Ice T’s connection to New York has been cemented by his role as an NYPD detective on "Law And Order: SVU," but his first love remains the music that changed his life — rap and hip-hop. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 Profile.
One may think of Ice T first and foremost as a West Coast rapper, but he was born and grew up in New Jersey. And for more than a decade, Ice-T has lived in New York City, while shooting "Law And Order: SVU" all around the five boroughs.
"We shoot in Brooklyn or Harlem, everybody is so cool. You know, they bring out food, everybody’s chill, we go the Upper East Side, [they say] ‘You’re blocking the street,’" says Ice-T.
"SVU" frequently films at Chelsea Piers, so NY1 caught up with Ice-T at one of his favorite restaurants nearby in the Meatpacking District.
With Ice T, there’s not much veneer, whether it’s in his 2012 book "Ice: A Memoir Of Gangster Life And Redemption — From South Central To Hollywood," on his reality show with his wife Coco or in conversation.
"What scared people about rap was not the music, it was the fear of your daughter, taking down that New Kids [On The Block] poster and putting the NWA poster up over her bed, and saying, ‘Daddy, I love Eazy-E.’ That scared the s–t out of white America," he says.
New Yorkers are long become accustomed to seeing Ice-T on screen, the one-time criminal playing police officers.
"To cast a street cat as a cop, you get a cop with an interesting dynamic. So that’s why when you watch me on ‘SVU,’ you swear to god I’m going to come across the table and rip that kid’s head off," says Ice-T. "It’s like what you get from the streets, the energy that I put out, you can’t act this."
Ice-T says all he has comes from rap and hip-hop.
"When I first heard rap, it blew my mind, and I came to New York to meet with the masters. They told me one thing: rap music requires skill," he says.
Ice-T sees hip-hop’s manifestations everywhere.
"One day, I was sitting back watching TV, I was looking at the weather man rap," Ice-T says. "The Fed Ex guy comes to your house and he’s got his hat [turned sideways]. That’s hip-hop…. You’ve come a long way when Snoop Dogg and Lee Iacocca can do a commercial together."
Ice-T is the executive producer and director of a documentary, "Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap," because he feels younger rappers don’t know or respect the music’s early history.
"It’s kind of like becoming a jazz player, picking up a trumpet and wanting to play with no knowledge of Miles Davis, just none. Well then, you can’t truly totally respect this horn," he says.
So Ice-T interviewed many of his old friends and contemporaries, including Doug E. Fresh, Nas, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
"I called up my friends and I said, ‘I’m going to make a movie, I’m going to ask you questions but not about the money, the cars, the jewelery, the girls, the beef, about the craft.’ And everybody goes, ‘Well no one ever asked us that,’" says Ice-T.
Ice-T says rap and hip-hop saved his life. So it is not surprising that he defends it against some of the charges leveled through the years, including misogynistic lyrics and the glorification of violence.
"You could read Shakespeare to me, and I could go, ‘Well, isn’t that incest?’ ‘No, but it’s Shakespeare, you have to appreciate it,’" says Ice-T. "’Wasn’t that rape right there?’ ‘No.’ ‘But wasn’t that a little bestiality right there?’ ‘No, but it’s Shakespeare, you must appreciate it.’ So it’s all perspective."
His name would one day be synonymous with South Central Los Angeles, but Ice-T was born and raised as Tracy Marrow in suburban Summit, N.J.
When Ice-T was in third grade, his mother died of a heart attack. A few years later, his father died of a heart attack.
"Of course, you don’t want to lose your parents at an early age. It just made me strong, it taught me never to rely on anybody, you know," says Ice-T. "That’s why I never got high, I never smoked weed, I never drank. I don’t drink today, because by being an orphan, I felt like, ‘Wow, if I hit the ground, ain’t nobody’s job to pick me up.’"
He went to live with an aunt in Los Angeles, where he became a street hustler and a thief. But after graduating from Crenshaw High School, he decided to go into the army.
"I got my girlfriend pregnant, I was a teen parent. So here I am, kind of caught in between the streets and, you know, possibly going to jail," he says. "You know what? I’m going to be responsible. I enlisted in the military four years."
Near the end of his stint, he heard words that he has never forgotten.
"My sergeant told me, he said, ‘You know you’re here because you can’t make it in civilian life,’" says Ice-T. "When he said that, I was like, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I’ve been showing him still today."
He came back to Los Angeles and experienced another seminal moment in his life. He nearly died in a car accident, spending 10 weeks in the hospital.
"When I got out, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t run. I think that incapacitation wouldn’t allow me to continue in my life of crime, you know? I was doing pretty athletic stuff," says Ice-T. "It gave me a chance to re-evaluate where I was going. Sometimes, when you have a near-death experience, you hit the reset button on your life."
Ice-T says he was initially skeptical about rap as a career until he won a club contest hosted by Curtis Blow.
In the late 1980s, Ice-T became well-known in rap circles. Then his song "Cop Killer" became national news and suddenly, Ice-T was known everywhere.
"What’s it like to have the president of the United States saying your name in anger? Not a good thing," he says.
Back in 1992, Ice-T told reporters, "I think one of the main problems with the press right now is that they don’t have the slightest idea where I’m coming from."
Ice-T has always maintained that it was a protest song.
"It wasn’t about killing all cops, the song was ‘Cop killer, it’s better you than me, cop killer, f— police brutality." It was against the brutal cops, but they twisted it and spun it on its head and I was the big hater and I wanted kids to go do it," he says. "And it was such a big mess and it took awhile for it to blow over and some people are still sore about it."
Twenty years after the controversy, his life is drastically different. He is known primarily, and ironically, for playing a cop in films and on television.
He has two children from his first marriage and his second marriage is grist for the reality show mill.
"The struggle, the hard part is done. I’m kind of in a cruise zone, you know. I do my concerts, I write my music and Coco makes me sandwiches. It’s a good life," he says.
His old life, a life shaped by the aggressive violent surroundings of his youth, are still a part of him. But there is also a desire to not have the next generation repeat that life.
"I’m not your role model. My role is too dirty to follow. You don’t want to try what I did," says Ice-T. "Anybody who’s been through it like me, they bust their ass to make it better for their kid. I don’t want my kid to ever go to prison. I don’t want him to try anything against the law. I was lucky I’m alive."
The DVD release of the documentary "Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap" is scheduled for September 18.