Ice‑T: “I play one on TV, but cops can still kiss my ass”
Dope, guns and life in the streets have long played lyrical inspiration to gangsta rapper, actor, author, label chief and Body Count frontman, Ice‑T.
As a kid, the artist also known as Tracy Marrow grew up in bloody murder hotspot South Central Los Angeles, where he dodged death and long-term incarceration by translating his life experiences into the heavy rap cuts on breakout albums Rhyme Pays (1987), Power (1988) and The Iceberg/Freedom Of Speech… Just Watch What You Say (1989). This creative lane swerve changed, and probably saved his life.
“I look back on my 20s and think, ‘Man, I was fucking insane,’” he laughs, chatting to Kerrang! in his home in New Jersey. “They say, ‘If you live long enough, life will teach you how to live.’ But getting out of your 20s is rough.”
In a career spanning 30 years, Ice‑T made a sideways move into acting, appearing in several Hollywood movies including New Jack City (1991) and Tank Girl (1995), before landing a full-time role as NYPD detective Odafin Tutuola in crime thriller series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. “Think about it: every rapper who’s ever acted has played a cop,” he says, laughing. “Dr Dre, Tupac… I guess it’s a rite of passage. I haven’t played a drag queen.”
His rap-thrash metal hybrid outfit Body Count have now spent over 30 noise-filled years together, but they’re not on a nostalgia trip. Their 2017 single Black Hoodie was nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Metal Performance category. “I’m like everybody else,” says Ice‑T. “Fuck awards. Fuck awards! ‘Oh, I got nominated for one? Shit. What am I gonna wear?’”
Meanwhile, Black Hoodie echoed the authority-baiting controversy first stirred up by Body Count’s 1992 hit Cop Killer. Now aged 63, the rapper – who has worked with the likes of Slayer, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and Black Sabbath – shows no sign of slowing his mouth.
You’ve written some uncompromisingly brutal songs about street life. What’s the closest you’ve ever come to death?
“Oh, I came close to death quite a few times: I’ve been in gunfights, I was in a robbery, and I got shot a couple of times – I’ve been through a lot. I was shot back before it was popular to say you got shot. [Today] people are like, ‘Oh, I got shot!’ I was embarrassed! The most recent one was when I was robbed in Los Angeles. We were lined up and I thought we were going to get executed.”
“Some cats came up on my record label. They had myself, [DJ] Evil E, [Body Count member] Sean E Sean, my buddy Rich, my daughter and her friend in the office. They started wiping the door handles off and I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is about to go down.’ Then something told them to leave and they broke out. We came to find out I was set up by a guy I thought was my friend. He probably said, ‘Rob ‘em, don’t hurt ‘em.’ But that doesn’t matter. What if somebody had lunged at a gun? Yo, I came close to death, but now I stay in the house, play a lot of Xbox and mind my own business.”
Did music save your life when you were a kid?
“Absolutely, because I didn’t really have a plan. I was trying to brainwash myself into thinking that I was gonna hustle, or maybe I could rob a bank. I had no idea what the fuck I was gonna do in life and when music came along I was good at it. I had stories to tell and I was a songwriter. I can’t play instruments and I’m not a singer, but they say, ‘You sing rock.’ Well, who the fuck in rock can sing? These motherfuckers are like Cookie Monsters, yelling and growling. That’s why metal is kinda close to rap, because you’re not hearing a melody, you’re just yelling words and it’s not that much different. Especially if you look at New York hardcore. That shit is real close to rap.”
Before Body Count, you became famous for gangsta rap. How did those songs go over with British audiences?
“When I first came out, England thought I was full of shit. They were like, ‘You’re from California!’ The only Californian they had ever seen was David Lee Roth. They said, ‘With the gangs stuff you’re trying to make LA sound hard!’ Then once they’d got a real view of South Central Los Angeles, they were like, ‘Oh shit, Ice is in the gang capital right there!’ The misunderstanding only lasted for a couple of years early on in my career. One thing that we never do is talk about the politics of the country we’re in. I think it’s shallow. For me to go to Brazil, talk about their politics, and then get on a plane and leave? I wouldn’t know the prime minister if they stepped in front of me. To me, Parliament is a fucking band with George Clinton. When you see Body Count, we’re gonna take you to where we grew up. We’re gonna take you to South Central Los Angeles, we’re taking you to the anger and the rage and the shit that goes on right there.”
How did you get into rock music?
“I got into it by default. When my mother passed and my father died, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my aunt. I had a cousin called Earl who thought he was Jimi Hendrix. I had to share a room with him and he walked around with scarves tied around his neck and head, and he played air guitar. He was like a black hippie. I explain it to people like this: if you’re not into reggae music but you work in a Jamaican restaurant, you’ll eventually pick up songs you like. I knew everyone from Neil Young to Mott The Hoople and ELO, but then I started to get into stuff like Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. I knew enough that if I was trying to mack at some white girls, I could blow their minds with some rock trivia.”
How did Body Count start?
“Body Count was originally supposed to be started as a side band for (Body Count guitarist) Ernie C to play so we could go out in LA and play pizza joints. We had two left-handed guitar players, so we’d play Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun, we had some other songs, but the audience kinda steered us. I would never stray too far from the Ice‑T mentality of what I had seen in the world. I’m from an era in hip-hop where you had to be unique. We knew our similarities would be with Suicidal Tendencies, but with Suicidal that’s (vocalist) Mike Muir yelling from a white guy’s perspective of rage. Of course, mine would be a little bit different.”
You appeared on Black Sabbath’s 1995 album, Forbidden. How did that come about?
“Ernie C was asked to co-produce the record. He called me and said, ‘Yo, they want you to be on this song, Illusion Of Power.’ I’m like, ‘What?!’ He goes, ‘Let me get something clear: Black Sabbath don’t do duets, they don’t have other people on their shit.’ So I just basically got the track sent to me; I didn’t get to actually record with them. I went into a studio and I laid my little vocals on there, but it’s still history and I take my hats off to them for even fucking with us.”
Have you ever met Ozzy Osbourne?
“No, I’ve met Sharon Osbourne, but he’s definitely the legend that I grew up listening to and it was an honour to be connected to Black Sabbath. Then the other band, Slayer, I got the call to be on the Judgment Night soundtrack with them in 1993…”
Judgment Night was an album of rap-rock collaborations with the likes of Helmet and House Of Pain, Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill. What was it like working on that?
“It was cool because first up they picked me, probably because I’d been out saying how much we dug Slayer and I knew [song producer and co-founder of label Def Jam] Rick Rubin from hip-hop. Everybody was just cool – they were happy to have me. It was interesting because a lot of white supremacists connected with Slayer. The thing of it is, Slayer sing as Satan sometimes, but they’re not at all with that bullshit, so they were like, ‘Yo, we want to fuck with Ice‑T, and we want to throw a monkey wrench into that racist shit.’”
Do you see any similarities between the world of metal and hip-hop?
“I haven’t found anything that people hate more than metal music. They hate metal more than rap. It’s the bastard child of rock and I mean, shit, it’s harder to get on the radio with metal. With hip-hop it’s more accepted, but what metal still has is huge concerts and fanbases. Metal musicians are just like, ‘Hey, we don’t hate nobody here, let’s just have fun and have a jam.’ And that’s an important part of it all, because fans are a lot more isolated than the artist. I got on Metallica’s tour bus and they were playing an N.W.A. record. So if we as artists listen to other shit, that’s where we get our influences.”
Almost 30 years on, what do you think of the controversy around 1992 single Cop Killer?
“It was a protest record and it was very important that it was made. It’s interesting that over 20 years later we’re still going on with the same bullshit. I made those statements [about police brutality] and people – even in the United States – said, ‘Ah, he’s exaggerating. This is all bullshit for music. He’s lying.’ But now, with all the [prevalence of] video cameras and footage, people are saying, ‘Wow, Ice‑T was telling the fucking truth this whole time.’ I think I’ve been vindicated on all counts.”
What was it like being considered public enemy number one at that time?
“It was kinda weird because I was like, ‘Yo, why are you getting mad at this shit?’ I didn’t really feel it was deserved. [LA hardcore punk band] Black Flag was always at the police. You had [Austin punk band] Millions Of Dead Cops, and you had movies called Cop Killers. I thought, ‘This is really the news right now? Me?’ I thought it was just another song. It was a record that was made in 1992 about injustice that was going on in 1992. Yet that injustice is still going on today. It’s a historic record.”
Do you think it’s ironic that you’ve been playing a cop on TV for 20 years in Law & Order, though?
“You’re not gonna be an actor and play yourself. You have to play something different or you’re not acting. So my first acting role was [1991 gangster film] New Jack City and I played a cop. That was the most difficult, because I was also putting out an album called Original Gangster, but people loved it. It’s fun to sing Cop Killer onstage and say, ‘Fuck the police’. When I sing it in the show, I say, ‘I play one and they can still kiss my ass.’ But my attitude against cops hasn’t changed. I don’t hate cops, I hate brutal cops. I don’t hate people, I hate racist people.”
Was there any incident in particular that inspired you to write Black Hoodie?
“The one that got to me the most was Trayvon Martin [who was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012] because the guy that shot him wasn’t a cop… I don’t get it. His defence was that [Martin] had a black hoodie on. Wow. What I write with my music is factual occurrences, but I make up a fictional story. I’ve had situations where people have run and in one block they were dead, and cops plant drugs and they do all this kind of shit, so I created this story where I was hanging out with my guys and my friend ran and he got shot. But the part of this story that matters is, when [the Trayvon Martin case] was over, nobody marched. Nobody had a clue because it didn’t make the news. This shit happens all the time. This is how it goes down, this is how matter-of-fact these things are. I wrote this song and it was interesting because I don’t really target the cops, I target the incident.”
Do you tour in style these days?
“Better than I used to. I take my wife Coco and my daughter out with me. There’s another bus that’s like Spring Break bus. It’s wild and it smells like dick and feet.”
Is it weird to be a celebrity figure these days?
“I’m cool with it. I went over the celebrity curve so I don’t really need to be in the public eye, I can lay back and wait until I drop my art and let people talk about it then. I don’t need to be in the club. I just try to wait and concentrate on putting out a good project.”
What’s next for you?
“I think creatively I would like to direct a film. I’ve done a documentary, now I want to do a film. I’ve got some very bizarre scripts and we’ll see what happens. It’ll be like a 90-minute music video. Then you can get the whole Ice brain dropped into your head for a minute. It’ll be fun.”
“Hopefully. It won’t be a comedy. It’ll be some Trainspotting-type, weird, cult shit.”
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