Ice-T: at home in L.A.


From high up in the Hollywood Hills, the view from Ice-T’s house is so vast that at night you can see the ghettos where he grew up and made his name, pinpointed, as if for him personally, in the searchlights of the police helicopters hovering overhead. By day, the city stretches out as far as the eye can see, in all its grey sprawling glory, like a piece of cheap scenery.

Ice is hanging out in the TV room with some of his buddies, watching footage from a new video by his thrash metal group, Body Count, footage consisting mostly of acts of random violence and carnage.

His beautiful three-year-old son, Ice Junior, is running round the room shooting a plastic pop-gun at people, obviously frustrated by its lack of fire power, oblivious to the racket of heavy guitars and police sirens blasting out of the speaker system.

“Body Count/Body Count/Body-muthafucking-count,” rages his father’s voice, “Body Count/Body Count/Body- muthafucking-count.”

Talk turns to that day’s Channel 9 news, and three stories that seem to embrace all of Ice-T’s concerns these days.
The fall of OJ Simpson, inevitably, is one of them.
A story about a young mother shot in a gang dispute and found dead in her car cradling her baby is another.
Finally, there’s an item about Ted Briseno, one of the officers involved in the Rodney King case. The videotape is broadcasting again, showing Briseno digging his foot into King’s throat as he struggles to escape the barrage of blows and not realising, according to Briseno, he was making things worse for himself by “resisting arrest.”

Despite being cleared by two juries, Briseno was sacked from the LAPD by a police board. Today, he was back in court claiming unfair dismissal.
To everyone’s disappointment, Ice himself does not seem outraged or angry, even bothered, despite — maybe because of — the fact that he’s been rapping about the police, the gangs and the ghettos for a decade or more.

The man whose most notorious song is Body Count’s Cop Killer and who described the day of the LA riot as the happiest of his life seems utterly calm about Briseno’s claims.
“Hell,” he announces after a while, with a shrug. “Give him his fuckin’ job back.” The significance of this magnanimous gesture is still sinking in as he adds with a smile: “Maybe he’ll get shot.”

The remark is typical Ice-T: unpredictable, quick, funny but hostile.

Just because he’s given up jewellery store heists and running with the gangs in South Central for a life of fame, fortune and a house in Beverly Hills, it doesn’t mean that underneath the sly sense of humour he doesn’t mean it. The way he sees things, Briseno has got his coming.

NEXT month sees the release of the second Body Count album, Born Dead, with a UK tour and eventually a new rap record to follow. (In the highly transitory world of rap, it’s proudly called Ice-T Six: Return Of The Real).

But music is no longer Ice-T’s main priority. Now 35, after years of smooth talking through a million magazine interviews, and hijacking dozens of talk-shows, Ice-T has branched out and published rap’s first manifesto, The Ice Opinion.

Featuring Chairman Ice’s thoughts on Men, Women and Sex; Racism, Rap, Revolution; and The Gangs, Ghettos And Prisons Of Los Angeles, this book of simple, direct monologues has had reviews comparing it to the “raw honesty” of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice and the “eloquent street swagger and comic timing” of Richard Pryor.”

Ice-T is also doing lecture tours. He has spoken at numerous high schools, prisons and colleges including Yale, Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, giving a three-hour talk about What We Instil In Our Children.

He delivers his address in the manner of a particularly cool, distinctly menacing, politician – a kind of “pimp/hustler/gangster” version of Jesse Jackson. More and more, this is how he presents himself.
“When I visit Elementary Schools,” he says, “I just tell the kids, go to junior high. At junior high, you’re saying, go to High school. High school, go to college. College kids, you just say, ‘go out there and change the world.'”

The sentiment sounds as if it comes straight from a speechwriter’s pen, but it’s probably enough to give the Vice-President’s wife Tipper Gore, apoplexy.

From the start of his career, Gore’s Washington Wives group fought long and hard to get Parental Advisory stickers on everything Gangsta Rap’s Original Gangster put out — and in the process virtually guaranteed its success.

Since then, Ice-T has established a formidable white constituency, joining the 95 per cent white Lollapalooza rock tour and releasing two records aimed at “deliberately corrupting white America’s MTV generation.”

Home Invasion specifically set out to “infect white kids with black rage,” while Body Count’s debut, a fairly blatant appeal to the millions of whites buying Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, included not only Cop Killer (“I’m about to kill me somethin’/a pig stopped me for nothin’/ DIE PIG DIE”) but KKK Bitch, a song boasting about the band’s white groupies, citing a Grand Wizard’s daughter and Tipper Gore’s 12-year-old nieces. Now he’s lecturing the nation’s schoolkids…

“Do we teach people hate or start a whole new generation of kids, outbreed racism ?” he asks an audience at North-western University.
“The only way I can see the violence going away is to instil hope. None of y’all in here is extremely violent because you’ve got hope. What I’m trying to do is to inspire more people to be outspoken, that’s all, give you courage.
“America is a vicious killing machine,” he tells the students, “based on rip-offs, lies, cheating and murder… The pilgrims were some corrupt muthafuckers.”

He does a routine about the signing of the Constitution, and the anger is as intense as if it was the first time he’d done it.
“Okay, ‘Black people are property’. Fine. Where do I sign ? The whole constitution is void, man. It must be, you find a big mistake like that in there !”

At the end of the lecture, Ice-T tells the audience: “Just because my conversation is over, it doesn’t mean yours has to be… You shouldn’t think everything I’m thinking because then only one of us is thinking.”

He tells the teachers that the only way forward is bringing people together and teaching “our kids how fucked up America is… fuck the American Way.”

The Ice Opinion may be subtitled “Who Gives a Fuck ?” but Ice-T’s main preoccupation these days is how much he does precisely that.

BUT THE timing of Ice-T’s assault on the hearts and minds of young America could not be more difficult. The controversy over Cop Killer and the impact of the LA riots (with the likes of Mickey Rourke quick to point a finger at the responsibility of the rap community) have been exacerbated by the huge impact of West Coast Gangsta Rap, particularly on a white audience. Debut records by Dr Dre and Snoop have sold more than eight million copies between them.

Inevitably, Gangsta Rap’s depiction of black urban life as a world of guns ‘n’ drugs, “bitches” and “niggas”, has attracted incessant, bitter attack not only from the white establishment who think that “Rap Music” is an oxymoron, but critics and spokesmen from the black community, uncomfortable about its degrading depiction of blacks in an already racist society.

Critics have also seized on the fact that, like Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson (all of whom Ice-T has staunchly defended), several rap stars have already fallen foul of the law. Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav, Tupac Shakur and Snoop all have charges of attempted murder pending against them. Others, including Dre, have faced accusations of assault, attempted rape and firearms charges.

At the same time, increased black militancy by Ice-T’s contemporaries like former NWA-front man Ice Cube and Public Enemy’s Chuck D (who’s also working on a book), who align themselves with the black separatist Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, has left some of Ice-T’s Home Invasion ideas looking like a compromise.

As writer Brian Cross notes in his history of LA rap ‘It’s Not About A Salary’, the three key words in rap are “posse, posse, and posse” and nothing is more important to Ice-T than his ties with the streets, the gangs and the jails.
“Peace to all the gangstas,” he signed off on his last single, “Cos I got a lotta love.”

But increasingly, his is looking like no easy mission. Half of him, he admits, wants to forget the whole thing.
“You know, I go to Brixton, and it’s ‘Save the brothers man.’ Next, it’s like, ‘save Bangladesh’. You take that burden on, you’ll lose your mind.”

As for the suggestion of being asked to do any photo-calls at the White House with Bill and Jesse, he snorts: “Nah. The only way I’m going in there is with a flashlight and a ski-mask.”

Ice-T learned to be so polished at this sort of political patter as a criminal. When his gang was operating $100,000 insurance scams and credit-card frauds, Ice would do the talking.
“Those criminal activities in my youth have got me where I am today, man. That’s why people don’t fuck with me. They know I’m real.”
In his early negotiations with record companies, he would refuse to let them hear his demo-tapes, saying they were like hand-grenades.
“I’d say, they might be good, worth $1,000 a piece. You could try one, but what’s to say it’s the only one that’s any good ? You either believe me it’s a good batch or you don’t.”
At the end of one deal, the executive asked him if he’d been to business school. He said no, but he had sold hand grenades out of the boot of his car.

Born in New Jersey, his real name is Tracey Marrow — “a real ‘Boy Named Sue’ situation. I learnt to fight real quick.”
An only child, his parents had died by the time he was 12, and he went to live with his father’s sister (to her dismay) in a middle-class area not far from the Crenshaw district of LA, where he hooked up with the Rollin’ Sixties Crips and Hoover Crips gangs.

At 17, he got a girl at school pregnant and decided “to be responsible” and joined the army for four years. This was where he learned to hate The System.
“In the military, you’re at the pinnacle of The System ‘cos you’re willing to risk your life to protect The System. But they don’t give a damn about you as a human being.”

After the army, he got together a crew, living off arson, kidnapping and insurance scams for small businesses that would leave the back door or the safe open and claim twice what Ice’s gang had stolen. Their fake credit-card frauds were so good, he says, that one time they copied an American Express number from a TV ad and went to the Bahamas on it. He had a Porsche and a $150,000 house years before his first record.
“I never sold drugs,” he says. “I preferred to rob the dealers. A kind of lazy criminal. But I’ve been out of the hood for a long time. I never wanted to be in the hood. It’s not a place where you live by choice.”
Nowadays, he reckons, most of his original crew are either dead or in prison – at the last count, three on Death Row in San Quentin alone.

His big break was when the producers of the film Breakin’ asked him to rap in it. He turned them down (“$500 a day. I spend that on sneakers, fool”) but his friends told him “come on man. White people like you.”

When he started putting the menace and drama of the hustlers’ lifestyle into his rapping and created songs like Six In The Morning, and High Rollers, he became rap’s Original Gangster. Accusations of glamorising, glorifying and condoning crime and violence have followed him ever since.

Dotun Adebayo of the X Press (which published Victor Headley’s best-selling Yardie series) says rap is no more corrosive than rock ‘n’ roll in the Fifties and punk in the Seventies.
“To me, a message saying ‘don’t work at McDonald’s for $2.20 an hour’, or ‘Fuck Tha Police’, that’s totally positive cos that’s something I wanted to say for a long time.”

Like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Ice-T will insist rap is the CNN black people never had, and then demand “if Steven King can write violent horror stories, why can’t I ?”

His most complex songs tend to be both – tense, cinematic “adventure fantasies” recounting robberies, police raids and drive-bys, where the message of the punchline is invariably a chilling one: gang-kids get shot or end up in jail; drug-abusers wind up destroyed or dead. His best song ends with the sentiment, “You think I’m violent, well listen and you will find/My lethal weapon’s my mind.”

Stanley Crouch, who was a music writer at the New York weekly newspaper Village Voice for a decade, finds rap’s pretensions to social protest or black expression not only bogus, but the result of a racist white media.

“Expectations of insight by negroes are so low that any time someone like Ice-T comes up with some sort of cub-scout morality, everyone applauds him as if he’s made some sort of contribution. If a white guy said, ‘it’s not a good idea to murder people’, ‘it’s good to get educated’, he wouldn’t be hailed as some Einstein rising from a bucket of social maggots. They’ve got nothing to say that we didn’t know when we were 12 years old.”

But Ice-T might really be changing. He has finally stopped posing for white photographers with his formidable array of weaponry and insists, these days he’s more likely to use the word “bitch” about men.

He explains the imagery in his lyrics, artwork and videos (girls, guns and gold) as bait, and violence as necessarily graphic “in order to scare you away from it I put a picture on the cover of me and some daisies, the guys that we need to hear this record ain’t gonna buy it.”

The sleeve for 1988’s Power managed — depending on your opinion — not only to flagrantly glamorise guns but also to degrade women: Ice Junior’s mother, Darlene, Ice-T’s long-standing partner, wearing a bathing costume and a Mossberg pump-action shotgun.
His justifications tend to be playfully offensive.
“You gotta realise, a lot of these feminists want to look like Darlene,” he says, enjoying the reaction. “I’m just being honest. Fifty per cent of men would admit they would prefer to see Darlene on the cover in a bathing costume. Another 48 per cent of men would lie, in an attempt to sympathise with the feminist movement. The other 2 per cent would rather see me on the cover in a bathing costume.”

Feminist writer, bell hooks, whose forthcoming book Outlaw Culture includes a discussion with Ice-Cube, says Ice-T encapsulates the sort of dilemma Gangsta Rap presents for women like her.
“I’m drawn to a raw sexuality that’s expressed in Gangsta Rap even as I am turned off by the misogyny that shrouds that sexuality. How to get an articulation of a raw sexuality that is not misogynistic is the unanswered space in rap. He’s alluring and sexy, but at the same time you see how Neanderthal he is.”

THE popularity of Gangsta Rap with whites has had numerous after-effects. Rap passes round the ghettos through radio, home-made tapes, pirate copies, parties and clubs, but white CD purchasers put the majority of purchasing power in their hands. This has returned some of the collective control over rap to the big white corporations and marketing departments. The film CB4 — rap’s Spinal Tap — has a scene in which a worried record executive asks his prospective signing whether they “defile women and cuss on your records ? Do you fondle your genitalia on stage and glorify the use of guns ?” When they say “yes”, he beams and shouts “Sign here !”

Stanley Crouch is not amused. To him, rappers like Ice-T have become modern-day versions of the Black & White Minstrels.
“The original Minstrels had a character called Zip Coon, the violent, razor-toting negro of the city. That’s who these rappers are. Updates of Zip Coon. The damaging thing about rap is not that whites are dressing up as street criminals but its destructive celebration of the scum of the Afro-American community… Being anti-white and celebrating sleaze is not black pride,” he thunders. “The central problem in Afro-American communities today in terms of loss of life is nothing directly connected to white people at all.”

Darkus Howe, who hopes to cross-examine Ice-T in a Devil’s Advocate programme snorts: “Only in America would someone stand up and say ‘my fucking nigger bitch’ and make millions out of it.”
“Rappers are not stupid,” argues bell hooks. “They know what sells. They’re part of the corporate machinery that knows what sells too. I always ask people, what would you do, a rap about colonialism and sell 50 copies or a rap about pussy and sell 500 copies. We want these black males to be ethically superior to the rest of our culture. We don’t want to admit that Ice-T and Ice Cube are wealthy, powerful men.”

“I WANT more people to go into law enforcement,” Ice-T tells an amazed student audience. “To me being a police officer is one of the most honourable jobs in the world. I’m angry with the cops that make the rest of them look bad. But, all right, how many people in this room, when they see a police light in their rear-view mirror, think, ‘Ooh good, the cops.'”

Once again Ice-T plays it both ways — literally, good cop/bad cop in this case.
“The police have a way of judging you by your income,” he tells them. “If they know you can’t strike back, they’ll hold you down. The riot was just a tantrum. I’m not saying violence is right but, unless they are in fear of the people moving, they’ll carry on doing their shit. So the people just let the cops know. ‘Keep bullshitting us and we’ll shoot you.’ “

The controversy over Cop Killer changed Ice-T’s life, shaped his role and his constituency for good. As far as he’s concerned, the whole saga was a desperate attempt by the Right to retrieve some ground.

Cop Killer had already been out for some time (without any fatal consequences) and tells the same story (black man gets rousted by bad cop) as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which, at the time, was scooping Oscars.

Then all hell broke loose. Besides the likes of Charles Bronson, Oliver North and Charlton Heston (who stormed a Time-Warner shareholders meeting), Mario Cuomo called the song “disgusting”, Dan Quayle called it “obscene”, and President Bush called it “sick.”

Various police federations called for a total boycott of all Warner’s products (including Batman Returns) and with companies like Chrysler and General Motors withdrawing investments, Time Warner’s share price started to plummet.
“America was attacking the police cos of Rodney King. So they attacked me and America said ‘oh, rap music is the problem. Ice-T is the problem.’ How could America fall for that ?” he asks the kids with a smile before providing the answer to his own question. “America’s stupid.”

Time-Warner MD, Gerald Levin, wrote a passionate defence of Ice-T in the Wall Street Journal, citing his right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Eventually though, Ice agreed to withdraw the song and parted company from Warners.
“I couldn’t give a fuck about the First Amendment. In the end Warners could not be seen to be in the business of black rage. This is the company that owns Mickey Mouse, you know.”

The effects are still rumbling. The IRS and FBI have been sniffing around. Ice-T can’t get insurance to play with Body Count in LA. He knows that few companies will be looking to get their products endorsed by “the Cop Killer.” (As he doesn’t smoke or drink, he had been hoping to do milk commercials.)

But before Cop Killer, Ice-T was in danger of becoming a mere movie star (as well as Trespass, New Jack City and Ricochet, he has starring parts in Tank Girl and Johnny Mnemonic coming up) or entrepreneur (he is launching his own clothing line, Original Gangster Gear and even a CD-ROM game). Quayle and Heston, it could be argued, did him a favour.

The furore reminded the rap community that, for a millionaire living in Beverly Hills, Ice-T was still “real.” Only a handful of rappers have endured the way he has, but the last two years have seen his music out-sold by younger pretenders like Snoop, Tupac and Warren G, and outshone street-wise by the likes of Ice-Cube, the Geto Boys, Nas and Jeru The Damaga. “People come here and say ‘you’ve done it man, you’re still real,'” he says. “I work out of paranoia, paranoia of failure, but this state of paranoia keeps you real.”

He is obsessively defensive about being “real.”
“Ninety-nine per cent of my friends still live in South Central. How can I not give a fuck ? They know I’m true. If you care about people, you care. You can’t say how much you care by what you eat or what you wear or what car you drive. The one thing I can’t do is apologise for being successful. Because that doesn’t help.”

He has dozens of people on his payroll, giving them jobs on tour or in his sports car repair shop. He’s working with the Gang Truce groups like Hands Across Watts and South Central Love, helping people in prison, and has paid for a number of his homeboys’ funerals. When he walks downstairs to the studio he’s just built, the stairs are lined with photos of KKK lynchings and murders.

But Darkus Howe, who had close links with the original Black Panthers, is among those who doubt whether one self-educated, over-opinionated rap star can sustain the balance between street guerrilla and rich idealist.
“He is not fucking up the American Way. He is the American Way. You can’t raise a revolution from Beverly Hills, can you ? He says he inspires people, but how many people has he inspired to get out of the ghetto ? People like him, and approve of him and just continue to live as they did before.
“He is so far away from what he was brought up to be. That money — like OJ, like Tyson, like Sammy Davis, all of them — has catapulted them from an ordinary normal life into areas of society they have no spontaneous, natural relation to. He can never be the same now.”

BACK at the house, Ice-T has the air of a man who knows it’s happening already. His greatest fear, he says, is what happened to Eddie Murphy, the kind of increasing isolation that takes place even as you surround yourself with your posse to try to stop it happening. He knows it’s happening even now.

He receives an average of two-five death threats a week but refuses to use bodyguards or carry a gun. Making fame work for you is difficult enough for all stars, but from now on, Ice-T’s “mission” to be a “leader” for his community, while still staying in touch with it, is likely to become more and more difficult.

As his fame grows, his territory in LA is almost palpably shrinking, retreating up the Hill. His success at communicating something to his community already means he stays away from school bus routes, has to think twice about going to the beach, or hanging out in places not used to dealing with movie stars and public figures.
“Fame like that is my ultimate fear,” he says. “I’m more worried about fame than death. Once it starts happening to you, it’s over real quick. At times I miss that edge. I’m not always worrying, sweating about what’s gonna happen next. But I love the idea that Ice Junior might have the chance to die of old age.”

His friend Chuck D says that throughout his career, Ice-T has been driven by “challenges.”
“He’ll challenge something that goes against the flow of his existence.”
Whether he can do it again is Ice-T’s biggest challenge yet.