NEAL CONAN, host:
During his career, Ice-T has played many roles. He first came to national attention as the godfather of gangster rap.
(Soundbite of song, "6 'N The Mornin'")
ICE-T (Musician, Actor): (Rapping) 6'n the mornin' police at my door. Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor. Out my back window I make my escape. Didn't even get a chance to grab my old school tape.
CONAN: And then became the focus of a national controversy with his rock band Body Count.
(Soundbite of song, "Cop Killer")
ICE-T: (Singing) I got my 12 gauge sawed off. I got my headlights turned off. I'm about to bust some shots off. I'm about to dust some cops off.
CONAN: He broke into movies as a cop, chasing down Chris Rock in "New Jack City."
(Soundbite of movie, "New Jack City")
ICE-T: (as Scotty Appleton) Everybody out. Get down. Everybody down. Police. You think you slick, you little punk, blasphemous dope-fiend...
CONAN: But he's best-known as Detective Fin Tutuola on "Law & Order: SVU."
(Soundbite of TV series, "Law & Order")
ICE-T: (as Detective Odafin Fin Tutuola) You're my son. I love you. But a woman is dead, her son's gone, her husband's destroyed. That's got to mean something to you. I need you to decide right now what kind of man you want to be.
CONAN: In a new memoir, Ice-T describes his childhood in New Jersey, gang culture in South Central L.A., his time as a hustler and a pimp, and what he calls his redemption.
If you have questions for Ice-T, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Ice-T joins us from our bureau in New York. His new book is "Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood." It's nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
ICE-T: Hey, thanks for having me. That was a great intro.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I'm glad you liked it. Does anybody call you Tracy anymore?
ICE-T: You know, some of my old friends. You know, every once in a while I hear somebody call me Tracy to try to let me know that they know me, you know, personally. But most of my real friends will call me Trey, or Ice was basically short for Iceberg. So they would call me - some of my boys call me Berg.
CONAN: You write in the book when you got to Los Angeles after a childhood in New Jersey, your parents both died in heart attacks.
CONAN: And you moved to a place you didn't know. You thought Tracy sounded like a girl's name.
ICE-T: Well, no, I knew that my whole life. You know, Johnny Cash had a record called "Boy Named Sue," you know. So if you give a boy any name that, you know, could be considered a girl's name, he's going to grow up tough. So, you know, I was like, okay, every time I meet a guy and he goes, aw, that ain't - they don't say it's a girl's name. They say that's a B's name, you know? So I was like, oh, now I got to fight you right now, you know, to prove I'm not? So I was, like, you know what? I'll call myself Trey. And eventually I started to read books by Iceberg Slim, and people used to say some more of that Iceberg stuff, T. It turned into Ice-T. It means cool T.
CONAN: Iceberg Slim, of course, an old-time hustler from the '40s and '30s...
CONAN: ...and, well, among other things, the author of "Pimp"...
CONAN: ...a trade you got into later.
ICE-T: Well, you know, I was - I idolized Iceberg Slim when I was in school, and it was something I thought I wanted to do. And I tested my hand in that game, but that's not easy, you know? And I eventually it dawned on me. I'm like, if I admire this man so much, really he's an author, you know? And I'm like, if I really want to be like him, instead of worrying about really living it out, let me document the game. That's why I respect him.
So my life was kind of, you know, crazy at the time. I was out there breaking the law. And when I started to make music, I made music about that lifestyle, you know, in an attempt to kind of mimic Iceberg Slim through music.
CONAN: A lot of misconceptions about what you were doing stemmed from the fact that as you were writing these songs, you were, in a sense, creating characters...
CONAN: ...telling stories.
ICE-T: Well, no. I mean, I probably couldn't possibly have lived all the things that Ice-T and the records have lived. I did what I called faction. It was like factual situations, not always for me, but put into fictional settings. And that way I could create, you know, these great adventures and these great stories and all these things. So it had to happen to somebody. And, like, you would tell me a story about a brush with the law or something like that, and I would get all the details. And I would mix them with things that have happened to me, and that's what I would use for my material. But no, no, come on, I mean, I wouldn't be standing here today. I mean, Ice-T, in the music, has done some outrageous things.
CONAN: But it's interesting, some of the most compelling parts of your book, I thought, were the stories of going first to middle school then later high school in Los Angeles as this sort of wide-eyed kid from the suburbs of New Jersey...
CONAN: ...and discovering gang culture, among other things. And you and two of your friends, in fact, invented your own gang.
ICE-T: That was a survival tactic, you know - I mean? You're right, my mother passed when I was in the third grade, my father in the seventh. I shipped to L.A., lived with my aunt, living still in a nice middle-class area of Los Angeles. But then, I decided I want to go to the roughest high school, probably in the country, Crenshaw High School.
And there were the gangs. So these gangs coming from the avenues, they were 100 guys in the gang. There were three of us coming from our neighborhood. So we convinced the school that we had a gang, that there were more of us. You just don't know us. And...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Up in the hills somewhere.
ICE-T: Up in the hills somewhere. And kept them off of us, you know? We had to improvise at the time.
CONAN: Yet, one of the things that you made clear in your music - and it's interesting, you talk about it in the book too - is that you were never shy about - you did some things that were on the wrong side of the law, and you were never shy about explaining exactly what that was, throughout your life.
ICE-T: Well, you know, I think you got to meet the enemy before they meet you. There's no sense in me trying to come out as a musician and just act like I never did it. Somebody was going to say, hey, this guy, you know, he's no angel, you know?
But that was the opportunities that were available to me at that time, you know? And as I started to get more opportunities, I tried to make the correct decisions, and that's why I think I'm sitting here now, you know, telling this story.
I mean, who would ever thought a kid from South Central that was in serious trouble would end up being on television playing a cop?
ICE-T: I mean, you know, I had to start making some right decisions sooner or later.
CONAN: It's interesting that you write - in fact, you made a decision that if you were going to become famous, your past would never escape you. It would always be with you so you might as well come out with it early.
ICE-T: Absolutely. And it's stuff that you never get rid of, you know? I mean, when you come from that environment, a violent background, you know, I'm at nice parties now and I'm still checking where the escapes are, the doors are, you know?
If you usually - you could see me at a nice party in the Hamptons some place and I'll have my back up against the wall. It's stuff that just gets in - stuck in you for life, you know? But it's funny, when I started to act, I always got casted as a cop.
And, you know, I asked a lady one time, a casting agent, and they were like, well, to cast a street cat as a street cat, that's no acting. But if I cast you as a cop, we get a policeman with an interesting dynamic. And that's what you seeing "Law & Order" right now, you know? So, you know, I guess you got to call it acting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, it's interesting about that, you describe, I think it's your second movie. You're working with Denzel Washington and are struck by what some of the industry call acute awe. Oh, my gosh, I'm working with Denzel Washington. And he had some advice for you.
ICE-T: Come on, I was - I'm a - we all start off fans, you know? Before you play in the NBA, you sit on the sideline and look at 'em and say, man, one day. So to be actually working with Denzel Washington, are you serious? You know, I'm a rapper, so I wasn't so star-struck with other emcees or musicians, but this was Denzel Washington. This is like my second movie.
And Denzel would sit there and play with me and, you know, tell jokes. And then when they say action, he would snap into character. And he did it so fast that I couldn't say my lines, and he reached over the table. He popped me. He said, come on, Ice. Come on, baby. Let's do this, you know?
And he made me feel so comfortable. And, you know, I looked at him and I said, I want to learn how to act like that. I want to learn how to act, like, be able to turn on the dime and just knock out my lines.
CONAN: We're talking with Ice-T, who stars on "Law & Order: SVU." Give us a call, 900-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Nate, Nate with us from Tucson.
NATE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
NATE: Hi, Ice.
ICE-T: Hey, Nate.
NATE: I wanted to - yeah, how's it going? I just wanted to tell you, you know, back in the day in the early '90s, back when I was in junior high, I loved your stuff. I had a bunch of your records. I had "Freedom of Speech... Watch What you Say." I must have worn that tape out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NATE: But my parents, at the time, you know, back in the first Bush years, were kind of, buying the media hype, really didn't like gangster rap, didn't like that kind of music. And they would, you know, kind of forbade me to listen to that, took the tapes away. So I - but nowadays, the - my mom, especially, just loves you, loves "SVU," loves Fin, loves all your movies, watched you "Behind The Music" and just adores you now.
ICE-T: Well, you know, I think when you listen to music, if you don't know what it's really about, I think it's just they didn't really know what it was about. It scares them. And one of the parts - essential parts of rock and roll and rap was it can't be liked by your parents. If your parents liked it, then it's not cool, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ICE-T: So it's kind of like I used to tell parents, if you really don't want your kids to listen to it, make them listen to it and they'll hate it, you know? So, you know, hey, but did I ruin your life?
NATE: What's that?
ICE-T: Did I ruin your life?
NATE: Not at all, man. I'm in business school, doing great, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
ICE-T: That's right. That's right. So, hey, you know, that was then. And, you know, I've moved on and we've grown up. It's kind of like my fan base, somebody like you, has matured along with me. And now, you can watch me on "Law & Order." So, you know, it's a good look. We made moves together.
CONAN: Thanks for your call, Nate.
ICE-T: I very much appreciate it.
CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. Here's an email from Mark in Minneapolis: "It's coming up on the 20th anniversary of you performing at Lollapalooza, any chance of Ice-T and Body Count hitting some festival shows?"
ICE-T: There's a chance always, but, you know, "Law & Order," it has a hectic schedule. I only have a short break, so it's hard for us to actually tour. I think the next time you might see Body Count is we potentially might be doing a song for "Gears of War 3" soundtrack. I'm in the video game. I play a character named Griffin in "Gears of War 3." And we've been talked to about doing a song for that, so you might hear a Body Count song. I don't know how soon you'll see us on tour.
CONAN: "Ice," is the name of the book, A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption - from South Central to Hollywood." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Jerry, Jerry with us from McArthur in Ohio.
JERRY (Caller): Oh, hi. Ice-T, what's up? This is awesome. I'm so - I can't believe you're on this program, but I just wanted to ask you. As, such an iconic figure of the creation of, you know, gangster rap and generally hip-hop, you know, in general, in the '80s and '90s, I was just wondering what do you think of the state of hip-hop today? I mean, is it on a decline or do you think it's better than ever? I just really like to hear your views on hip-hop today.
ICE-T: I think it's gone pop, honestly. You know, I think that it's lacking the soul that, you know, the early hip-hop had, you know? Right now, we're living in a situation - I was just listening, earlier, to the people before I came on, the country is into turmoil, money is down, everybody has got problems, you know, we got a war going on, you got Obama, got a black president, you got all kinds of things happening, but the music doesn't reflect that.
If you listen to the music, it's just like, let's go out and party and let's act like everybody's doing well. So I call it delusional music. And I think really good hip-hop or good rap reflects the moment, truthfully. And I just don't think the music is reflecting the moment truthfully, but that doesn't mean it can't change.
It doesn't mean - because rap music is just a vocal delivery, so it can change. And there could be new groups that'll come out and really bring it back to where the kind of music I like, something that has soul, you know, a little more depth. That's all. It's all gone pop to me.
JERRY: All right. Well, thank you. That's awesome man. I agree with you.
ICE-T: Okay. Glad you agree.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much. Another interesting part of the book was reflecting back on the controversy over "Cop Killer." This was, of course, back in the administration of the first President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. What did you learn from that?
ICE-T: I learned people take these records seriously, you know? You know, you could be in your garage making record you just plan on playing to a few hundred people and next thing you know the president is knocking at your door. You know, they blew it into a whole thing like I was trying to call kids to arms, to go against cops. I'm like, nah, you know. I made a record about, like you said earlier, I played a character of a guy who lost it due to police brutality. That was a protest record, you know?
But I think they got scared because so many people sung along with the record, you know? But I learned, you know, hey, these cats take this music a little too serious and, you know, they'll try to end you. I mean, back then, they really tried to end my career. They blackballed me and went after me, and I was like, well, you know, I pulled the record because I'm deeper than this. This is just one song. I got a lot more to say, so I'm not going to let them take me out right now.
So, you know, here we are almost 25 years in the game and, you know, I think that our people understood what that record was about. But, you know, the other side, they don't like me and they never will. They still don't.
CONAN: Here's an email from David. It's sort of on this point: People don't always talk about your serious struggle against censorship in art and music. You've seen all angles of American culture through your career, particularly various struggles that poor people of color have gone through. Now that we're in the 21st Century and seeing technology changing and controlling so much, what kind of challenges do you think young people of color face?
ICE-T: Well, I think we're, you know, racism isn't gone, but it's definitely, you know, still available. I believe that hip-hop is what set the trend that put somebody like Barack Obama in presidency. I think he's the firs hip-hop president, because I think 30 years ago, you know, when we - when the music started, those were the people that voted. So I think it has opened the minds of the world. I just think young people of color just got to, you know, realize that, you know, if it's going to be twice as hard, then you just got to be twice as strong. Don't use it as a crutch. Just say, okay, you know? I'm super bad. I'm going to show you I can do it. And that's what I always did.
You know, I was kind of like - I hated being called a loser. And I didn't care what color I was, I'm not a loser. And I was just going to defy whatever it took to just get myself up. I wasn't going to lay down and lose. So, you know, whatever nationality you are, you just have to make yourself believe. Man, I don't care. I'm going to win. And when you look at somebody like me that pulled, you know, a certain degree of success off, it can be done.
CONAN: Your character on "Law & Order" as - you play a detective whose son is gay, that took your character some time to deal with.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I wanted to ask quickly - and we just have a few seconds left, but an email from Elizabeth - I'm just going to use one line from it: Why can't hip-hop embrace homosexuality and stop the gay bashing?
ICE-T: Well, you know, you got to understand, hip-hop starts with mostly young kids and, you know, being gay and stuff like that is something that takes a mature brain to truly understand. You know, when kids are young, they just pick on anything they think is weaker than them. So I think the gay bashing is coming just from the young kids.
You know, as far as embracing hip-hop - gays in hip-hop, all I think you need is a gay rapper. I mean, somebody needs to come out and blatantly say they're gay, and they'll get a fan base, and then they start moving like that, you know? But, you know, you can't expect too much out of kids, you know? You have to get a little bit older and start to understand more before you really can understand some of the complexities of humans.
CONAN: Ice-T, thanks very much for being with us today.
ICE-T: Thank you. And can I say one last thing?
ICE-T: Follow me on Twitter @finallevel.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Ice-T joined us from our bureau in New York. His new book is "Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption - from South Central to Hollywood."
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.