed. I know that any cop can take me like at night when I'm alone and driving, coming from the studio, if I see a cop pull up behind me, I really am afraid that they might just decide they don't like me and pull out that backup gun they carry and shoot me, then say I pulled a gun on them or something. I'm afraid of them still, to an extent.
Aside from this issue, there's so much focus on politics and rap. Does it feel like that's all you get to talk about?
I just wish people would listen to what I say. When I first came out, I had to totally open the door to South Central. People were not aware that there were kids down there talking about this shit. Now you've seen Boyz n the Hood, you've heard a hundred groups from Compton, you know I'm not the only one. But when I first came out, I was a "liar," you know. Now when people look at it, they say, "There's a hundred kids saying this, he couldn't possibly be lying, he must be telling the truth."
How much do you think this response to the record has to do with the riots?
That's what it's all about. The theory that this record was put out after the riot is one of the first ideas that people had gotten, but they were way off. They initially thought Warner jumped on this riot thing and put this record out, but that was untrue. The record was written and released before.
It's impossible for somebody who doesn't live it to understand it. That might sound macho or some old bullshit, but it's just how it is. If you ain't really been fucked over by the police, you can't have the same hatred, and if you're looking to understand the anger in the voice of the rapper, you never will unless you live it. And then if you live it, it doesn't seem as angry. My real anger sounds much madder than the voice I put on that record.
Did the riots change your attitudes?
The riots are the consequence I was talking about. The government has a check and balance game: Do wrong, consequences; do wrong, consequences. This is how they play. You speed, you go to jail. You're drunk, you go to jail. The people cannot issue a consequence against the government. When they do wrong, what do we do? How many people have filed civil suits against the police and won? So what L.A. did was say, "You all been bad, check this out," and we issued a consequence. In New York just the other night they shot somebody, people issued a consequence. One way or another it's going to get through that you guys might be the system and we might be the people but every time the system flicks up, we're going to reach out and touch you. It's only right. And every time when the LAPD whup on somebody now, they take their chance on starring another riot. Maybe it'll make them think.
I totally predict that if we don't listen, people are going to move to bloodshed. I know from listening to the homeys and the people in the street, if they do not see justice, then they are going to move, and this time it's going to be on more than inanimate objects. They're going to hurt some people. So are we going to get some justice? Are you going to send some of these killer cops to jail, show people that everybody is responsible under the law? Or are you going to show them that the law doesn't work? And in that case, why should they respect any of the laws?
There's a lot of shit I don't really like, like speaking on yet, it's still too heavy. They really got to know that I got a lot more shit heavier to say than "Cop Killer." People are truly fed up, man. You got to remember that half the people in the ghetto got somebody who's in jail, and then they see these people walk free. Their cousin and uncle and daddy's locked up for some bullshit, and then they see these politicians getting away with it. They're just fed up. They're going to do whatever they see fit.
America somebody needs to hit a reset button on this whole place, try to get everybody in check. People just have to be aware. People out there say, "Oh, the riot, that's over with." If you think it's over with, you are so sadly mistaken. You are tripping. You just do not know how quick motherfuckers are ready to flip again. They are ready. I mean ready, like let's do it tomorrow. They found out that they can do it, and if it goes down, LAPD really can't hold them. I pray to God that somehow some miracle will happen to give some form of justice.
What would help turn the situation around?
All they want is fairness. When they put mikes in the kids' faces out there in the street, they asked, "Why are you out here?" "Yo, man, the way that decision came down, they just told the cops it was okay to beat on somebody's black head, and they won't go to jail." That was the message they got. I was mad, my friends were mad. I live in West Hollywood, and I had guys up here we had to literally hold back. There was tears in people's eyes. It just ain't cool. It just ain't cool.
It's obviously too soon to say, but can we talk about a legacy from the riots yet or are we still in the middle of it?
We're in the middle of it my situation right now is part of the riots. It's like now they're attempting to regain control: "Okay, that was crazy. Now wait a minute, there's a record over here saying go head up with cops, let's shut that down. Let's move on Sister Souljah, she said let's kill white people." But all they're doing is solidifying bases. The only difference between us and them is we'll always be okay 'cause we're on the right side. We don't want more, we just want fairness you see what I'm saying? Even the cop killer in my song doesn't want more, he just wants to get even.
This country was founded on the things I talk about. I learned it in school. Paul Revere was running around saying, "The redcoats is coming," so he was basically saying, "Here come the pigs, and a fuckup is going down." We had a revolution or else we would be under the queen at this moment. That was a revolutionary thought, and those were very honorable thoughts in those days, the Boston Tea Party, all that shit. We just celebrated July 4th, which is really just national Fuck the Police Day. And "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a song about a hell of a shootout with the police. You can call them troops, whatever you want, but basically they're police from the other side. I bet back during the Revolutionary War, there were songs similar to mine. If you want to look at it, I guess the cop killer is the first soldier in the war who decides, "Hey, it's time to go out there and be aggressive, and I'm moving against them."
When was the first time you either heard or did something where you realized that rap could be really important?
That happened more or less by having people walk up to me and say, "Thank you," versus just saying, "I like your beats, I like your track," or whatever. People would walk up to me and say, "Thanks, man, thanks for telling motherfuckers what time it is." And that's when I realized I owed people something, that they enjoyed the message versus the beat.
What do you think when you see rappers on the news and in the papers every day?
I just look at it as, if there wasn't rap, where would the voice of the eiehteen-year-old black male be? He would never be on TV, he ain't writing no book. He is not in the movies. So he's hidden, he's not heard. And with rap you gave people the option of "Here's the beat, and say whatever the fuck you want." It's like the true vehicle of free speech because you're not bound by a melody or anything.
When I met Neil Young, he said, "Hey, man, this is the coolest shit." He said a lot of times he would have a lyric that he would want to say, but he wouldn't want to sing it. And he said, "Man, with rap you say what the fuck you want to say." So he dug it.
When you first heard rap, did it immediately make sense to you?
Well, I used to write rhymes before I knew there was raps. I used to write gang slogans and things on the walls: crips don't die, they multiply and shit like that. All these little slogans. And I had these stories I used to know how to tell in rhymes, and everybody thought they was real cool. So when I first heard this record by the Sugar Hill Gang, I said, "Oh, shit, I can do that," but I really didn't rap so beat oriented, so it took me a little while to get a hold of it. I used to try to rap like them, rap about house parties and shit. My friends were like "Why don't you rap about other stuff, you used to say those other rhymes about crime." I thought, "Okay, cool." I started doing that, and that's when I invented another style of rap, reality-based rap.
You've said that you figure seventy-five or eighty percent of your records sell to white kids.
Yeah. Body Count would maybe be even more closer to ninety-percent white. I'd honestly say that more than fifty percent are going to white kids. Black kids buy the records, but the white kid buys the cassette, the CD, the album, the tour jacket, the hats, everything. Black kids might just be buying the bootleg on the street. It's only due to economics.
And the white kids are getting something different out of it. They're getting a lot more information. A lot of rap I listen to, to me it's like "Okay, whatever," but I listen to white kids listen to it, and they're like "Holy shit, this is incredible." The funny thing about white kids is that once they get real hip and deep into it, they dig for the hardest form of this shit that you can find. They're totally the hardest critics.
What do you think that's about?
I think generally when you go for something different, you go for the most true form of it. Plus these white kids are hard in their own way. These are the skateboard kids, these are the kids that are pretty rough in their league. To me it's like a double rebellion. You have a rebellion against parents, which goes to rock, and then they rebel a little bit against rock and go rap; it's like being ultra-ultracool, taking the risk. And a lot of them when they first start liking rap had to stand up to a lot of their white friends, so I give them a lot of respect. But they just want to know. They know their parents ain't teaching them shit about black people. They know that's nowhere to get an answer. So they're saying, "Fuck it, I'll go right to the source." And the source is more likely Eazy-E than Young M.C.
Some critics have said that when white kids are listening to hard-core rap, it's more about the cheap thrills of looking in on another culture and not really having to worry about it.
I don't really care. I think a lot more of them get compassion and understanding. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't trip like that. I think that criticism, "Oh, the white kids are just getting off on it, and they don't care" a lot of black kids are getting off on it, and they don't care either.
It sounds like the album you're working on now is more of a street record, more stripped down. You were saying you didn't want to have to explain the political stuff as much.
I don't really like listening to a whole bunch of political shit myself. To me it gets boring. I was thinking this morning about doing a real political record, then I said: "Shit, I don't want to hear it. Who am I doing it for? For the critics that are going to say that Ice lost his politics or whatever?" I think it's too obvious to come out this year and be very political. So for that particular reason I say, "Fuck them, I'm going to talk about the 'hood, man."
What are your feelings about the presidential election?
If I was going to vote for anybody, I'd vote for Jerry Brown. I have never registered to vote, but I think I'm going to do it this year. I've always had low beliefs in the traditional system, but I don't want to be a hypocrite and dis the government so badly and not get involved. So I'm going to register, and if he's on the ballot, I'll vote for Brown, and if not, I'll just vote for none of the above. I ain't with Perot. Clinton, he seems like a used-car salesman or some shit. I definitely ain't with Bush he was the head of the CIA.
What do you think about Perot?
Perot's crazy. Perot's a billionaire. He owns Bush and Clinton. He controls people like that, so he's a true power monger. We never had a president with that kind of money. He's just saying, "Hey, I've got enough money to get in here, I'll be the fucking president, you know, why not?" Why fucking not? He's from Texas, too. He's a good ol' boy. This lets you know where America is at. I say, "If God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates."
So what should we do? Is getting people to register and vote an answer?
I think we do have to register to vote. If you go back to the Simi Valley situation, all those people on that jury were registered voters, so it's like, you can't even be in the game if you don't register. It's like you're just nobody. They don't want to sign the motor-voter bill that lets you register just by getting a driver's license. They're tricky they don't want us to vote, but the people who read Rolling Stone and people that watch MTV, if all of those people voted, we could really shake America and throw it. I think if a lot of younger people would get into politics, some people with more Nineties ideas, maybe the next decade we could see one cool person in there.
Somebody from the hip-hop generation?
Well, Ice Cube says he's running for president. Souljah's going to be vice-president Chuck D will be secretary of state, and KRS-One will be secretary of labor.
And what about you?
I'd be secretary of defense. That would be real wild. It would be funny if Cube did it, though. We might get a few votes. You know, we might even get a few million votes. We sell a few million records.
This story is from the August 20th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.