If anybody was born to rap, it's Ice-T. In television and in film, the way the almost 30-year Rap veteran delivers his lines, it's still rooted in cadence and conviction. The same is true when you interview him. More than most, Ice-T is a listener. He tells a mean story, but he always touches on to each facet of a question, even if it's 10 minutes later.
The same appears true of Ice-T's career. As seen in Law & Order: SVU and his relationship with Coco, the O.G. is continuously evolving, but if conversation allows, he shows that he's remembered every mile in the road that brought him here. The same man who made the cassette tapes that I had to hide from my mother, now entertains her through a multi-network syndicated television show. The Home Invasion prophecy has been fulfilled, as T has achieved true and lasting Power.
It might not be rhyme that pays these days, but Ice-T tells HipHopDX about new music with Immortal Technique and Canibus. He asserts that he's a Mobb Deep fanatic, and although Dr. Dre and Ice may frequently break bread together at the dinner-table, T explains why friendship is always thicker than collaboration. Although many love him for so many reasons, we forever champion this man for his risk-taking rhymes and topical, vividly-optical style. Ice-T, one of our heroes.
HipHopDX: I woke up this morning and was listening to one of your early records, "Reckless." I wanted to ask you, between 1982 and 1985, you made a lot of raps to Electro beats. We can talk about your influence in Gangsta Rap in a second, but I'm curious to know what goes through Ice-T's mind when he hears this Electro resurgence on records from Black Eyed Peas and others, especially as a forefather in that movement...
Ice-T: The cool thing about about Black Eyed Peas, I can't go in on them, 'cause [will.i.am] is old school, from L.A., he was originally signed to Ruthless [Records], Eazy's label. He's really from that era. Thank God that they've blown up and they're still making music now. Will's a G, he's been around - he ain't new. If you say you was signed to Ruthless, that lets you know somethin', back in the day.
It's funny you mention "Reckless" and Black Eyed Peas, 'cause I was at an award show a while ago, maybe about three years ago. will.i.am walked up to me and started rappin' "Reckless"! He walked up to me and said [rhyming], "Once upon a time..." Another thing, Eminem - I've known Eminem since back in the days when he was on Warped Tour when he first started out. He told me that "Reckless" was the first Rap record he ever heard. So it meant something.
I think the west coast, before it had a Hip Hop scene, it had a Techno scene. The people who were really makin' music first, out of L.A., were Uncle Jamm's Army and Egyptian Lover - those were our early-type music, before we actually started to rap like New York rappers. So you can't front on that. I spent many nights at Uncle Jamm's Army, doing the Freak to that shit. [Laughs] Gettin' it on! That whole Techno sound really started with [Afrika] Bambaataa, taking ["Trans Europe Express" by] Kraftwerk and twistin' it back. It was, basically, one of the original forms of Hip Hop - that whole Techno-Funk sound. I think Common brought it back too [with Universal Mind Control]. It is part of Hip Hop, truly. You can't get more Hip Hop than Bam and them, to front on that is to front on Soulsonic Force, and that's impossible.
DX: I much prefer Electro-Pop to some of the "ringtone" Rap that has made the mainstream...
Ice-T: Well, [Electro] has true origins. Hip Hop has origins in Reggae, it has origins in that Techno-Funk, but I think really, people are not so upset with the musical content as [they are] with the lyrical content. I think that's the problem. The content of Hip Hop always had something to do with life, it always had something to do with the struggle, it had something to do with the realness. Now, it's just kinda become Disco, and it's very based around "I got money." That, first off is delusional. If you listened to the records, you'd swear to God there was a Bentley on every corner, which there's not. A lot of the people rappin' about it aren't even old enough to get in the club. They're singin' about clubbin' [too]. It just misses the guts. When you start talkin' about stuff like Gang Starr, and start talkin' about [Rakim] and Big Daddy Kane and things like that, there was a soul to it. [Hip Hop today] is missing the soul. Even with Black Eyed Peas, it's great Dance music, it's great Pop, but every once in a while, they have the ability to do Soul records. They can make deep records if they want to, 'cause they've done it. You gotta show that in order to get my respect, personally.
DX: I'm glad you mention Gang Starr and Rakim... one of the things Hip Hop fans love to do is argue about albums within a catalog. For instance, for years, I've argued that De La Soul Is Dead is better than 3 Feet High & Rising, or guys today might do it with T.I.'s catalog. A good debate is within your own catalog, your first album Rhyme Pays versus Power. Both of those albums did so much, and although it's your first and second LP, they're so different. What's your take on that debate?
Ice-T: I think O.G. (Original Gangster) is the best.
DX: Really? What makes you say that?
Ice-T: Yeah. O.G. was a different type of record. Rhyme Pays was me not really believing in Rap. I was rappin', but I didn't really believe you could paid. You gotta remember, nobody had ever bought a car off Rap at that time. So I was kinda makin' the record, but I didn't really believe I'd be accepted. Nobody had ever blown from the west coast. I wasn't arrogant enough to think that I was gonna blow. I just made a record, and I just did my thing. I was kinda overwhelmed with the success of Rhyme Pays. So my focus wasn't power.
Power was me saying, "Oh wow, people are listenin' to this shit." That's where the whole concept of Power came [from]. If you listen to Rhyme Pays, you've got interesting records on it. You've got crime-rhymes like "Drama," "6 In The Mornin'," but still, I wasn't paid, I did have my street money, but I didn't have that arrogance that you need to be a real powerful rapper. To rap, you've gotta think you're the shit - I mean, "I don't give a fuck!" [Laughs]
By Power, I came back and was like, "Yo, you mothafuckas are listening. So let me drop some knowledge." But when I went to O.G., that album was meant to be the first Rap double album - 25 songs. Before that, all Rap albums had 10 songs. But Warner [Brothers] wouldn't let me release it as a double album, so I had to kinda compress it and make it into one really thick single album. I think O.G. has all the best of Ice-T. It has the political, it has the gangsta, it has the stories, the sex shit, it's got all my best vibes. You get the full picture of me on that album.
DX: It's funny, because let's step away from the music for a second. Of all rappers in history, you probably have the most interesting and provocative cover art. O.G. might be your favorite album, but it has arguably your least interesting cover...
Ice-T: The trip to the O.G. album [cover] is, you might see me as this thug, or you might see me as this guy in a tux - they're both me. Kinda like right now today. Okay, I'm on Law & Order, and you see me as this other guy. But I'm that dude in them shackles [as seen on O.G.], regardless. So it's like, don't get the images twisted. It's me saying, "Regardless of how I look, I'm the same person."
The Power album cover, the concept of that was: you have three powers. You have the power of sex: which is the first thing you see - Darlene in the bathing suit. Then you have the power of weapons. Then, the final power is the power of deception. If you read The Art of War, that's the ultimate power. The fact that we had guns [hidden, as revealed on on the back cover], and you were worrying about [Darlene on the front cover].
I grew up buying George Clinton albums and stuff, and you would look at the album cover while you listened to the record. It would be an experience. You're reading the liner notes. Back in the day, rappers used to put "Special Thanks" on their records and name every mothafucka. Every rapper would go to the other rapper's record to see if he got shouted out. One of my biggest things that ever happened to me was Big Daddy Kane, on his Long Live The Kane album, I got the first "Special Thanks" because me and Kane had been hangin' tough that year, travelin' and tourin', doin' promotion. I got in his head and he respected that. I was like, "Wow! Kane gave me special thanks, first!" I still talk about that shit! [Laughs] It meant something. Now, in the days of iTunes, and the bullshit, nobody cares about the fuckin' album covers. It's Pen & Pixel bullshit. They don't really mean nothing.
DX: I'm a little younger, so though it's not one of your more popular albums, the first record of yours I bought was Ice-T VI: Return of the Real. You might not hear it about that album much, but shit changed my life.
Ice-T: The record you're talking about Ice-T VI: Return of the Real, was meant to look like a novel. Everybody said, "Oh, your shit's so theatrical. It's like a book." So if you put that on a paperback cover, the Roman numerals with the bullet-holes in 'em, that's what it was meant to look like.
DX: As you talk about covers, can you settle a bet I had with some of my colleagues. Your most recent Gangsta Rap album cover - and I genuinely liked that album regardless of what anybody says, was that cover at all inspired by the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono photograph of them in bed?
Ice-T: Nah, never saw that.
DX: Damn. I lost the bet.
Ice-T: I never saw Yoko Ono's picture. I heard about it afterwards. That was inspired by me, actually laying in my bed and just saying, "I'm a fly mothafucka!" [Bursts out laughing] On some real-talk shit! If you notice, I've got the pistol on the counter. The pistol isn't on the counter, but it's in that dresser. That's really my bed. I was kinda thinkin' to myself, "Really, what's more gangsta?" Going back to the Superfly movies and shit - you've got your bad bitch, you laid up in the bed, butt-naked with your pistol. Bam. Fuck standing in front of cars. Nigga, that's the end of the game! That's the final level, [the name of my company]. That's where you're trying to be. Coco was like, "Fuck it. Let's do it." A lot of people take pictures sittin' on the toilet. I was like, "Aiight, I'ma take one in the bed, like I gives a fuck."
DX: It certainly worked. Recently, I watched WC's DVD Bandanna Swangin' and there was a really cool sequence of you and him talking about the Rhyme Syndicate/Low Profile days. When you look at WC or Everlast or even King T, your ear for enduring talent rivals that of any rapper that ever had a label. Can you speak on how you look back at those years and your ear for that that?
Ice-T: The Hip Hop in L.A. comes from a small tree. It's either the [Rhyme] Syndicate or N.W.A. or Delicious Vinyl [Records]. So if you're part of N.W.A., that's Snoop [Dogg] and that's Daz [Dillinger] and all that which came. [Ice] Cube is part of N.W.A., so the people that branched out from him, Mack 10 and all them. Then you've got Delicious Vinyl, which is basically Tone-Loc and Young MC. Then you've got Syndicate, who actually had [DJ] Muggs, who was in 7A3, who ended up being Cypress Hill. One of the kids from T.D.F., off the [Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through] album is Tim Story, he directed The Fantastic Four and [Rise of the] Silver Surfer and all that.
The Syndicate was basically Zulu Nation west coast. I took the philosophy that Bam gave me, which was "We all goin' in the same direction, so we shouldn't compete," - unless one of us is a bitch. Let's all help each other. So before it all becomes a war, let's start organizations within organizations. The trick with the Syndicate is, I was not the leader, I was the founder. All those groups had their bosses. Whether it was Low Profile with Dub and [DJ] Aladdin or whether it was T.D.F. or whether it was Everlast. I was not Everlast's boss, but we agreed to sit at a table and talk versus beef. That's all it was.
You can tell who's talented. Everlast was a mothafucka. When I first met him, Divine Styler was connected to Everlast. Divine Styler's a beast, and he was connected through Bilal [Bashir]. I was the first rapper on in L.A., one of 'em, and people would come to [me]. I'd say, "I'll help you. I'll do what I can." I just told everybody, "Just be yourself. Don't sound like nobody else." When I met Everlast, he kinda sounded like Rakim. I was like, "Yeah. Yeah. That's okay, but don't sound like him. Sound like you. You sound good." People don't tend to like their own voice. He went on to do his thing. Peace to House of Pain; I just seen La Coka Nostra out there.
DX: And I want to talk to you about King Tee, another of my heroes.
Ice-T: He was [Notorious B.I.G.'s] favorite fuckin' emcee! Let's go there. Biggie said, when he came to L.A. They're very similar. [Laughs]
DX: King T, besides Spoonie Gee's "cheeba, cheeba, y'all" is one of the first emcees to rhyme about smokin' weed.
Ice-T: He had a thing he used to make rhymes, he called it the "drunk technique." He had to be the right amount of drunk to get on the mic. If he got too drunk, he couldn't spit. If he wasn't drunk enough, it wouldn't came out. Sometimes it would take days to get to the right focus point. [Laughing]
How I met Teela was, my first record that I made outside of "Reckless" was on a label called Techno-Hop. That was owned by Unknown DJ. When we was gettin' ready to make records, I had made records with ElectroBeat or some bullshit-ass garage record, but then I started fuckin' with Unknown. Unknown had a studio in his crib. At the time, Unknown had King T and Compton's Most Wanted. So all of them was in the same camp. I didn't get to meet [MC] Eiht till later, but since Teela had the same initial, we just became friends. That's my style. If we're gonna be on the same label, we might as well click-up. We had mutual friends.
At one point, ask Teela, we lived in the same apartment building. That nigga was doing St. Ide's commercials. I had an apartment full of furniture and a girl, my shit was laid [out]. Teela's house had nothin' but a refrigerator full of St. Ide's. And Xzibit, the whole Alkaholiks, Tash, Phil Da Agony, all of 'em, they'd be laid out on the floor of his house. That's where The Alkaholiks were born, right there. 'Cause E. Swift was doin' all the deejaying for King T, and shit was like a flop-house. Shit was crazy. [Laughs]
DX: When I speak to Marc Live, Smooth The Hustler or Grand Daddy I.U. over the years, artists really champion both your loyalty and your friendship ---
Ice-T: You know what it is, dude? I'ma tell you. I've always been able to get my own money. So I don't angle you for money. So if me and you become friends, you either gonna be my friend or not. I don't hang around cats that I don't like [in hopes] that I'll make a record with 'em or somethin'. If you look at my catalog, I've never made a record with any big artists on my albums. I always used cats that were around me, unknown cats. I never said, "Ooh, he's hot. Let me run over here, have somebody call him, I want to perform with him." That's corny to me. I rather fuck with people I fuck with. With me, friendship is first. If we're not gonna be friends, I ain't fuckin' with ya. At all.
I don't get around a lot of guys who lie on records either. That's why I'm cool with Smoothe [Da Hustler], or Kool Keith, who really is insane. [Laughs] I know Smoothe and Trigga [The Gambler], I know how they get down, so we not goin' in there lyin'. I can't go sit up with a bunch of guys talkin' about bustin' guns and they don't do it. I try to fuck with just the real cats.
I have friendships with Dr. Dre, Shaquille O'Neal, Wesley Snipes, Quincy Jones, all these people that are doing things...and people say, "Why don't you ever ask Dre [for a beat]?" I say, nah. That ain't our friendship. I can go out with Cube and have dinner. We don't have to talk about Rap.
DX: It's cool to know though, when you go on tour, and fans go to an Ice-T show, from the first act to the last, it's only artists you truly like, admire and believe in. I wish that more people in your position were doing the same thing.
Ice-T: Mothafuckas is tryin' to get paid. So they'll do whatever. They'll ask their manager, "Who's the hottest? I want to be on the song with them." I worked with Slayer, but that was that a project [after they expressed interest] in working with me. You God damned right I'm goin' to get down with Slayer. My thing is, I can make a fuckin' Rap record by myself. I don't need to be on a record with somebody I don't like. There's people I've just recently worked with. I've worked with Immortal Technique. I'm a record with Canibus. Those are people I admire. Then again, I have friends I admire that I've never recorded with, like Busta Rhymes, and I never recorded with Mobb Deep. I'm the biggest Mobb Deep fan in the world. I just did a record with M.O.P., well really, just me and Billy Danze. To me, music is supposed to be fun. I look at it like old Jazz musicians in a room jammin'. The only people allowed in that room is cool mothafuckas. You don't just come and pick up the horn.
DX: You talked about King T. I always said that you and him had the coolest cars of any rapper. He had the old school Impalas and Cadillacs, you had - what was that, a Ferrari Mondial on one joint. Of all the cars you've owned, what was the one car you wish you never got rid of?
Ice-T: [Laughs] Damn! I don't know. I had a feeling about cars. It's like, you get your fun out of them, then you move on. Probably my Bentley. I had bought a Rolls [Royce], and then I traded the Rolls in for a Bentley. I remember when Jay-Z came to L.A., I took Jay-Z for a ride in it. That might've been his first Bentley. It was a bi-turbo with the red piping and all that, that shit was hard.
People didn't understand it. They used to come to my Bentley and say, "What's the matter with your Rolls? It got a 'B' on it." Niggas couldn't get it; they thought I had a fake Rolls. I always try to stay ahead of the curve, maybe 'cause I was lil' older, or maybe 'cause I was comin' from whole 'nother culture of players and hustlers that always wanted to have something that nobody else had. That was our whole thing - to be up on some different clothes or some different watch. "Aw man, what is that?" "Oh, you've never seen this before, have you?" Then would I'd turn you onto it and somebody else asked you, you'd say, "Oh, Ice introduced me to that. I know about that now." Players love to give compliments, man. We're not haters. I want to tell you how fly you look, how them sneakers is lookin' good, and I might have to get some of them, man. I like how you wearin' that. That's always been my philosophy of being a player. As a gangsta, you can turn the P into a G. Quick. But the thing of it is, what makes a gangster is the peace that the player seeks. The player wants peace. And the worst person you can fuck with is a man that's trying to be peaceful. Really, my gangster is based on your actions. I'm not a thug. I'm not gonna push up on you. We can kick back and have fine foods and drinks and talk shit and yell at hoes or whatever, but if drama occurs, I got that too. [Laughs]
That's what it is. I don't miss cars. I still got cars on my list I want to get. I want a Bugatti. But I need a livingroom I can park it in. [Laughs]
DX: Pre-Internet, I heard a bootleg tape of you and Tupac Shakur doing a parody duet of Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond's "You Don't Send Me Flowers." It was filmed in the last year of his life. Obviously, it's a light-hearted moment, but it's something I still watch again. How do you look back on that?
Ice-T: [Laughs] That was funny, right? The thing of it is, I have a different relationship with Tupac than most of these people do. A lot of people, you talk about 'Pac, it's like talking about Jesus. They have such reverance for 'Pac. I'd known him since he was in Digital Underground. I remember when he used to carry records for Shock G. So I know 'Pac, the little homie. I rapped on ["Last Wordz" from Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.]. His rise was incredible. He was like, "I'm gonna rap" to "I'm tryin' to rap" to "rap" to "like Jesus." He just shot over me into this other stratosphere. See, he could go deep. That's the key to rappin' is to be able to go deep.
Anyway, we were both scheduled to be on [The Roseanne Barr Show] and we knew it was a comedy show. We were booked separately. [There's] another skit too, where this lady talks about hittin' us with the water-hose. It's funny as hell. So it's like when you go on Mad TV, you know you're gonna be asked to do comedy skits. I think the fact that 'Pac knew me, it was okay. Do you understand? I think if he didn't know me and I was another rapper, I don't think he'd have been able to shed the skin and have fun. We had a good time, we laughed and shit. The homies laughed. It was fun. Plus, we're both actors. We know it's a gag, we know the role: two thugs singin' "You Don't Send Me Flowers." [Laughs] It was just so stupid. But I didn't realize how important it was gonna be to see my dude. I went through a lot stuff with 'Pac, when he was going at Biggie, and me tryin' to chill him out and calm him down, all that kinda shit. It's interesting to see that [footage]. He's a very interesting guy, very multi-dimensional. I think he was different to different people, I think that's what it was. To me, he was always very humble and cool. I was the big homie. I always had that.
DX: When it comes to lyrics about hustling, you are the pioneer. Recently, I've been listening to a lot of Young Jeezy. His lyrics can be extremely simple, but there's so much inspirational wisdom and truth there. That's something you gave us, with a much more competitive, sophisticated lyrical approach in the '80s. The Rap community embraces Jeezy as "the realest," but I'm sure you were shunned for doing and saying a lot of those same things, then. Can you speak on that?
Ice-T: I like [Young] Jeezy. When I first heard him say, in ["Soul Survivor"], "Oh God, please don't let me go to jail tonight," I felt it! The invincible shit don't work. Like I say in "The O.G.," "I throw ya in the joint, you'll be comin' out feet-first." That humbleness to the streets, that "I can get got, anything can happen" that, to me, is realism. I heard that in Jeezy's voice. He's struggling with the streets. Now he's struggling with being famous in the streets, which is even another dilemna. I'm writing a book about that, which is called Transitions, which the life of somebody comin' from a straight street life, street values to the legitimate world, which is sometimes even more cut-throat.
When I first came up, I was too hard. I was cursing. [DJ] Kool Herc didn't like the fact that I cursed. In New York, they didn't have the hardcore shit. When I started doing the gangsta shit, nobody was doin' it. The only person in New York, they had a group called Mob Style, with a kid named Pretty Tony. They were the first New York rappers to go hard, to go into gangsta shit. Later on, Big and everybody followed suit. It was kinda like not-Hip Hop. Bam had based Hip Hop on so much peace and unity and you had to rap about partyin'. Then I kinda added the guns and the drugs [and] there was some raised eyebrows. Like, "Is this okay?" My explanation, "I can't rap about that, 'cause I'm from L.A. L.A. doesn't have a Hip Hop culture, we got a gang culture, and I can only rap about my own life." If you listen to the words of "O.G.," that's the story. [Rhymes] "Ten years ago, I used to listen to rappers flow / Talk about the way they rocked the mic at the disco / I liked how that shit was goin' down / Dreamt about rippin' the mic with my own sound / So I tried to write rhymes, somethin' like them / My boys said 'That ain't you Ice, you just sound like them.' / So I sat back / Thought up a new track / Didn't fantasize, kicked the pure facts / Mothafuckas got scared / 'Cause they was unprepared / Who would tell it how it really was, who dared? / A young nigga from the west coast, L.A. / South Central, fool, where the Crips and the Bloods play / When I wrote it at parties, it didn't fit / '6 In The Mornin',' that was the real shit." That's the story.
Also, on The Seventh Deadly Sin, there's a record called "God Forgive Me," and it's about the invention of Gangsta Rap. It's me about me begging God to forgive me, like the Devil is taking me to Hell for it. [Laughs] It's me, Poppa LQ, and SLEDJ on there.
DX: As you recite these rhymes verbatim, you have a lot in your discography. With all that you have going on now in acting, books, etc., when you go on tour, and there's a kid in the front row screaming for something, say a deep cut. Do you usually know the lyrics?
Ice-T: Uh,...no. [Laughs] I can remember the ones I perform at my show. I still do spot-gigs. If it's in my set, I know 'em. Some of the songs I haven't done in years. What I'll do is, I'll take the CD, if we're gonna add it to the set and I'll rehearse. Like anybody else, you rehearse, you practice. Remember it. Even right before I go on stage, I have a CD with every song I'm gonna perform that night. I'll be in the hotel room, gettin' ready, and I'll put the CD on and I'll rap the whole show - just to have the words correctly.
You're a rapper, you can't fuck up! You can't fuck up! You'll draw a blank on "Colors." There's people on stage sprayin' champagne, people slippin', slidin', bitches jumpin' on stage. You'll just draw a blank. You know what I do? Here's my trick: there's always a kid in the front that knows every word to your record.
DX: Put the mic in his face.
Ice-T: Yeah, or he's a human tele-prompter. [Laughs] I'll lip-read him and I'll get back on track. It doesn't happen often, but if it does happen, the next show it won't. You'll be so pissed. Sometimes, I'll alternate verses. I could be performing ["Girls L.G.B.N.A.F."] and [I'll confuse] the third verse with the first verse. There's too much goin' on. [Laughs] I try to keep that to a minimum.
DX: Last question, as we talk about verses. What's your proudest verse? Not favorite. Proudest
Ice-T: Wow. That's hard. I'm actually doing a movie called The Art of Rap, these sound like some of my questions. [Pauses] I don't really know. Shit. In "Power," I have a rhyme that explains my style absolutely to the tee. I always bring that up. The first verse. [Rhymes]
"I'm livin' large as possible / Posse's unstoppable / My style is topical / Vividly optical / Listen, you'll see 'em / Sometimes I'll be 'em / Cops, critics and punks never, ever want to me in power." That's about the simplest breakdown of the Ice-T style. [Repeats verse] "Sometimes I'll be 'em," that's "Cop Killer." That wasn't me, I played that person. That's the breakdown of the Ice-T technique.