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Electronic Beat Empire: Inside Ice-T’s New EDM Label

Gangsta rap legend Ice-T and collaborator Mr. X talk their new venture and album, ‘Hip Hop DJs Don’t Play Techno’

Ice-T and Mr. X join forces in new album, 'Hip Hop DJs Don't Play Techno'.

These days, Ice-T‘s résumé reads like a long biblical scroll. He’s one of the original pioneers of gangsta rap via seminal releases like “6 in the Mornin,‘” one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. He’s hosted and produced multiple TV shows and documentary films, including The Art of Rap and the VH1 documentary Planet Rock: The Story of Hip-Hop and the Crack Generation. That’s on top of a hefty acting filmography, which includes starring roles in films like New Jack City; his now-defunct reality TV series Ice Loves Coco, alongside his wife Coco Austin; and, of course, his long-standing stint as TV sergeant Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a role he’s held since 2000.

The rap legend is now extending his cultural tentacles into the neon-lit EDM arena. This past summer, Ice-T quietly launched Electronic Beat Empire, an independent EDM imprint that’s being billed as “a serious techno music record label.” The new endeavor harks back to Ice-T’s pre-gangsta rap days, when he was a blossoming rapper dabbling in the then-nascent West Coast electro scene. His earliest tracks — including his 1983 debut single “The Coldest Rap,” as well as “Reckless,” which soundtracked the 1984 breakdancing feature film Breakin — are quintessential electro hip-hop. Still, he’ll be the first to admit he’s not up on today’s EDM game. “I am not gonna act like I’m a techno wizard or know anything about it,” Ice-T tells Rolling Stone, matter-of-factly.

Rather, the label’s in-house “techno wizard” will be the masked DJ/producer Mr. X, the EDM alias of Ice-T’s longtime friend and collaborator Afrika Islam. A hip-hop veteran in his own right, Islam was a member of the breakdancing Rock Steady Crew and a protégé of electro forefather Afrika Bambaataa. Most recently, Islam has spent the past 15 years fully immersed in the European electronic scene, where he’s DJed at raves, nightclubs and major festivals like Glastonbury and the Love Parade.

The new label reunites Ice-T and Islam, who together created some of the rapper’s most iconic albums and songs, including his 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, and his 1991 album O.G. Original Gangster, widely considered one of the most influential gangsta rap albums ever. The pair recently produced and released Hip Hop DJs Don’t Play Techno, the first full album out on Electronic Beat Empire. Rolling Stone met with the label co-founders inside Manhattan’s Park Hyatt Hotel to discuss their latest foray into EDM and the cultural crossroads between hip-hop and electronic music.

What are some of your earliest memories of electronic music?
Afrika Islam:
It would be Kraftwerk and [their 1977 song] “Trans-Europe Express,” and transforming what we heard from the Germans and putting that hip-hop twist into [Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s 1982 song] “Planet Rock.” After “Planet Rock,” [we were] putting out more records, which was the electronic funk scene in New York. Then taking [that] to L.A. and then listening to records like Egyptian Lover and Brother Marquis and the 2 Live Crew in Miami. That was the American electronic scene early in the game. But it was also Marshall Jefferson, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Tyree Cooper, Bad Boy Bill, and Junior Vasquez and Mark Kamins here in New York City. And Larry Levan — I used to go to Paradise Garage. At the same time, I was still deeply rooted in hip-hop, but [those were] my influences.
Ice-T: On the West Coast, there was no hip-hop scene; it started with techno. It was Uncle Jamm’s Army, it was Egyptian Lover. But the beat was basically the same Kraftwerk beat: boom-tsk-boom-boom. If you listen to my first rap record that broke, “Reckless,” it’s pretty much more techno than it is hip-hop.

Some of the first tracks you made sounded like electro.
Ice-T:
I was on a label called Techno Hop and Electrobeat. Techno Hop is The Unknown DJ’s label, which had King Tee, Compton’s Most Wanted and me. That was the origin of L.A. music. But then slowly, people started to rap more like New York, and we started to slow the beats down to give yourself a different style. But it all kind of birthed from that fast, uptempo Kraftwerk sound.

In a way, it seems like you’re going back to your early electro sound.
Ice-T:
I’m not really going back, because I am not gonna act like I’m a techno wizard or know anything about it. My brother here [Afrika Islam] went and did his foreign correspondence course in Germany for 15 years. And he comes back to me and says, “Hey Ice, I want to come home. I want to get into the scene out there.” And I say, “Well, we should create a label so we could drop records whenever we want.” We don’t want to ask any fucking body to put out records. We could just do what we want to do, and at the same time, [he] could start spinning in the States. This is a two-way thing: One is the label; the other is to present Mr. X to the United States.

You mentioned the label is looking for fresh, undiscovered talent. What exactly are you looking for when it comes to new artists?
Ice-T:
We’re looking for something original, we’re looking for something that’s new, we’re looking for the next thing. If you sound like Calvin Harris, there’s already Calvin Harris. That’s the problem with most A&Rs. They’re just duplicating what’s out there. If that’s what somebody was out to do, there would never have been an Ice-T. We’re into the real, raw creativity that’s out there. When they came with dubstep, that was a whole other part of music. The painting is never complete on the musical landscape, so let’s take it there with Electronic Beat Empire.

The music industry does a good job of separating hip-hop and electronic music as genres, but they’re historically so intertwined.
Afrika Islam:
They’re the same.
Ice-T: They’re kind of like related, because they start from the DJ. Before there were rap and hip-hop DJs, there were disco DJs, but they would just play records. Now, the rap/hip-hop DJ became more exciting. He brought the showmanship to the DJ. So it’s a very close thing. There’s probably people in hip-hop that hate techno, and vice versa. But we don’t worry about them. We’re worried about people that just want to hear music. When I came into heavy metal [with Body Count], there were people like, “What’s a rapper doing heavy metal?” ‘Til we kicked they ass, and then they go, “Oh, these muthafuckas ain’t bullshitting.”

A recent report showed that the electronic industry has experienced a market decline, with the global electronic music business falling by 2 percent in 2017. Does this seem like the right time to launch a new EDM label?
Ice-T:
That’s not what we’re doing it for. If we were just chasing what’s the hottest thing, we’d make something else. The label exists so that we don’t have to ask people to put our music out. If we get a hit record, we get a hit record. If we can birth a new star, that’s even better. You start telling me about what music is starting, that becomes very contrived. I’m sure a lot of pop, fake motherfuckers is gonna try to jump in some shit. We’re mature men, so we’re like, “Let’s just go and maybe create something and have some fucking fun.”

The next album from the label, It Came From Space, features a remix of the iconic track “Colors,” which you both created originally. Are there plans to remix other notable Ice-T songs?
Afrika Islam:
Hunted Child.” We’ll do “Lethal Weapon.” We’ll do, hopefully, “Squeeze the Trigger.”
Ice-T: That’s just the first phase. The second phase is bringing all our creative people into the mix. I’ve talked to a lot of people, whether they’re singers or different [artists]. We don’t know which way it’s gonna go, but [Afrika is] going to lay the base of it, and then we just gonna come in and have some fucking fun.

Ice, your career has taken you from gangsta rap to metal to acting. Is there anything else that interests you that you’ve yet to explore?
Ice-T:
Shapeshifting and space travel. [Laughs] Chuck D said it best: “Ice-T does things that totally jeopardize his career to stay awake.” It’s just gotta be new. It’s just gotta be uncharted territory. That gets me excited.

Your heavy metal band, Body Count, was recently nominated for Best Metal Performance at the 2017 Grammys for your song “Black Hoodie,” off last year’s Bloodlust album. What’s next for the group?
Ice-T:
Body Count shut down for like 10 years because we lost [drummer] Beatmaster V and [guitarist] D-Roc. [Editor’s note: Dennis “D-Roc the Executioner” Miles died in 2004 due to complications from lymphoma. Victor Ray “Beatmaster V” Wilson died in 1996 due to complications from leukemia. In addition, Body Count bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts III was killed in a drive-by shooting in South Central Los Angeles in 2000.] And then we came back and we did Manslaughter [in 2014]. That was a test album: “Let’s see if we still got fans.” We did. So we did Bloodlust, which I really worked on. I’m very proud of that album — best record Body Count ever did since the first album [1992’s self-titled debut]. The new album, Carnivore, it’s like we have to outdo that record or we shouldn’t do another one. So we’re nervous. We got our jobs set out for us. I look forward to the challenge.

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