top of page
Check Out Our Music Site
ICE-T: Open Forum Interview
by Kevin James
Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine
ICE-T OPEN FORUM INTERVIEW- MIDNIGHT SPECIAL BOOKSTORE
MARCH 1994 - INTRODUCTION
by Kevin Salveson
The movie 'Colors" had some claim to a greater objectivity being a Hollywood production that was about crooked cops and told with a sense of unvarnished truth about a serious topic from a law and order point of view. It wasn't "Watch us glorify cold blooded murder." It was about what was wrong with both robbers and cops.
When talking about a movie there is an understanding that real people have to write a script and fund it and shoot it. There is an expectation of quality control because they generally don't spend all that money in order to get torn apart by an angry public. An emotionless camera eye then points and captures. It must have some objectivity, some expectation of reasonable discourse. It wouldn't bother capturing something not worth watching, right? Yet they want to sell tickets so it has to be believable and also titillating.
So it was clear that there was some authorial difference between Marrow the person and Ice-T the persona submitted for your approval. On MTV, Ice-T had a goatee and a kinda coffeehouse chapeau-wearin vibe in his music video so it all went down smooth as the baby Jesus in velour pants.
Of course, he's been on TV ever since and the more he plays fictional characters involved with law and order the more it reminds us that it was all a kind of fiction to begin with.
Ice-T was truly able to step outside the culture and yet he could defend it from the inside as well.
As he puts it in the the interview:
"Nothing has ever given these kids hope. And you seen all these kids. So fuck this shit they're trying to say about it. It's a chance for kids to get up out of there. Man, it saved my life! You know what I'm sayin? Its saving people's lives."
There is no doubt that self-expression and practicing the craft of the written and spoken word is laudable, a better alternative than gang life itself. And "Colors" was like a tour conducted by a tour-guide who could show you with laser-pointer precision where the faults in the arguments were buried and explain how they were so intoxicatingly seductive while still remain aware that they were ultimately criminal.
It was jarring enough, though, that I still remember the first time I heard it. That era changed me.
At the time I was writing my first novel (Salvation Road) featuring a night-time walk trough Venice gang territory. I had read the book "Monster" and some Luis Rodriguez and so I commenced riding my bike through those rows of 1950s bungalows in Venice as fast as I could during the summers of 1988-1994. I had an idea of what those streets were like down to the smell of toast eternally billowing out of the Pioneer Bakery building off Lincoln and Rose.
Then, over the following four years, I watched as a more and more violent media culture, real police abuse in response to real criminal activity, societal neglect, lack of education, racism on all sides, and brazen talk of murder all seemed to be rewarded more and more each day! The gangsters and the cops were both turning up the heat until the steam in the pressure cooker forced the lid off and it all boiled over when the era of citizen-shot viral videos first began in 1992.
That was the year the Rodney King beating was filmed by a camcorder-holding George Holliday from his balcony and it was aired by KTLA.
Well, it's been asked ever since the play Oedipus in ancient Greece seemed to cause a wave of copy-cat fratricides, I guess, and Ice-T begs the question himself in his interview. Does media violence lead to a permissive culture and more violence? Did gangster rap 'boil over' or did police abuse and an unfair court judgement do it? Would police abuse without the atmosphere of recrimination and retribution engendered by gangster rap have caused riots and wanton abuse of property? Without police abuses would gangster rap been able to flourish? Was the attention such issues were given in the aftermath of the rioting greater and more useful than peaceful means? It certainly is a sticky wicket.
Again it is such a complex issue that it would take a whole book to answer. Still this is how I think the story went regarding how our culture degenerated into its presently disfunctional state. Gather 'round, children. It's time for a 'nother story of territory. In this case, political and economic territory. See, the late 1980's were the dawn of a new age. These were what the historians now call the Republic's "Backlash" years. In short, the people of the American Republic had been lashed over and over by a cabal of powerful abusers for a decade or two. These abusers were called Republicans and Roger Ailes' Fox News, both of which demonized the poor, labor, liberals and minorities.
The Republic had seen some progress in the 1960s but the powerful abusers tried to crush it by criminalizing and demonizing the progressives via the Southern Strategy and the War on Blacks Hippies Democrats Latinos Drugs. On top of it, a more and more permissive media culture was looking to exploit anything for ratings as the era of cable made more explicit fare available to just about anyone. In certain sectors of entertainent the style coarsened as the media had to come up with shocks that were able to top the last wave of zingers.
Finally, the backlash which Reagan had engendered was unleashed by the end of the HW Bush years. (Which of course forced a retaliatory response from the right soon after --ala Tipper Gore and the conservative family values cabal of those times). And the modern culture wars were underway! Frank Zappa on one side and Jimmy Swaggart on the other.
At the college I went to the hip students in classes which featured free discussion were starting to gravitate towards the topic of rap and stick up for its better aspects against the dismissals of the unenlightened. One of my friends (now a fairly famous music DJ, producer and writer in the Bay area, Tomas) wrote a paper and presented it to the class. It concerned the literary merit of De La Soul's "Three Feet High and Rising" and it was fairly convincing.
But with Ice-T we had something much more challenging. It was remorseless, but clever enough to cover its own tracks.
He pushed it even harder, near the point of breaking, with Cop Killer. That has to be the apex of the gangster rap and rock model. Probably the Body Count album is the one of genre's most cogent contributions ever made to the national conversation regarding the merits of free speech and the black experience in America.
That song, based as it is on a complaint about police abuse supported by numerous instances of real world injustice, lacks even a hint of self-reflection. But, within the context of Marrow's other work, it remains a powerful statement about the eventual desperate response the underclass will respond with when facing feelings of persecution which have been pent up for too long.
* * *
Well, as they say, eventually a dream deffered explodes. It all ended, in my mind, with O' Shea Jackson (Ice Cube) before a phalanx of reporters defending the Rodney King rioters' motives while wearing a "Looters" baseball hat on the TV news. Like they were some kind of sports team, The Looters.
And I wondered, "If I came looting around Mr. Jackson's own home would he open the door and welcome me to take his stuff? Wouldn't that beexpected from a man championing looting as a lifestyle?" But the answer was negative. The takers gonna take, that's all. Under the cover of a cry for law and justice, the rule of law was being broken. At least, that was what it looked like. (Note that it was often specifically Korean markets being targeted as part of the looting frenzy). The racial animosity on all sides was as thick as the smoke that billowed out of the burning buildings.
Again, I know that it's the American third-rail for a white guy to even broach these kinds of subjects as a writer. Everyone is passionate about it and everyone has a unique point of view. White people (as some kind of general shorthand for power in America) are often the bad guys and are last in line for shooting their mouths off about race and poverty issues in America.
But in 1992 I was there living in Los Angeles as the smoke billowed around me. And I kept wondering if a lot of innocent people were going to be hurt in retribution for a lot of innocent people being hurt in the past. It was, it seemed, the kind of cycle Ghandi warned against. Like Ice-T says, you gotta try and listen to everyone if we're ever gonna improve things for everybody over time like we all want, perhaps including the 'white people' who stand in for 500 years of enlightened humanistic thought. Thoughts which are the ideals which this country was founded on.
* * *
The Ice Cube persona was mostly fiction too, of course. The hat he was wearing --which at the time I thought was amazingly smart to have had made so fast in order to "make a shocking but bold statement" to America before the cameras-- had actually already been done up because he was involved with another Hollywood film of the same name which was then being shot in LA.
And so over time we discovered that O' Shay Jackson had been in fact a college-attending mostly middle-class dude who was not quite like his hard ass Compton persona. (though we also found out that Suge Knight was truly just a thug). Ice Cube went on to use that beguiling scowl to fight rubber snakes and fix leaky houses for nagging children on the silver screen instead.
Anyway, while ultimately wrong-headed on its surface, 'Colors' is powerful in its unapologetic nature and therefore offers a window into the psychologically damaged mentality of the American underdog, one which was valuable to the overall conversation of race and power in America. And I believe this was Ice-T's point.
That's why I always liked Ice-T more than most of the others from the start. He had some perspective and at least a tiny modicum of class. He also had a sense of humor that wasn't just stoopid sick, yet still wanted to get buck naked just like I did. And he understood there were tracks which needed covering but that the trail could lead you somewhere useful. He also saw there were points to be made using the metaphor of gang violence to critique American values and practices while also offering a critique of its own twisted self-justifications.
In fact, unlike the pure unashamed ignorance of Eazy E, Ice-T never really advocated outright silly shit such as rape or indiscriminate homocide. Instead, he addressed the issue of violence without advocating it himself, per-se. From the start he was able to stand outside of it all (perhaps because he had never really been in it) and defend or criticize it with some objectivity and a fully formed aesthetic.
Over time he has proven to be one of the great intelligent and successfully lasting influences on hip hop, music, television and media in America. Why? It's all in the ideas behind the lyrics, which offered dimension and wit and yet are still buck wild.
Ice-T's achievements in terms of the art of social reporting in music have been matched by few albums since; the genre itself came up against its own limits rather quickly. Whatever merit the genre has, though, I think he encapsulated it and articulated it best.
Give me a break, what world do you live in?
/ ...Peace is a dream, reality's a knife.
A few short sentences, brilliantly succinct. Even though he spit them out like a half-confession half-angry apology, Ice-T makes it so universal that we know he's arguing the point of view like a Platonic dialogue and not necessarily recommending it (a distance that would soon be lost in the rush of others to emulate him and the NWA formula).
* * *
Thus, by the time of this open-forum interview with Ice-T in the Spring of 1994, as he was touring to promote his book The Ice Opinion, he was practically the elder statesman of gangster rap politics (though he stressed that he would't speak for other rappers).
Interview Audio Recording
bottom of page