Rapper Ice-T Reflects On Life In New Memoir

Tracy Marrow, better known as Ice-T, is a man of many faces: platinum-selling hip-hop artist, a former thief and pimp, and now actor on the television drama "Law & Order: SVU." Host Michel Martin speaks with Ice-T about his life and new memoir Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. To fans of prime time television, he is Detective Fin on the long-running series "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." In the world of hip-hop, especially fans of old school and West Coast rap, he is one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap, or as he likes to call it, reality rap, rhyming about the streets the way he says he experienced them. And to some, he's a walking contradiction. A confessed former hustler, thief, and pimp who also served in the U.S. Army, never smoked or drank, is a devoted father, and a happily married man. He is Tracy Marrow, better known as Ice-T, and he is the author of new memoir, "Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood." And Ice-T is with us now from our studios in New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ICE-T: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, this is actually your second memoir. The first was published in 1994. I have to tell you, some of the chapter titles from the first book, I actually cannot read the titles on the air.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: One of them is Who Gives an F.

ICE-T: Well, that was the title of the book.

MARTIN: Another one - yes.

ICE-T: The book was called "The Ice Opinion: Who Gives an F."

MARTIN: Yes. A pimp's guide to sex, rap, and God. Those are just a sample.

ICE-T: Right.

MARTIN: In this book it opens on a very poignant note. I mean, you talk about the fact that you actually had a very middle-class upbringing. You got to belong to the Y, you learned to swim, which is something that a lot of people aspire to for their kids. But then both of your parents died one after the other...

ICE-T: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...when you were a child.

ICE-T: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That's a very tough way to start out.

ICE-T: Well, you know, the thing of it is, is when you, you know, you listen to music of somebody and you really don't know their full background. Sometimes you say, well, where's all this frustration coming from? And when you hear the whole story, then you kind of get it sometimes. So this book starts out with me growing up in Summit, New Jersey with my parents, and then moving to Los Angeles after they died with my aunt, who was like a social worker/alcoholic. And then going off on my own. I've been on my own ever since I was 17.

MARTIN: You say in the book, the strange thing is, now that I'm over 50, I've been getting a lot more open to my feelings like a door inside of me had to be ready to open. What do you think helped open that door, and why do you want to, by the way? I mean, you could go on the rest of your life with your kind of gangster persona, because obviously it has its own value, right?

ICE-T: Well, you know, the thing of it is, when I say open to my feelings, it's still not open. I mean, I'm still, you know, I just think, you know, when you come up a certain way, you know, you just don't cry as much. You know, when there's nobody there to cry to, you don't cry as much. And I think when you're making this rise, you're in such an attack mode, like you're so focused because you're trying to get somewhere, you tend to be a little bit blunt.

But once you get where you wanted to go, it's kind of like I've gotten where I wanted to go. I've done everything I ever wanted to do, so I'm kind of relaxed now, and I'm just kind of chilling.

MARTIN: You talk a lot about how you got into hustling and how you actually executed, you know, some of the things that you were involved in.

ICE-T: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And you also - one of the things I think a lot of people will find interesting is that initially when you were hustling, you were making more money hustling than you were doing music. How even some of the guys you were making records with would say, you sure you want to do this? You already got, you know, XYZ.

ICE-T: We were stupid, though, you know? I mean, that's fast money and it goes just as fast as it comes. And me trying to be a rapper, they were looking at it like nobody's ever even bought a car rapping, you know. Why would you leave what we're doing? But I kind of was the one that knew, like, our days are numbered in low digits, you know. Our luck is going to run out eventually. So I was always - I was looking for an escape plan. I was like, I've got to figure something out. I can't do this forever, you know. And music came along, and what happened was, when rap came into my life, at first I tried to rap the way rappers rapped. And then I said, well, I'll rap about my life up to this point, and unknowingly, I created another style of rap, which they called gangsta rap. But to me it was reality rap, because I was rapping from the experiences that I was dealing with at the time.

MARTIN: Let me just go back and play a little bit. Let's play a little bit from "6'n in the Morning," which is a song that opened a lot of doors for you.

(Soundbite Of Song "6'n In The Morning")

ICE-T: 6'n the morning, police at my door, fresh Adidas squeak across my bathroom floor. Out my back window I make my escape, didn't even get a chance to grab my old school tape. Mad with no music, but happy because I'm free, and the streets to a player is the place to be. Gotta knot in my pocket weighin' at least a grand. Gold on my neck my pistols close at hand. I'm a self-made monster of the city streets. Remotely controlled by hard hip hop beats. But just livin' in the city is a serious task. Didn't know what the cops wanted. Didn't have the time to ask. Word.

MARTIN: How's that sound now?

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: You sound awfully young.

ICE-T: I mean '6'n The Mornin'" is just such raw song. It's like a song about a hustler getting up, starting his day off getting chased by the cops out of his house, and then just rolling out with his friends and just doing the stuff that, you know, I guess you say bad kids do.

And it's kind of like when I did that record I was like this is for my homies, you know, this is kind of like our daily experience. And I was unaware so many people would dig it, and it just hit and I was like, wow. And it was very simple. You see the production is very simple. It was all in the words and I touched a lot of kids.

MARTIN: You sound so young.

ICE-T: Well, yeah. I mean that was done over 25 years ago.

MARTIN: Do you sound young to yourself? Do you find yourself going back and saying oh, man. I should've, you know, edited any of that...

ICE-T: Well, you know what it is, it's a different voice. I got, I can wrap in that voice still today, it's just, you know, that's just the "6'n The Mornin'" voice. That's...

(Soundbite of Laughter)

ICE-T: I can take....

MARTIN: Let me hear it.

ICE-T: What?

MARTIN: Give me something. Give me something.

ICE-T: 6'n the mornin' police at my door.

MARTIN: That's pretty good.

ICE-T: See. So I can do it.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

ICE-T: You know, it's just like it's got to take it up an octave. But when I'm really, you know, this is the low more like you played yourself voice, you know, when I rhyme. You know, this is it, dope from the fly, kid. The Ice mic is back with a high bid. This is the low voice.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you for that.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: Nicely done.

ICE-T: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask you though, and I'm trying to think about how to ask this. I'll just ask it.

ICE-T: Just ask it.

MARTIN: Well, you know, my brother used to say to me, are you bragging or complaining?

ICE-T: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And when you describe some of the scenes in the book, I can't tell, are you bragging or complaining?

ICE-T: I really don't think I'm bragging. I'm more like trying to show you the excitement that goes along with it at the time. And I think anybody's ever stole a cookie out the cookie jar knows there's a little excitement that goes along with breaking the law.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with hip-hop icon, actor, Ice-T. We're talking about his new book 'Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood."

One of the things that's interesting to me about your story and in reading your book is that you talk about being kind of always in it but kind of on the sidelines. You talked about the fact that you were always around people who were gang banging.

ICE-T: Right.

MARTIN: But you somehow managed yourself not to get jumped in. You were often around people who were using...

ICE-T: Yes.

MARTIN: But you managed yourself never to use. And I am also interested, of course, in some of the things you talk about with women and your relationships with - but how do you think...

ICE-T: We'll talk about it all.

MARTIN: All right.

ICE-T: I mean starting off with the drug thing, I just never saw the benefits in getting high and I didn't like it. I thought by me being an orphan, I felt that being high compromised my position. Like, I didn't have a brother, or sister, a father or mother. So like I say in the book if I hit the ground I probably would never get up, so I stayed away from it.

MARTIN: And on the women piece, you know, your name, Ice...

ICE-T: Comes from Iceberg Slim.

MARTIN: Who was a pimp.

ICE-T: Definitely, you know, and I tried my hand at that. You know, because I was reading his books. I thought it was attracted at the time, and this really has something to do with the role models that were available to me. I mean those were the cats that in my neighborhood had the flashy cars, they had the girls, they had everything I want. I had probably never seen a lawyer, you know, 'till I was in my 20s. I didn't, we didn't have them in our neighborhood.

And it didn't dawn on me for a while 'til I'm like well, I really idolize Iceberg Slim, but he's a writer, so why am I trying to live his life out. If I really love him maybe I should try to do what he really ended up doing, which is document the game. And that's where I started to go into music. And if you listen to my music, it's more like me giving you like stories and adventures of the game so that it could be documented.

MARTIN: Now here's a guy, you're also the same guy who joined the Army to take care of your daughter.

ICE-T: Yeah. You know, I was, you know, 19, out of high school and I was testing the streets because at the time I didn't feel I had any other opportunities, you know. And when I had my daughter I was like, man, I'm going to go to jail, I got to do something, and I went to an enlistment office.

Next thing you know I'm in the military, four years infantry. I'm in Tropic Lightning Schofield Barracks, you know. I tried to do it so I mean I'm in there making efforts to try to do right. But when I come back from the Army I'm back in trouble again because that's what my friends were doing.

And until that door opened up for hip-hop, I didn't really know which way I was going to go. But when that door opened up, I got into the music. When the acting door opened up I applied myself to that. I went through that door. I didn't want to go back.

MARTIN: Talking about the film work, you started your career with your role in 'New Jack City," as Scotty Appleton...

ICE-T: Right.

MARTIN: ...an undercover cop. This is again, one of those like iconic films that some people have memorized, like the whole film.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: You know what I mean?

ICE-T: Yeah. Right. Right.

MARTIN: They can recite every word. And here you're trying to buy weed from Chris Rock. He plays a character called Pookie.

(Soundbite of film "New Jack City")

ICE-T: (as Scotty Appleton) Now check this out, homeboy, God's on your side, right, why don't we do this reasonable, 14k, bam, pshew, out?

CHRIS ROCK: You want to do this correct or not, man? Thirteen, man. Yo, let me see the money. Let me see the money. What's up? What's up? What's up? What's up? What's up?

ICE-T: Come on. Let's do this, man. What you know about that, homeboy? Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: You laughing at that?

ICE-T: Chris Rock. It's Chris Rock. You know, we were so green we didn't know what we were doing. They threw us in that movie and they said act. And it turned out to be probably my right now my premier role ever and it was my first movie.

MARTIN: You were torn about whether to accept the role. Why is that?

ICE-T: Well, yeah, because at that year I had the album out, 'Original Gangster," and when they gave me the role they wanted me to play the police and I didn't really know how if I was going to - how my musical fans would react to me playing a cop. People told me, they said yo, this is acting. Ice, you're acting. Your fans will understand the difference. And I was like you know what, this is another opportunity.

And, you know, I did the movie and they rolled with it. The movie made like $80 million and, you know, I didn't make that. I made like $25,000. But it got myself through the door of the acting game, and then from then I've gone on to do more and more films and now I'm on television. Who would've thought I'd be on TV right now playing a cop, you know? It's crazy. You never know.

MARTIN: You quote your friend Chuck D as saying that Ice-T is the person who does things that completely jeopardize his career just to stay awake.

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: But to that point, I have got to ask about 'Cop Killer." You recorded this very controversial song. Anybody who was following the news or pop culture in the '90s will remember this with your band Body Count, that it was denounced all the way to the White House by the president, then-president George H.W. Bush.

ICE-T: Yeah, that was crazy.

MARTIN: That must have been an interesting time.

ICE-T: Yeah, it was wild because like when we made the record we were in the rehearsal hall and my drummer came in singing 'Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads. He was like psycho killer. So it was like then he sat down behind the drum set. He said man, we need a cop killer. He's like, you know, the cops is out of pocket. This is pre-Rodney King. This is when LAPD was all out just going crazy. I was like, you know what, now I just came up with this character who basically snaps because of police brutality, so I sung from that perspective.

So we make the record. The record comes out. The record's out a year. We go on tour singing this record, nobody says anything. And then one day I'm in the house, my boy calls. He says you know, dude, the president is on TV yelling about you. I am like what? And we turned the channel and it was Dan Quayle and he was like, and Ice-T. And everybody in the room was like yo, what? What happened? What?

So it just caught us off guard and they turned this thing into a big thing. And we were kind of like yo, that was just a record. That record was last year. And we really didn't think it was such a big thing. You know, we thought it was a rock record, you know. And prior to us, there were groups called Millions of Dead Cops. There was movies called "Cop Killer." So I'm just kind of like what's really going on?

MARTIN: Well, what do you think now? I mean I'm guessing that by now you've played a police officer so many times...

ICE-T: Yes.

MARTIN: ...for so long on 'Law & Order," which is a hit show, it is now the flagship, you've probably met a lot of police by now. So what do think now?

ICE-T: Well, no. I mean I think what happened with the record was we were used as a lightning rod in an election and they needed something to attack, so they attacked Time Warner, they used my record. Kind of like Willie Horton, they picked me out of - some press guy said use that and they used it and they rallied people together.

As far as cops go, I mean I get along with cops. I don't have a problem with cops. When I was breaking the law, I didn't hate cops, they were the opponent. So it was kind of like I thought I was smarter than them and, you know, that was my job. They were trying to keep the law; my job was to break the law.

But nowadays I don't break the law anymore. I mean I've got a job and I am at peace with everything I've done. I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of but I'm at peace with it, because at this point in my life I'm trying to do the right thing.

You know, a lot of us don't have a choice where we come from but we can aim in a positive direction and end up someplace else.

MARTIN: And to the future, speaking of which, it was recently announced that E! has signed you and your wife Coco to start in 'Ice Loves Coco."

ICE-T: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: A reality TV show of your life as husband and wife together...

ICE-T: How about that?

MARTIN: ...that will premiere in June. It sounds very sweet. What can we expect to see?

ICE-T: So the show, we shot about five of them so far. They're funny as hell.

MARTIN: Well, what are we going to see?

ICE-T: You're just going to see...

MARTIN: I mean is that something that we can see with the family because I will say that on your website...

ICE-T: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that we already do see quite a lot of you and Coco, if you get my meaning.

ICE-T: It's going to be less than that.

MARTIN: There's not a lot of clothing involved. I'll just mention it like that. I wouldn't necessarily say you could sit the children down. I mean maybe you can. I don't know.

Well, what are we going to be seeing? You'll be making some brownies, some pasta.

ICE-T: Yeah.

MARTIN: Inviting people over. What's going to be, what are we going to see?

ICE-T: Fun stuff. You know, you get to see how Coco runs my career, how she's driven, how's she's starting her clothing line. But we just, we don't need that chaos because that doesn't really happen in our world.

MARTIN: Are you worried though that some of your cred will be diminished by the fact that you are portrayed as this happily married- as you evidently are?

ICE-T: My cred is block rock solid, you know what I'm saying? I had it before people knew what was it was, you dig? So I'm really totally at ease with myself. You know, I think a lot of people have a misconception of me, so you are kind of caught up in my acting. That means I'm a good actor, you know?

(Soundbite of Laughter)

ICE-T: You know, but I'm a funny dude. I laugh a lot. You know, I'm a cool person, man. I'm not trying to hurt nobody. I'm at the best part of my life so we're going to do something new, a positive reality show and I think people are going to love it.

MARTIN: Ice-T is a platinum-selling hip-hop artist, a husband, a father. He stars as Detective Fin in the TV drama series 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

ICE-T: Thirteenth season coming up - 13th season.

MARTIN: That's it. His new book is called 'Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood." The co-author is Douglas Century. And as you heard, he has an upcoming reality series with his wife Coco on E!. And he was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Mr. Ice, thank you so much for...

ICE-T: Can I say one last thing? One last thing?

MARTIN: Yes you can.

ICE-T: Follow me on Twitter, @FinalLevel. Follow me there because I love talking to the people. Thank you so much. It was fun.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Take care. Bye-bye.

ICE-T: Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of Music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, you can always go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Twitter. Just look for TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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