Before he became a tremendous Twitter personality; before his unconventional reality show, Ice Loves Coco, hit the airwaves; before he played Law & Order: SVU's iconically prickly sex crimes cop, Fin Tutuola; Ice-T rapped.
In the Golden Age of hip-hop, that sweet spot from the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, Ice-T was a true lyrical pioneer. Informed by the code of the streets and influenced by literary predecessors like 1960s African-American memoirists Eldridge Cleaver and Iceberg Slim, his contributions to the West Coast canon comprise an undeniably core part of rap music’s genetic makeup, including the best four album-run in hip-hop history. (Apologies to Kanye West stans and Outkast devotees.) From 1987’s groundbreaking Rhyme Pays, to the seminal O.G. Original Gangster, his brash attitude and succinct flows made him a controversial star.
Among Ice-T’s many musical accomplishments, which include five RIAA-certified albums and a 1991 Grammy for his Quincy Jones collaboration “Back On The Block,” the artist born Tracy Lauren Marrow paved the way for decades of music from others depicting day-to-day life in low-income communities of color, experiences many would rather have closed their eyes to. A New Jersey native who moved to Los Angeles during his adolescence, he did this, notably, during a period in history where explicit raps were under attack on multiple levels. Watchdog groups with governmental ties like the Parents Music Resource Center argued that his “gangsta” music glorified violence and corrupted children. As the artist outlines in ”Radio Suckers,” stations regularly shied away from his music over the very same subject matter. Often at the fore of this battle, Ice-T served as a proverbial lightning rod for hip-hop, emerging as one of its most candid figures well before explicit content became a rap norm.
These days, you’re less likely to find Ice-T rhyming on the mic than mugging on your television. In addition to his nearly 20 seasons of SVU, where his detective persona remains the series’ second longest-serving character behind Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson, he also hosts the fittingly branded In Ice Cold Blood, a true crime show on the Oxygen Network. When he does make music nowadays, it typically happens with Body Count, the heavy-metal-meets-hardcore-punk group he started in 1990. To that end, he recently announced that a new album from the band was in the works, with recording to begin sometime next month. Of course, if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that.
While Ice-T’s ubiquity outside of hip-hop continues to make him a pop culture mainstay, it’s likely that many of those who engage with his social media presence or watch him in basic cable syndication have yet to hear his music. This guide aims to change that—highlighting the many sides of Ice-T, and how his explicit lyrics laid the groundwork for the money, sex, and violence tropes that define today’s trap scene.
So you want to get into: Rhymesmith Ice-T?
Mid-1980s hip-hop may seem quaint by today’s standards, but at the time, it was as mean as the streets themselves. Being the baddest wasn’t just something you claimed, but rather a prize to earn and then defend constantly, and almost cyclically, amid a fiercely competitive field on two coasts.
After a handful of singles, Ice-T officially threw himself into the ring at the age of 29, with 1987’s Rhyme Pays. One of the era’s strongest full-length debuts, the record finds him backed by beats from Afrika Islam, a producer connected to the Rock Steady Crew and the Zulu Nation, and DJ scratches by Evil E. The album delivered hard-hitting jams like “6 ‘N The Mornin’” and “Pain,” which built up his image as a street-hardened hustler with impeccable mic skills.
While a delayed adolescent mindview shines through on a couple of its tracks, particularly on the goofy “Sex,” few others at the time could contend with Ice-T’s lyrical potency. Like Slick Rick back east, he could tell a full-on story in rhyme. Even his freestyles painted vivid pictures of his world, one that was deeply mysterious to a huge swath of Americans at the time. “6 in the morning, police at my door / Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor,” he raps on “6 ‘N The Mornin,’” which borrows its flow from Schooly D's "P.S.K." “Out my back window I make my escape / Don't even get a chance to grab my old school tape.”
Not even a year after Rhyme Pays, Ice-T scored a Hot 100 hit with the eponymous track from the Dennis Hopper-helmed 1988 film Colors, foreshadowing his foray into the acting world. The hardcore verses and robust delivery on “Colors” paved the way for Power that fall, a forceful effort that eradicated any trace of a sophomore slump. Here, he toyed with conceptual frameworks, as on the music-as-drugs metaphor “I’m Your Pusher,” which liberally samples R&B icon Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly highlight “Pusherman.” The album went RIAA gold in just two months, a testament to his commercial success.
Notably, during this period, Ice-T would only sparingly lend his voice to the work of others, particularly to members of his Rhyme $yndicate crew, like Donald D and Everlast, the latter of whom would go on to fame with the House Of Pain, a trio known best for the hit “Jump Around,” and then again as a solo artist.
Playlist: “6 ‘N The Mornin’” / “Pain” / “Colors” / “Power” / “You Played Yourself” / “Mind Over Matter” / “Depths Of Hell” / “The Rhythm”
So you want to get into: Gangster Ice-T?
While the terms didn’t stick around for all that long, hardcore hip-hop and gangsta rap served as convenient subgenre tags for the blunt, raw approach that Ice-T was developing. Where so many of his predecessors and peers served up heaping bowls of word soup, he chose to keep his subject matter topically cold, as befitted his name and his years grinding out in Los Angeles. His apparent Crip affiliation lent him credibility and mystique as an unfiltered truth-teller. That perception of authenticity bleeds across so much of Ice-T’s classic material. He shares hustler’s observations and pimp game with “High Rollers” and “Somebody Gotta Do It,” songs filled with intuitive and free-associative street poetry. Violent tales like “Squeeze The Trigger” and “Peel Their Caps Back” drew presumably from life, while draped protectively in fiction.
Released in March of 1991, Mario Van Peebles’ classic New Jack City found Ice-T playing against type as an undercover cop seeking revenge on Wesley Snipes’ vicious organized crime kingpin. On the film’s soundtrack, however, he spat bars from a more familiar perspective with “New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme),” a braggadocious anthem for the uptown badguy. A couple of months later, that quintessential gangsta rap single also found its way onto his 1991 album, O.G. Original Gangster. The title cut reaffirmed his standing in hip-hop and his reputation as a street scholar, with Ice-T dropping knowledge on younger bangers and giving pounds to those in-the-know. “A motherfucker from the West Coast, L.A / South Central, fool, where the Crips and the Bloods play, he raps. “When I wrote about parties, it didn't fit / ‘6 N' the Mornin,’’ that was the real shit.”
Playlist: “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin Ain’t Easy)” / “High Rollers” / “Squeeze The Trigger” / “Peel Their Caps Back” / “New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)” / “O.G. Original Gangster” / “Ricochet”
So you want to get into: Activist Ice-T?
Something happened on 1989’s The Iceberg / Freedom Of Speech… Just Watch What You Say. Between the graphic illustrated cover art and the dystopian opening admonitions of former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra on “Shut Up, Be Happy,” fans of Rhyme Pays and Power could tell they weren’t about to get more of the same. Ice-T had always projected pride, but here he did so while his career and very existence were under attack by watchdog groups, the government, and the media. With “Lethal Weapon,” he explains how the violence of his lyrics is an active weaponizing of his mind, designed to challenge the people and institutions that keep his people down. Clearly irked by the lazy and inaccurate ways he was being portrayed by detractors, he shouts down the PMRC on “Freedom Of Speech,” and decries the radio’s unwillingness to play the likes of Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and himself on “This One’s For Me.”
From that point on, Ice-T addressed difficult topics more frequently, reinventing himself as an oft-sociopolitical spitter and earning greater respect in the process. For O.G. Original Gangster, he expressed solidarity with Nelson Mandela on “Prepared To Die,” and encapsulated his outrage over the mass incarceration of African-Americans on the closing speech, “Ya Shoulda Killed Me Last Year.” Albums that followed, like 1993’s Home Invasion and much of the Body Count discography, saw Ice-T being equally outspoken.
Playlist: “Lethal Weapon” / “Freedom Of Speech” / “This One’s For Me” / “Prepared To Die” / “The Tower” / “Ya Shoulda Killed Me Last Year” / “No Lives Matter”
So you want to get into: Hardcore Ice-T?
Citing Black Sabbath, Slayer, and Suicidal Tendencies as foundational influences, Ice-T and his guitar-playing Crenshaw High School classmate Ernie Cunnigan formed Body Count in 1990, at a commercial high point in the rapper’s career. While such music had previously played a role on his albums, as on Rhyme Pays’ “6 ‘N The Mornin’” and on Power’s “Personal,” starting a crossover metal band surprised those who sought to keep rap and rock artificially segregated, despite their common roots. On O.G. Original Gangster cut “Body Count,” he formally introduced the self-described “black hardcore project” with a preamble that emphasized the African-American history of rock and roll. That track blended Ernie C’s doom-laden Tony Iommi riffage with Ice-T’s Cyco Miko-style vocal delivery.
Ice-T devoted half of each of his Lollapalooza 1991 sets to Body Count material, and the band dropped its eponymous album the following year, showcasing their titular song alongside about an hour’s worth of new skits and tracks. In retrospect, the media-fueled controversy surrounding “Cop Killer”’s provocative title and self-explanatory contents seems downright contrived, the song’s revenge fantasy lyrics ultimately a sharp commentary on the LAPD’s record of police brutality. Even with “Cop Killer” removed from the record, Body Count remains a solid document of thrashy punk, defined by morbid humor about race relations and poignant pokes that land in the temple and in the chest. Within four months, it earned RIAA gold certification.
Two more Body Count albums with the original lineup would emerge, though the untimely, leukemia-related death of drummer Beatmaster V ahead of their fourth release put the band in limbo. The surviving members returned in 2006 with Murder 4 Hire, the last to feature rhythm guitarist D-Roc the Executioner, who passed tragically during its making. While Ice-T later distanced himself from that record, claiming he’d essentially “mailed in” his parts, in recent years, the reconfigured band has remained active, with he and Ernie C continuing to record and tour together.
Playlist: “Body Count” / “KKK Bitch” / “There Goes The Neighborhood” / “Invincible Gangsta” / “The End Game” / “Talk Shit Get Shot” / “99 Problems BC” / “Institutionalized 2014”
So you want to get into: Weirdo Ice-T?
Momentarily putting aside the streetwise bonafides of those first four essential solo albums, a certain idiosyncrasy has always been a part of Ice-T’s modus operandi. The rules of hip-hop were still being written when he came up, and as such, there are aspects of his work that may confuse or intrigue those who expect him to be a one-dimensional gangster. Sick skits like “Black ‘N’ Decker,” which depicts the sound of amateur brain surgery, and leftfield loosies like “Fried Chicken,” a brief rap delivered while hungry, give insight into his bleak yet quirky sense of humor.
On Power, he goes full-on performance poet, offering an homage to writer Eldridge Cleaver with the spoken-word cut “Soul On Ice.” But then he drops one of his most memorably funny cuts, an account of a one-night-stand gone awry called “The Girl Tried To Kill Me” that goes from flirty to felony. Intended as a sneak diss for LL, “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F” parodies his Queens rival’s horny boy tropes with added raunch. DJ Evil E goads him on for “What About Sex?,” a self-aware sketch about the temptation of shoehorning lurid content into his records for shock value.
Still, few would have expected the arrival of 2000 supergroup Analog Brothers, fronted by Ice-T and former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith. The latter rapper had made a name for himself as one of hip-hop’s strangest figures, a lyrical extraterrestrial who pseudonymously masqueraded as a bevy of super villains and outlandish types. Together with a cadre of like-minded weirdos, the group presented themselves as futuristically flamboyant bizarro-world pimps. The synthesizer fetishism of “Analog Technics” and unhinged perversion of “More Freaks” make 2000’s Pimp To Eat a genuinely unique and avant-garde delight. The album is yet another quirkly Ice-T highlight in a discography full of milestones, curiosities, and Los Angeles lore. All you have to do is dive in.
Playlist: “Fried Chicken” / “The Girl Tried To Kill Me” / “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F” / “Black ‘N’ Decker” / “More Freaks” / “Analog Technics” / “What About Sex?”