The fire around the ice. (rap singer Ice-T)

The fire around the ice. (rap singer Ice-T)

Time; 6/22/1992; Donnelly, Sally B.

“Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat,” wrote Robert Frost. Tracy Marrow’s poetry takes a switchblade and deftly slices life’s jugular. Since his 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, Marrow — who goes by his high school nickname of Ice-T — has set off critics who accuse him of glorifying crime, homophobia, sexism and violence. His profanity-laced descriptions of gang life in a Los Angeles ghetto fostered a genre of hard-core black music known as “gangster rap.” Tipper Gore of the Parents’ Music Resource Center singled out Ice-T for the “vileness of his message.”

Last week more people were trying to shut him down. A group of law-enforcement officials in Texas called for a boycott of Time Warner, the parent company of his record label, Sire (and of TIME) because of one of his recent tracks, Cop Killer (“I’m ’bout to bust some shots off/ I’m ’bout to dust some cops off”). Said Doug Elder, president of the Houston Police Officers Association: “You mix this with the summer, the violence and a little drugs, and they are going to unleash a reign of terror on communities all across this country.”

But what guardians of respectability find vile is considered compelling and clever by the hundreds of thousands of fans who have made Ice-T the world’s most consistently successful hard-core rapper. Despite very little radio play or MTV time — his cuts are too hot for the air — he has produced four gold-selling albums. His fans are mainly young males, but they range through all races and classes, and they can be found from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles to Harlem and Harvard — where his 1989 album, The Iceberg Freedom of Speech, was No. 1 on the campus charts.

Ice-T does not want to be adored. He’d prefer to be shocking — and well paid. For the most part, he lets his music speak for itself because he knows trying to reason with his critics is wasting time. “The way I rap, and what I rap about, is based in reality,” he says angrily. “I don’t really care what people who don’t give me a chance say.”

After the defiance, though, comes Ice-T’s real message. “I write to create some brain-cell activity,” he insists. “I want people to think about life on the street, but I don’t want to bore them. I want them to ask themselves, `Does it matter to me?’ ”

The recent violence in Los Angeles, says Ice-T, “only vindicated what I’ve been rapping about for years. I have been one of the voices from the ‘hood trying to let you know what kids on the street are thinking.” To him, the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict were predictable. “If you didn’t expect the rebellion after such a miscarriage of justice, then it just shows how out of touch you are.”

What about the profanity? Ice-T sighs in frustration. “You’re overhearing black guys on a street corner talking to one another. It’s s— talking, a dialect. But people take it so seriously.” What he fails to realize is that people do take words seriously, and understandably so, when they are so offensive and degrading. When Ice-T sang on one of his first albums about a friend who “f—ed the bitch with a flashlight/ Pulled it out, left the batteries in/ So he could get a charge when he begins,” he let his own definition of “reality” overcome his responsibility.

To Ice-T, the language issue comes down to one of race. “A lot of terms we use on the street don’t have the same connotation in white America. They shouldn’t sweat us on what words we use with each other. I hate to say rap is a black thing, but sometimes it is.”

In his early 30s, Ice-T is a decade older than many of his rap compatriots, and that shows in his work. He is perhaps the only rapper who can admit that he was wrong. He has eliminated antigay messages from his raps. “I used to make fun of gay people, call them fags,” he says. “But my homeys weren’t down with that, so now I lay off.” He has also left the most extreme, racist gangster rap to the likes of Ice Cube. Instead, he now focuses his energy on what he calls “intelligent hoodlum” material. Quincy Jones says Ice-T’s work has “the best poetic quality of any rapper, and the strongest narrative I’ve ever heard.”

His latest album, O.G. Original Gangster, is his best and most balanced. Ice-T’s vivid writing and rich delivery detail life on the streets with his trademark realism and humor, but the sometimes tragic consequences of that life are also laid out. On New Jack Hustler, which was nominated for a 1992 Grammy, he sketches the dilemma of a dope dealer:

Turned the needy into the greedy

With cocaine

My success came speedy.

Got me twisted

Jammed into a paradox

Every dollar I get

Another brother drops.

Other tracks deal with child abuse and drive-by shootings, and there are none of the patently sexist raps of earlier years.

Tracy Marrow has been relying on himself since he moved to Los Angeles to live with relatives when he was just a boy. He was born in Newark but traveled west after his parents died when he was in elementary school. Although he lived in Windsor Hills, a middle-class section of L.A., he claims he began hanging with a rough crowd. He plays up these tough-guy roots to legitimize his hard raps, although a teacher at his alma mater, Crenshaw High, remembers Marrow as a milder sort whose most serious offenses were trying to get into basketball games without paying.

While still a teenager, Ice-T joined the Army and completed a four-year stint, spending most of his free time deejaying parties for his fellow soldiers. There he realized that he was “better at talking than mixing the records.” Marrow knew his voice and quick wit could take him places, but admits “the concept of actually getting paid for rapping was too farfetched to even think about.”

He had signed up for the military to “get responsible” after getting a high school girlfriend pregnant. But when he returned to Los Angeles, he drifted into crime. His homeys had stepped up their activities to robbery, credit-card fraud and even arson. Despite his musical ambitions, Marrow rejoined his crew and started making serious money. He says now of that period, “I thought I’d be a hustler for the rest of my life.”

A local promoter had him record The Coldest Rap in 1982, which led to deejay stints around L.A., including shows at the now defunct Radio dance club downtown. For $50 a week, Ice-T spun the records and rapped to mostly white crowds. “I had this double identity,” he says. “Deejaying for trendy kids on the weekends, and doing the dirt on the street the rest of the time.”

His deejay gigs led to another career move that, some have since suggested, should supplant his rapping. He was offered a small part in the dance movie Breakin’ in 1984. “They said they’d pay me $500 a day. S—, I was spending that on sneakers,” he laughs. But his street boys, according to Ice-T, wouldn’t let him turn down the part. A few of the gang had already been taken down by the police or other gangs. “You got a chance,” Ice-T recalls them saying. “White people like you, man. They’ve got their hand out; you should take it.” His second big-screen appearance, as an undercover cop in last year’s surprise hit New Jack City, brought critical acclaim. He will share top billing in Universal’s The Looters, a movie about a team of industrial-security experts, originally scheduled for release in July but delayed and retitled after the Los Angeles riots.

Ice-T says he owes his success to his friends from the old days. As he sings in Mind over Matter,

I made a promise

To my brothers in street crime

We’d get paid with the use

Of a sweet rhyme

We put our minds together

Made the tracks clever

Now we’re checkin’

More bank than ever.

Some of Ice-T’s friends now work in various capacities for Ice-T — at his music production company, Rhyme Syndicate, his merchandising business or the auto repair shop he owns in Los Angeles. Jorge Hinojosa, who has served without a written contract as Ice-T’s manager for nine years, says loyalty and trust are vital to the performer.

“There’s a very small inner circle around Ice that is hard to break into. It’s a carryover from the street attitude: I got your back if you got mine.” Ice-T also keeps in touch with some of his friends who are now in prison, sending them tapes or packages.

Ice-T’s loyalty extends to helping out his crew by funding their projects. Ernie C., a friend since Crenshaw High, started a rock band with Ice-T’s support. Now they’ve joined forces to create a new band, Body Count, with Ice-T as the lead singer. Ice-T is a rock and heavy-metal fan of long standing, and, rapid-fire, he rattles off his favorites: Black Flag, Judas Priest, Blue Oyster Cult, Hendrix, Slayer. “I like the aggressiveness and anger of hard rock,” he says, and he proved it last summer by appearing with a collection of metal bands on the successful Lollapalooza tour.

Offstage, Ice-T seems far removed from his writing-performing persona of a hard-rap hustler. For the most part, he speaks quietly, his light brown eyes narrowing as he makes a point. At an even 6 ft., light skinned and dressed casually but neatly with his Nike shoestrings tied just so, he can blend into the crowd at his usual hangouts, from Spago to Red Lobster Inn. He relishes the rewards of his success — his house in the Hollywood hills, for example, where he lives with his girlfriend Darlene Ortiz and their six-month-old baby boy; his collection of half a dozen sports and antique cars; his trips to such spots as Hawaii and Asia. But he knows whom to thank for it all. “It wasn’t a cop or social worker who got me here,” he says. “It was my boys, like the ones now on death row, who are the reason I’m doing it. That’s why there’s a real allegiance to the street in my music.”

The same attraction that Ice-T once felt for life on the edge holds for rap fans today, and he knows it. “There’s no feeling like robbing somebody. It’s a weird, warped thrill,” he acknowledges. But with convoluted logic, he warns, “It’s wrong, and it can also get you killed.” He simplistically assumes listeners can draw the line between sitting back and enjoying the thrill and participating in it. The rapper claims his music encourages people to action but not to crime. “My raps aim to give people courage. Listening to me gives you the ability to say `Screw the system’ if it’s doing you wrong.”

That attitude, and the fact that young people are listening to it, says Ice-T, is what has traditional America running scared. Law-enforcement authorities spend time monitoring rap groups like N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew, and only end up bringing more attention to the groups. “That rap is considered more dangerous than heavy metal, even Satan worship, only shows where America’s fears lie,” he says.

Strange, then, that one of America’s most fearsome rappers will soon be a comic-book star. DC Comics has planned a three-part series featuring the rapper. Ice-T is also using his experience with gangs for more than albums. He frequently speaks to high school students about the dangers of a life of crime. In the meantime, as Ice-T sings on the title track of the O.G. album,

I rap for brothers just like myself

Dazed by the game

In a quest for extreme wealth.

But I kick it hard and real

One wrong move, your cap’s peeled . . .

Point blank and untwisted

No imagination needed, cause I lived it.

This aint no f—ing joke

This s— is real to me.

I’m Ice-T.

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