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Gangster Rap's Truth-Teller

Hip-Hop Report * Ice-T's new collection captures his contributions, including his effort to portray the thug life realistically.

August 20, 2000|SOREN BAKER | Soren Baker is a regular contributor to Calendar

In hip-hop's two decades, few artists have put together enough substantial music to merit the milestone of a greatest-hits collection. Ice-T is on that short list, and here it is: "Greatest Hits: The Evidence" was released earlier this month by Atomic Pop.

Despite being one of the most influential, groundbreaking and important figures in hip-hop's history, the Los Angeles-based rapper is usually overlooked when the field's most significant figures are discussed. It might be because he isn't based in New York, where the music started, and because he was not as popular as fellow Angelenos N.W.A, who brought gangster rap to the mainstream.

But it's not Ice-T's record sales (the first five of his seven albums went gold) or acting success (he was recently cast in NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," on which he will portray a veteran detective) that make him so significant.

It's this: More than any other pioneering gangster or "reality" rapper, Ice-T explored the negative as well as the positive aspects of being involved in a life of crime.

Born Tracy Marrow, he came up with his stage name to pay homage to the chilling, gritty work of author Iceberg Slim. Inspired by such novels as "Pimp: The Story of My Life," the rapper, drawing on his observations and experiences growing up in South-Central L.A., set out to incorporate gripping stories of the underworld into his own music in the same manner.

"What I got out of that cat's books was not only the pleasure of the pimping, but the pain, the reality of it," Ice-T, 41, says. "A lot of people say they have to be true to the game, but if you've never been in it you don't have to be true because no one will hold you accountable.

"If you've actually been out there with gangsters and drug dealers, they're going to keep a close eye on you. There's no true way to deal with gangsterism without showing both sides of it and being honest."

In his breakthrough song "Colors," from the soundtrack to the 1988 film of the same name starring Sean Penn, Ice-T detailed the turf wars raging in Los Angeles. But what makes the song special is the way he explains the pain, disappointment and struggle that goes with trying to survive in the communities where gangs thrive:

"What have I got / Last night in cold blood my young brother got shot / My homeboy got jacked [robbed] / My mother's on crack / My sister can't work 'cause her arm show tracks / Madness, insanity / Live in profanity / Then some punk claiming they're understanding me / Give me a break / What world do you live in?"

Despite the images of guns and gangs throughout the song, it was clear that Ice-T did not advocate the lifestyle he was rapping about.

"That brother, he could do a song that you'd think would appeal to the streets, but in the last verse, he'd turn it around to make you almost think that you shouldn't be doing [the wrong thing]," says Big Boy, host of KPWR-FM's (105.9) "Big Boy's Neighborhood," the highest-rated rap radio show in Los Angeles.

"He was one of the cats that could really get on something political and rap it to you the right way to where you could understand it, as opposed to somebody else, like an elder or a teacher, beating it into your head."

"High Rollers" and "You Played Yourself," quintessential Ice-T songs included on "The Evidence," illustrate how he could walk the fine line between educating and entertaining. On the former, he recognizes the appeal of the plush lifestyle and disposable women, but notes that among street hustlers, "very few live to retire." In the latter, he emphasizes the importance of rappers' being intelligent, and how fraudulent boasts of money and power will eventually cost you.

Many of today's most popular acts, from Jay-Z to Snoop Dogg to Big Punisher to Big Tymers, owe a debt to Ice-T. But the fans of these artists are used to hearing stories with no consequences for irresponsible and violent behavior. Many of these listeners haven't been to jail, haven't had friends on death row and haven't experienced the repercussions of life in the drug culture. Fundamentally, it boils down to the artists' presenting themselves as people, not caricatures.

"A real cat will not have a problem showing a real side of himself," Ice-T says. "But if you're all image, then you're going to have a real problem showing any other side of yourself."

("Cop Killer," which is probably the Ice-T song most familiar to the general public because of the violence-in-lyrics controversy it generated in 1992, is not included on the new collection for good reason--it isn't a rap song, and it was recorded with his rock band Body Count rather than by Ice-T as a solo artist.)


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