”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.”