Ice-T: the 'Original Gangster' of Rap Music

Rapper Ice-T, onstage and in person, insists his dangerous persona has a message, but he's not free of contradiction

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Amy Duncan, Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S a rainy afternoon at a performance arena a short drive outside of Boston, a safe, woodsy place where the vendors sell chocolate chip cookies and overpriced barbecue, and where smoking is forbidden.But here comes Ice-T, the godfather of hardcore rap, the self-proclaimed "original gangster." The album he released this summer quickly sold 500,000 copies and reached 15 on Billboard magazine's list of the top 200 albums. All three of his earlier releases have sold more than 500,000 copies. Ice-T's words, piped through headphones and booming out of car stereos, find their way into a lot of ears. They describe a violent, materialist, occasionally misogynist vision of gang and street life in Los Angeles. Ice-T wants people to know how grim life in America can be. He says he wants us to "know what time it is" - almost too late - to stop the disintegration of race relations in this country. Maybe so. But Ice-T's packaging is violent and graphic. The question arises: Is his way the best one to get the message across? Today, striding on stage, he's waving a gun around. He shoots blanks at the audience. There is no ignoring him. The beat of his music is so pulsing and grating that it sounds like the shooting never stopped. The audience is giddy with excitement. They whoop. They stand up. Ice-T is a menace and most of the audience loves it. But he is a menace at a safe distance, caged by the stage, giving this slice of suburban America a rhythmic version of the taut-wire tension of the inner city. In an introduction to one song, he leads this almost entirely white crowd in a chant against the police. Ice-T is reflecting the anger in the African-American community over incidents of police brutality against black people, but it's hard to imagine that many of the concertgoers have ever been arrested, much less mistreated, by the police. His violent onstage persona, and the dangers he describes in his rap, fascinate the crowd. But Ice-T says these images serve a purpose, and in a backstage interview he stands by his ideas, though he presents them a little less dramatically. Ice-T takes urban rage seriously. Born Tracey Morrow in Newark, N.J., he claims persuasively that he was a successful Los Angeles criminal and a gang member before turning to rap. He says he was no stranger to violence, though he was never arrested. Now the only crime in his life, he says, is one of his dogs, named Felony. Before the show, after a long conversation about racism in the United States, he says, "Believe me, there are a lot of white people out here that still want to take it back to the good old days. [Former President] Reagan said it: Let's go back to the good old days. "What's the good old days for me? When we used to sit in the back?... What ... is the good old days? It's only the future for us. For the human race." Ice-T voices a little hope, but warns: "If we don't get our [act] together in the next five years, you're going to have anarchy in America." And he doesn't just mean urban America, which is so often a synonym for black America. "No," he says, and intones: "In America.... I'm talkin' about your house, homey. Your house." When Ice-T says this, using his piercing hazel eyes to laser-guide his words straight into the head of his white interviewer, he looks, well, icey. "Let's get the [act] together and chill out, 'cause it's gettin' kinda hectic, and it's unnecessary." Racism is fear, he says, but "what are [African-Americans] gonna do? What'd I do to you?" Ice-T rarely addresses racism directly in his music. "I speak about it in the breaks in my music, when I talk to the audience," he explains. "I just think if they sit up and they look at me and they realize that I'm not that so-called bad guy that's gonna take their money and all that, that right there is joining them together, you know?" BUT Ice-T does seem like a bad guy during his concert at the suburban arena. He gets upset that the entire audience hasn't jumped to their feet the minute he walks onstage. Those who haven't start to wish they had. Ice-T verbally assaults the sitters. This tactic is for the most part wildly crowd-pleasing, but it offends some sitters, female and male, whom he has called an unprintable word. A handful of people leave, content to return for a later band. Ice-T knows why his music has such broad appeal. "If you ask me," he says, "I think the masses are pretty ignorant.... Say you got a million people who graduated from elementary school, a thousand people from college, a hundred people from law school, and ten get a doctorate, you know, become a PhD. If I take myself to a PhD's level, I'm gonna sell ten records. If I drop it to the elementary school level, I'll sell to the masses." He also argues that his music isn't exploitative - it does have a message, and it's an accurate reflection of life and of Ice-T. "I have a reason I gotta give a message," he says. m a lucky dude, you know? All my boys, I got two of my homeboys on death row, three of them - life without possibility of parole, more than 12 of them locked up. My friends are dying every weekend, and I'm out here in Boston, backstage with flowers and pictures." He continues: "How ... can I sit up here and be, like, yo, you know, life's perfect?... Life ain't perfect.... The real messages that come out of my music are real serious, you know? But, if you hang around me, I'm not always serious." SO the music is diverse. It's not all cautionary tales about gang members ending up in jail, or drug dealers ending up dead. Some raps explore the hustler's extravagant, fast-lane life without tacking on a moral, some are frankly and even brutally sexual, some fit into the rap tradition of one-upmanship over competing rappers. "See," says Ice, "I gotta be in touch with myself.... I [may] tell you, go to school, don't do drugs, don't end up in jail, you know, but if you turn on a slasher movie I'm gonna watch it, if you open up a Hustler magazine, I'm gonna look in it, and if you break in my car, I might shoot you.... I'm attempting to be real."Ice-T says that rapping about a life of crime, or including grotesque depictions of violence and sex in his work won't undermine his messages as it broadens his appeal. "I mean I can pic k a positive message up and turn off a negative message. I can watch 'Terminator' a hundred times, but I don't want to shoot up a restaurant. I think it's easier to absorb positiveness than negativeness." He knows that people say he contradicts himself. "Well, life contradicts itself, and if you look up paradox in the dictionary it says a statement that seems to contradict itself, but when further investigated, usually means the truth.... My religion is: Do the right thing, the right thing will happen to you. Be good, good things will happen. If I feel in my heart that I'm not trying to hurt nobody, I'll be all right." But are the suburbanites at the concert here for Ice-T's version of the golden rule? It seems more likely that they are here to revel in his depictions of a world they may never know. But it's also true that learning about that world may help them know what time it is.

Recommended: How well do you know your mob bosses and gangsters? Take our organized crime quiz.

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