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A Quietus Interview

Gangster Trippin': Ice-T Interviewed On Music, Films & America
Joel McIver , July 11th, 2011 09:50

Twenty years after his best album, O.G. Original Gangster, and his best film, New Jack City, Ice-T tells Joel McIver that things just ain't what they used to be

The American actor and rapper Ice-T (Tracy Marrow, as literally no-one calls him) has beaten a curious path since his establishment-baiting revolutionary days. Back in the early 90s, thanks to his albums as a solo artist and with his heavy metal side project Body Count, he was at loggerheads with powerful enemies: the Los Angeles police department, the giant Warner Brothers empire and the Tipper Gore-led PMRC among them. Nowadays he appears on 'Mr & Mrs'. As they didn't say in 1991, WTF?

You may remember Body Count's 1992 song 'Cop Killer', which endorsed the offing of an unidentified plod with lines such as “I know your family's grieving – fuck 'em”. This tasteless – but ultimately harmless – little ditty incensed Body Count's record label Warner, so much so that the late National Rifle Association poster boy (and Warner shareholder) Charlton Heston repudiated its violent message in public, whining about how dreadful and mean the song was and making a face that looked like he'd just licked a nettle.

The previous year, Ice-T's acting role in the classic hood crime movie New Jack City had cemented him as an unlikely icon for Generation X youth. Many of these fans were white, middle-class and never likely to set foot in South Central, LA, the crime-ridden zone that inspired him – but they thought he sounded just great alongside Jane's Addiction at Lollapalooza. The authorities hated him, the media got in a froth about him, the kids loved him: Ice-T simply sat back, wrote a book called The Ice Opinion: Who Gives A Fuck?, presented TV shows, took film roles and counted his money.

Looking back at the albums and movies that Ice-T has made since then, the first thing you notice is that there are a hell of a lot of them: seven of the former and over 50 of the latter, in fact. He admits himself that few, if any, of these come close to matching the two 1991 epics, O.G. Original Gangster and New Jack City: two works that represent not only the critical pinnacle of his career, but also the audio and filmic end of an era. These came at the exact point at which gangsta rap (as pioneered by Ice-T and NWA) transitioned into G-Funk (largely the work of NWA alumnus Dr Dre), with the 1992 LA riots accompanying this subtle change of flavour.

Today, O.G. is the deeper of the two Ice-T vehicles. Even if you discount the eye-opening fast-talking and probing lyrics, it's plain that a musically literate intellect was at work here, from the vintage soul grooves plundered in songs such as 'Mind Over Matter' and 'M.P.V.S' to the eerie riff nabbed from Black Sabbath's eponymous song for 'Midnight'. The standout track from the album is probably still the single 'New Jack Hustler', in which Ice-T spits out a tale of the “capitalist nightmare” endured by a drug dealer, who is doomed to an early death (“There'll be another one after me”). Of course the production sounds a touch thin all these years later, specifically because we're so accustomed to tarmac-weakening bass parts, but compared to (say) early albums by Public Enemy and NWA, O.G. has retained a large chunk of its sonic relevance. It's still a huge album.

New Jack City was its visual equivalent. Director Mario Van Peebles, a newbie to the film world, took the basic conceit – a hero from Greek tragedy, struck down by success and hubris – and dressed it in slick urban accoutrements and a contemporary hip hop soundtrack. While the clothes, hairstyles and music are wince-makingly dated, the plot and performances remain convincing – not least when it comes to Ice-T, who played the part of an undercover cop. Bluffing his way through the part without any formal acting training, our man pulled off a spectacular coup, wading into firefights while emitting a kind of bruised tenderness. The film's nearest equivalent, Boyz N The Hood – which starred Ice Cube and also came out in 1991 – was the superior work on almost all levels, although it scored less highly on cheesy, violent thrills. No truly classy writer would liken the two movies to their stars' musical styles – Ice-T and New Jack City sharp-edged and glitzy, Cube and Boyz cerebral and gritty – so that's what I'm doing.

I tracked down Ice-T a while back for his thoughts on these two masterpieces. At 53 years old and comfortably assimilated into the mainstream as a celeb with a bad-boy past, I wondered if he'd have a rose-tinted view of the bad old days and how much things have improved since then. Er, not quite. Even today's 'stroke films' don't match up, apparently.

You commented on Gulf War 1 and the decay of American society on the O.G. album. Two decades later, is the world a better place?

Ice-T: I do believe that in my lifetime, this is the most fucked-up time yet.

Even worse than 20 years ago, with the LA riots and 'Cop Killer'?

IT: You're right. Of course, in the 80s and the early 90s there was all the police bullshit, but now we're in a global scenario. My neighbourhood was fucked-up back then, and it continues to be, but South Central wasn't worried about somebody blowing up the goddamn world, neither. So, overall it's a lot more fucked-up. Nobody trusts anybody, everybody is looking at everybody crazy. Even in England you guys are having situations, and it's not something that seems like it's ever gonna go away.

So what's the solution?

IT: I just don't believe that there's any way that you're ever gonna get one peace, because everybody has different ways of seeing life. If one person comes in and says, this is the way life should be, I think you're asking for chaos. I think you gotta let different people live different ways. It's a big world, you know? You gotta leave some people the fuck alone. The United States are like missionaries, they decide they want to go everywhere and create our form of peace, which just doesn't work for other people. It's just a good way to create a war.

You were in the US Army for four years. What did it teach you?

IT: Being in the military just lets you know how helpless you are. You could train forever but you're still at the mercy of someone in the Pentagon, or somebody in the rear moving you around like a chess piece. It's an extremely dangerous place: if you're extremely patriotic and you believe in the freedoms and all that, and you're willing to give your life, then that's an honourable thing – but at the same time you could be a Green Beret and a kid could jump out from behind a building and hit you with a rock. No matter how tough you become in the military, there's a way to die: there's nothing safe about it. Anybody who has anybody in the armed forces, I don't care how well-trained they are, there's nothing safe about it. I respect the people who are out there fighting, but I don't necessarily believe that we're fighting for the right thing.

You broke into acting in 1991 with New Jack City. Why has the movie stood up so well over the years?

IT: The whole thing about New Jack City was that it was a New Jack movie – everybody was unknown. It was Mario Van Peebles' first directing. Wesley Snipes had only done one movie. I was new to acting. Everybody was real green. Before every scene everybody would huddle up and discuss how to get the best out of it. I watch New Jack City about once a year, it's that kind of movie.

Was the film tough to make?

IT: In New Jack City I walked on the set talking about how I wanted to do my own stunts. I didn't know shit. And after I ran for about six hours, I pulled a muscle in my ass and I was like 'Introduce me to my stunt man'. And then, the next movie that I did, Surviving The Game, I ran for months through the mountains.

Your film career has had its share of ups and downs since then…

IT: I always said that when I got into movies I wouldn't take them seriously because, not being an actor, I was like, 'Fuck it, this is something fun to do'. A lot of times people would offer me movies and, because I'm a car freak, I'd look in a magazine and say, 'How much is this car? If you give me this car I'll show up and do the movie' I call 'em 'sports car flicks'. I figure, if the movie's bad, no-one will see it, and if it's good, then fuck it. There's a lot of films I've done I don't ever wanna see again. Ha ha! No, I won't tell you which ones…

Are you referring to Johnny Mnemonic, perchance?

IT: Johnny Mnemonic was a decent film! I'm not talking about that kind of film – I'm talking about some real bullshit movies. That was me getting into the game: now it's 15 years later.

You were also in Trespass, which co-starred your fellow rapper Ice Cube.

IT: That was a unique experience – myself, Ice Cube and Bill Paxton. Cube is my man. We started West Coast hip hop together. We got a long history, so it was fun.

Schoolly D was the first gangsta rapper, though – right?

IT: Schoolly D was the inspiration, but he was from Philly, whereas we were on the West Coast. When we heard [Schoolly D's 1985 single] 'P.S.K. What Does It Mean?' it was off to the races, you know. It was different back then: now things have changed, but me and NWA used to tour together and it was fun.

You did Tank Girl too. That can't have been much fun.

IT: I was doing Johnny Mnemonic when I heard about that. I got a phone call and they asked me if I'd like to play a stripper in Arizona. And I was like, 'Hell yeah!' Could be a tight little freaky role, you know? Then the next day they sent me a picture of a kangaroo suit, but I still thought I was gonna be a stripper – just dressed as a kangaroo. They said, no, it's a 'Ripper'. A kangaroo… and I was thinking, 'Did shit go bad? Am I broke? Why am I doing this?' But then they said that [legendary special effects wallah] Stan Winston was doing the make-up and I was going to be a monster. They got me with the word 'monster', so I rolled with it, but the actual experience was devastating. I was wearing a full latex body suit with a rubber tail sticking out of my ass, then a fuckin' five-piece application on my face, and a neck piece, and a head piece with motors in it… it took three hours to put it on. I lost my mind.

All these years later, you're a regular on the NBC series Law And Order. Has it been an enjoyable experience?

IT: Yeah. I've really been trying to step my acting game up. I'm learning what makes it better, what the subtleties of it are and how to relax into it. With acting, you have to take it seriously because the other actors are putting in a lot of effort – and if you say, 'I'm just bullshitting here', it's like dissing 'em. It's only right that I'm stepping my game up – I've been doing it almost 20 years. I look at my career and I feel I have the potential to maybe mature into a Samuel Jackson-type older cat, and people will still respect me and say 'Yo, Ice-T was wild', into my old age. And why not? I don't necessarily think I'll be rapping in 10 years.

What films are you into?

IT: I'm into cult films, so one of my favourite films is Reservoir Dogs. It's the acting, and the fact that there's nothing to the movie: they sit down and they talk. You never see the robbery, you just see the guys after the robbery, and then they're pretty much in one room. They're telling the whole story in one room, and everybody's so ill.

Is Reservoir Dogs a realistic depiction of a criminal gang, do you think?

IT: I've been in crime for a long time and I know that the actual move isn't the actual crime: the crime continues [afterwards]. I tell people, if you get into crime you gotta know that everybody's a criminal and everybody's a liar, and everybody has the potential to backstab you, because it's not an honest profession. So don't go into crime and look for honesty. The way it was shot, you could see it didn't cost a whole lot of money. Everybody loves it. Harvey Keitel is just incredible. I loved the Lord Of The Rings films too. Yes, they're totally for geeks: hobbits and shit are kinda weird. But even after being in movies so much, I still don't understand how they make 'em. They're shot in such a format that an average person with a camera wouldn't understand how the fuck they did it.

Do you like Tarantino's later stuff?

IT: Jackie Brown was cool, it was the old style. I think Robert De Niro killed it in that film, playing that little sub-role like that. And then he shoots that chick [Bridget Fonda's character] in the parking lot. There's that line, “She's gonna fuck you, but don't get caught up!” I get into the dialogue and the small talk, because a lot of times you do these films and it's so scripted that all the mumbles and the small-talking that make people real get lost. I like horror too. You know a good zombie movie? 28 Days Later, because the motherfucking zombies could run! They were fast. And they turn quick – you'd be talking to your boy, and then he'd get bit and you gotta kill him in, like, a minute.

Any actors you admire?

IT: I'm a big Brad Pitt fan. I liked him in Snatch. He's a bad motherfucker. Seven, too… he's really talented. I think a lot of men are intimidated by him, saying he's just a pretty boy or whatever, but he is a bad man. I think he can act. Some of these cats know what the fuck they doing. He doesn't mind getting all grimy and shit: in Fight Club he was real raw.

You used to talk about pornography a lot. Are you still a fan?

IT: I've kinda stopped watching porno. Porno got played out. I watched porno back in the early days with people like [director] Seymore Butts. But when it got so it was just people with video cameras, and they moved out of the studio and onto the streets to film people, I tuned out. I was like, 'I'm not seeing anything here that I can't do better'. God forbid, if you ever actually go see one of those movies being made, and you could see what real porno chicks look like, then you'd never wanna watch it again. Very scary. The greatest of all time is Ron Jeremy, though. He's a nice guy. The whole thing about him is that he's a little fat man – when you're watching porno you don't necessarily want to see no big buff guy nailing those girls, because it doesn't help your fantasy. You're like, 'I could never fuck her'. But when you see Ron Jeremy's ass, you're like, 'She'd probably talk to me!' It helps you, because he's such a dork you think, 'I could probably nail her if I got a chance'…

Is the era of the 'hood movie' over?

IT: Yeah, I think so, unless people hit the scene from another angle. Look at Scarface. You could do it in the 80s, with all the coke thing going on, but you can't do it today because Miami's not cracking like that any more. You have to come from somewhere different. Look at Lord Of War. It was a crime movie, but he [Nicolas Cage's character] was over in Africa selling arms to some crazy motherfuckers. I like crime movies where the crime is so incredible that, attractive as it seems, you don't wanna do it because it's just too dangerous.

Is it easier for black actors to break into Hollywood these days?

IT: No, I don't think so. In Hollywood right now, there's this theory that there's a lot of black people acting, but it's really not true. The hip-hop thing has opened up since I got through the door – you got Queen Latifah, you got Will Smith, but still not many. I was thinking the other day, can you name a black actress?

Halle Berry?

IT: Halle Berry, but after her you're really starting to reach. For women, we still got a long way to go to get to the big money. The best example is Jamie Foxx, who is a knockdown dragout comedian, but he laid it on himself to make it as a serious actor, and now people are even forgetting that he's a comedian, and a funny motherfucker. What happened with New Jack City was, they knew artists like me had millions of fans, and there weren't enough young black actors, so they thought that maybe hip-hop artists acting in movies would translate at the box office. And it worked.