With his new crime drama 'Players', the rapper does prime time as a badass gone good. Can this be the guy who rocked the right wing with "Cop Killer"?

Here’s a lesson from Irony 101: Five years ago, Ice-T was conservative America’s whipping boy, after his thrash-metal ditty ”Cop Killer” ignited a First Amendment furor and sent his Time Warner-owned record label into bad publicity-fueled apoplexy. Today, he’s starring on NBC’s Players (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.) as an ex-con-turned-crime fighter — a concept he created. (”I designed a show that would keep me around nice clothes, nice cars, and women,” he explains.) What did it take for the 39-year-old rapper to go from Public Enemy No. 1 to TV’s No. 1 network? Read on.

HE’S GOT FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES: Guest-starring on New York Undercover and Swift Justice gave Ice the ear of prolific TV producer Dick Wolf. ”I don’t think it’s a show I would have responded to if [Ice] wasn’t a part of the mix,” says Wolf, who liked the idea of using the rapper to put a modern twist on the Dirty Dozen-esque theme. On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, Wolf ran the concept past his pal, NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield: ”I told him the idea in eight words. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do it.”’

WHITE PEOPLE LIKE HIM: ”That’s what people told me when I first started,” Ice-T says. ”I’m somebody who could always explain myself in a way that’s not too, like, scary to white people.” Even spooking Charlton Heston with ”Cop Killer” didn’t destroy Ice’s crossover appeal. Says Wolf: ”I’ve never gotten the reaction [from fans] that I got on the street with Ice,” he says of filming Players‘ pilot in Manhattan. ”There were 40-year-old white teamsters leaning out of trucks going, ‘Yo, Ice!”’ Getting the Man’s support doesn’t mean Ice has lost his street cred, however. ”The rap community at this point is so intelligent, they’re happy for me,” he says. ”They’re giving me the thumb up.”

HE KNOWS WHEN TO BEND: Ice’s 1995-96 British series, Baadasss TV — a celebration of ”oddities of black culture” — exploited lax UK programming rules. ”On British TV you can get away with a lot,” he says. ”We did episodes on Long Dong Silver and black condom manufacturers.” So was moving to the much more uptight world of American television a downer? ”You don’t get mad at it,” he says. ”Just know what’s allowed.” That meant not being miffed at the mainstreaming of his Players concept — which originally had the ex-cons working solo rather than for the Feds. ”That has to do with the American public wanting to believe law enforcement [officers] are right,” he says. Does Ice believe that? ”I believe in doing the right thing, but I don’t believe that just because you put on a uniform that makes you right.”

HE KEEPS HIS OPTIONS OPEN: While Ice continues to rap (he hopes to sign with a new label and have his next album, Seven Deadly Sins, out by March), he isn’t precluding another TV show should Players play itself out (so far, though, it’s coming in a strong second in its time slot). ”I don’t think I’d want to be on a sitcom,” he says. ”But if I could make as much money as Tim Allen, I’d be the funniest motherf—er on TV.” Coming next fall: Homey Improvement.