Ice-T has always had the persona of a bad ass. The first time I saw him was in Breakin’, when he rocked some gear as if he went into a sex store and bought some bondage duds. Was he rap music’s Judas Priest, or was he trying to be a new Melle Mel? I’ll be honest, he did not impress me in 1984 and I thought “what is this?” I would change my mind a four years later with his second full length album, Power and no, it wasn’t just Darlene that impressed me (and let’s be honest, she impressed many). I believe the first video I had seen under his name was “I’m Your Pusher” and as a record collector, I was impressed when, as the voice of a potential buyer, he asked the dealer where he could get a key (kilo). The dealer told him “I know where you can get an LP”. At that point I was sold, I was like “shit yeah!” The buyer then asks for a “5-0”, and the dealer tells him “I can hook you up with a 12 inch.” Shit yeah again. Ice-T was a bad ass, using drug metaphors to sell his music, I was sold. It was then I realized this was the same guy who was dancing in Joeski Love‘s “Pee Wee’s Dance”. Is it possible that the Judas Priest rapper didn’t mind playing the fool a bit, but also dealt records as if it was crack? I had to know more. A few weeks later, the video for “High Rollers” surfaced, and I loved that even more. Sure, Darlene was a visual lure but back then you still had to make the music what made people want to listen to you and buy your records. For his third album, 1989’s Freedom Of Speech… Just Watch What You Say, he was now sampling Dead Kennedys and releasing gems like “Lethal Weapon” and “You Played Yourself”. Around the same time, MTV was having success with Yo! MTV Raps and he was regularly featured on the show with his videos. Around the same time, he expanded his musical empire by highlighting his musical collective known as the Rhyme Syndicate. For me, anyone down with the Syndicate was okay by me. He released a compilation album called Rhyme Syndicate Comin’ Through, featuring people such as Donald D., Everlast, Domination, Low Profile, Nat The Cat, Bango with Cutmaster Quick, and The Spinmaster, the latter of whom would become better known as Hen G. & Evil E. Ice-T would eventually start the Rhyme $yndicate label not with Warner Bros., but via Columbia/CBS, and the labels, true to Ice-T’s love of the Raiders, was black and silver. Def Jam’s label was similar in tone, and back when labels meant everything, the label looked cool. Some of the artists on the compilation would be signed to Rhyme $yndicate, while others like Low Profile and Everlast would have different levels of success on other labels. On Rhyme $yndicate, I loved the music of Donald-D and a trippy stoner lyricist who went by the name of Divine Styler. I also liked Domination’s “I Need Something Mellow” but wasn’t able to find much of anything else on the label after that. In some circles, England’s Hijack would prove to be an influence amongst hip-hop and electronica producers. While the label was not as successful as Ice-T’s own work, he would carry the label with him briefly on Sire, and eventually via Profile when Ice-T became an independent artist after the Body Count lead to him being dropped by the Warner empire.
Another panel touched on rap music and lyrical controversies, more specifically gay bashing. Audio Two were cited for a lyric on their debut album, and Ice-T happened to be on this panel. I don’t remember exactly who it was, but one of the panelists, whom I believe was lesbian (or at least represented a lesbian organization) asked him about the words he used. I don’t remember his exact response, but I seem to remember something to the effect that he and his friends used certain words not to bash specific people, but as a way to show aggression. He then made it clear that if he did offend anyone, he apologized as it was not his intention to throw that type of hate. He even said (and again I apologize, I’m working off of memory and I don’t have a transcription of what was said on the panel) that he would remedy that on his next album. The expression/reaction from the panelist, to me at least, was as if she was saying “yeah, we’ll see”. After the panel, I wanted to say hello but again… Darlene. I seem to remember a floral dress or something summer-ish, but I was 19, a chicken shit who couldn’t go into clubs. When I went to a record store in Time’s Square, I also saw 3rd Bass DJ Richie Rich and members of Stetsasonic. To be 19 and crossing the street in Manhattan with some of the MC’s, DJ’s, and producers I regularly listened to? Trust me, I was eating that shit up. I scooped up a bunch of records, including a few Ultimate Breaks & Beats (UBB) albums, enough to where when I went on the plane back home, I was asked by a passenger “what do you have in that bag, liquor? If so, I want some.”
While waiting for NMS11’s last panel, there was a bit of a ruckus on the floor above us. It seemed that Ice Cube and his Lench Mob crew had a beef with Above The Law. They were very loud, and all of us waiting for the panel looked up and saw guys throwing tables and chairs while people were running towards one another. Out of nowhere, Ice-T runs towards someone and it was the first time I had seen him without his trademark baseball hat. Back then he had long hair, something he would show even more when Body Count were signed. I remember thinking “oh shit, that’s fucking Ice-T without a hat.” The panel started, and I saw the chief: Afrika Bambaataa. He spoke very briefly, but left to what I later found out was to attend to the battle that was going on upstairs. I also saw Queen Latifah, whom I had a mad crush on, but good luck in anything happening there. She was what, 20? I’m 19, what could I have said? “Hey Latifah, I’m John Book, I love your music, you want some soda?” Nonetheless, I was buzzed to have attended an industry event, to have seen some of my music heroes. (On a non hip-hop note, I attended an “alternative music” panel that featured Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop Records. I wore my Sub Pop Loser shirt, and people were asking me on how they could get some passes for shows. They thought I worked for Sub Pop. During the panel, Poneman looked at me with my shirt as if to say “who the fuck are you?” I remember reading somewhere that he was either drunk or high (maybe both) during the panel, but I felt it was informative and as someone who is from the Pacific Northwest and a huge fan of his label, I wanted to know what he had in store. In July 1990, there was absolutely no mainstream buzz for Nirvana, but that would change six months later.)
At the start of 1991, it had been made known that Ice-T was getting the acting bug, and would be starring in a film called New Jack City, directed by Mario Van Peebles. While Ice-T had already been in a very small handful of films, this would be his debut as an actor. The film was released in March and had mixed reviews, but many felt that Ice-T was very impressive as Scotty Appleton and perhaps it would lead to bigger and greater acting roles. What hip-hop fans also discovered was that the film featured a brand new song, “New Jack Hustler”.
The song and video became a primary means of promoting the movie and soundtrack, which would also spawn singles by Christopher Williams (“I’m Dreamin'”) and Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up”), and Danny Madden (“Facts Of Life”). The spring of 1991 was looking promising, and at a time when seeing a movie still meant going to a theater once or twice, the film remained in theaters until early summer. As for “New Jack Hustler”, when the kid in the video asked the older man “hey mister, how you make your money?” and the music kicked in, it was all over. The James Brown horns came in, the Sly & The Family Stone drums started, Mike Tyson‘s cameo happened, and fans eagerly awaited the eventual album. Ice-motherfuckin’-T was not only a rapper, but now an actor, and as someone who boasted about a life that was bigger than most, he was living the dream and everyone wanted to see what this mack daddy pimp would do next.
At a time when rap music was still somewhat of a “secret society” thing, the more exposure and attention it received, the more nosy critics and mainstream media wanted to be. The roots of hip-hop journalism were happening around this time but very few (if any) were nosy. Everyone knew Ice-T had been around since the early 80’s, yet to my knowledge, no one after said 20 years ago “yo Ice, you’re fucking 33 years old, what the hell do you think you’re doing making a hip-hop album again?” Then again, perhaps Ice-T was wise enough to know the growing presence of people wanting the music and community to have a short shelf-life. Very few questioned the fact that Chuck D. of Public Enemy was around 27 when he released Yo! Bum Rush The Show. People looked to rappers as a means of being entertained and as the music became more political and social, to be educated. Rappers were like “street teachers” or a bulletin board put into music. It seemed this music was okay when some felt its outreach was limited to just the black community. But oh no, as Tone Loc and Young MC were hitting (invading) the Billboard charts and having genuine hits, every single rapper seemed to be tagged as a sinister criminal, a hoodlum who would teach white kids how to live the “hoodlum” ways of a black man, whether it was sexual, criminal, social, or all of the above. This would not do, and hip-hop would become on top of the shit list for millions of people. O.G. Original Gangster was not so much controversial as it was simply “the next coded message” from Ice-T, insider to the hood. At least it seemed he was portrayed that way for those outside of hip-hop, but people simply wanted to hear what stories he had to say, and oh did he have stories.
“Now Imma a write this song, though the radio won’t play it
But I got freedom of speech, so I’mma say it
She want to be lez, he want to be gay
But that’s your business, I’m straight, so nigga, have it your way”
The song goes on to say that yes, Ice-T felt he was a “nigga” and that no one was going to say otherwise because if the world sees him that way, then he will embrace that. He knows he’s a black man, but if he is a threat, he’ll live up to those threats. While one side of hip-hop was celebrating the African roots of the music and its people, he was saying what he felt was the truth, and as people condemned him simply for being what he is, he and the rest of hip-hop was not the roots of someone else’s corruption of the country:
I’m a nigga in America and that much I flaunt
Cause when I see what I like, yo I take what I want
I’m not the only one, that’s why I’m not bitter
Cause everybody is a nigga to a nigga
America was stole from the Indians, show and prove
What was that? A straight up nigga move
A low down shame, yo it’s straight insane
Yet they complain when a nigga snatch their gold chains
What is nigga suppose to do?
Wait around for a handout from a nigga like you?
That’s why a low down nigga gets hyped
But I’m not a nigga of that type
I’m a steak and lobster eatin, billionaire meetin’, cash money makin, movin shakin’, corporate jet glidin’, limousine ridin’, writin’ hits, filthy rich, straight up nigga!
By using a Geto Boys sample in “Bitches 2”, Ice-T told people that yes, even men can be the biggest crybabies out there, so as he was revealing some of the evil things that men did in order to survive, he was also shining the mirror on the foolishness of things. If anything, it was a reflection of the human condition, and it applied to anyone of any and ever ethnicity. It just so happened that he was the focus of all that was bad about music and a rise in gang violence, yet what was the threat: gangs or Ice-T? It may seem funny to think that Ice-T was the grand master telling kids of all ages and skin tones to pick up guns, sell drugs, and drop their pants to fuck one another. He seemed to represent what Elvis Presley represented in the 50’s: a young “kid” who was getting people to dance, party, drink, smoke, and fornicate with one another. Maybe this is exactly why at the end of the album, Ice-T says “you shoulda killed me last year”, he was an assumed threat to society, and he was doing it with a style of music that was spreading across the nation like a plague. At the end of the album, after sharing tales of crimes, snitches, bitches, and hustling, he finds himself behind prison walls in “The Tower”, but whether he was sharing where he could have been if he remained a criminal, or simply sharing the stories of friends and associates behind bars, it didn’t matter. He was with them because he was one and the game. Ice-T was a hard worker and a hustler, and while he may have done things before his music career that he may not have been proud of, those tasks still taught him the ways of life and the game of hustling that is entertainment.
When Ice-T was dropped from Warner Bros., he released his follow up album Home Invasion on Priority Records, the cover of which depicted an illustration of a white kid with a Walkman, locked in his room, listening to Ice-T and Public Enemy tapes, reading Malcolm X and being able to visualize the stories heard in the music. You didn’t need people to invade your home to corrupt your kids, it was music that was doing it. As for what defined “black”, I remember the moment when he said “Hawaiians: black”. As a Hawaiian, I felt honored that he said that because there are times when I’ve felt I was not treated with respect, that i was not seen as an equal by some, and because of that, I had to work ten to twenty times harder than the guy I sat next to that could literally get away with murder. Maybe it was Ice-T’s way of also saying “all of us who may not be one thing are looked upon as the same thing, we are all one and we can perhaps fight to change that mentality, in our own way.”
Ice-T: thank you.
(To read the predictions Ice-T made in 1991 as part of the press release of O.G. Original Gangster, click here.)