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ICE-T OPEN FORUM INTERVIEW- MIDNIGHT SPECIAL BOOKSTORE
MARCH 1994 - EXTENDED 12" INTRODUCTION
by Kevin Salveson - page 4
(Still, years later, I wonder how much actual writing was done by Marrow and how much was in fact done by Heidi Seigmund? She's the one whom the book was 'told' to by Ice-T according to the cover. See, I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to being clear about 'authors' who in fact are just celebrities who have hired a ghostwriter. I hold the skill of writing and education in high enough regard to want to distinguish between those who really have worked on the ability to express ideas in words and those who pay someone else to do it and then slap their names on it. At least Ice-T keeps it fairly straight on the cover of his own book, and one has to admit... he certainly has a way with words.)
* * *
To conclude, I want to paint a picture of that night in 1994 and then bring it forward to the present. When Ice-T arrived at Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica that warm March evening, he was prepared to give a short talk and answer a few questions and then sign some books. I asked him to do a short town-hall style interview at the end of his talk and book-signing so that I could broadcast it for my radio program on KXLU-FM called "Alternative Outlook". It turned into quite a passionate discussion for all involved.
It seems questions about police abuses and problems with criminal behavior are perennial issues to deal with in this country (as recent events attest). Hence, such questions were front and center in the interview with Ice-T. At the time, it had only been about a year and a half following the1992 LA riots and his single "Cop Killer" had been released. Tensions were still high.
We also spent a good deal of time talking about gangster rap's general disrespect towards women and the use of the word 'bitch' as emblematic of that. Both of these volatile subjects were of a piece in that Ice was basically defending rap's right to represent anti-social ideas as part of a realistic journalistic style of art and reportage.
In the end, there was a lot to talk about and no definitive answers reached. Ice-T had a chance to speak his mind without restraint or censor to those who were there. That is certainly a welcome thing in a world where too often people are shouted down for expressing an opinion based on their lived experience and we shut our ears to opinions we don't agree with via selective media consumption. As Ice-T says, we gotta learn from each other and communicate.
And, in fact, it was good that initially a lot of people participated in the free-speech project which that first wave of gang rap engendered. At its best it successfully conflated entertainment with socio-political commentary in a way which made the most of the medium and was better than pop pablum. That was sure fresh beguiling at the time, even if it often relied on other people's hooks to get over.
At worst, though, the phenomenon simply turned into another commodity. By the second wave it soon became just another way to sell records and books and ads: the mystique and allure of real life gang violence for your musical titillation. Even the semi-streetwise white boys got in on it.
The record companies hawking gangster rap had to walk a fine line between exploitation and claims of slice of life journalism. Hence, quickly, the film titled "Looters" was re-named to "Trespass!" See the difference in terms of the way the criminal element is presented there? Hollywood, ha ha, for the win! A felony reduced to a misdemeanor.
Two months before the Rodney King Riots Ice-T had released "Cop Killer". Then Ice-Cube had done a song or two with Ice-T for the "Trespass!" soundtrack. Yet the ones where they pretended to be bitchy hardcore gangsters with guns up their asses were cut from the album. Because at that point, the rubber bullets had hit the road. After real and often senseless violence had precipitated itself in reality on a large scale people were quick to point the finger at the lyricists who had seemingly encouraged and modelled such anti-social behavior. It felt like we were finally watching the wine from the grapes of gangster wrath run in the streets and down into the gutters.
Soon after the riots the issues raised by gangster rap were talked to death on radio, tv and in the print media. Tempers were calmed because now was the time for serious discussion after all that irresponsible provocation from all sides which had resulted in shattered glass in the streets and burnt out storefronts. Finally, our need for assuagement thus sated, these issues seemed put to bed for a few decades in terms of the front page of the national conversation (at least in the media's opinion to a great degree.)
* * *
Now, of course, we live in the age of the viral video and the flash mob and the Narcocorrido. When events precipitate protest it can swiftlly turn into chaos as the information about lawlessness is disseminated in real time. So... seems that as an artist you can spark a fire but you can't fan the flames once they ignite. At least if you want to continue to make money. When things get out of control so easy your agent tends to advise you to cool things down.
From then on, after both Ice Cube and Ice-T put out a few more albums to prove they were the same ol' hard heads but with less blood and guns mostly, then they went pretty darn mainstream.
They set out and successfully proved --perhaps deliberately-- that anyone once famous in America (no matter the original reason) passes into the winding five mile long belly of the beast and comes out the other side just another guy rendered acceptible for the TV audience. Money talks.
Or maybe, with fame and money comes the time to reflect on the values you espouse. Then you realize that overall America is the worst there is... except for all the others. After all, look how much money ripping America a new asshole made you! And that is the American dream: everything worthwhile but radical eventually becomes middle of the road and gets sold in this country. We love our revolutionary heroes and rebels as long as they make money.
So the gangster rappers of the first wave often went on to accept roles in even worse than gangster rap (ha ha, if that is possible) vehicles, starring in all kinds of status-quo-affirming gawdawful movies and TV.
This was not the path of the proto-rappers of the 70s such as The Lost Poets, Afrika Bambaataa, etc. But by the 90's, in America, if you could sell records then it wasn't long before the book people and the TV people and the perfume people and the clothes people and the electric grill people all came calling to cross-platform and pollinate you. To vertically integrate and synergize you. Still, I sometimes wonder why Linton Kwesi Johnson or Gil Scott-Heron never got a square on Hollywood Squares, or at least a small cameo role in Homicide: Life On The Street?
I guess in the end, after being homogenized by the American media machine, it was all proved to be a simulacrum from the beginning. Right? It was all just like a movie about gangsters, that's all. The medium of "Colors" was in some ways the message; this has been vetted, it's not dangerous, really. We just need to fix some bad apple issues. After all, Dennis Hopper was behind "Colors". He was counter-culture.There was some white rebel of the 60's credibility; they just want to make the world a better place, those easy riders.
Yet what made "Colors" the song so jarring was that it was in first person and told with an unmistakable voice that seemed worth listening to. It threatened, for the first time in a hit single, indiscriminant mayhem and was told without a moral filter. In fact, the song boasted of having no morals. It was truly chilling. But that is what made it real.
"Sucker, dive for your life when my shotgun scatters.
We gangs of L.A. will never die - just multiply."
It made the average person think, "Oh shit, the criminals are using 'multiply like roaches' metaphors and now they're even goading us!"
I mean, before "Colors", the rap boasts I had heard were all mostly funny metaphors and crime was treated like a factor to be dealt with (The Message) not a potentially admirable lifestyle and profitable enterprise.
"He can satisfy you with his little worm,
but I can bust you out with my super-sperm!"
-The Sugarhill Gang
And that was fine, the was the equivalent of tagging your name somewhere where there was only bland ugly concrete underpass before. Some people can only scrawl their initials in ugly chickenscratch but sometimes there are people who can wield a spraycan like an artist. If the colors are bright and the shapes interesting it might be worth a quick look and a sensible chuckle.
Well, unless the tag signifies you are entering gang territory. Then the tag tells a whole story of human avarice and greed, that there are reckless and demented teenagers in the area with nihilistic outlooks on life. But, hey...see...it's just a story. Song as old as time: Story, territory.
Yet it was obvious to me from the start that the argument gangster rap was just 'stories' of 'fictional characters' was one ultimately belied by the fact that such stories were often told as if they were auto-biographical and remorseless about moral issues. They were bragging about battling over drug sales and territory, damn the innocent four year old shot in her yard because of a reckless drive-by. Ruthless was the new classy, they were proud to have dragged us all down with them, everywhere was now just like Compton (i.e. a cesspool of violence). Well, who would have guessed at the time that shooting your mouth about being an amoral murderous criminal in public could earn the people's admiration? Who knew?
Either this was 'reporting' or it was complicit and the argument of reportage was simply made in order to avoid taking responsibility for the repercussions of producing criminal-celebrating anti-social content and exploiting the worst attitudes and most degrading scenarios in society for shameless profit. Or both. These 'fictions' were sold and marketed explicitly based on what were real life biographies and criminal versimillitude. They took the moral cover that 'this really happened; you can't censor reality.'
So soon in the world of rap marketing jail time was a positive and violent tendencies were marks of authenticity. Murder and remorseless brutality were celebrated in doggerel as if they didn't carry with them the seeds of their own demise. Was Sociopathic Braggart now a respectable career? Well, in certain parts of the music industry after that the answer was a definite yes.
Well, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking he's just too old to get it. Kids like to have fun, sew some oats. He just wants us off his lawn.
But that's not it.
Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine