One of the earliest and most convincing indications that Los Angeles wasn’t going to sit out the East Coast hip-hop revolution, rapper Ice-T (Tracy Marrow) quickly proved the equal of any New York MC. On Rhyme Pays, working over energetic tracks programmed and produced by his Rhyme Syndicate cohort Afrika Islam, Ice (who had already made his first small mark as an actor in 1984’s Breakin’) puts a little flair into the presentation, using a toaster singsong, other vocal styles and assorted theatrical gimmicks to make detailed tales of sex, parties, wealth, criminal activity and jail more absorbing and distinguished than they might otherwise be. A strong debut but, in retrospect, hardly the peak of his career. (And the mix stinks: his voice is way too low.)
Ice-T made great strides on Power, a dynamic and confident shift into solidly delivered ambivalently positive messages built on his unassailable street cred. (Acknowledging mixed loyalties, Ice-T allows “I’m not here to tell ya right or wrong / I don’t know which side of the law you belong.”) So if there’s no clear-cut moral in the violent first-person criminality of “Drama” or “High Rollers,” Ice-T does stop short of endorsing the gangster life. His sex rap (“Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.”) pulls no punches but doesn’t get abusive and does recommend safe sex; the anti-dope “I’m Your Pusher” proffers music in place of drugs, folding in Curtis Mayfield’s original “Pusher Man” for added impact.
Responding to the climate of censorship by attacking it and defying it, Ice-T made the hard and intense Iceberg. On his magnum opus, the rapper chucks the free-speech sermonizing of the previous disc for a seamless collection of riveting tales of ghetto life tempered by big dollops of humor. On earlier albums, Ice-T had presented the old aural vérité argument that graphic gunfire and misogyny simply reflect ghetto realities, but O.G. paints a more three-dimensional picture of early-’90s South Central LA; along with the violence and sexism, he offers solutions. Beginning with “Home of the Bodybag,” which describes the environment in which he was raised, the album careens through the ‘hood, offering a dubious rationalization of sexist language (“Bitches 2”), a laundry list of respected fellow MCs set to a beat (“M.V.P.s”) and an intentionally romanticized tale of rappers who gain fame (“Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous”). But there’s also “Peel Their Caps Back” and the grisly sonic joke of “Black’n’Decker.” The Rhyme Syndicate’s cool, subtle samples, beats and smooth bass power Ice-T’s eminently listenable tunes. And tunes they are: from “Straight Up Nigga” to the metal anthem “Body Count” (which introduced the band Ice-T formed with a high- school friend, Ernie C) to “Shut Up, Be Happy,” in which Jello Biafra declaims martial law edicts over the ominous toll of “Black Sabbath,” each track of O.G. makes an indelible mark. Gangsta rap has since spiraled downward, but O.G. remains a classic of the genre.
Ice-T entered the 1990s with a bang — literally. First, he released O.G. Original Gangster, the double-length album that remains the artistic peak of his career. A year later, he ignited one of the decade’s hottest controversies when his thrash-metal side band, Body Count, raised the hackles of police officers nationwide with the song “Cop Killer.” Ice-T’s brassy vocal delivery informed the West Coast rap style of artists ranging from Ice Cube to Coolio, but he has a better narrative sense than any of his competition. Moreover, Body Count bridged the gap between angry white suburban youth and inner-city blacks far more naturally than the previous (and often aesthetically superior) rock-rap collaborations of Run- D.M.C. and Aerosmith (“Walk This Way”) or Public Enemy and Anthrax (“Bring the Noise”).
There was no way Ice-T could keep that momentum going after the controversy surrounding “Cop Killer” led to the end of his major-label record deal. (The track was ultimately deleted from Body Count, which was reissued with a Hendrixized remix of The Iceberg‘s “Freedom of Speech” in its place.) Released on an independent label, his subsequent solo rap album, Home Invasion, is an uneven attempt at recreating the confident power of its predecessor. Ice-T, whose forte is spinning gritty tales that verge on poetry, had regressed to overly dramatizing his public relations fiascoes. Though Home Invasion is not a total throwaway, the good songs are few and far between.
The Body Count albums are spotty affairs. Ice-T and his band — guitarists Ernie C and D-Roc, bassist Mooseman (who would go on to work with Iggy Pop) and drummer Beatmaster “V” — understand the conventions of thrash- metal, but often go cartoonishly overboard with their lurching rhythms, chunky riffs and squalling guitar solos. Body Count’s metal isn’t as gratuitous or clueless as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funk, but it’s close. Like the Chili Peppers, Body Count cares about its chosen genre — even Ice-T’s first rap album sampled a Black Sabbath riff for its title song — and Body Count (which has a remake of the band’s eponymous song) does contain some hilariously taboo moments from the master of ceremonies. In “KKK Bitch,” Ice-T envisions doing the nasty with the daughter of a white supremacist; in “Evil Dick,” he describes what everyone knows but won’t admit — that the average male of our species is motivated not by his brain but by his gonads. The anger in Ice-T’s account of white reaction to black integration in “There Goes the Neighborhood” comes off entirely genuine, as do the reality scenarios of “Bowels of the Devil,” which puts your average death-metal band Satanic obsessions to shame. But the embarrassingly slick lead guitar instrumental “C Note” is, at best, a bad Eddie Hazel imitation. As for “Cop Killer,” it’s a piece of ugly but dread-effective fiction (“I got my ski mask on / This shit’s been too long / I got my twelve- gauge sawed off / I got my headlights turned off / I’m ’bout to bust some shots off / I’m ’bout to dust some cops off”) that frightened those whose abiding prejudices made them take it as a direct threat.
Born Dead repeats every lick, line and move of its predecessor — but with far less of Ice-T’s engaging humor. It could be a sophomore slump. Or it could be that Ice-T is best when he injects metal into his rap, not the other way around. What’s clear is that Ice-T, like his namesake (ghetto poet Iceberg Slim), is an intelligent storyteller with a lot to say. At his laziest, he reverts to tired locker-room humor; at his best, he provokes amped-up anger like nobody since the MC5.
The mid-’80s tracks on The Classic Collection document a whiny young rapper in search of a voice. The mixes are funkier, and producer Lee “D.J. Flash” Johnson relies more on straight turntable scratching than multi- tracking. Several of the selections (“6 In the Mornin’,” “Killers,” “Body Rock”) are among the cuts that first brought Ice-T to the public eye. A few are good if extremely dated-sounding, but nothing stands out in light of what would ultimately come from Los Angeles’ Original Gangster.