Ice-T - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The outspoken and gifted storyteller Ice-T is one of hip-hop’s most original and distinctive MCs. He was the first MC from the West Coast to gain nationwide and then worldwide fame, and invented and mastered the genre of West Coast gangsta rap. He also fronts the hardcore/thrash band Body Count. T’s raw crime and sex rhymes have attracted numerous national controversies. The largest of these controversies to date surrounded Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” the song that the Bush/Quayle ticket decided to run its presidential campaign against in 1992.
Ice-T was born Tracy Marrow on February 16, 1958 in Newark, New Jersey. His mother died of a heart attack when he was eight. After his father died several years later, twelve-year-old Tracy (who preferred to be called “T”) was shipped out to live with his aunt in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of South Los Angeles. T’s aunt made it clear to him that she was not happy to have become his custodian.
T’s life changed when he started attending Crenshaw High School in the early 1970s. The South Central school was a hotbed of gang activity and was dominated by Crips. As a teenager, he devoured the pimp novels and autobiographical writings of Iceberg Slim, the pen name of ex-pimp and ex-con Robert Beck. T memorized passages from Slim’s books and recited them often and well enough to get the nickname “Iceberg,” which eventually morphed into “Ice-T.”
T joined the Army in 1979 and served as a Ranger in the 25th Infantry Division (a.k.a. Tropic Lightning Division) for four years. In his book The Ice Opinion, published by St. Martin’s in 1994, Ice-T says, “I’d joined the military to do the right thing after getting a girl pregnant in the twelfth grade. …I hated the military, and when I got out, I just wanted to be a deejay.” He next surfaced as a rapper in Los Angeles’ emerging hip-hop scene, which was considered marginal even in terms of the still-marginal genre. In 1983, the Saturn Records electro 12-inch “The Coldest Rap / Cold-Wind Madness” (1983 - Saturn), credited to Ice “T,” emphasizes T’s gelidity not only in rhyme but also with the sound effects of Arctic winds blowing over a seriously old-school beat. “Take all your rappin’ records throw ‘em in the trash / Ice-T’s the only brother that you got to blast / hook up the stereo, turn up the watts / we gonna rock till the neighbors call up the cops,” T raps. However, it’s not all fun and parties: “Back in the days when times was hard / I had a sawed-off shotgun and a marked deck of cards.” That same year, Saturn Records issued a second Ice “T” 12-inch, “Cold-Wind Madness / The Coldest Rap” (1983 - Saturn), mastered at a different studio with something called “Full Dimensional Stereo.” Musically, the following year’s “Body Rock / Killers” 12-inch (1984 - Electrobeat) shows a heavy Afrika Bambaataa influence. “Killers” is Ice-T’s first gritty street tale on record, opening with a policeman who fires “four warning shots into a kid’s back.” Also in 1984, Ice-T made his screen debut in the Los Angeles breakdancing picture Breakin’, dancing and MCing. He returned later in the year in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
The 1984 12-inch “Reckless / Tibetan Jam” (1984 Polydor), credited to Chris “The Glove” Taylor and David Storrs (this was a time when DJs and producers still ruled hip-hop), is the heaviest of Ice-T’s early electro records, with machine-gun drum blasts and an unstable electronic atmosphere similar to contemporary Ministry. In 1986, T produced “Ya Don’t Quit” (1986 Techno Hop), a 12-inch by his longtime DJ, Evil E. The B-side of the sequel 12-inch “Dog’n the Wax (Ya Don’t Quit-Part II)” (1986 Techno Hop) was the breakthrough “6 in the Mornin’,” the monologue of a street pimp on the run from the LAPD punctuated by horror-movie horn stabs. “6 in the Mornin’” is probably the first West Coast gangsta rap record and sounds like it must have been one of the blueprints for Eazy-E’s vocal style on “Boyz N The Hood.”
Ice-T met DJ Afrika Islam at the Los Angeles hip-hop club Radio where the Breakin’ movies had been filmed. Islam, born Charles Glenn, is a DJ and producer from the Bronx who had been, and remains, involved with Afrika Bambaataa and Zulu Nation. Islam brought Ice-T to the attention of Sire Records boss Seymour Stein, who compared the Los Angeles MC to Bob Dylan and signed him to Sire. Rhyme Pays (1987 Sire), Ice-T’s 1987 debut album, opens with a sample of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (most known as The Exorcist’s theme music) and Islam’s beat kicks in behind the guitar of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Horror movies and heavy metal, especially Black Sabbath, are frequent points of reference on Ice-T albums. Rhyme Pays is often credited as the first gangsta rap album, with the gritty crime dramas “6 ‘N the Mornin’” (with the name slightly changed since its release as a single), “Pain,” and “Squeeze the Trigger.”
Ice-T told the audience at a 2007 Baltimore entertainment conference that he only spent $20,000 of his half-million advance recording his second album, 1988’s Power (Sire), and that he invested the considerable remainder in real estate. T plays all the characters on the album – the two fans fighting over the Power tape during the album’s intro, his own hype man, and the hardboiled narrator Ice-T. The album’s beats, samples, and instrumentation represent a quantum leap from the Def Jam-influenced style of Rhyme Pays to a harder, funkier sound better suited to Ice-T’s storytelling. Heavy synth lines at once suggest Parliament and the metal dissonance T favors, and the MC finds new power in the low end of his vocal range. Power includes another early gangsta rap classic, “High Rollers.” Also in 1988, T produced and contributed to the compilation album Rhyme Syndicate Comin’ Through (Warner Bros.), featuring members of his posse the Rhyme Syndicate in various combinations. He also contributed the hit “Colors” – a hard, concise, and truthful psychological portrait of a gangbanger – to Dennis Hopper’s 1988 Los Angeles gang drama of the same name.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, Republican and Democratic politicians alike sought to exploit popular resentment of a perceived moral bankruptcy in American culture. Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore, the wife of then Democratic senator from Tennessee and future Vice President Al Gore, headed a group called the Parents Music Resource Center. The PMRC was an influential Washington committee that lobbied for a federal ratings system for records. In order to demonstrate the urgent need for such a system, the PMRC directed media attention to the numerous recordings that they considered objectionable, such as “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.” from Power. Ice-T’s 1989 release The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say (Sire) takes the national controversy about rap and rock content as its theme. Iceberg’s graffiti-art cover depicts a young black man in a Los Angeles Raiders cap with a handgun barrel shoved against each ear and a shotgun barrel forced in his mouth. Custom labels were affixed to early pressings warning that the album is “X RATED” and may be “inappropriate for squares and suckers.” The album opens with Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” backing a pseudo-totalitarian spoken word rant by former Dead Kennedys singer and prominent PMRC critic and target Jello Biafra, who is also quoted on “Freedom of Speech.” One of The Iceberg’s singles was “Lethal Weapon,” T’s elaboration on a scratched-in line of Rakim’s from his 1988 hit “Microphone Fiend.” T disses R&B radio and steps to Public Enemy’s defense on “This One’s For Me.” The album was accompanied by The Iceberg Video (1989 Reprise), an entertaining compilation of home, car, and interview footage, live performance clips, and music videos. Unfortunately, bass is sorely lacking from the tape’s audio mix.
In 1990, Ice-T formed Body Count, a band that played hard rock based in thrash metal and hardcore punk. The group consisted of T’s musician friends from Crenshaw High – lead guitarist Ernie C (born Ernie Cunnigan), rhythm guitarist D-Roc (born Dennis Miles), bassist Mooseman (born Lloyd Roberts), and drummer Beatmaster V (born Victor Wilson). Body Count first appeared on 1991’s O.G. Original Gangster (Sire) playing the song “Body Count,” and then the band joined the first Lollapalooza festival tour in the summer of 1991. Ice-T and Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction performed Sly and the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” as a duet on the tour.
Toward the beginning of O.G. Original Gangster, Ice-T brags that the album he’s rapping on has shipped 500,000 copies. Both musically and in terms of Ice-T’s increasing mastery as MC and storyteller, O.G. is a masterpiece and classic of the genre. Barely veiled threats against the LAPD’s then Chief of Police, Daryl Gates, proliferate. Like The Iceberg, O.G. was accompanied by a home video cassette. OG: The Original Gangster Video (1991 Reprise) matches every song on the double-album with a music video, and this time the tape’s audio mix keeps the subwoofer busy.
Mario Van Peebles cast Ice-T as an undercover cop at war with a New York crack gang in 1991’s New Jack City. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reported in his defense of the movie in Entertainment Weekly, “Violent melees and shoot-outs attended the opening of […] New Jack City in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Sayreville, N.J.” The riotous New Jack City openings contributed to Ice-T’s outlaw image. Few media critics pointed out that the movie was a parable about drug gangs and black-on-black violence.
Body Count released its self-titled debut album Body Count (Sire) in 1992. That June, following the L.A. riots, “Cop Killer” became the focus of enormous controversy after the National Rifle Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and police organizations across the country organized a boycott of Time Warner in response to the song, which most people had not even heard of. Vice President Dan Quayle made an election-year issue of the song by denouncing it and attacking Ice-T and Time Warner in a press conference. President George H.W. Bush also expressed his disgust for “Cop Killer” and Ice-T in the press. National furors over popular music were nothing new in the United States, but there was no precedent for the whole incumbent executive branch of the federal government running against the lyrics to a relatively obscure protest song. Charlton Heston, the actor and conservative activist, gave a dramatic reading of the lyrics to “Cop Killer” in order to shame Time Warner shareholders at their mid-July meeting. Death threats towards Ice-T mounted and not all of them were anonymous. Later that summer, Entertainment Weekly reported that an ex-cop in Florida named David Rappoport was printing up and selling shirts that read “Let’s ‘Ice’-T.”
In late July of 1992, Ice-T and Time Warner held a press conference to announce that they would remove “Cop Killer” from the Body Count album. A new version of “Freedom of Speech” that sampled “Purple Haze” and Jello Biafra replaced “Cop Killer,” which remains commercially unavailable. Time Warner dropped Ice-T in 1993, forcing him to self-release the album he had in the can. On Home Invasion (1993 Rhyme Syndicate), the first release since the “Cop Killer” controversy, T is furious. The title track shows off T’s writing ability and rhetorical mastery, comparing his hold on the imagination of white teenagers to white parents’ fear of home invasion by black thugs. In the middle of the imaginary violence, he ads a light touch with the line, “All cops want me, so does the FBI / because my rhymes are fly.”
Ice-T released VI: Return of the Real (Priority) in 1996 and Seventh Deadly Sin (Atomic Pop) in 1999, but his acting career took center stage at the turn of the new millennium. Ice-T even joined the cast of the TV “procedural” drama Law & Order: SVU in 2000 as Det. Odafin “Fin” Tutuola, a role he has played every season since.
Sometime around 2001 (some sources say 2005), T married model Nicole “Coco” Austin, his lover, friend, and business partner. In 2002, The Repossession Live (Image) DVD was released, which reproduces an Ice-T show with SMG (Sex Money & Gunz) in New York City. The next new album to issue from Ice-T was Gangsta Rap (2006 Melee), the cover of which depicts Ice-T and Coco naked in bed, angering certain prudish retailers. Among the album’s many notable cuts is “Walking in the Rain,” which reworks samples from Love Unlimited Orchestra’s gorgeous “Walking in the Rain (with the One I Love)” into a ballad of devotion to Coco that will likely melt the heart of any Ice-T devotee. The Iceberg Video and OG: The Original Gangster Video sadly remain out of print, in the same spectral zone of enforced cultural amnesia as “Cop Killer.”