Real name, Tracey Marrow (some sources say Morrow); born during the late 1950s in Newark, NJ; parents deceased during childhood; raised by an aunt in Los Angeles, CA. Addresses: Record company --Sire Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10019-6979. Publicist --Susan Blond, Inc., 250 West 57th St., Suite 622, New York, NY 10107.
Ice-T appeared on the music scene in 1987 with a new style: gangster rap, which offered rhymes about crime and street life in general in unflinching detail. His tough, groundbreaking records paved the way for the wave of younger gangster-rappers that included Ice Cube and N.W.A. Before his arrival on the scene, rappers devoted most of their lyrics to partying. Ice-T, an ex-criminal from South Central Los Angeles trying to go straight by way of his music, sang about what he knew: robbery, murder, pimps, hustlers, gangs, and prison. In his own words: "I try to write about fun/And the good times/But the pen yanks away and explodes/And destroys the rhyme."
By the early 1990s, however, Ice-T had reached such a level of success as a recording artist and film star that his gangster image began to give way to that of a teacher. Newsweek referred to him as "a foulmouthed moralist." Entertainment Weekly 's James Bernard declared that "Ice-T has something to teach anyone concerned about the rotting core of America's cities." As his success broadened, Ice-T continued to sing about the street--but with a determination to help black kids escape the ghetto and make white kids understand it. He also considered his financial future a matter of strategy: "The name of the game is capitalism," reads a typical Ice-T quote from his publicity packet, "and I aim to win that game, too."
Ice-T was born Tracey Marrow in the late 1950s--he refused to release his birthdate--in Newark, New Jersey. By the time he was in the seventh grade both his parents had died, and he went to live with an aunt in Los Angeles. While at Crenshaw High School, he wrote rhymes for local gangs and was soon drawn by his friends into petty crime. At age 17 he left his aunt's home and, in his words, "starting hanging out in the 'hood with my friends." By the early 1980s, Ice was also drawn to rap music, thanks to the success of artists like Kurtis Blow. In 1982 he recorded "The Coldest Rap" for an independent label and was paid twenty dollars for it.
Naturally, this kind of money was nothing compared to what he and his friends could make illegally. Although he claimed to have never been a "gangbanger" himself, he was close enough to see that world as a dead end. Eventually his friends starting being sent to prison. "Then one of my buddies got life," he told Musician. "And they were all calling me from jail, saying, this ain't the place, homes. Stay with that rap. Stay down." He stayed with it, honing his style and landing a part as a rapper in the 1984 movie Breakin'.
In addition to the advice and admiration of his friends, Ice relied on his girlfriend Darlene, who stayed with him through the lean years and finally shared his success with him. "Even though we were broke," Ice told Scott Cohen in Details, "she knew that I could take five minutes out and go scam $20,000. I needed a girl who was ready to say, 'Don't do it, Ice. It's O.K.'" Darlene added that for a long time they were too broke to go to the movies: "We just lived in one little room and paid rent. We didn't have a car for two years."
By the mid-1980s rap had grown from an urban phenomenon to a national one, but New York City's rappers had a monopoly on street credentials. California, which had produced the good-natured surf pop of the Beach Boys and psychedelic rock bands like the Grateful Dead, hardly seemed a source of rhymes about urban strife. But Ice-T's 1987 debut, Rhyme Pays, put South Central Los Angeles on the nation's cultural map with its disturbing stories of inner-city warfare.
This new approach took the music community by storm; it also provoked charges from watchdog organizations like the Parents' Music Resource Center and from critics on the political left and right that Ice glorified violence, theft, and sexism. Subject matter aside, he drew fire--and the first warning sticker placed on a rap record, by his reckoning--for using "profanity." "No one has yet been able to explain to me the definition of profanity anyhow.... I can think of ways to say stuff--saying things using legitimate words but in a context--that makes a more profane comment than any bullshit swear words." The album's rap "6 in the Morning" became particularly well-known, telling the story of a handful of gang members escaping the police.
Ice returned in 1988 with Power. The cover of the album featured a bikini-clad Darlene pointing a gun at the camera; Ice hadn't softened his approach. The album yielded two hits, "High Rollers" and "I'm Your Pusher." Ice's face began to appear more regularly on MTV, and he contributed the title song to the soundtrack of the 1988 film Colors. His high-profile gangsterism provoked more attacks from various authorities, particularly when he began speaking to students in schools. In a discussion with Arion Berger in Creem, Ice presented his imitation of an FBI agent opposed to his school tours: "'He has a record here called, um, "I'm Your Pusher.'" 'Well, have you played it?' 'Oh, we don't have a phonograph here at the Bureau.'"
Ice's frustration at attempts to suppress his music motivated a change of direction on his next LP, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech ... Just Watch What You Say, released in 1989. A drawing of his face appeared on the cover with a gun to either side of his head and the barrel of another in his mouth. He enlisted punk politician and former Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra to deliver an announcement of right-wing martial law over a sampled piece of deathmetal guitar, setting the tone for a relentless counterattack on conservative thinking. The record also featured "Peel Their Caps Back," which Berger called Ice-T's "most vicious criminal record so far."
Ice later reflected that the Iceberg album was too preoccupied with censorship and free expression. "Sales were good on that album," he told Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times, "but [I can see where] some of the raps made some people think I was going soft. I just got caught up in messages--about freedom of speech. People at the record company wanted me to do that and I'm sorry that I listened to them." In the meantime, he added, the rising stars of gangster rap had upped the ante of street-tough rhyming. In 1991, though, he would come roaring to the forefront of the scene once again.
Ice-T landed the role of an undercover cop in the smash 1991 film New Jack City and his song "New Jack Hustler" appeared on the film's soundtrack. He received excellent reviews for his acting in the film; Alan Light of Rolling Stone called his performance "riveting." "It was scary," Ice told Dave DiMartino of Entertainment Weekly. "I didn't know how the actors were gonna react, and in music I'm in my own domain. But when I got there, the first thing I found out was that they were, like, in awe of me--they wanted, like, autographs and stuff." Soon he had signed on to play a drug dealer in another film, Ricochet.
Ice's 1991 album O.G.AOriginal Gangster contained twenty-four tracks of uncompromising and often violent raps. Rather than pursue the anti-censorship tack of the Iceberg album, O.G. returned to Ice-T's earlier turf with a vengeance. The album's themes are summed up by titles like "Straight Up Nigga," "Prepared to Die," and "Home of the Bodybag." Ice's raps, though laced with the "profanity" of earlier records, had become tougher and leaner; "Mic Contract" likened rap competition to gang warfare and suggested that Ice-T was ready to face off with young gangster-rappers. The album also included a rock and roll song, "Body Count," which was the name of the hardcore band he had assembled. Ice enlisted four different producers to work on the album, and DJ Evil E. provided the eclectic mix of beats and samples.
Reviews of O.G. were mostly very positive. Entertainment Weekly 's James Bernard declared that "Ice-T has something to teach anyone concerned about the rotting core of America's biggest cities," and gave the album an "A." Even as Jon Pareles of the New York Times acknowledged contradictions between Ice's "trigger-happy machismo and his increasing maturity," he remarked that "? O.G. ? works to balance the thrills of action and the demands of conscience." "It's his candor that really draws blood," a notice in Musician commented, while Stereo Review insisted that "Ice-T raps in lightning-quick, non-nonsense rhymes that cut to the bone with lack of pretense or apology." In his Rolling Stone review, Mark Coleman noted that " O.G. can be heard as a careening, open-ended discussion. Of course Ice does tend to follow his sharpest points with defiant kiss-offs.... But get past his bluster and this guy is full of forthright, inspiring perceptions."
For its unsparing language and content, O.G. received a parental warning sticker; Coleman claimed that such warnings were "like sticking a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound." Ice-T's response to the sticker, in a quote which appeared in his publicity materials as well as ads for the album, was as follows: "I have a sticker on my record that says 'Parental Guidance is Suggested.' In my book, parental guidance is always suggested. If you need a sticker to tell you that you need to guide your child, you're a dumb f--kin' parent anyhow."
1991 also saw Ice-T join the ambitious traveling rock festival known as Lollapalooza. Organized by Perry Farrell--whose band, Jane's Addiction, was the headlining attraction--the tour included such divergent acts as Black Rock Coalition founders Living Colour, the industrial dance outfit Nine Inch Nails, and British postpunk veterans Siouxie and the Banshees. As the only rapper on the tour, Ice-T faced Lollapalooza's predominantly white audiences with a positive attitude: "All I want them to do is come out and say 'I like him.' Not get the message, not understand a word I'm saying. Just think, 'Those black guys on the stage I used to be scared of, I like 'em.' I want to come out and say, 'Peace.' If I can do that, that's cool." His participation in Lollapalooza attested to his belief that rap had the same rebellious and unifying quality that rock and roll had when it first appeared: "White kids will continue to get hipper to black culture. With R&B, the kids didn't want to meet us, but this is rock & roll all over again--everybody chillin' together."
Ice-T began as a controversial rapper in the late 1980s, throwing around gangster slang and strong language and provoking anxiety in many listeners. By the early 1990s, however, he had matured into a thoughtful, charismatic performer with strong careers in at least two media. Despite his newfound success, though, Ice insisted that he still made a lot of people nervous: "Parents are scared because my record is Number One on the campus charts of Harvard for three months," reads a quote in his publicity packet. "These kids are being trained to grow up and become Supreme Court justices and politicians."
by Simon Glickman
Recording artist and film actor. Wrote rhymes for Los Angeles gangs in 1970s; recorded "The Coldest Rap" in 1982 for independent label; made film debut in 1984 movie Breakin' ; released first album, 1987; appeared in film New Jack City, 1991; cast in film Ricochet, 1991; joined Lollapalooza concert tour, 1991.
- Selective Works
- Rhyme Pays (includes "6 in the Morning"), Sire, 1987.
- Power (includes "High Rollers" and "I'm Your Pusher"), Sire, 1988.
- (Contributor) Colors (motion picture soundtrack; includes "Colors"), Sire, 1988.
- The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech ... Just Watch What You Say (includes "Peel Their Caps Back"), Sire, 1989.
- (Contributor) New Jack City (motion picture soundtrack; includes "New Jack Hustler"), Sire, 1991.
- O.G.AOriginal Gangster (includes "New Jack Hustler," "Straight Up Nigga," "Prepared to Die," "Home of the Bodybag," "Mic Contract," and "Body Count"), Sire, 1991.
August 17, 2004: Dennis "D-Roc" Miles, a guitarist in Ice-T's band Body Count, died on August 17, 2004, in California, of lymphoma. He was 45. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/26/music.body.count.reut/index.html, August 30, 2004.
- Billboard, June 8, 1991.
- Creem, April/May 1991.
- Details, July 1991.
- Entertainment Weekly, May 24, 1991; May 31, 1991.
- Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1991.
- Musician, June 1991; August 1991.
- Newsweek, July 1, 1991.
- The New York Times, May 19, 1991.
- Rolling Stone, May 16, 1991; June 13, 1991; September 19, 1991.
- The Source, May 1991.
- Spin, May 1991.
- Stereo Review, August 1991.
- Ice-T press release, Warner Bros./Sire, 1991.