Ice-T revists his O.G. roots in the documentary Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap
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An audio version of this interview originally appeared on Bullseye, a weekly radio show and podcast hosted by Jesse Thorn. You can listen to it on select public radio stations, at the Maximum Fun website, and via iTunes.
His profile as an actor and a reality-TV star may have eclipsed this fact now, but entertainment veteran Ice-T began his career as a rapper in the early ’80s. He became known as a pioneer of West Coast gangsta rap with the song “6 In The Mornin’,” and continued to record music as a solo artist and as the frontman for the heavy-metal band Body Count. He began acting early on, and his role as “Rap Talker” in 1984’s Breakin’ was only the first of many appearances in film and television, including a long-running role as Detective Odafin Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU. Now he’s returning to his roots with the new documentary Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap, in which he interviews friends and luminaries of the hip-hop world—from Chuck D to Snoop Dogg to Kanye West—about their work.
The A.V. Club: You were cutting hip-hop records on the West Coast at the very dawn of people cutting hip-hop records on the West Coast.
Ice-T: Yes sir.
AVC: A lot of those early West Coast hip-hop pioneers were transplants from New York. You came to L.A. as a young teenager.
IT: I don’t know how much that had to do with the art form. It’s just that when you heard hip-hop, no matter where you were, it was a culture that kind of made you want to try to be part of it. Whether you thought you were an artist, whether you thought you could be a DJ, whether you thought you could breakdance, or whether you thought you could rap. It was the kind of culture that had a lot of open doors. Everybody tried their luck at it. I started rapping before anybody had ever bought a car from it. It was truly about the art form and the culture, more so than now, where it’s a successful way to make money. Back then you had to be doing it because you liked it.
AVC: You were doing more than just rapping too. You danced. Everybody did.
IT: Yeah, a lot of the rappers—Kool Keith was a breakdancer. Afrika Islam was a breakdancer. Back then you had to try to do it all. I tried to DJ. I was never much of a graffiti artist, but KRS-One was a graffiti artist. It was part of the culture. You delved into all that you could. It seemed at that time, the more you could do, the more of a hip-hopper you were.
AVC: Your early life, around the time that you moved from New Jersey to L.A., seems like it was incredibly tumultuous. You lost your mother as a small child, and then you lost your father when you were 12. What was it like to not just go through those horrible things, but then be transported to a completely different world when you were 12, 13 years old, a tough enough time for anybody?
IT: A lot of kids go through that, you know? It’s almost like if you say, “How many kids had two parents and lived in a happy home?” I think that’s a small side of the spectrum. A lot of kids go through it—divorces, break-ups. Unfortunately mine was death. But I was moved to L.A. to live with my aunt, and welcome to L.A.—hey, guess what? We’ve got gangs. Something I wasn’t dealing with in New Jersey and New York. I ended up going to Crenshaw High School, which is like the epicenter of L.A. You’re dead in the middle, the East Side, the West Side. It was run by the Crip gang. You’re either with them or without them. You kind of get indoctrinated into that lifestyle, like I say on one of my records, whether you’re in a gang or not, you know what color to wear. You don’t want to wear the wrong color just to cause a problem.
So, I did that, and then I went into the Army. I was a teen parent. I came back from the Army. I wanted to be a DJ. I got detoured by crime and hustling. I was out in the streets just trying to make it any kind of way with the wrong individuals. But rap just kind of got me, detoured me a little bit. We would go out and do whatever we were doing that was wrong, but we’d go to the club at night and we would rap. Then all of my friends started to go to prison, and they were like, “Stick with that rap, man. Stick with that rap.” Now, you’re dealing with guys who are going out making hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally, and you’re telling me to stick with something that’s making no money. But they knew that what we were doing was going end up with me dead. So I started to take the words from the lifestyle I was living and rap about that, and not knowingly, I created a genre called gangsta rap.
AVC: Crenshaw High School is a big school. I can’t imagine people were all repping the same set at Crenshaw High School.
IT: Yeah, in L.A. each school will have one set. If you go Crenshaw, that’s a Crip school. If you went to Dorsey, that’s a Blood school. If you went to Fremont, that’s a Crip school. If you went to Manual Arts, that’s a Blood school. You’re not going to have two sets of gangs in one school. Gangs are real. They fight to the death. So you kind of learn, “I got to go to another school.” It was funny, though. Well not funny. In a way, sad.
My daughter was living near Dorsey High School in an area called The Jungle. I took her shopping one time, and I was trying to get her some blue sneakers. And she’s like, “Daddy, I can’t wear them.” I’m like, “Why?” She’s like, “You know where I live.” I’m like, “Oh wow.” There’s just rules of Los Angeles. It’s just what it is. If you go to East L.A. where you’ve got the Latino gangs and the Mexican gangs, somebody might say, “Don’t do that over here. You don’t want the problem. You’re not in a gang anyway, so why draw that attention?” But people in L.A., they just get used to it. They understand it.
Thing of it is, you don’t need the problem. Gang members are looking for the enemy. They’re not really looking for a civilian. If somebody were to walk up to you and they were to gangbang on you, say, “Why you got that blue on?” You like, “Hey man, I’m not in a gang.” They’ll leave you alone, but now you’re in an altercation. I don’t even want that altercation. The gang member is looking for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m wearing this blue because this is what I am.” And they’re like, “Okay, now we got it.” That’s what they want. They’re looking for the enemy. Growing up in that and bringing that lifestyle to music with colors and other songs, I was kind of one of the people that opened up a view of Los Angeles to the world.
AVC: What was it like for you in high school being a geographical outsider? Gangs are so deeply rooted in neighborhood, people who have been together since they were 2 or 3 years old. They inherited their identity from their older brother, their older cousin, whatever. That’s what brought them into this world. You were sort of looking in from the outside as a guy who grew up somewhere else.
IT: What happened was, I lived in an area called View Park-Windsor Hills, on the other side of Crenshaw, the west side. A lot of the guys I went to Crenshaw with went to Palms [for middle school]. We were bussed to Culver City. A lot of the kids that went to Palms decided to go to Palisades. They wanted to continue to get bussed. I didn’t want to get bussed anymore.
There was like, three or four of us who came from that group and went to Crenshaw. We actually created a fake gang. We told people we were part of the Hillside Crips. We had them thinking there was hundreds of us. We connected together, and in the movie, I say we went by the name the EPA. We created this other, I guess you could say shell corporation that didn’t actually have backup but it kind of kept people off of us. By 10th grade, you start to know people from the different neighborhoods. I’ve always had a very cool, charismatic personality, and as long as you meet the shot-callers and the trouble-makers and they like you, you ain’t got no problems. If you think you a bully and you think you a tough guy, you’re going to run into that drama. I was always the cat that knew how to find my way around those situations. I never had any trouble.
AVC: What was it like for you in the Army?
IT: When I was in the 12th grade, I got my girlfriend pregnant. I just got out of school, she was a 10th-grader. I’m a teen parent, and I’m at a point where I’m like, “Man I’ve got to do something.” I’m out on my own, I left my aunt’s house, I’m doing small-time crimes and hustles, but I got that little bit of, “I’ve got to be responsible.”
The recruiter’s office is always looming there, and I said I’ll go in. I ended up signing up, and I went into the infantry. I did four years. I was kind of like Richard Gere, I was kind of like An Officer And A Gentleman. I ain’t got nowhere else to go. When they put the pressure on me, I just had to handle it. Like, man, this is it. Plus, at the time I was into gymnastics. I was very athletic. Military is a great place for a jock. That’s the first thing they test you, they test you physically. If you can run, if you can do the pushups, it’s not as hard a transition. If you can’t do that, you’re going to have a problem because they’re going to really work it out of you or work it into you.
Me, myself, I thought I was a tough guy, so they challenged my toughness. I remember when they put us in the gas chamber. I came out and for some reason it didn’t affect me, and the drill sergeant was like, “That’s the same stuff they throw at you on the block, so that don’t bother you. You could probably break down that M-16 quicker than me.” They would tease us about being from the hood, and it was an overall good experience. I think men, growing up, you have to go through some form of hardship. You’ve got to harden the metal. I would go to the military or prison. Somebody got to smack you in the face and tell you, “Life ain’t easy. Man up.”
AVC: Your first record was 1983’s “The Coldest Rap.” Listening to it, it sounds like an electro record. It’s actually Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the production.
IT: What happened with that was, I’m at a beauty parlor. At that time, my hair was permed and curled, real pimp stuff, and I used to say the rhymes to the girls just trying to mac them down. It was my way of entertaining them. This guy said, “Hey man, you want to make a record?” I’m like, “Word?” “Yeah, I got a studio.”
This particular guy’s name was Willie Strong and he had another guy named Cletus Anderson. They owned a record store in L.A. called VIP. They owned this track with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on it. Somebody was singing on it. They took me in the studio and they wiped the singing track. They put me in a booth just like we’re sitting there talking, and he was like, “Go.” I just said every rhyme I knew off the top of my head. I think I did that record in one take. I said the hook and everything. I just kept going and going until I ran out of rhymes. They like, “That’s a take.” They put it out, and it’s called “The Coldest Rap.”
I was just saying, like, “I’m the pimp, the player, the women layer, the holy dueler, the whorehouse ruler. I got so many clothes in my wardrobe each day, when I put some in I got to throw some away.” You know? It’s just me talking that player stuff and having fun with the rap. 1983.
AVC: There’s a great part in The Art of Rap where you’re talking about this kind of pre-hip-hop rapping and rhyming, this street rap.
IT: “Toasting” we called it.
AVC: In 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” broke nationally. It was a huge record.
IT: I had no idea there was ever going to be rap music. Those rhymes were something you would do on the street. There was an album, if you research it, called Hustler’s Convention, and it was like, old cats saying rhymes. You had The Last Poets. Then you had Gil Scott-Heron. Iceberg Slim even did an album called Reflection where he spoke in rhyme. Speaking in rhyme has been tradition in black culture for years. Now doing it syncopated to a beat, that’s different, that’s where rap and hip-hop came. So I had all these little rhymes. I used to make rhymes for the gangs. I would say all these different rhymes—that’s one of the rhymes I say early in the movie—just to entertain my friends. When I first heard hip-hop, I’m like, “I could do that.” It was similar to something I’d already been doing, but it took a while to learn how to get it to lock into the beat, and like Rakim says, correct use of syllables. Somebody could try to rhyme and you could listen to them and you could go, “It’s just not locked in.” All you’ve got to do is drop one syllable, and it’ll just lock in, and that’s when you get into the craft.
AVC: There were these two revolutions going on shortly after your first LP came out. One is, on the West Coast you have N.W.A. taking what you did on “6 In The Mornin’” and making it into a phenomenon.
IT: A super-movement, yeah.
AVC: The other one is this sort of aesthetic revolution, of which Rakim is one of the greatest. There were folks who were doing complex things before Rakim, but there was this aesthetic change going on at that time, with complexity entering hip-hop.
IT: I call it verbal gymnastics. It’s like, let’s not just rhyme simple to the 4/4. We’re gonna intricate, we’re going to make it in 16ths. Wu-Tang, to me, they input extreme slang, and also De La Soul. It’s like, we’re going to create almost language. Where if you’re not extremely hip, you’re not even going to know what the hell we’re talking about, but it’s going to sound good. L.A. at that time was trying to define themselves, and we had to let the world know what we looked like.
So while we we’re busy defining ourselves—which was pretty much a gang culture—New York had taken off into what in hip-hop they call skills. Okay, anyone can rhyme in 4/4, but do you have skills? Can you take it to the next level? You hear Eminem say Treach made him quit. Two rappers almost made me quit. When I heard Das EFX, I was like, “Okay, all right, they’re going to rhyme like this now?” [Laughs.] And then of course when I heard Twista, I’m like, “Lord have mercy.” He has the Guinness World Record [for fastest rapper]. What I had to do is say, I’m not going to be able to have that verbal complexity. I have to rhyme heavy. Like I said in “Mind Over Matter,” “It ain’t really how much you say, it’s what you say. I got no fucking time on the mic to play.” I have to take what I say and make it heavy, so every single bar means something. And Chuck D, I live off his rhyme, “I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddling.” There’s no riddles in my rhymes. Every single word means something.
AVC: Chuck D says something interesting in the movie, about the fact that he and many of the MCs that went before him developed this sort of proclamatory, big-booming style, essentially because they were rapping on such lousy sound systems. It had to be as clear as a bell and as powerful as a gunshot or else it wasn’t going to get heard.
IT: You don’t know how many MCs I’ve trained to rap live. I’ve taken people out on tour and, I’m like, “Look, I’ve got to teach you how to rap live.” The trick is, first off, you have to listen to the monitors. Secondly, you have to listen to your voice and how it’s coming through that monitor and actually EQ your own voice to break that system. So [adopts a lower tone] if I got a very low voice like that, it sounds muggy, [raises tone] I might have take my voice up to where it’s going to cut. You hear people say, “I want to cut through.” That’s because there’s so much bass and so much sound. I always tell my MCs, “If you can’t hear what you’re saying, they can’t hear what you’re saying.” So listen to yourself through the mic and figure out what you have to do with your voice to make it work. I worked with Slayer, and Tommy [Araya] from Slayer said one time, “If I can’t hear what you’re saying, how can I hear what you’re saying?” We take a lot of time with these rhymes. I want you to hear every word, and the great MCs understand that’s important. That’s part of the art of rap.
AVC: It seems like part of why you made this movie was because these aesthetic considerations, the things that are really important to someone who makes hip-hop or someone who’s really passionate about listening to hip-hop, get lost in the shuffle when hip-hop is talked about in the broader media.
IT: Well, absolutely. Thing of it is, you being a broadcaster, there’s an art to that. You have to teach yourself how to speak legibly, the right cadence, the right speed so people enjoy the tone of your voice. One time I was talking to one of my buddies, and I was like, “They just told me to do an album.” People are like, “Go shit it out.” I’m like, “You know how much I labor over a record?” I was like, “Why don’t people have respect?” He said, “Ice, you make it look easy. You just make it look easy.” And I think also when you see rappers rap off the head—which I’m not good at, which is true freestyling, where you’re making up as you go along—people think that’s how everybody makes rap. That’s got to be easy. But when you’re listening to Immortal Technique or you’re listening to Chino XL, if you even look at the paper, it’s intricate, like thousands and thousands of words. I told somebody one day, I take a Bruce Springsteen album, I could take all the words in that whole album and that’s one song for me, the amount of words I have to use to get one song done.
AVC: It must have been fun to go and talk to all these people that you’ve known. Probably most of these people are personal friends and acquaintances.
IT: Everyone was. The only way I could do the movie was just call my friends. I didn’t want to call people I didn’t know, because I wanted the film to feel like a conversation. I just called all my friends up in my address book. I said, “Look, I got an idea. I want to do a movie. I’m not going to ask you about money, cars, girls, beef, jewelry, none of that. I just want to ask you about the craft.” Everybody was like, “Wow. Nobody ever asks us those questions.” They were like, “Word, Ice. Just come through with the camera. Get me.” So now you got to hunt them down and chase them because all these guys are moving targets and stuff. You’re trying to get Dr. Dre, and he’s like, “Show up at my crib at 3.” And you show, and his man’s like, “Yo, Dre had to pick his son up. He’ll be back at 6.” Then somebody’s like, “Yo, Dre says tomorrow at 9. Is that cool, Ice?” And you’re like, “Oh my God. What are we going to do? I got a camera crew.” Somebody goes, “B-Real’s on the phone.” “Okay, tell B-Real we’re on our way.” So we just running and gunning, and there’s no rehearsal or anything. No one was prepped for the questions. I was just having fun talking to my friends about something we all love.
AVC: When you go and have lunch with Dub C or something like that, are you guys just talking about each other’s kids or what movie you saw? Friends stuff.
IT: We’re talking about old times, Xbox. We talk about this, we talk about that, but mostly we reminisce. I think if you were a football player and you see some of your old teammates, you talk about Game Six in the playoffs. We all have so many inside stories. I remember I was with Dub C in Canada and Coolio broke into a pawnshop and stole a guitar or something. [Laughs.] So I’m responsible for them. They were like the mad circle, and I’m responsible for them, and Coolio had a guitar. I’m like, “Yo, where did you get that guitar?” Somebody snitched and said Coolio broke a window. I’m like, “Yo, we got a show tomorrow. You can’t be robbing—what if you get arrested tomorrow? You in Canada, dude.” There’s so many of those stories. I think one of the things about interviewing more classic MCs and people that were in my area or time, when I was out there on the road, you get humility. When you’re dealing with a new MC, everything’s on point. There’s no mistakes, no problems. “No, we don’t have no mistakes.” When you get to somebody like Run, he can look back, and it’s just funny. You’ve already succeeded in what you want to do. You can kind of laugh at your life. To me, out of the whole movie, the interview with Run was the wildest one.
AVC: He’s a fascinating guy, because he and D.M.C. were literally at the top of pop music. At their peak, they stood only with Michael Jackson and Madonna.
IT: And nobody in rap could touch them. So they were the top. It was undisputed. Now you could say, well who is it? Is it Lil Wayne? Is it Jay? Is it Kanye? You can be disputed. Not when Run-D.M.C. were on the top.
AVC: Now Run is a reverend, he’s a man of the cloth. It’s exciting to hear him slip with you back into famous-rapper mode.
IT: I think he felt good at that moment. He’s seen the movie, so he ain’t mad at it. I think that being a preacher, sometimes you’ve got to let people know where you came from and what you’ve been through and what your experience was. Now you can go on and preach the word of God and what your new life is, but no matter where I am now—I’m on Law & Order, but people still know about my past. I have to be honest about it. When Run starts telling it, it’s like you can see he’s seeing it. “Just got into L.A. You know, they got the best presidential suite. Crazy just bought me a Rolls Royce. Remember Crazy? I just saw Ice-T.” It was just a moment where I was like, “Wow.” And the story was so beautiful because the moral of his story is, when you get there, if you ain’t staying focused, you could be out of control.
AVC: Doug E. Fresh talks in the film about the rappers who went before him and inspired him. You ask all the guys in this movie a question like that. What made you decide to ask that question? Hip-hop is not typically a genre that talks about what you like about somebody else.
IT: The trick with hip-hop—hip-hop is a sport. The only music that’s really, really close to a sport. It starts off, “My DJ’s better than yours. I can out-rap you, I can out-dance you, my graffiti piece is better than you.” It’s very competitive. But we are all fans. You start off a fan. Before you start playing basketball, guess where you were? In the bleachers watching Michael Jordan slam that ball, and you wanted to do it. You start off listening to rap. So we all are fans. C’mon. When I used to do concerts, I never wanted to be backstage. I would always be right on the side watching every artist go up there, because I’m like, “They got a fan base? I want to see what they doing. Maybe I can learn from them, be inspired.” But every rapper has raps in his head. One thing about hip-hop, it’ll stick in your head just like a great song. I would just ask them, I was curious which songs they walk with daily. Another question I asked was, “Define a great MC.” Or, “What’s the qualities of great MCs?” “Name another rapper you admire.” I wanted to show people, yo, we’re all fans of each other. Whether we say it or not, we are. We are.
AVC: Who defines a great MC for you?
IT: I mean there’s great ones. Chuck D, KRS-One, Ice Cube. See, people don’t understand why we call ourselves MC, and when I finished the movie, I was like, “Wow. We left that out.” An MC is a master of ceremonies. The DJs in the Bronx found out, back in the day when hip-hop was just starting, that everybody dug the breakdown of the record. When you have a record and it goes “Get down,” ba-doom do-do-do-do. The part where the people stop singing. That’s the part where everybody would try to dance the best and stuff. The DJ said, “Why even play the rest of the record? Let’s just play the breaks.” They were playing Steve Miller Band, they were playing Aerosmith, they were playing Billy Squire, Big B. They were playing all these records. I was spinning Black Sabbath. [Mouths the beats.] You know, the trick was not to let the other DJs know what beats you’re playing, because you couldn’t go out and buy beats. You had to get them, so they would hide their records. The guy that had the best beat breaks was the best DJ.
AVC: Biz Markie was famous for bathing with his records to take the labels off.
IT: Exactly. There was a secrecy about it. Now I’m the great DJ, you hand the mic over, I hand it over to you and I say, “Tell everybody how great I am.” That’s why early rap records were all about the DJ. It was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. The DJ provided the music. It was his sound system. You’re lucky to be rapping. What the rapper did, he would go, “The DJ’s great, but I’m kind of cool and I’m kind of fly,” and slowly stole the show from the DJ. Another guy would get up and say, “Well he was good, but I’m better, and matter of fact, I was with his sister last night.” And the crowd would laugh, and that’s how it would happen. But an MC not only can rap, but he can control the crowd. That’s what a great MC is. You see kids onstage and they can rap, but then when you say, “Tell the audience what to do,” they kind of freeze up. They’re not MCs yet. An MC is like a KRS-One or a Chuck D or an Ice Cube or a Melle Mel. They just dominate the stage when they’re on, and you’re just in the palm of their hand. My favorite, I guess a lot of people’s favorite, is Rakim. Rakim was just so lyrically deep. It wasn’t just wordplay, it was content, it was heavy, and his flow was impeccable.
AVC: The thing that makes Rakim such a transformational figure in hip-hop is that you could drop all of the language from his flow, and the sound of that voice, just as an instrument on the song, is so spectacular. He took the cadence of hip-hop from ba-ba-ba-BA ba-ba-ba-ba-BA to this shifting, changing cadence that’s like a John Coltrane solo.
IT: It’s incredible. Thing of it is, I try to explain to kids when I do lectures: Let’s start off with a drum beat. So we have a drum beat: boom BA boom ba boom BA. If you’re a singer, you’re like a horn, or a string, or a violin. Over the beat—boom BA boom ba boom BA—you’re going da-da-da-da. You’re flowing over it. That’s what singers do. Rappers are percussion instruments. Our job is now inside the beat to lay an additional percussion. So the beat’s going boom BA boom ba boom BA. We go did-did-did-dat-boom-bop-bop-boom-ba. That’s the flow. Now, that’s a trick. We’re laying a percussion inside of a percussion.
AVC: In the film, you ask Nas why he thinks rap isn’t respected, and he says it’s because it’s threatening: “Why you guys bringing street conversation to the mainstream world? Stay in your place.”
IT: You know, Nas’ father’s a jazz musician. Incredible. A lot of these guys got musical backgrounds. Rakim can play, like, every instrument. Flavor [Flav] can play, like, every instrument. A lot of these cats go about this as, you know, music. Like my friend told me, “You make it look easy,” and the press kind of leans toward the rock ’n’ roll side of it. The rock ’n’ roll side of it is, “Hey, how are you partying? Who tore up the hotel? What girl you sleeping with? What kind of Ferrari did you buy?” But you’re forgetting that Aerosmith plays instruments. Keith Richards and those guys are really guitar players. It starts with the art. The rock ’n’ roll lifestyle really is available to anybody that’s got money. Honestly. Once you get money, if you interview a hundred people with money, they’ll all sound like rock stars. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you ask Nas that question, he doesn’t even have to take a second to think about it. You can feel that pain, that upset that he has right there. It’s this thing that has driven him to be the guy that he is.
IT: It’s driven all of us. It’s what I call powered by hate. People that are successful, you’re always usually working upstream. That’s what makes you excel. Once people start liking you, then it becomes difficult, because now everybody’s on your side. When there’s some kind of opposition to what you’re doing, that’s what rock lives off of. It needs somebody to say, “I don’t like it.” And you’re like, “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll push this down your throat.” If I want to stay in shape, all I’ve got to do is go on the Internet and hear somebody say, “Oh, Ice-T’s old.” I can go get another 20, 50 sets at the gym, you know? Use that negative energy to fuel you. I used to tell parents, “If you really want your kids to stop listening to hip-hop, act like you like it too.” “Hey, let’s sit down and listen to this Ice-T album together.” They’ll hate it. That’s part of it. That’s part of adolescence, being a little bit different. I think that’s one of the paradoxes rap is going into right now. Because the parents, we are hip-hoppers. The kids, they don’t want to be on the same channel, but our generation never grew up. Hip-hop is the fountain of youth. You just don’t grow up if you were there. My son’s 20. I’m on the same channel he’s on. We wear the same clothes, we feel the same thing. It’s a weird, weird generation we’re in right now.
AVC: There really isn’t anyone featured in the film who emerged in the 21st century, other than Kanye West, whose first record came out in 2001. So most of them have perspective on their careers and on the rise of hip-hop. They remember before hip-hop existed. That’s a very different thing than if you went out and talked to A$AP Rocky, who’s just about to put out his first real record.
IT: He’s jumping on a ship that’s moving versus trying to move it from nothing. They’re coming in at this place when radio controls rap. Right now, if you’re underground, you’re not going to sell any records. You have to go pop. You have to be on the radio. It’s a lot of different dynamics with these kids today. There’s thousands and thousands of rappers. When I started rapping, you could actually buy everybody’s record. You had the Run-D.M.C. album, you had the EPMD, you had that Beastie Boys album, you got the Rakim album. Every month there would be like four or five, but you could own every rap album. Now, c’mon man, they’re putting out a hundred mixtapes a day. For free. It’s flooded right now. It’s very difficult.
AVC: How do you think your perspective is different on that era, now that it’s been 25 or 30 years?
IT: I didn’t really know what we were creating. I didn’t really know how big it would be. No one could foresee clothing lines and movies, television and Doritos commercials with rap. But we knew it was something. We knew every time somebody said it was a fad, we were like, “It’s not.” So we knew it was going to be here 25 years later. But we had to fight. They used to take Luke to jail. They were after me. We were outlaws. I used to go to events, and they would read stuff to me. I remember Columbus, Georgia: “If you curse, we’re going to take you to jail.” I must have cursed up a storm. The cops were waiting at the side of the stage. My boys were running the lights. They shut the lights off in the arena, and I went into the crowd and got out, and then the cops were chasing the bus, and we got outside the city limits. Just outlaws. We were just having a good time. We’re like, “We’re breaking your dumb law, but nobody’s getting hurt. We’re not hurting nobody. This is free speech.” I’ll never forget, I talked to Alice Cooper one time about the Bible Belt—now it’s the Dirty South, but when I was doing it, it was the Bible Belt. He said, “Well Ice-T, there’s just some places you don’t rock ’n’ roll.” [Laughs.] They were definitely after him and his crazy ass.
But I’m just proud to have been part of a movement that’s still around today. Kids have transformed it in a lot of ways, and I think, being an OG or a person who had something to do with it, I just want to keep a level of difficulty in it. That’s what makes it an art form. Don’t drop the bar so low that anybody can do it. Then there’s no skill set to it. One of the reasons you call someone a star—when I look at Michael Jordan, I call him a star because he’s doing something I can’t do. That’s what a star does. When you make it like everybody can do it. Yeah, everybody can rap. My mailman comes over, and this fool sounds like DMX. [Adopts a low, fast tone.] “Hold up son, yo, I got lyrics, son.” But to be that star that we’re all going to admire, there’s got to be more to it than just a hit single. You’ve got to give me more. I want to believe in you. That’s all I want. I want cats to continue to keep it funky.
AVC: After talking to dozens and dozens of MCs, what answer surprised you the most?
IT: I think the origin of them, those were always interesting. Like KRS-One saying he started in a battle. I didn’t know how KRS-One got his name. It doesn’t show it in the movie, but he said he was studying Hare Krishna, and he was named after Krishna. I was like, “I thought your name was Kris.” He’s like, “Nah.” So lots of these origins stories, MC Lyte or Salt [of Salt-N-Pepa], people telling how they stood in their kitchen and rapped. B-Real saying, “They told me I wasn’t going to be in the group.” You’re like, “B-Real? Cypress Hill?” Nah, they said, “You better get a better voice.” He had to come up with that voice or he was out of the group. Just those moments, like even Kanye saying, “I lost my first battle.” I was impressed with the humbleness of the artists and them being honest with me and telling real, true, heartfelt stories that I don’t think anyone would have ever heard, ever. I would have heard it, but I’ve been given a chance to let y’all see the rappers I know. People, they see Snoop, but they don’t know Snoop. I know him. That’s why sometimes when I see or I hear negative stuff about my people, my boys and stuff, I’m like, “C’mon man, that ain’t really, dude. That’s drama.” You could sit here and have a nice interview with me, but later on tonight, when we’re doing the after party and I go into Ice-T mode, I’m going to crank up, and I’ll go into that, “Nightmare walking, psychopath talking.” I’ll put the locks on, and I’ll bail onstage. I’ll be 18 years old again. That’s performance, and I’m giving it to you, and I’m there. We are multidimensional. People meet me all the time, they go, “Ice, you’re a nice guy. I thought you’d be like a serial killer.” I always tell them, I go, “You’re not my enemy are you?” [Laughs.]