In this Q&A, award-winning journalist pop culture commentator Beverly Keel sat down with renowned rapper and director/producer Ice-T at the 2017 International Entertainment Buyers Association to chat about T's work, career, and the music industry as a whole.
Beverly Keel, award-winning journalist, pop culture commentator, and chair of Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of Recording Industry, began her conversation with Ice-T with a list of his many accomplishments. “I have lots of questions for you,” she said. “But first I want to brag on you a little bit because you’ve had such an amazing, multifaceted career. Ice-T is known as the creator of gangster rap, which makes him the real and true OG. This is just the beginning of his firsts. He was the first rapper to use real street language in his songs. His debut album was the first hip-hop album to carry an explicit content sticker. He was the first L.A. rapper to become respected in New York. He was the first rapper to write a book, the first rapper to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the first rapper to bring back the black heavy metal band to his generation with Body Count. He ran his own label, which was the first company to try hip-hop on the internet. He was the first rapper to act in a film, the first rapper to land a role in a network television show, and the first rapper to star in his 19th season of a network television show. I’m not done.
“In 2012, he produced and directed the acclaimed documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap. Earlier this month, he co-hosted the two-hour Fox TV special Who Shot Biggie & Tupac? Of course, we can’t forget the E! Network reality show Ice Loves Coco, which he filmed with his wife, his family, his friends, and his pets. This show has made a generation of women fall in love with him all over again, after seeing how much he loves his wife. But make no mistake, music remains vital to his life and career. He has sold ten million albums and counting – in the United States alone. Body Count released the powerful track “No Lives Matter” from its sixth studio album Bloodlust. And while it feels like all of this was an artfully-designed strategy, in many ways it was the exact opposite. As he likes to say, ‘I feel more comfort out of my comfort zone.’ But perhaps Chuck D puts it best, ‘Ice-T is the only person who does things that completely jeopardize his career just to stay awake.’
“We are facing a room full of concert promoters, talent buyers, and music industry executives. Let’s talk about that aspect of your career first, about being a touring artist and how that has evolved over the years.”
Ice-T smiled coyly and responded, “That is a lot of firsts. I’ve always said, ‘You can argue who is best, but you can’t argue who is first.’ If something is new, I am always into it. If it has been done, then I’ve already lost interest. First time I ever left the house to tour was as Ice-T. So, it was hip-hop, and it was an incredible adventure. You run into the real promoters and you run into the janky promoters. You know the difference when you get picked up from the airport. ‘Ah, well we couldn’t get the limo, but this is my Mom’s car. Move the baby seat. We’re gonna stop over here and meet my Father first. He’s in a wheelchair. And then we got some other places we’re gonna stop.’ But then you’ve got the real promoters, where everything is legit and upfront.”
“There is nothing more educational than travel. And I was taking my boys from the hood. They had never seen poor white people. I mean that sounds funny but it’s sad – when you’re in the hood, you’re caught in this warp of your neighborhood. And when we got out into the United States, it was wow. We used to be on the buses and they would look at all the land and they would go, ‘Wow, that’s so much space.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, and we fightin’ over this block.’ Also, when you go to different places and see real poverty, it wakes you the f**k up. We went to Brazil. We went up into the hills where the people live, and saw little kids with no clothes on, outdoor plumbing, and all that kinda stuff. When we got to Brazil with Body Count, we could’ve ran for president because they hate the cops down there. They had Body Count flags. And then something about Rio makes you never want to leave. The guys were like ‘You sure we don’t got no more shows here?’”
“Touring now is interesting because I tour in so many different capacities. I tour as Ice-T. I have concert that I created – my form of Lollapalooza called the Art of Rap. We bring the golden age of hip-hop to different places with people from my genre like LL Cool J, Ice-T, EPMD. I tour with Body Count – we just came from Australia and we are going to Europe next summer. Because of my TV schedule, I have to tour fast. We’ll do 29 festivals in 31 days. We are only doing festivals – that’s how you can get in front of a lot of people, really quick. Then I lecture, which is another form of touring. I go to universities, schools, prisons, juvenile facilities. I will speak to anybody about pretty much anything. I just did some stuff for a business convention. Then there is another way to tour now – what do they call it when you just show up at a club? Hosting! I host gigs. These are very lucrative. I do Las Vegas. You kinda show up, you sit in the booth, they give you the mic, you standup in the booth, and you sing a song. They treat you great and you get paid. It’s wonderful. My DJ’s not too happy about that. Usually it’s me and my wife out hosting. I figure I’ve toured every kind of way possible. Did the check clear? That’s all I’m concerned with. Really, that is the mark of a good promoter or a buyer. Does he actually pay you what he says he is going to? Not when you get there and they hit you with a sob story – we call it the Martin Luther King speech. I’m here. Pay me. Promoters and buyers, can your market stand the show you are trying to bring? Don’t put it on the artist. I’ll show up anywhere, but it’s your job to determine whether there is a group of people willing to come out. Like today, what if this room was empty? You have to determine if people want to see the person you’re bringing in. And I’ve seen people put 3,000 – 5,000 people in a room for a wet T-shirt contest. If no one shows up, you lack the ability to promote. Do your research ahead of time. It’s your job.”
Keel posed the question: What do artists wish booking agents, concert promoters, and venue operators knew about working with artists and improving the experience?
Ice was quick to respond, “It’s simple – just stick to the contract and the rider because, as a buyer, your reputation is up for grabs and people will talk. And here is another thing that happens – I always tell artists ‘Prepare for the show to turn into a pumpkin as soon as you’ve finished performing.’ The minute that show is over, don’t expect to get a ride to the airport the next day. Don’t expect all that other stuff. Once you’ve finished what they’ve asked you to do and all the money is exchanged, they might disappear. You might not even be able to find them anymore. You have to be prepared for that. We’ve been to Europe and had ticket problems getting home. My band doesn’t worry because they know I have an American Express card and I will get them home. But you could get left some place. My buddy went to Africa and got kidnapped. Well, basically. What happened was he was out there with Fat Joe and the promoter stated playing like they didn’t want to pay him. So they told the promoters that they gotta pay them or they aren’t doing the show. The African guy and all African gangsterism says ‘Do not leave the hotel tonight.’ And they left. You got all these tough guys from the Bronx and they’re sitting there like ‘Are we kidnapped right now? That mother**ker said don’t leave. And, well, there isn’t anywhere to go anyway.’ So they stayed, and the next day the guy showed up with the money like nothing ever happened – with a happy face. But that moment was tense.
“I did a show where I played for the Basque Country in Spain. Y’all know what Basque Country is? Terrorists. I didn’t know that. The check cleared. Everything went through. We landed in Spain and there were some dudes standing in the back of the airport. They get us in the car and, right before we got to the checkpoint, these mother**kers went off road – like into the woods and shit. And I’m like ‘What’s goin’ on!?!’ They’re like ‘We can’t pass that checkpoint.’ We went into the back of this area and we played in a tent and it was like 5,000 people in a tent. And the guy was like ‘Don’t say Spain! We’re not Spain!” And I’m trying to learn real quick where the f**k am I and what’s going on. And they’re like ‘Public Enemy is here.’ PE played, but Chuck didn’t tell me everything. They’re like ‘We are the rebels.’ And I’m like ‘So where is the promoter?’ ‘He’s arrested and he’s stuck.’ So they got us there and we got on the stage and we start to perform. Then, in the middle, this guy gets up on stage and burns a Spanish flag and shoots off an AK-47. I’m like ‘Oh, shit. Yep, this shit is real. They’re real back here. Cool.’ We got up the next day and they drove us back to the airport. They stopped away from the airport cops and said, “You guys cool? Can you guys go from here?’ And we left. So, if you’re booking in the Basque Country, tell them to wear a vest. It’s some serious shit out there.”
Keel moved the conversation to the new Body Count album Bloodlust. Talking about the song “No Lives Matter,” which addresses reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues of poverty and privilege, Ice began, “Yeah, people get confused. With the Black Lives Matter movement, everybody thought black people were saying that black people’s lives are the only ones that matter. We’re not saying that. It’s like saying women’s lives matter or gay lives matter. And then you say, ‘All lives matter.’ What you are actually doing is diluting what they’re saying at that moment. They’re talking about their particular issue at the moment. So if women say women’s lives matter, then you say, ‘Yes, they do!’ Black lives matter. You say, ‘Yes, they do!’ Not, ‘No. But all lives matter.’ ‘I’m talking about me right now. Can I have a moment for myself right now?’ It is unfortunate that we even have to say it. But, throughout history, it doesn’t seem like anyone cares. When you break it all the way down to the dirty truth, no lives matter if you don’t have any money. When it comes to the poor, no lives matter. It’s not just black. It’s yellow, brown, red. It’s anyone who ain’t got cash – poor whites that they call trash. All of these people can get it. I am on Law & Order. I know straight up, after 19 years of that show, you ain’t got a good attorney, you going to jail. And if you’ve got a good attorney and you did it, you may not go to jail. It’s money and money is undeniable. It is something that changes life for you. People say money doesn’t matter and I always say, ‘I wouldn’t think money mattered if everything in life didn’t have a price.’ There is nothing that doesn’t have a price.”
Keel referenced the video for “No Lives Matter,” saying “I thought it was interesting – you have your powerful lyrics, but you also have graphics of these statistics: over 45 million Americans live in poverty. Police kill an American citizen every 7 hours but they’re indicted in less than 1% of those killings. It goes on and on. I thought it was a different approach than earlier in your career. Maybe?”
“Yeah, I’m older,” was Ice’s answer. Keel replied, “I wonder about how maturity has given you a different approach or perspective, and how that reflects, ultimately, in your art.”
“Age gives you more focus,” Ice reflected. “When you become older, you don’t have a lot of time so you become more focused. You don’t go after everything. You take a little more time before you act. I’ve seen more of the world. And I understand what is going on a little bit better than I did. Everybody in this room knows that when you’re younger, you are just moving. If you look back to when you were 18 or 19 years old, what percentage of what you thought was true, was true? All the stuff you thought at 18 and 19 was wrong. Every f**king thing. Now that you are older, you are supposed to be wiser. The old Ice-T was ‘Ahhh, I kill everybody.’ The new Ice-T is ‘Ya know I’ll kill ya, right?’ It’s different. I’m more surgical now. I’m not mad at everybody. Like Henry Rollins taught me, ‘It’s not about being mad at everything. It’s about being angry at the right shit.’ Also, Jello Biafra taught me, ‘Before you bitch about anything, spend a day coming up with the solution.’ Don’t just say, ‘This is what’s the matter with police.’ Spend a day and come up with a solution. A lot of people rant, and when you say ‘What are we donna do about it?’ They say ‘Well, I dunno. I just know it’s f**ked up.’ Then shut the f**k up until you figure out that, maybe it hasn’t been solved because no one knows how to fix it. But take a little time – maybe you’ll come up with a solution.”
The new Body Count song “This Is Why We Ride” includes the lyrics: “I should’ve been dead. Don’t know how I’m here now. How the f**k did I survive? Something that I’ll never know.” Keel asked, “Not only have you survived, you have remained important and relevant – one of the few who has. And you’ve been successful for over 30 years. People love you. How do you think you’ve remained relevant and successful and an important voice?”
"You have to have humility.
You have to understand how lucky you are."
Ice replied, “You have to have humility. You have to understand how lucky you are. You have to appreciate it. You can’t start believing you’re special. I just try to listen to everybody. People say, ‘Ice, you’re at this position now. You have finances. You’ve won. How are you still angry?’ I’m like ‘My friends haven’t.’ My phone is ringing and everyone is going through the same troubles. Now, I’m the voice. Everyone in here knows that moment when you feel that you have your life great, and you’re feeling so good, the phone rings and somebody you know is going through some shit. And when you’ve been there – I slept in my car, I was homeless, I’m an orphan, I don’t have any mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, no living relatives. I have a reference point for f**ked up. So, I am just humble. I’m trying to be. I’m not the greatest artist. I’m not making the most money. But I figured a way – by doing a lot of different things – to achieve a combined wealth of fame. Everybody in here knows me from some different shit. By combining all of these people together, I’ve got an audience. I think my brand is honesty. My brand is integrity. People know, like it or not, Ice is going to be blatantly honest. If I was politically correct, I might be some place higher. But I don’t think it would be better. You have to be honest with yourself. This is the road I took and this is where I am at.”
In 1991, Body Count released “Cop Killer.” Keel: “At the time, it was just another rock song. It was a protest song about a guy who lost his mind over brutal cops. Fast forward a year later, it becomes a national controversy. You have the President of the United States condemning you. You become a first amendment hero to some. Your label, Warner, was attacked. Their employees received death threats. What was it like going through that?”
“First off, I didn’t know that “cop killer” was out of bounds,” Ice said. “I was listening to Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. There was a movie out called Cop Killer. I thought it was fair game. This is rock ‘n roll. One day, I walked into the rehearsal hall singing “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads. My drummer says, ‘We need a cop killer.’ And I’m like, ‘Why?’ He says, ‘Cops just killed Such ’N Such. They shot my man’s girl. She was pregnant.’ And my gears started turning. What if somebody lost their mind and went after cops? So I sang in the song as a person who went crazy because of police brutality. We played it first at Lollapalooza – huge hit. Austin, Texas gets hold of it – the fraternal order of the police. Okay, when you say ‘fraternal order’ to a black person, that shit sounds like some other shit. Like the Grand Wizard of Who? So they found this record and it was an election year and they decided to go after it – kinda like a Willie Horton thing where they attack Time Warner. Shit got out of hand. I was at my house playing Tecmo Bowl. And my boy comes upstairs and says, ‘The President is on TV talking shit about you.’ And I’m like, ’What the f**k? Really?’ So we turn the channel and it’s Dan Quayle and he says ‘Ice-T.’ This was a time when the President did not say citizen’s names. This is when the President actually did presidential shit. No one in this room will ever have the honor of having the President of the United States speak their name in anger. That’s only reserved for arch criminals. When the President says your name, the shit hits the fan. When the President says your name, the CIA and the DEA do a background check on you immediately. Because the second question from the President is going to be: ‘What do we know about him?’ They can’t be like, ‘Well, I think …’ No, you have to hit him with a dossier. When they do that to you, you feel it. I got tax audited twice in one year. The Secret Service pulled my daughter out of school. They wanted to see if I was really a threat. They wanted to see if my song was a call to arms. I’m like, ‘It’s a record, dog. I’m playing Tecmo Bowl, bro. Take it easy.’ I got ice cream trucks sitting in front of my house in the winter – that type of shit. It was a record. I’m not tellin’ no one to do nothin’. It’s about a crazy man who lost his mind. I was public enemy #1. I wasn’t really trying to tell people to go cop killing. It was about a guy who did it. A lot of stuff happened. But in this world, you only make history for making something or breaking something. And I’ve done both. So, you gotta cause some shit in this world. Everybody in the history books caused some kind of shit. So, that was my little moment. We still do the song. And here we are twenty years later and the same issues are still going on. And my solution is that the police have to police themselves. It’s not something that’s going to come from outside. We can put pressure on the police departments. But I say the vast majority of the cops are good. They have to turn on the bad cops and they have to clean up their own departments. That’s the only solution.”
“As the father of gangsta rap – as you look over the musical family you created – what do you think?” asked Keel. “I think it’s cool,” Ice replied. “Hip-hop has so many different angles. You’ve got the Native Tongues. You’ve got the female rappers. You’ve got the different levels of gangsta rap. You’ve got political stuff. You’ve got very political stuff, like Public Enemy. You’ve got me – I bounce all around it. I just think hip-hop was a chance for expression from the ghettos of the United States. Eminem took it and showed you what the poor white kids in Detroit were living like. It’s a voice. Now I think hip-hop is moving more back towards disco. I think it’s moving toward the beat being more important than the words. It’s great to dance to and enjoy. But you’ll need a microscope and a flashlight if you’re trying find a message. But it’s evolution. It’s back to dancing and having parties and having fun. I think it comes in seasons. I think there will be another influx of more political and topical rappers. You’ve got J. Cole. You’ve got Kendrick Lamar. Even though they’re just few, they are still the biggest. So, there is a market for that.”
Keel asked, “You were fortunate to be an important part of the golden age of hip-hop, with artist like Public Enemy, Eric B, Big Daddy Kane, and so many more. What thoughts and memories come to mind?”
Ice shared, “We knew who was in the studio. You knew that Public Enemy was dropping a record. You had to be up to that bar. You knew that Ice Cube was about to say something. Everybody was really trying to be important – I think that is the key. I ask people today ‘What is the last important record you listened to?’ I don’t even know if Taylor Swift dropped an important record. I mean, she makes great music but was it a record that was needed? That was our goal – to try to make important music that would last. And I guess that’s why they call it the Golden Age. I still try to make ‘No Lives Matter,’ ‘Black Hoodie’ songs that have a little something more than a good beat that’s easy to dance to. But I can’t put that on every artist.
There are people who aren’t into current events. And also, music is an escape. A lot of people don’t want to deal with issues. I don’t think that every artist should do it. I definitely don’t think that an artist that doesn’t know what the f**k they are talking about should try to do some political shit. But, if it is in you, it is part of who you are. I am multifaceted – part of me likes horror movies, I got this part of me that is ultra-political, this other part of me that says ‘Wow! She got a nice ass.’ With my music, I try to address all those different things. I could do the dirty record or I could the political record or I could do the dark, scary. I always want to keep all the doors open. Eventually, I hope to do film and direct film. That’s when I’ll bring it all together. That is something that I’ll do when Law and Orderends in twenty years. Can I pat myself on the back really quick? I am the longest-running black actor in television history. Dick Wolf says if you word it right, you can give yourself any kind of accolade. It’s all about how you word it.”
Keel: “As I mentioned earlier, the show Ice Loves Coco reveals a different side of you – a real sweet side. Are fans responding to you differently now that that show has been on for a while?”
“You know, when they first brought it to us, I was like nah, nah,” answered Ice. “They offered us the show before the Kardashians – it was that long ago. Ryan Seacrest was the producer for Ice Loves Coco originally. He called me out of nowhere and said, ‘You guys have a crazy relationship. I want to do a show.’ But, at the time, reality TV was people fighting and people throwing drinks in people’s faces. I’m not doing that. That’s not my life. We don’t fight. In my world, we don’t even raise our voices at each other. Everybody’s done like 25 years, so you don’t yell at those guys. We all have a lot of respect for each other. So I’m like, ‘That’s not gonna work on TV.’ So they pitched a pilot – that’s the one where I got the sausage on my shirt and we just rolled with it. And they were like, ‘This shit is funny.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m a funny mother**ker.’ People think, because of my music, you come in my house and I’ve got people hanging on meat hooks and there are stripper poles. No, we have a normal life. We have bulldogs. They said, ‘We want to shoot the show like that.’ It’s called the tone of the show. The tone is going to be happy. So we came with Ice Loves Coco, which is I Love Lucy. Coco is the crazy wife and I’m Ricky Ricardo. But I don’t sing “Babalu.” I sing “Colors,” right. But she’s got her wacky ideas and I just go along with it as the loving husband. And that’s really our life. We did three seasons with high ratings. But reality is based on reality but it isn’t reality. When you walk into a restaurant and everybody is mic’d and there is a boom arm and there is a light – how real is that? But that’s how you do reality. I cut it at the end of three seasons. Eventually a normal person’s life will loop because you do the same stuff in your life. Trying to entertain people with your own life is a slippery slope. The producer is like, ‘This isn’t entertaining. We saw you do this last week.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is what I do.’ ‘Well, maybe we can get you to the zoo.’ I don’t wanna go to the zoo. ‘But it’ll be funny.’ So they start to create shit and that’s when the shit starts to go downhill. Now you take the Kardashians, they’ll do anything to stay on TV. They’ll kill a mother**ker. They don’t give a f**k. We weren’t with that. If I’m on a reality show and I get a real call from my son and his is in trouble, that shit ain’t getting on television. F**k that. So, that’s why we stopped. But to answer your question – Yes, people realized that I’m not a savage demon from hell. I’m a normal dude. But I also believe that mystery is part of celebrity and, if they know too much, you are no longer a celebrity. You become normal. Mike Tyson says, ‘Nobody pays to see normal.’ I’m in the business I am in and I’m an entertainer so I have to keep some mystic about me. If I answer normal questions every night on television, no one wants to see. It’s weird how that works.”
Looking at the stage clock, Ice said to Keel, “Ask me one more good question. Let’s go out with a bang. Always do an encore – it’s show business. Even if they aren’t cutting you off, act like they are and do an encore.”
Keel complied, “As you look over your career as an artist, songwriter, producer, record company owner, author, lecturer, actor, director, producer, reality star – what are you proudest of? And is there anything that you’d do over or do differently?”
“I am proudest of just getting out of trouble,” Ice answered. “I was in the streets. I thought I was going to be a career criminal my whole life. I was headed to penitentiary or dead or something. And out of nowhere, there’s music that I could do. I couldn’t sing, but I had experience. I took my experience in the criminal world and put it to music – kinda like my idol Iceberg Slim did in his books. And that door opened, another door and another. I never would’ve thought I would be where I am. One of my mottos is: you don’t guide life, you ride life. And this ride brought me here to Nashville today and it continues to go. I just walk through the open doors and see what’s inside. Let me end it on this – this is how I live my life. It’s a joke about a preacher. A preacher was standing in a flood and the water was up to here. A boat came by and they said, ‘Get in, preacher. Get in, get in.’ He says, ‘No, I’m doing the work of the Lord. Go, go.’ Water is up to here. Another boat came by, they said, ‘Preacher, will you please get in the boat?’ He said, ‘Women and children first. I’ll be okay.’ Water is up to here. Another boat came by and they said, ‘Will you please get in this boat?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not leaving until I’m sure the work of the Lord is done.’ The boat left and he drowned. When he got to heaven, he saw an angel and he said, ‘Can I speak to God?’ She said, ‘Yeah, go ahead. God’s over there.’ He went over to God and he said, ‘God, can I ask You some questions?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ Preacher said, ‘I went to church seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.’ God says, ‘And I love you for that.’ He said, ‘I never spoke Your name in vain, not one time.’ And God said, ‘True. I love you.’ And he said, ‘God, if You loved me so much, then why did You let me die?’ And God goes, ‘Let you die? Dumb mother**ker, I sent you three boats.’ The moral of that story is this: I get in them boats! You’ve got to take those chances and risks. The thing that could change your whole life could be sitting right in front of you. But because of you, or your preconceptions or your beliefs, you don’t get in it. So, like I said, I got out of a life of crime and now I get to kick it with all you criminals and it’s a good thing. Thank you, very much.”