”So you say that I’m a fake, think, you must really be a fool/I been in jail more times than you have probably been in school/Shot at, shot back, hit, and seen my buddies killed/That’s the foundation upon the raps of Ice-T are built!”
The guy who wrote those feral lines — they’re from the title track of one of his top-selling rap records, Power — is sitting next to me on a plush couch in his house in the Hollywood Hills. His fourth album, O.G. Original Gangster, has just been released, and his record company, with obviously great expectations, has trumpeted its arrival in trade papers with costly, full-page ads. The movie in which he starred, New Jack City, is a surprising box office hit that has launched a new career for him as an engrossing and credible actor. Miles from South Central L.A., the rough city district in which he grew up and which is the setting for most of his records, he’s home and happy in his tastefully decorated house with its bleached hardwood floors and its picture window overlooking West Hollywood and the wide, wealthy reaches of Beverly Hills.
Spot the dichotomy: On his new album’s cover, he’s decked out in a tuxedo in one shot, a sleeveless undershirt in another. Today, as magazine photographers pack up their cameras to depart, he’s slick once more — decked out in casual but expensive clothes of the sort he might wear at Spago, L.A.’s enduringly glamour-packed eatery a few blocks down the hill from here. Running around on the back porch are Chopper, his bulldog, and Felony, his pit bull. Like others in the household, they look tough but are friendly.
Two hours ago, I was in my car driving on Sunset, listening to Ice-T tell the world he’s a ”nigga” and expecting to confront the toughest, meanest, most badass dude around. Now he’s here telling me that his new role model is Cher. ”She’d do Silkwood and get the Academy Award,” he explains, ”then flip and be butt naked on a battleship, and nobody would question it. Because that’s her singing, not her acting.” He’s referring to Cher’s video for her 1989 hit ”If I Could Turn Back Time,” which featured her cavorting half-nude in front of a crew of horny sailors. But Ice-T — whose real name is Tracy Marrow, and who, in his early 30s, is older and more seasoned than most rappers — is more interested in Cher’s juggling prowess here than in her body. Balancing two careers is his newest priority.
I had wondered, of course, exactly how much of a gangster Ice-T really used to be. Maybe 10 years ago, he says, he and his crew lived in South Central L.A. — Hollywood and Beverly Hills nowhere in sight — and did ”lots of things.” Like what? ”Jewelry-store robberies, credit card fraud, insurance fraud, burglaries and stuff,” he says. ”I got boys in jail for armed robbery, kidnapping for ransom, murder — lots for murder, two, three for murder. So, you know, I was riding with some bad cats.”
Once he establishes that, though, he falls quiet. It’s part of the Ice-T dilemma. He was bad, but now he’s a role model, and he’s unsure how to merge the two. He moves around on the couch. ”In one respect I like talking about it,” he says looking over at me, his face serious. ”In another, I don’t really like pushing it. A lot of times I’m talking to these kids — and they got such a chip on their shoulder that they don’t think that nobody can talk to ’em. So sometimes I gotta spill, like, my pedigree. Let ’em know where I been, get more in-depth with ’em on it, and then they go, ‘Okay, cool.”’
Ice-T spills his pedigree for a reason. He knows the attraction of gangs and guns and crime: ”It is glamorous, you know? I was in a gang and it was fun. It’s not fun when you get shot, it’s not fun when you end up in jail, but until then, it’s fun.” He wants kids in the black community to know he knows this, but he wants them to know the criminal life is a dead end. He has voiced his feelings repeatedly in his songs, at speaking engagements, at panel discussions, and, in 1988, even before the Congressional Black Caucus. When he was asked there about the Los Angeles gang situation, he recalls, the questions were ”just stupid. Because it doesn’t take much to understand why gangs happened, why they bred. We don’t have the education system set up to where the kids think they got a chance to do anything else. Right now, crack is the No. 1 employer of minority youth in America.”
That, of course, is a major theme of New Jack City — and, as Ice-T notes, the cop he played in the picture ”had a lot of the same ideals I have. He possibly , could have been a drug dealer, if something didn’t turn him the other way.”
Performing in the film, which has already grossed over $40 million and produced a hot soundtrack album, was initially intimidating for Ice-T, as unlikely as that sounds. ”It was scary,” he says. ”I didn’t know how the actors were gonna react, and in music I’m in my own domain. But when I got there, the first thing I found out was that they were, like, in awe of me — they wanted, like, autographs and stuff.” That Ice-T isn’t playing a rapper on-screen is purposeful — ”It might give you an hour and a half to not like me” — and the decision seems smart to many in the industry. One admirer is John Sykes, a former CAA agent and now president of Chrysalis Records, who calls Ice-T’s choice ”very wise. The movie industry has historically asked musicians to play themselves, because they feel it’s a built-in audience for the film, and that’s the kiss of death for a musician. He’s achieved the best of both worlds.”
In his next outing, producer Joel Silver’s action film Ricochet, set for release early next year, Ice-T plays a drug dealer. After Ricochet will come other projects, Ice-T says, ”but the agents told me don’t talk or nothing. ‘Cause when you talk, it’s hard to get your money.” He sits back and ponders. ”All I ever wanted to do was be a rapper,” he says. ”Now I’d like to be an actor — meaning when the casting guys would name off black actors or whatever, I’d accept just being a black actor: ‘Well, we could use (Robert) Townsend; maybe we could get T.’ Just be in there. I don’t have to be the best, just be a name.”
A vehicle pulls up in the driveway. Ice-T looks over his shoulder toward the kitchen and yells. ”Dar-LENE!!” No answer. ”Dar-LENE!!” Darlene is Ice-T’s strikingly beautiful common-law wife of seven years, who (dramatizing the deadly glamour of crime) was featured on the cover of Power wearing one-eighth of an ounce of bathing suit and holding a gun that could easily blow your head off. Finally, she comes out. ”They’re here,” he says. She walks outside and fetches the new arrivals. ”They’re friends from D.C.,” Ice-T explains.
Darlene, as it happens, is pleasant, cheerful, all business, and by no means a bimbo. Still, in my house, if I yelled my wife’s name that loud, she’d come over and hit me with a stick. That’s part of Ice-T’s charm: He can get away with it. You can hear it on his new album, where he explains that, yeah, though he does use the word ”bitch” a lot, he isn’t being sexist, despite what you might think. ”So ladies, we just ain’t talkin’ ’bout you,” the lyric goes, ”’Cause some of your niggas is bitches too.” I ask him about it, and he smiles. ”I get a lot of static for it, so I decided I’d tell some of the guys they act like bitches too. A bitch is just somebody who has to have their way all the time and is just a pain in the ass. You know? It has nothing to do with being a female.”
So goes a conversation with Ice-T. He talks, you listen, you can’t help agreeing with him-and later you sometimes scratch your head and wonder what you agreed with. Ice-T’s world is a place where the same man who penned ”Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.” — a three-minute ditty urging female listeners ”Let’s Get Butt Naked and F—” — can turn around and convincingly argue that both men and women are bitches. The man’s major gift may be language, but his charm and sheer cheekiness come a close second. He proudly — okay, brazenly — paints a self-portrait on O.G. Original Gangster, and it goes like this: ”I’m a steak and lobster eatin’/Billionaire meetin’/ Cash money makin’, movin’, shakin’/ Corporate jet glidin’/ Limousine ridin’/Writin’ hits, filthy rich/Straight up nigga!”
Ice-T asks if I’d like to watch a new video before I leave. He calls out again to Darlene, in another room with the houseguests, and she brings them in. He walks over to a cabinet, pulls out a remote control, presses buttons, and a screen and projector descend from the ceiling. We all sit and, as we watch him rap on-screen, wearing his undershirt, he self-deprecatingly chuckles at how large his belly looks. There’s laughter in the house, and Ice- T, sitting there with his friends, seems no tough character at all. ”The real tough guys in Hollywood are the ones that are smiling all the time,” he’d said earlier, ”playing golf and laughing. And then” — he’d clapped his hands loudly — ”they give it to you!” That may be, but Ice-T seems tough enough for Hollywood.