From ‘Rhyme Pays’ to ‘Law & Order': Three Decades of Ice-T
Today, many rap fans may identify Ice-T as a thespian, due to his longstanding stint as Detective Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU. But if you were introduced to him prior to that, you're well aware of the fact that Ice-T is also one of the more important scribes in rap history. Born in New Jersey and the product of a broken home, Ice-T would move to California during his teenage years following the death of his mother and father in two separate incidents in during childhood. After graduating from high school, Ice-T would enlist in the army as a means to support his pregnant girlfriend, and it was during his tour of duty that he would begin to gain an interest in rap.
First getting his feet wet as a DJ, Ice-T, whose name was inspired by legendary crime author Iceberg Slim, would quickly transition into becoming a rapper, releasing the singles "Cold Wind Madness" and "Body Rock," both of which earned him cache in L.A.'s underground rap scene. At the time, in comparison to New York City's hip-hop scene, where the emcee had surpassed the DJ as the central figure, Los Angeles was more known for its break-dancers and disc jockeys moreso than rap groups or soloists, and had yet to produce a nationally recognized lyricist to serve as an answer to the premier talent coming out of the five boroughs. However, it would be the release of his 1986 single, "6 'N the Mornin'," that would turn Ice-T into one of the biggest stars in rap and officially usher in the era of gangster rap on the west coast. The song, which was stylistically similar to Philly rapper Schooly D's own hit single, "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?," finds Ice-T giving an account of everyday life in the underbelly of the Los Angeles streets. "6 'N the Mornin'" would become a breakaway success locally, as well as regionally, piquing the interest of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, who signed Ice-T to a record deal in 1987 over a backdrop provided by Afrika Islam, who crafted a majority of the production on Rhyme Pays.
An album that is often credited as being the genesis of the gangster rap sound that would become synonymous with the brand of hip-hop coming out of Los Angeles and the west coast as a whole, Rhyme Pays. Despite limited radio airplay and its controversial content resulting in it becoming among the first rap album to have a parental advisory warning label, Rhyme Pays would be critical and commercial success, eventually receiving gold certification and stamping Ice-T as a force to be reckoned with. The following year, 1988, would not only be a landmark year for Ice-T, but hip-hop as a whole, with a bevy of classic albums released that have gone on to become the gold standard. With the likes of Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions, Slick Rick's The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and Big Daddy Kane's Long Live the Kane being just a few of the landmark works put forth from New York City, the west coast would also enjoy their most blockbuster year to date, with album's like N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton and Ice-T's own sophomore effort, Power, helping further entrench California as integral in pushing the culture forward.
While Straight Outta Compton would introduce one of the more historically important groups in rap history and would create a firestorm of controversy and sociopolitical commentary, Power would solidify Ice-T as the premier soloist on the left coast, however, it would be a song released prior to the album that would prove to be one of his most lasting. Tapped to contribute the theme song to the Dennis Hopper-directed classic film Colors, Ice-T turned in an accompanying title-track after watching the film, drawing from his personal experiences in the gang-infested streets of L.A. for inspiration. Co-produced by Afrika Islam and Ice-T himself, despite only peaking at No. 70 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, "Colors" was acclaimed by critics and peers alike and is regarded as one of the greatest rap songs of all-time. Ice-T would capitalize on the momentum set with "Colors" with the release of Power, which is as pivotal for its album cover as it is for its music.
Released in September 1988, Power, which was led by the singles "I'm Your Pusher" and "High Rollers," would make headlines for its cover, which captured Ice-T's then-girlfriend Darlene Ortiz clad in a bikini and armed with a shotgun, one of the more provocative statements the world had seen from a rapper at that time. Ortiz's presence and sheer beauty would enhance Ice-T's image as a ladies man with gorgeous eye candy at his disposal, with the shotgun serving as a reminder of the overtones and aesthetic that informed his artistry.
Power would be certified Gold within a half year of its release and is viewed as Ice-T's most complete body of work, however, it would also spark a feud between Ice and LL Cool J, whom the Rhyme Syndicate leader dissed on I'm Your Pusher," and more prominently on "The Syndicate." The latter would find Ice-T mocking LL Cool J's 1987 hit single "I'm Bad," while taking aim at LL's subject matter with the lines "A lot of MC's like to talk 'bout they self/A first-grade topic, I think you need help/How many time on one album can you say you're def?/"I'm baaaad" - Yo punk, save your breath," and warning LL to watch his dress code when roaming the streets of L.A." LL Cool J would respond to Ice-T in 1990 on the Mama Said Knock You Out cut "To da Break of Dawn," poking fun at Ice-T's past as a car thief, his rhyme skills, and his relationship with Darlene Ortiz, effectively bookending one of the more slept-on war of words in rap history.
As his profile continued to rise, Ice-T encountered issues with censorship, a battle in rap that would be heightened with the specter of revolutionary and gangster themed rap music and inform Ice-T's third album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech... Just Watch What You Say!. Released in 1989, Ice-T would join 2 Live Crew as two of the first rap acts to clap back at their detractors and fight for their right to freedom of speech and protecting their artistic license, which would be a recurring theme throughout the rapper's career. As the decade closed and the '90s were ushered in, the rap world and Hollywood would begin to collide in a big way and Ice-T would find himself at the forefront, joining artists like Ice Cube, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Kid N' Play and others in making a foray into acting. Having made appearances in the 1984 film Breakin', its sequel, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985) prior to releasing an album, and with several movies under his belt, Ice-T was no stranger to the camera, but when the rapper was cast in the 1991 crime flick New Jack City as undercover cop Scotty Appleton, it would put Ice-T on a trajectory to becoming one of the more successful rappers-turned-actors of all-time. The role, which cast him opposite of renowned actors like Wesley Snipes, Mario Van Peebles, Allen Payne, Chris Rock, and Judd Nelson, would allow Ice-T to showcase his chops as a thespian and result in a classic performance in what has come to be one of the defining films of its era.
The release of New Jack City would come the same year as O.G. Original Gangster, Ice-T's fourth studio album, but the following year would prove to be a rough one, as Ice-T would find himself under the gun and facing censorship. Body Count, a heavy-metal band Ice-T had formed with guitarist Ernie C in 1990, released their eponymous debut album in 1992, which included the song "Cop Killer," in which an armed man seeking retaliation in response to police brutality guns down police officers. The song would result outrage from politicians and cops alike, with the Dallas Police Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas threatening to launch a boycott of all Time-Warner related products if the song was not withdrawn from the album, causing Ice-T and Warner Bros. to ultimately agree to scrap the song from the album. Ice-T would continue to release music with Body Count in addition to his own solo projects throughout the '90s, however, in the wake of the "Cop Killer" controversy, Ice-T would continue his transition to acting, with roles in films like Ricochet (1991), Trespass (1992), and Surviving the Game (1994).
Drawing from his persona as a rapper, one of Ice-T's more memorable roles from the '90s came through his appearances on the television series New York Undercover as Danny Cort, a ruthless, albeit charismatic, drug kingpin that wreaks havoc on New York City. The role earned the rapper a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, in 1996 and would open the door for New York Undercover co-creator Dick Wolf to continue to work with Ice-T, with Wolf producing Ice-T's short-lived co-created series Players and casting him in the 1998 television movie Exiled: A Law & Order Movie (1998). Ice-T's performance as pimp Seymour "Kingston" Stockton would cause Wolf to add Ice-T to the cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in which he has portrayed Odafin "Fin" Tutuola, a former undercover narcotics detective from Brooklyn that has been transferred to the Special Victims Unit, a role the rapper has portrayed since 2000. Detective Tutola, a street-wise veteran of the streets of New York City, channels Ice-T's demeanor as a rapper, but not without the irony of him playing a cop after railing against them on record in one of the most high-profile instances of the fight between politicians in hip-hop that is still discussed 25 years later.
After splitting from long-time girlfriend Darlene Ortiz during the '90s, Ice-T would become romantically involved with model Nicole Natalie Austin, better known as "Coco," whom the rapper would marry in January 2002 and put the spotlight on just as he had during his prime as a rapper with Darlene. In 2011, E! launched the reality show Ice Loves Coco, which gave an in-depth look at the couple's relationship and how the two balance their careers with romance, adding yet another wrinkle to Ice-T's resume on the silver-screen.
In 2017, Ice-T may be respected as an actor, with a resume under his belt that commands respect and one of the more familiar faces on prime-time TV, but at heart, he remains a crime author and game spitter first and foremost. Using every opportunity to highlight the importance of the culture and to provide context to the stories told over beats, in spite of being a household name and having infiltrated the homes of people who would be the last people you'd expect to listen to a rap record, Ice-T remains an ambassador of hip-hop more than thirty years after his debut.
Watch Ice-T's Video for "High Rollers":
Watch Ice-T's Video for "I'm Your Pusher":
Watch Ice-T's Video for "New Jack Hustler":
Watch Ice-T's Video for "OG: Original Gangsta":
Watch Ice-T's Video for "G Style":