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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Ice-T

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary. We're featuring interviews from our archive with performers who hold a significant place in that history. Our first interview today is with Ice-T. He was one of the early gangster rappers and was both popular and controversial. In 1987, he was signed to Sire Records and released his debut album, "Rhyme Pays," which won gold. His follow-up, "Power," went platinum. In 1992, his heavy metal band, Body Count, released their self-titled album, which included the song "Cop Killer." The song was so controversial, it was withdrawn from the market, and the album was rereleased without that track.

As an actor, the paradox of Ice-T's career is obvious. He played a police detective in his first major acting role in the 1991 film "New Jack City." He's probably best known now for his role as a police detective, appearing in over 400 episodes of "Law & Order: SVU." I spoke with Ice-T in 1994 after the publication of his book, "The Ice Opinion." Let's start with an autobiographical rap from his 1993 album, "Home Invasion." This is "That's How I'm Livin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S HOW I'M LIVIN'")

ICE-T: (Rapping) I was born in New Jersey. I said it before, but I guess nobody heard me. My mother died young. No sisters or brothers, I was the only son. When I was 12, my pops died, too. What's a brother supposed to do? They sent me out west to live with my aunt. I guess they thought that was the best. But there was no love there. But growing with no moms, I guess I was prepared to live in a vacuum - the bedroom, the kitchen, the hall, the bathroom. I didn't leave home much. I didn't like LA, didn't have no friends to trust. Got bussed to a school. Blacks and whites, I guess [expletive] was cool. About high school, I changed. Didn't want to bust, didn't want to...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Ice-T, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were really one of the first gangster rappers. Did you relate to party rap when rap was starting?

ICE-T: Yeah. When I first got off into rap, I tried to rap in the party rap-type style because I was under the impression that's what rappers did. But it was kind of like I was faking it because I had never really rapped in parties and things like that. I was trying to rap like Sugarhill Gang. And then I just started rapping about the life I was living. And that's how, you know - they call it gangster rap, but I called it reality-based rap, you know? And that's how that form of music got started.

GROSS: Now, how did you start doing that? What was the turning point where you decided you weren't going to try to fake it and do the party raps, that you were going to talk about the life you knew?

ICE-T: Well, I made - my first record ever I made was a record called "Coldest Rap," and it was on a record called "Cold Wind." One side was called "Cold Wind-Madness," and that was on an independent label. And it was very reality based. But it, you know, was so early in rap - this was, like, 1982 - and everybody else was rapping, you know, Run-D.M.C. style, LL Cool J and stuff. So I just was going along with the trend, you know, the way they go. But then after a while, my friends were like, you know, Ice, man, talk about what we do, man. Talk about how we live. And I did this song called "6 'N The Mornin'." It was a B-side. I really didn't think that that was what people wanted to hear, but the B-side turned out to be the biggest record and ended up being my identity, really.

GROSS: Could you do a couple of lines from that?

ICE-T: What, "6 'N The Mornin'?"

GROSS: Oh, maybe not, huh?

ICE-T: Yeah, I could do it. You know...

GROSS: OK.

ICE-T: ...What I mean? It went, (rapping) 6 in the morning, police at my door, fresh Adidas squeaked across the bathroom floor. Out the back window, I made my escape. Didn't even get a chance to grab my old school tape. Mad with no music but happy 'cause free, and the streets to a player is the place to be. Got a knot in my pocket wearing at least a grand. Gold on my neck, my pistol is close at hand. I'm a self-made monster. The city streets remotely controlled by hard hip-hop beats, but just living in the city is a serious task. Didn't know what the cops wanted, didn't have time to ask.

GROSS: Now, what was the very first time you took a microphone?

ICE-T: It was - I was in the Army, and the record called "Rapper's Delight" had came out, and that was the first time I had ever really heard it done to music. And on the B-side of it, it was an instrumental. So here I am trying to say my rhymes over this instrumental. And they didn't really fit 'cause they weren't written that way, you know? But that was my first attempt. And I came home attempting to do what, you know, they call rapping now.

GROSS: Do you remember anything you said that very first time?

ICE-T: Well, I tried to say the street rhymes that I had been saying on the streets, you know, strolling through the city in the middle of my - in the middle of the night. I used to sing, like, gang rhymes. I used to say rhymes that had to do with living in the streets, you know? And they just didn't fit, you know? But I started - then I started writing, like, party rhymes, like (rapping) my name is Ice-T, I'm here - I'm your DJ tonight. I'm here to rock y'all hard. I'mma rock you right. I'mma move you in. I'mma move you out - that kind of stuff. But that wasn't really what I was about, so I got back to the drama.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, you've even criticized some hardcore rappers who abandon hardcore and do more dance music. What's wrong with dance music?

ICE-T: No, nothing's wrong with it. But, I mean, hardcore rap, to me, is - the difference between pop and hardcore is with hardcore, you're saying exactly what's on your mind. You're being true to your feelings. Now, whether that pushes somebody the wrong way, that's just what being real is about. But there's a lot of people out there that want to get on the radio. So the radio dictates to you what you have to say. You have to be politically correct, so to speak. And when I see guys that at one time were very aggressive about certain things and then I see them get softer to try to go onto the radio, I just - you know, to me, that's weak, you know? But I never really pull names. I just say it to them 'cause it kind of breaks my heart when I see somebody who used to be real dancing around on the video looking all stupid.

GROSS: Well...

ICE-T: Now, if that's what you do - don't get me wrong. If that - if you are a pop rapper, I have no problem with that. You know, I love MC Hammer. I love Fresh Prince, and I love Kid 'n Play. That's them. But I'm talking about - it's like tomorrow if you went out and you saw one of my videos, and all of a sudden, I got on some - like, a yellow raincoat and I'm dancing around and - you know, you'd be like, what are you doing, Ice? That's what I'm talking about.

GROSS: When you started making records, though, did you ever worry that all the traditional avenues that people hear records would be closed to you? It wasn't going to be in the jukeboxes or on the radio because of four-letter words?

ICE-T: I really didn't care, because to me, I did it to have fun. It was fun. It's not a - it turned, then, to being an occupation. But you got to remember, when I started rapping, nobody was making any money at it. There was Run-D.M.C. It was - it wasn't like - now kids listen to it and say, oh, wow, I can get paid. But me, I did it for fun. And that was my only, like, prerequisite as far as doing music - and still is in entertainment. It's like, if I can't have fun, I can't do it. I mean, that's one of the main reasons I pulled off Warner Brothers, was because I got to be able to do it my way. If I can't have fun, then why would I write a book or make a - I got to do it my way. That's what it's about.

GROSS: You grew up in New York, or at least when you were very young, you were in...

ICE-T: Yeah, New Jersey.

GROSS: ...New York, and - New Jersey.

ICE-T: Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you. And your parents died when you were young. Both of your parents were dead, I think, by the time you were 12. Can I ask how they died?

ICE-T: My mother died from a heart attack, and my father just died. I don't know. I just was called from school one day, and they're like, your pops is dead. And I'm like, oh. And then, you know, I never really got into his actual cause of death. He wasn't killed or anything, you know? He was - at the time, he had - I know he had gone through a lot of pain, like, arthritis and stuff like that. And they sent me - from there, they told me, OK, well, you're going to come to LA for the summer.

GROSS: Who's they? Who told you?

ICE-T: His sister, my aunt. And then they were - then the next - before - well, I got there in, like, one week. Then all of a sudden, all my clothes popped up out there in boxes. So I kind of, like, got shipped to California.

GROSS: So that's how you ended up in LA?

ICE-T: Yeah, living with my father's younger sister, who wasn't really a nice woman. She was kind of like a woman who was - said I'm taking care of you 'cause I got to. Shut up, sit down, all that, you know? So a lot of kids get moved around like that.

GROSS: In your book, you said that she was a religious woman.

ICE-T: No, she wasn't a religious woman. She was a drunk. She was a social worker, a woman who would go around and analyze whether kids should stay in foster homes and stuff. And she was a terrible person. She was like an old drunk. She wasn't nobody qualified to do anything like that, you know? I mean, she was - it was rough on me. But I left there when I was, like, 17 years old because, you know, it's not - that's not the kind of environment you're supposed to be raised in where somebody's like, I'm taking care of you 'cause I got to and all that kind of stuff. You know, the word love and caring and all that is, you know, not even in the house.

GROSS: So where did you go at 17?

ICE-T: I got my own place. I took a little money I was getting for Social Security. I was receiving Social Security check - $250 a month. And I bought - I got an apartment which was $100 a month. I took another $100 and put it into the food and stuff I had to buy. And I had 50 bucks extra. And I was still in high school.

GROSS: Now, what high school were you going to?

ICE-T: Crenshaw.

GROSS: This was in South Central?

ICE-T: Yeah, dead - the center of - that's the dead center of Los Angeles, Crenshaw High School.

GROSS: It must have been good to have your own apartment. I mean, when you're in high school, somebody's got their own apartment, that's...

ICE-T: Makes you the man.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

ICE-T: Well, that's - that did happen. You know, all my friends and stuff I got, you know, I had the pad. And it turned me, like, into a leader, you know? So by just being a little bit in front of everybody else, I have friends always over. They could spend the night. It was funny. A lot of people would run away for, like, two days. I'm running away. I'm living with you. You know, you can't run away. Then their mother would come to my house. Where's Nate, you know? Get out. He's hiding in the closet. And, you know, it was interesting. But also what ended up happening, I ended up having a teenage pregnancy, too.

GROSS: A girlfriend.

ICE-T: Yeah, my girlfriend. She was in the 10th grade, but, you know, I'm Mr. Man About Town, got my own apartment. Whoop, now I got a baby. So, you know...

GROSS: So what'd you do?

ICE-T: ...A little too much freedom. Huh? Oh, at that point, I decided - I tried to stay down with the kid. But I - you know, that's when all of a sudden, a little - a bit of responsibility tried to hit me, and that's when I joined the military.

GROSS: But that meant getting away from the baby, right?

ICE-T: Not really. It was just a job. It was a way of doing something. You know, at that point, I was on the streets. I was trying to go to technical college. But, you know, crime was knocking there at my door like, hey, man, you know, you only got 50 extra bucks. If you steal this car radio, you got 300 extra bucks. So what are you going to do? You know, you can't get a job at this point, you know? So it was a cross. And I just said, yeah, I'm going to try to go in the Army. And I went in the Army.

GROSS: So are you still in touch with the woman who had the baby and with the baby?

ICE-T: Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah, my daughter lives with me now.

GROSS: Oh, she does?

ICE-T: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh.

ICE-T: So that's cool and stuff, you know? But when I came out of the Army, all my friends who were small-time, little, you know, petty crooks now were bigger crooks, you know? And that's how I got off involved in all the different, you know, crimes, attempting to, you know, get over.

GROSS: So what kind of crimes were they doing?

ICE-T: Everything. You know, you name it, we did it, you know? But basically, anything - everything that you could do without actually bringing bodily harm to somebody. I didn't hang around with a bunch of violent guys that were into, you know, hurting people and kidnapping. But they would rob a store or burglarize something or steal something. And some of them sold drugs and things like that. But, you know, I never was, like, often to just, you know, the mugging type of a thing.

GROSS: In your book "The Ice Opinion," you wrote that you wanted to be a pimp.

ICE-T: Yeah.

GROSS: Why did you want to be a pimp?

ICE-T: I admired pimps because when I was growing up, the only people that had everything around me were the pimps and the drug dealers. And I really wasn't into drugs 'cause I don't do drugs or even drink. But I always liked girls. So I was like, hey, that's the guy I want to be. And I just admired the lifestyle. And I got involved in it for a minute, you know, tried it out, but I didn't really like it - you know? - 'cause it's a harmful type of a game. You know, people end up hurt. But now I found out that there's only two jobs in the world - there's pimps and hoes. So it's the people who work for or the people who make you work. So that's why, I guess, that's the oldest profession, because it's - either you're a pimp or you're a ho. So I figured it out now. So I know what's going on with it. So like I said, when I was on Warner Brothers, I was a ho. They were the pimp. They were - they worked me till I was burnt out, busted or dead. Now I'm trying to pimp myself, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter) Is that how you see it?

ICE-T: Yeah. Well, everything can be broken down. Everything you see on the street, it's like - it's only one game, right? You have capitalism and you have different versions of it. Drug dealing is capitalism. It's all the same. It's what the law say is legal and who gets hurt in the meantime. You know, the oil companies sell stuff. They pollute the water, but they can play around with it. So I try to teach kids, you know, all these little skills you're learning on the streets, whether they're negative or not, if you - with a little changing and editing, you can transform right off into big business. And especially if you're a street crook. The best place to go right now is politics because that's where - that's, like, you have - you'll find all your friends there.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1994 interview with Ice-T. We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE-T SONG, "O.G. ORIGINAL GANGSTER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1994 interview with rapper and actor Ice-T. In this part of the interview, we talked about the language he used to describe women in some of his recordings and why many women found that language offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So much rap to me seems to be about getting respect, right?

ICE-T: Right.

GROSS: Then I can't understand why so many rappers treat women with so little respect when they're so demanding of respect for themselves.

ICE-T: True. The word b**** and stuff is just - it's really street dialogue, words that are used and really don't hold a lot of power, you know? I mean, this is just the bottom line. It doesn't really hold a lot of power.

GROSS: But you know that if a woman wants to call herself something, that's one thing. If a man calls a woman a b****, that's something different. And as a friend and colleague says, those are fighting words.

ICE-T: Well, that's cool. But maybe we're saying, let's fight. It's not - I could be a b****, you know? But in the ghetto, we throw these words around. If you sat around some Black kids in the hood, that's how we talk - man, my b**** was da, da (ph) and they be - the girls be like, oh, he thought he had this and da, da, da, da. And we just throw it around. What it is - see, rap music is Black music that's being sent back and forth to us in the ghetto. White America picked up the phone and listened to it and said, oh, how can they talk like this? This is just how we talk. Put the phone down.

GROSS: But the word seems representative of other attitudes too. Like on your latest album, "Home Invasion," on the track "99 Problems"...

ICE-T: Yeah.

GROSS: ...One of the line is - I can't say the word, but it's a four letter word for sex, right? So it's, I blank them all and leave them on the curb. I mean, come on. I mean, you know, that's really...

ICE-T: But listen to Salt-N-Pepa's new record. They're saying the same thing about men. It's ghetto Black female sparring. We continuously do this, and this is just our thing, and we've done it. I mean, my father used to say, Ice, I could take my thing and bounce it off four parking meters and go through that window and do that guy's mama. This is how we talk. It's - and, see, white America just won't understand it. But I'm just going to have to say it's a Black thing. And we do it - listen to Eddie Murphy; listen to Rudy Ray Moore; listen to Richard Pryor; listen to our past history of how it is. Only thing rap has done is put it to music and let you see it. And white America don't like how we are and stuff.

GROSS: Well, I'm white.

ICE-T: I understand it, but...

GROSS: But, I mean, white people have this long history of sexism, but that doesn't make it, like, a thing our people do, so therefore it's cool. I mean, it's bad.

ICE-T: But you don't see Black people criticizing rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: Well, a lot of white women criticize rock 'n' roll.

ICE-T: Well, it's for you to do. You got to understand that if a woman makes a record, she's going to make it from a woman's perspective.

GROSS: You know, there's a lot of Black women criticizing rap now, though.

ICE-T: There's a lot of what - Black women making rap that I think is derogatory toward men.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

ICE-T: Touche.

GROSS: I still don't buy it.

ICE-T: I'm thinking, you know, let's just kick back and enjoy the ride. It's not that serious. There's homeless people out there.

GROSS: Do you think that any of the gangster rap has hardened into a caricature of itself?

ICE-T: Yeah. A lot of it's corny. A lot of it's real fake. I mean, any time I listen to a gangster rapper and he's talking about how tough he is and all this jail stuff and all that and how many people, you know, he killed, and it's, you know - it's phony and fake. You know, any time it's glamorized to that point, I can tell you never been through it. Now, some people are artists at it. It's like, Scarface does it to the point where it's, like, he's like the Sam Peckinpah of rap.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ICE-T: He writes it in such graphic details that it's like watching a feature film, you know? And I appreciate it. But then there's some kids I can just tell that have no idea what they're talking about.

GROSS: You said you don't mind kids emulating the clothes. I think, in fact, you're marketing your own line called O.G.G., Original Gangsta Gear.

ICE-T: Original Gangsta Gear. And the only reason we call it Original Gangsta Gear is because that's what people now call me 'cause I had an album called O.G. That's, like, my side title, Ice-T, the O.G., right? So instead of calling it Ice-T Gear, we called it O.G.G. We thought it was kind of a play on (inaudible) words. You know why we did it? Because I'm tired of the culture just being ripped off, you know? I mean, I've been to all these different clothing manufacturers and hip-hop clothes and all that, but none of the Black kids that got the styles kicking are making a dime off of this, you know? We're not getting nothing out of it. We don't own no record labels. We don't own nothing. So it's a - we don't own anything. So got to keep...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ICE-T: ...My English correct as often as possible. But it's like - I was like, look, none of these people want to sponsor me. They're scared of me and all this. Let me make my own clothes. It's only right if I walk on TV and I create a style, why I ain't get a royalty off of it, you know? And then what happened is the white culture says, you shouldn't want to get any money off of anything you do. Let us get all the money off of it. That's stupid.

GROSS: Let me ask you. You're a father now. Well, you're a father for at least a second time anyways.

ICE-T: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So how does being a father affect you as a performer and a writer? Any impact on that?

ICE-T: Not really, 'cause my daughter - she's been around, and so she knows all about the nasty lyrics. She loves them. She's the coolest kid at the school. You know, her little girlfriends going, your daddy be writing them nasty records...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ICE-T: ...You know? You know, she's cool with it. She grew up around a house full of cursing and stuff. She don't curse in front of me - just the way I grew up. My father cursed. I just didn't curse in front of him, you know? But, you know, he cursed me out every day. But I never curse around him, you know? And then my little boy - I mean, she's a little revolutionary. She's intelligent. People always say, well, Ice-T, you guys are very aggressive and revolutionary. I'm like, yeah, but just wait on my kids and wait on their kids, you know? So I'm priming them up for the battle and hopefully - you know, his name is Ice. His name is Ice. So he's just coming up - chip off the old block, I guess. I don't know. You know, he's going to be able to sit around the house and listen to me run this rhetoric off for 18 years. So who knows what he'll be? Hopefully he'll be a lawyer - criminal lawyer to keep me out of jail or something.

GROSS: (Laughter) I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

ICE-T: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Ice-T was recorded in 1994. Coming up, we'll hear my 1999 interview with rapper, singer and actor Queen Latifah. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW JACK HUSTLER (NINO'S THEME)")

ICE-T: (Rapping) Here I come, so you better break north. As I stride, my gold chains glide back and forth. I care nothing about you, and that's evident. All I love's my dope and dead presidents. Sound crazy? Well, it isn't. The ends justifies the means. That's the system. I learned that in school. Then I dropped out, hit the streets, checked a grip, and now I got clout. I had nothing, and I wanted it. You had everything, and you flaunted it. Turned the needy into the greedy. With cocaine, my success came speedy. There'll be another one after me, a hustler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.