Ice-T reflects on a career of breaking boundaries, bending the rules and trading infamy for fame
With three decades in music under his belt, there are a number of ways to celebrate Ice-T’s contributions to hip-hop. Ahead of lecture at Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles, Rae Witte spoke to the gangsta rap pioneer about the ins and outs of the game, then and now.
“I only like doing things that haven’t been done. If it’s been done, it’s boring to me,” Ice-T tells me before he sits down for a career-spanning conversation at the Miracle Theater in Inglewood, California. Earlier that day (October 28), the Los Angeles City Council declared it Uncle Jamm’s Army Day, a nod the city’s pioneering hip-hop crew whose tracks ‘Dial-a-Freak’ and ‘What’s Your Sign’ were early examples of fusion of electronic music and rap right at rap’s genesis. Uncle Jamm’s Army was comprised of innovators like Ice, DJ Pooh (producer for Ice Cube and Yo-Yo and on films like Friday and Boyz n the Hood) and 808 architect Egyptian Lover. But being a part of Uncle Jamm’s Army was just one of many firsts Ice has had through his 30-year career.
With 18 seasons as Odafin “Fin” Tutuola Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on his résumé, Ice now has the longest-running television role for a black actor. Quite literally the O.G. multi-hyphenate, Ice’s three decades have been spent working across music, film and TV. He’s written many books, including novels, his memoir and The Ice Opinion, a collection of frank essays about education, sex, religion and more. Ice has never been afraid to speak his mind and he hasn’t stopped sharing the opinions that made him a polarizing figure in the first place.
He makes no secret about the fact that before his music career, he was in the streets: “I was out to break every law possible. I was out to be some super hustler gangster.” After his first child, born in 1976 when Ice was just 18, and four years in the US army, he came home and started robbing jewelry stores with friends. But he knew to get out as he started to pursue fame. “A lot of these kids are doing it backwards,” he says of the crop of up-and-comers like Florida rapper Kodak Black (who has been charged with sexual battery, among other things) and Tay-K, a teen star from Texas currently in jail for a murder charge. “If you got your feet in the streets you have to let that go to become a celebrity. You now have a real name and police can find you. So, you don’t get into the music business and then decide to break the law… The internet allows overnight success, immediate gratification. You can become so big so fast.”
For Ice, it became a conscious decision, as he put it, trading infamy for fame. “When you’re infamous, you haven’t done anything, you just have shit. ‘Oh you know Ice? He got the white Bentley.’ [I’m] not me, the car is who I am. So when you name off drug dealers, you name off what they have, not what they’ve accomplished. There’s no way at 21 I could’ve came to these conclusions.”
“Don’t be political for the sake of press, because if you take a position, you’re gonna take hits.”
He did, however, have no problem about taking a stand from day one. During Ice’s talk, an interview he did in Australia in 1992 about ‘Cop Killer’ was shown. You’d be hard-pressed to find another artist who stuck to the same establishment-challenging stances while seeing vast growth across multiple industries like Ice. But he knows taking a stance on political and social issues isn’t for everyone. “Some people aren’t political,” he says. “Those should be the last people to try to act political, but some people are [doing that anyway]. Don’t be political for the sake of press, because if you take a position, especially like I have, you’re gonna take hits. You just can’t come out and say, ‘Fuck the police’ and think you’re gonna be on a network television show.”
On stage at the Miracle, he notes, “Right now, what would hit, is a young Public Enemy that’s saying fuck all the jewelry shit let’s get militant. I think what would really hit right now is a young Lauryn Hill who could sing and rap and speak about some shit. It’s gotta come full circle. You can only do the goofy shit for so long. It’s got to come back because shit’s real.”
He does applaud artists like Beyoncé for her statement-making ‘Formation’ video and actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, who recently came forward with nearly 80 other women alleging sexual misconduct committed by movie executives like Harvey Weinstein, for taking a stand. “They’ll take a hit for that,” he says. “Taylor Swift ain’t doing that. You’ll see people who will stay absolutely politically neutral, that’s a sell out, because ‘I don’t wanna mess with my money.’”
He adds: “I don’t really hear any artists speaking up now, if you ask me. When shit happens they call me, Chuck D, KRS One. They call Ice Cube. They call us to talk.” Looking back at how they all started, he remembers, “I was out with Public Enemy and they was hanging a Klansmen on stage. We were getting arrested after every show. I ain’t seeing no young cats going head up. Killer Mike? He’s my age. I’m talking about the youngsters. It’d be nice.”
Rae Witte is Brooklyn-based writer covering music, style, art, sex and dating. Her work has appeared in i-D, Complex, Esquire, HighSnobiety, Teen Vogue, W Magazine, GQ, and DAZED. Find her on Twitter.