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An Open Forum Interview From '94
by Kevin James
Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine
ICE-T OPEN FORUM - MIDNIGHT SPECIAL BOOKSTORE - MARCH 1994
EXTENDED 12" INTRODUCTION by KEVIN JAMES SALVESON
Yet surely the values we as a society espouse as enshrined in our laws are universal. It might be a privilege to believe that there is such a thing as 'values that apply to everyone no matter their color or economic status' but I think the last 200 years of American history has been all about enshrining entitlement to these values for all citizens.
It has been a long road and a struggle for many but the ideals can't be denied. Even black American heroes such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X realized this and helped make their contributions to the march of social equality and progress for all --not just some-- in the end. These is the egalitarian values we should all ultimately have as ideals because they espouse equality under the law for all.
Without a doubt, these issues were (and still are) worth addressing.
By the time "Colors" was released in the late 1980's the inequalities of the drug war and the drugs themselves were absolutely ravaging communities of otherwise mostly upstanding folk. But was bragging about defiant lawbreaking a form of protest or was it simply opportunistic? And was the music any good or was it simply doggerel over drum machines?
Well, at least gangster rap had some 60's style soul power and was often nice and funky. I mean, I loved the old Sly Stone and Herbie Hancock and Parliment Funkadelic stuff. That music rocked mychildhood: the Outta Space of Billy Preston and the serpentine fires of the Earth, Wind and Fire and the Ohio Players.
The first wave of inter-racial authentic black pop music pioneers were those guys who, to give credit, were riding the coat-tails of the jazz and soul and musicians of the 1960s. And they favored integration after the revolution of the Civil Rights era had done its work. Miles Davis was infusing jazz with funk and tablas. Herbie Hancock was inventing electronic pop jazz funk. Those were the guys I loved. Those original funksters were explicitly about changing minds and having asses follow, not giving up and going for broke on a crime spree. They did not trade their status as artists in the canon for one last thrilling though nihilistic crime spree before bringing a premature end to a misguided life. Nor did they lower themselves to hawking such narratives for money. They did not Jazz June.
Still gangster rap knew enough to sample all the old funksters' hits.The best of the music got under your skin and travelled up your spine to your brain where it would then force you to also open your eyes or drop your mouth open in amazement at the sheer bravado. This music was the return of a certain kind of uncompromising authentic black American voice after the '80s had turned funk into disco into synthetic Europop. This stuff wasn't emasculated. it had dick, it was all about the g-funk, an unabashed and powerful party-fuelled lifestyle, and the oral history tradition of the griot. Rap had taken the fruits of integration and thrown them in a blender with a lot of protien powder and busted out big.
So certainly everyone in America, no matter the color or background, could appreciate it. And it forced everyone to have an opinion about it.
Was it before or after that I heard Eazy-E and then NWA? I think after. 'Colors' was the first "gangster rap" I had ever heard or seen (though Rhyme Pays was already out and my friend was already jamming Eazy-E in his UCLA frat-house at the time). Since then it seems to me, though, that Ice-T has pretty much never been topped by any of the many other gangster rappers who came after him.
I'd have to write a book to cover the whole history of hip-hop in that light, but suffice it to say that even from the start Ice-T too clever to get caught in any small-minded gangster cage even as he was pushing the limits and crafting a successful media career out of it.
Per his bio he was never actually in a gang and only briefly around gang culture. Tracy Marrow had absorbed it like a reporter and then allowed himself to even become a small time criminal later in life.
But he seems to have seen the bigger picture from the start when he started rapping using the Ice-T persona. Proof of that is in the last line of that shocking first "crossover gangster" hit which finally moves past the deliberate solopsism of the rest of the lyrics of "Colors" to challenge us:
We all want peace.
But our war won't end
until all wars cease.
That succinct coda puts it all in perspective: the narrator frames it within the museum of human nature and history.
Unlike many of the solopsists that followed, who did not seem to understand how their own words and actions could ultimately be found repugnant and instead just went for the money, Ice-T used his stories to imply that there was indeed a morality which was going over his characters' heads (even as you could sympathize with how they became so frustrated as to cross the line).
These are the frustrations, the "language of the unheard" which Martin Luther King certainly gives vent to as well in his speech often called "The Other America." And Ice-T --in those lines-- implicates us all too.
We are a nation that too often goes to war and uses force to solve political problems around the world. We do too often have a media that rewards conflict resolution via force and celebrates macho values in its toy gun and big explosion world of superheroes impervious to bullets and real risk.
He builds to this gotcha expertly. The previous lyrics offer some fairly smart though ultimately unconvincing arguments about why gangsters choose their foolish fates. Yet, even though it was done in the first-person, it was an instantly arresting point of view. Because while the excuses were presented as somewhat flawed... fuck you anyway.
And that was what was so chilling. It was a confrontation with a person who cared not for anything rational, knew nothing of the history of French humanism they were defying.
Here was a song seemingly glorifying gang violence in the first person performed by someone whose biography was that of a professed pimp and drug dealer. It was hard to tell the actual convicted criminal from the character. And that was ok? Sure, according to our culture (one which thrives on sensationalism). In fact, his real life bio was one of the selling points, and he was getting away with bragging about it.
Well... I. Could. Not. Believe. It.
Did these kids buying the records or the bigwigs selling them not see the difference between fame and infamy? Why wouldn't a court take Ice-Ts recorded professions as recorded confessions and press criminal charges? Could you really brag about being an asshole criminal in public and get away with it? Why wouldn't you be instantly shunned for being psycho-pathological?
Apparently, the public couldn't put two and two together and figure the obvious difference between what separates gangster rappers from Stephen King (for example). Sure, Ice-T mentions King as a defense of his own art, as if Tracy's bio wasn't the same as his lyrical content. King never went to jail as an axe murderer in real life nor did he deliberately try to conflate his own criminal biography with his characters' shocking acts of amorality in order to sell a hyped-up persona to the public.
Certainly, though, Ice doesn't care if you want to catch him in that bag or not, and to a degree he's right. He does have the right to depict anything he wants in his lyrics. As he says, "If I want to make a negative record with a bad guy, I will do that. Because I'm an artist. And I have that right."
Still, gangster rappers love to have it both ways. One minute in the interview, Ice is criticizing the media and people's tendency to judge on appearences when it's obviously informed by a racist bias in America to profile blacks as criminals:
"if you watched me on TV, if you watch what they did to me on television, I'm, I'm supposed to come in here and pull a gun on all y'all. And try to scare you or something."
And the next minute he's bragging that deep down he is the kind of guy who would "rob everyone here" as a kind of badge of real-world pride, and he has to be true to that because that's the kind of brother he is.
So it's auto-biography and yet it's racial profiling too when people take him at his apparent wordf? It reminds me of the NWA lyrics complaining how unjust it is that police are "thinking every nigger is selling narcotics" before putting this to record on the song Dopeman: 'Well, I'm the dopeman -- yeah, boy, wear corduroy/ Money up to here but unemployed / You keep smoking that rock and my pocket's getting bigger." Lovely.
But "Colors" had the cover of the Hollywood pic. it was just stories about criiminals, a journalist's account of life on the streets (though the journalist had lost objectivity and become an accessory to the criminal conspiracy he was supposedly covering, teehe). And it had the force of a potent though flawed moral position.