Cool as ice
The godfather of gangsta rap tells TARA BRADYwhy hip-hop matters, why it will never get the respect it deserves, and why he’s like Frank Sinatra
IN THE AGE of BBC3 and Ken Burns, we’ve come to think of the music documentary as scholarly, expansive and – quick, somebody call Rick Wakeman – populated by raconteurs. Ice-T’s directorial debut is, similarly, predicated on the device of talking heads. In fact, the whole sick crew turns out for Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap.
Ice-T’s new, highly praised hip-hop documentary features contributions from Rakim, Snoop Dogg, Grandmaster Caz, Dr Dre, KRS-One, Kanye West, Q-Tip, Chuck D, Nas, Raekwon, Common, Eminem, MC Lyte and just about everyone in between.
“Thank God people like the film,” laughs Ice-T. “Otherwise they would have run me out of the business.”
The movie’s focus is more elegant and precise than the sprawling cast list might suggest. Throughout, Ice-T, acting as both film-maker and interviewer, visits with various hip-hop dignitaries to discuss the craft and production of rap. In doing so, he captures some of his subjects’ innermost machinations: a map of what rappers think about when they think about rapping.
“It occurred to me that people really need to know where this comes from,” says Ice-T. “I wanted to talk to a few of my friends and discuss the craft. I don’t think people really respect the craft. I knew if I talked to the right people and asked the right questions, I would get something important.”
Old rappers take on new flavours. Kanye West – even though he references the Kanye-bashing Fishsticks episode of South Park – is soft-spoken and humble; Eminem is jovial and well adjusted.
“You have to remember that when you see rappers, they are normally in drop mode: I mean promotional mode. We go into this mode: “Hey, check this out.” It’s not a conversation; it’s not an interview. They have 30 seconds to tell everything they’re doing now. “Hey, you all watching?” It’s that. It can come across a little arrogant and so on.
“But when you put these guys in a position where they are going to have a nice long conversation, its different. I talked to them for maybe an hour. I only talk to people I know and you get that humbleness and that respect. You get to meet the people I know. When I read about Eminem in the press I think: That’s not the guy I know.”
Nice long conversations? Humbleness and respect? Ice-T’s queries coalesce into a portrait of a cosy, established community: younger guns quote back 6 in the Mornin’ at rap’s elder statesman.
Is that the track he hears most frequently from fans and fellow-rappers, I wonder?
“They love that. They love Colours. They love New Jack Hustler. The ultimate tribute to a musician is to sing their lyrics. That’s the ultimate compliment. I’m sure people walk up to Al Pacino and say ‘Hello, my little friend’. That’s how it works. It’s funny when people quote the wrong records. I am always being called Ice Cube. I’m always getting Straight Outta Compton.”
Does he correct them?
“No. I talk to Cube and he says he gets the same thing all the time. “Hey, Ice T.” Fortunately, we’re friends. I got a rhyme where I say: “Every day on the street somebody calls me Cube. I tell that’s my homeboy, but it’s Ice-T, dude.” Yeah.”
Cube, like T, has gone from ’hood to household name. It’s rap’s greatest miracle; Cube migrates from Fuck Da Police to fronting family-friendly movies such as Barbershop and Are We There Yet?; less than a decade after spitting Cop Killer with Body Count, Ice-T becomes one of TV’s most beloved law enforcers. This year marks the father of gangsta rap’s 13th season as NYPD Detective Odafin Tutuola on the NBC police drama Law Order: Special Victims Unit. He must note the irony, surely?
“When we were coming out, that was what we wanted,” insists Ice-T. “We can show you we can do whatever. Me and Cube knocked down a few walls. He did Boys in the Hood. I did New Jack City. Cube just wanted opportunities and when they became available, he took advantage. When you hear the angry Ice Cube, you don’t realise there’s a funny Ice Cube behind that. When people see me on Ice Loves Coco, they think: ‘Oh he’s normal.’ When people used to come around to do interviews, they thought I lived in a meat locker.”
Ice Loves Coco, one of the E! Channel’s greatest exports, sees the author of hip-hop classics Home of the Bodybag and Bitches 2 mostly doing whatever he’s told on the home front. Ice-T married the swimwear model turned fashion designer Nicole ‘Coco Marie’ Austin in 2001. It’s one of G-Hollywood’s most stable and adorable unions.
“We got a new dog,” laughs T. “He’s even crazier than the other one. So I live with my wife Coco and my dogs. But at the same time, I am still the same cat. I got opportunities and took advantage. But you have to be aware that you can be a guy working at your auto dealer fixing cars, and at the same time chopping up bodies for the mob. You just don’t know who people are. You really don’t know.”
He has, he admits, mellowed out. But aged 54, he suggests, he’d look “ridiculous” if he were still the angry young man he was during the late 1980s and early 1990s: “I’ve done what I’ve done over a 30-year period. I don’t think I could have come out and been a TV cop when I was 25. It would just have been too confusing. But the fans that come to the concerts are the people who watch Law Order. They’re okay with me mellowing and going into another zone. The same audience that liked Ice-T have grown up. They like Law Order and Ice Loves Coco now. They sit at home playing XBox. My fans followed my arc of maturity.”
If he could meet his younger tearaway self would he have any advice to impart?
“No. I wouldn’t change anything. I was who I needed to be. I can’t tell my kid to carry himself like me. He has to be more energetic at that age. Even as a woman, you know you have to be a little more aggressive at that stage. That’s what it is. As you get older, you can lay back. But when you are living in the neighbourhood I lived in, you have to deal with the gangs. You see it every day. When you get older, you move. You have your condo. You just don’t have to deal with that. My thing has always been to keep my music and my life honest to my growth and never be somebody I am not. Now when I perform, I can relate to that moment, but its not really who I am. The old Ice-T was ‘I want to kill everybody’. The new Ice-T is ‘You know I’ll kill you. Right?’”
Gangsta MC Ice-T was born Tracy Marrow on February 16th, 1958, in Newark, New Jersey. His Creole mother died when he was seven; his father passed when Tracy was in the seventh grade. The youngster relocated to South Central Los Angeles to live with an aunt where he stood out as a kid who never used alcohol or tobacco, let alone drugs.
In his 20s, he signed up with the US military as a means of supporting his girlfriend and daughter. He served for four years in the 25th Infantry Division. He has maintained a military schedule ever since, as a sometime rapper, actor and record company executive.
The hours and professionalism have translated into unrivalled success. Schooly D has a claim with P.S.K. What does it Mean? But Ice-T would perfect the sound of gangsta rap and move it along until G-Funk took over.
His controversial chatter would make him a crossover hit with the Lolapolooza set, but it would also attract the ire of Tipper Gore, Warner Bros records, the LAPD, Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association. Did he enjoy ribbing these folks?
“Absolutely,” he says. “The same was true with Eminem. I am the kind of person who likes bothering others. If you are getting pissed about something I don’t think is worth getting pissed about, then I am just going to fuck with you more. I mean I am going to stick my finger in it and really agitate.
“Eminem says there is an art in knowing how to say the worst possible thing at the worst time. I would do interviews and say ‘oh this is bad – homelessness, Aids – we have to stop this, but now I have to leave because I have to get to a pitbull fight’.”
A guardian and innovator, he expresses concern for rap’s lasting reputation. Hip-hop may be the best-selling music on the planet, but it’s never been accorded the canonical status of blues or jazz.
“How can you expect to get the respect when by definition you are in a counterculture?” he says. “It’s the same with hardcore rock. Cannibal Corpse are never going to be respected. That’s just what it is. That’s the nature of the beast. When you step into that zone you are not going to allow yourself to be respected. Now with new rappers, you can put them on stage with Katy Perry. The mainstream will accept them.”
Should fans be troubled by these Perry collaborations? Are there any worthy MCs coming up behind the people who insert raps between choruses?
“The problem is the internet,” sighs Ice-T. “It’s the same problem with journalism. Now everybody who has a blog thinks they are a newspaper. With music, the only way you can be respected and can get out there as a rapper is to be on the radio. We went against the radio. You would have to go to the record store to get the music. Radio sucks you into a vortex of sameness.
“So, it’s a paradox. It’s a problem. The internet has allowed anyone to be an artist. And the more stuff there is the more everything sounds the same. It’s bullshit. It’s not the fault of the artists. They want to make money. They want to have a career. But it’s getting harder and harder for new, innovative sounds to break through.”
Are there still exciting young rappers out there? “Oh sure. The real rappers are still out there. Lupe Fiasco is a quality rapper. There are amazing guys in the UK. But will they make it? That remains to be seen. There’s no Indians out there. It’s all chiefs. It’s crazy.”
He still spits but no longer has to compose.
“I have a cool life. At the weekend, I still go out to gigs. I still do Ice-T performances. The only thing I can’t do is tour. That takes time. But I can go to London and do one show. I have that facility. I have a nice back catalogue. I don’t really need to make new records. I am like Frank Sinatra that way.”
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap opens next Friday