20 Years On: Ice-T's O.G. Original Gangster Revisited
, November 7th, 2011 10:53
With his plain speaking, crisp production and fearsome focus, Ice-T was hugely influential two decades ago, says Angus Batey
Twenty years on from his finest on-record hour, Ice-T sometimes looks like a hip hop underachiever. While politically contentious, he never seemed to command the news media like Chuck D; despite being a gangsta rap pioneer, you always got the sense he was maybe a bit tamer, a bit less parent-threatening, than NWA or Cube. Never a dynamic poet, never a west coast Rakim, nor a freewheeling master rap stylist a la Busta or Slick Rick, his name tends to get left out when true-school heads or rock-crit listmakers gather to anoint and appoint the approved membership list of the all-time hip hop canon. Even the former Treacherous Three leader Kool Mo Dee, in his 2003 book There's A God On The Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs, which used an evidence-based empirical methodology to assemble a somewhat scientific list of the best of the best, only found room for him at No 35 - ahead of Lil' Kim and Kurrupt, but ten places below Heavy D. Without wishing to disrespect the Overweight Lover, even he would surely agree that that doesn't sound quite fair.
Ice's intermittent involvement in hip hop music-making from 1993 onwards meant he was absent from the fray as hip hop took over - and morphed into - mainstream pop. His public profile today is dominated by his small-screen acting career and his evident enjoyment of the life of a modern celebrity: his latest vehicle is a reality TV show with his former underwear model wife. A natural adept at social media, even the Twitter feed ostensibly written by his dog now has over 16,000 followers. It's easy to see how he's become a kind of sideshow, but that doesn't mean we have to accept that he should be denied his place at hip hop history's high table. Yet his fourth LP - a masterpiece, though usually only acknowledged as a personal milestone in the Ice-T discography rather than as a high-water mark for the genre as a whole - goes some way to explaining why.
By 1991, Ice-T wasn't quite the star he would soon become - his first three LPs had all sold over half a million copies in the US, which put him on a similar level to an EPMD or a pre-'Walk This Way' Run DMC. The people buying his records were still primarily hip hop fans, not the disaffected rock audience in need of some new sources of righteous rage he'd begun to court and would successfully cultivate over the next couple of years. Nor was he yet the cause celebre of the anti-censorship left - he didn't really end up in the eye of that particular storm until the beginning of 1993. Yet both those future paths are, in retrospect, clearly mapped out here.
It's an album that ought therefore to feel transitional, but O.G. is notable for its focus and clarity, its lyrical and production precision, and its maker's indomitable sense of both presence and permanence. And it's here that the first clue can be unearthed as to Ice's mysterious omission from the pantheon of the GOATs. He was among the first rappers signed to a major - and definitely the first from LA (though born in New Jersey, he moved West as a pre-teen), and his records always sounded... different. Even when he was using the standard rap sample source palette - and there's as much James Brown and P-Funk on this album as on any late-Golden Age New York elpee - there's a sheen and a gloss to the production that set it apart. Where New York rap was dark and grimy, Ice and his long-time production cohort Afrika Islam took the same sonic elements and dragged them out into the bright light of the California day. It's hip hop, but there's no place to hide: the sounds are all clearly defined, starkly illuminated, clean and distinct, almost separated in the mix as if being held up for examination using forceps and surgical gloves. This approach would prove profoundly, hugely influential - you can hear its echoes in Dr Dre's search for sonic perfection, and the crispness of O.G.'s production sounds entirely normal in today's digitally polished era - but at the time, it seemed a little odd, perhaps a little ersatz; as if it was hip hop filtered through the major label machine, and therefore maybe it seemed a little less raw, and its provenance suggested it was a tad less authentic.
Just like the music, Ice's raps favoured clarity - both aural and intellectual. Just as their sound was crisp and precise, so their meanings were never meant to be hidden. The listener wasn't supposed to have to work at getting to the crux of what an Ice-T song was about. The conventional measures of a great emcee aren't much help when assessing these raps' success or failure: Kool Mo Dee gives his lowest scores to Ice in the categories of Battle Skills, Freestyle Ability and Flow, and in his notes on Poetic Value, Mo Dee kills with kindness. "He doesn't actually do poetry," he writes, "but he approaches it poetically." This, too, has probably cost him a few places in the all-time lists, particularly those compiled by rock crits who, as a type, tend to prefer the obscure to the obvious and prize the occluded or occult over the plainly spoken, and assume those who mumble artfully must be profound, not just pretending. There are no guessing games to be played here: everything is easy to grab hold of.
Yet while that may suggest a lack of depth, the opposite is in fact true. O.G. benefits from a conceptual thoroughness that imbues the bleak subject matter with the timelessness of epic tragedy. It's a profoundly moral record, with pretty much every track working as a cautionary tale or redemptive testimony. At first glance, 'New Jack Hustler' is bullish bravado from a low-level crime lord, but it's as acute and nuanced an investigation of how political imperatives and social conditioning fuel the drug crime industry as any scholarly paper or lobbyist's briefing could have concocted. The story told in 'Midnight' ends with the cops kicking down his door; 'Escape From The Killing Fields' exhorts gang members to break the mental chains binding them to their inner city prisons; the last proper track, 'The Tower', closes the album in the only situation a survivor of drug wars is likely to end up, choices reduced to deciding which gang to side with in jail. Even the lighter moments come with barbs: 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous' doesn't celebrate the rap star existence, preferring to focus on the work that goes in behind the scenes. Gangsta rappers before and since have viewed the sub-genre as a means to simply describe the crime life: Ice-T looked for meaning in the madness and when he lit upon it he wrote about it with no little wit and considerable power. There are many protagonists in these songs, but few unmistakable heroes or villains.
For all that his peers may dismiss his poetic gifts, and even if he was never a virtuoso wordsmith up there with the handful of unarguably next-level lyricists, there are moments of brilliance in these songs, each one the more effective for its ability to shine brightly in its context. 'New Jack Hustler' does this with the same brutal efficiency that the character he inhabits in the song constructs his crime empire: "I got nothin' to lose, much to gain/ In my brain I got a capitalist migraine" is as vivid an image as any in New Jack City, the film the song was the theme for (and which Ice starred in). In the majestic title track - which rendered a written autobiography so redundant that he was able to construct his first book (The Ice Opinion, 1993) as a series of thematically separate socio-political critiques - he finds a way of explaining his content (and its terrifying inevitability) that evokes myths or fairytales to burn its way into the listener's mind: "I try to write about fun and the good times/ But the pen yanks away and explodes and destroys the rhyme."
Best of all, these skills are deployed in the service of a greater good. While his previous, third album, The Iceberg, was largely an exercise in baiting Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center (it even went so far as to feature a guest appearance from Jello Biafra, cannily opening Ice up to fans of highly politicised punk rock while only confusing, not alienating, his core constituency), O.G. refined the process. These are songs that could only have been written by the shrewdest of political operators. Realising early that his censorious opponents were incapable of distinguishing between medium and message, Ice took a momentous decision. He opted to become the monster they wished to paint him as, because he realised that from inside that new persona he would be better placed to fight back. Hence 'New Jack Hustler' and its peerless critique of how drug crime and political expediency have a co-dependent relationship (for an excellent deconstruction of this track, read Steve Huey's Allmusic entry); hence the title track and its patient deconstruction of the purpose of political hip hop; hence 'Bitches 2', an explanation of the use of language and a defence of an American citizen's constitutional right to freedom of expression.
This - the concept, and the making of O.G. both - also led to the formation of Body Count, the metal band Ice assembled not as a collision of rock and rap, but as a different kind of outlet for the same politicised fury. They appeared here for the first time, on the track of the same name, but briefly became Ice's principal musical focus. The furore caused by 'Cop Killer', a track from their debut album, released in 1992, brought Ice to the brink of catastrophe - dropped, regretfully, by Warners after pro-gun lobbyist and one-time Voice of God, Charlton Heston, turned up at a shareholder meeting to read out its lyrics as part of a campaign accusing Ice of supporting the murder of police officers - but it's hard not to see it in retrospect as a grand plan that, if anything, went a bit too well. That demon he'd built on O.G., the one who could speak truth to power only by becoming the establishment's biggest bugbear, would take over his working life. (And if you're looking for further confirmation of Ice's influence, consider that, while rap had always placed the rapper at the centre of the art, nobody before had managed to turn hip hop into a tool for launching pre-emptive attacks on outsiders. Eminem built a multi-million-dollar brand out of the same tactic.)
The Body Count controversy made him a First Amendment poster child; people who would otherwise have shunned his music for formal reasons or his lyrics for their apparent -isms found they had no choice but to support him. Body Count played Lollapalooza; Ice's face began appearing on the cover of magazines that didn't normally feature rappers prominently, if at all. His stock among non-rap fans soared, and his fifth hip hop LP - the 1993 independent release Home Invasion - gave him the last word on the episode. "Find me Charlton Heston and I might cut his head off," he snarled on opening track 'It's On', before spilling the beans on the title cut. Underlining the message behind the sleeve art imagery (a white teen listening to rap on headphones), Ice was able to pronounce himself victor in his career-long campaign of subversion: "I'm takin' your kids' brains - you ain't gettin' 'em back." Here he was, this demon created in the image of his opponents' fears, finally able to make off with their children's hearts and minds like a latterday rapping Pied Piper, solely because their attempts to shut him up had given him sufficient power. Whether he's considered one of the all-time rap greats is irrelevant next to the dispensation of such beautifully poetic justice.