Ice-T: The Original Gangster at 65
Jim Sullivan recounts catching an early Body Count set
Ice-T turns 65 today. And rather than those “I-can’t-believe-he’s-65!” reactions, I think most people will see this and say, “Yeah, hasn’t he been part of our landscape, like forever?”
Not necessarily because of his music – though there is that, too – but because for the past 23 years he’s been in your face as the street-wise, hard-ass but ultimately warm-hearted detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on Law and Order: SVU.
I suppose everyone’s calmed down now and maybe even forgotten the rich irony of it all, but let me take you back to that time eight years before Dick Wolf gave Ice-T the role. That was when President George H.W. Bush – among many other white establishment figures – went after Ice-T for a little ditty the rapper did with his hardcore punk/heavy metal band Body Count called “Cop Killer.” (For what it’s worth, Ice-T didn’t write it; Body Count guitarist Ernie C. did.)
VIDEO: Dan Rather reports on “Cop Killer”
First it was Vice President Dan Quayle, and then a week after that Bush said it was “sick” to produce a record that he said glorified the killing of police officers. Although Bush did not name Ice-T or Body Count, it was pretty clear who was in his crosshairs when he said, “I stand against those who use films or records or television or video games to glorify killing law enforcement officers.”
It was around that time that Body Count came to Boston’s packed Paradise club and I wanted to be nowhere else that night. Oh, the opening act: Ice-T (in rapper mode).
Before we dive into what once was, some rumination. Life as we know it is packed with paradox and, in the world of gangsta rap, the paradox is often writ large. Sexist boasts will intermingle with utopian exhortations; outright antagonism will mix with healing sentiment; tales of gunplay will collide with tales of sex-play. What’s love got to do with it? Not much. This is street life.
The song, we’d heard it. It was out there. He played it the previous year at the Boston area Lollapalooza stop. With two dizzying sets – first as a rapper, second with Body Count – Ice fused rap and hard-core punk. It was enticing and enraging while going full-tilt and taking no prisoners. It was definitely not a PC venture. It was in this environment he would be bringing this double-barreled act to the Paradise.
The album wouldn’t come out til March 31, 1992. It was initially called Cop Killer —— but now it’s just called Body Count. Never mind the attempt at muting the impact: “Cop Killer,” the song, is, like NWA’s “Fuck tha Police,” an incendiary rant directed at the men in blue, a slashing, hard-rocking, chant-along slab of rage in which the outlaws get to rule the roost. And, yes, kill a cop. There is a context: That the cops have wrongly gunned down minorities, so all’s fair in this war. Ice-T prefaced it when Body Count played it at the end of their set by stating that there are good cops too — hey, he even played one in New Jack City — but the song wasn’t so equivocating. I mean it closes with “Die, pig, die!” and about a hundred repetitions of “Fuck the police!” This after the damage has been done by our narrator, a guy in a black ski mask.
The action unfolded like this:
Following a competent, but limited, set of rock/rap from another rap unit, Hard Corps, Ice-T and his posse took the stage. For too long, for an hour. It was a situation where for every smart jab, every street-smart salvo, there were five stupid utterances. There was an emphasis on bodily functions, on vacuous cheerleading. There was a guy in love with the sound of his own voice and, most disturbingly, a guy who couldn’t tell the difference between the peace sign and the middle finger.
It was hard-hitting in places (especially the grim “New Jack Hustler”) but problematic throughout — Ice and his posse’s vocals didn’t cut through the bass lines and beats as clearly as they should have. You got the idea of anger and hostility, but not the details. If, uh, you wanted the details and for that …
I’ll pick two examples:
1: In Body Count’s “KKK Bitch,” Ice-T, or his protagonist named Ice-T, scores with the daughter of a KKK grand wizard, then impregnates her and leaves her family with the nightmare of “a little Ice-T.” OK, it’s kinda nasty-funny, the synopsis. But in the telling – oh my: “Out on tour yo, I been all around the world/Went to Georgia, met this fine-assed white girl/Blonde hair, blue eyes, big tits and thighs/The kinda girl that would knock out most guys/She got wild in the backstage bathroom/Sucked my dick like a muthafuckin’ vacuum.”
2: In Body Count’s “Mama’s Gotta Die Tonight,” Ice-T spelled out a scenario in which the mother has schooled her boy in racism and is then set afire and beaten to death by that same, grown-up kid. Just desserts? Revenge rap? Tit for tat? Exploitation?
Any way you cut it; this was rough stuff. And unlike Lollapalooza, where the sets were short, Ice-T had the time to stretch and stretch he did. Unfortunately, when Ice-T stretches, more often than not he’s demanding oral sex and cursing gratuitously. By the end of the night, it seemed like self-parody.
The following hardcore/metal set had a stronger, more visceral punch. It harkened back to the L.A. hardcore punk sound of the early ’80s. Body Count guitarists Ernie C. and D-Roc let it rip and roar, but Ice-T was at the mic and frequently muddying the waters.
Talk about radically mixed messages and radically mixed results. Rarely will you find an artist who is so succinct and strong in some areas, and, yet, so long-winded, sexist and wrongheaded in others. Ice-T is both a sharp, defiant chronicler of inner-city strife and an egotist who’s stuck on his own refrains and mostly wants to get blown.
Now, if you’re wondering what became of Body Count … they’re still active. Since 2014 Body Count has released an album about every three years, the last being Carnivore in 2020 with another apparently on the way. Thing is, while their eponymous debut disc went gold, none of the others rivaled its success. The novelty had worn off, at least beyond the band’s cult following.
As to rap, well, Seymour Stein, the owner of Sire Records. which signed him, opined, “He sounds like Bob Dylan.” (Ice-T decidedly sounds unlike most of the new Dylans we’ve had in the past: Loudon Wainwright III, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nile et al., but whatever.) His rap career seems to have stalled after 2006’s Gangsta Rap. And from a sales/popularity point of view, Ice-T’s rap trajectory is not unlike Body Count’s, albeit with bigger numbers. His first five albums went gold or better, but that streak ended in 1993 with Home Invasion.
Still, Ice-T’s resume ain’t bad. He won a Grammy, he’s won two NAACP “Image Awards” for Best Supporting Actor. This year, he got a star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. And Law and Order: SVU will be the Cher of network TV.
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