Ice-T: From Rap to Riches

The matte black machine gun might be a prop. Maybe it's a souvenir from New Jack City or Ricochet, the Joel Silver action film Ice-T just finished shooting with Denzel Washington. Then again, it could be the real thing. Hell, I figure, the rapper/actor is from gang-infested South Central Los Angeles. His songs chronicle a life of crime. He probably knows his way around automatic weaponry. Gun in hand, walking with a cat burglar's grace through his pristine Hollywood Hills home, Ice-T leads me into a seemingly virginal kitchen and pops open a white formica cupboard door. All doubt about the authenticity of his high-powered firearm is instantly erased: stashed where the cups and saucers should be is enough ammo to take out every studio executive in town.

Ice-T looks through the weapon's infra-red sight. Tight black jeans and a cherry-colored Caesars Palace sweat shirt hug his body as he takes aim, presses the trigger, and blasts the air with, thankfully, his voice rather than a deadly rat-a-tat-tat. "Before the producers of Breakin' happened to see me rapping and cast me in that flick, I was deep up in the crime thing--and being pretty successful at it," says Ice, of the days preceding his unlikely cinematic debut in 1984, back when he was still unknown outside of Compton's local music/crime scene. "I was into robberies, burglaries, jewelry store heists. I did any hustle I could make money with and figured I'd do that for the rest of my life."

It wound up taking seven years for Ice-T to actually make it as a rap star, so it's hardly surprising that crime seemed a more direct route to riches. "At first I didn't even want to be serious with showbiz," he says, remembering that his earliest stab at recording netted all of $20. "Then my crew told me to give it a shot, I was supposed to join them for a heist in Palm Springs, but met with the producers of Breakin' instead. That's why I still feel an allegiance to the street and stay in touch with those guys, many of whom are up in the penitentiary. You know, it wasn't no cop or social worker who said, 'C'mon, Ice, you can do it.'"

Much to Ice-T's surprise, rhyming and acting rather than criming and scamming are what brought him his slice of homeboy heaven less than a year ago. Located on a hill overlooking the Sunset Strip, the sprawling single-level house that Ice-T shares with his wife, Darlene, is all white paint and black leather, with splashes of chrome and glass and lacquer. Light, airy and comfortable, it's the elegant opposite of the living conditions that Ice-T spent his youth in.

"The house is a great thing," Ice says, as if realizing it for the first time. "A place like this is the goal of every gang kid in South Central--but they expect to get it by stealing. Luckily I discovered that the system can be pimped." He glances through the windows that dominate the width of a wall and offer a city-wide view of Los Angeles. Admiring the vista on this smog-free afternoon, he marvels, "This is cool at night; when everything is all lit up, my living room's better than any seat at Yamashiro."

Besides, the hilltop Japanese eatery lacks Nintendo for those times when the view gets tiresome. Ice-T's got a whole room dedicated to the video game. Titles such as SEGA's ESWAT (City Under Siege), Altered Beast and Golden Axe are currently in heavy rotation. Gold records cover the walls and a few touring souvenirs occupy a small shelf above the TV. "Those are little Japanese temples that I bought in Tokyo," he says referring to a pair of fragile, palm-size dojos. "The dog in there looks like my pit bull."

Alongside the temples rests a bottle of what Ice-T classifies as "interesting alcohol." A white skull dominates the label of this German vodka called Black Death. Ice-T admires the drink recipe on the hack--Skull Blanket: one shot of Black Death vodka-- and wonders; "What the fuck is it? And, more importantly, who the fuck would drink something like that?" He waits for an answer, none comes, and he continues: "I'll tell you who. Me and my crew. We said that when we sell a million records, somebody will drink this shit in the middle of Crenshaw Boulevard butt-naked. He'd just stand out there with nothing on him but the bottle."

En route to a look-see in the bedroom, we pass a bookcase. Along with a collection of novels by Iceberg Slim (a pimp turned writer who inspired Ice's early rhymes as well as his name), it features titles that test the First Amendment. "Check this out," says Ice, shifting into his deviant librarian mode and gesturing toward volumes like The Anarchist Cookbook and How to Make a Disposable Silencer. "Then, in case you get caught using that shit, you're gonna need to read Street law. And if you don't have this one, well, you're really in trouble: How to Hide Anything. It tells you how to put a fake tree in your backyard with a pipe running below it." He hesitates for a moment, reaches for a stack of magazines and says, "But here, this is what I really read: Nintendo. You play this stuff, and when you can't win, you need some help."

Ice's bedroom is as high tech and leathery and, well, new as the rest of the house. Soloflex exercise equipment is scattered around like abstract sculpture. A pair of 9mm pistols ("his and her guns," says a gleeful Ice) rest on the night table. A mirror hangs from the ceiling above the leather-rimmed king-size bed, and the lens of a camcorder is aimed at the mattress's sweet spot. Referring to the latter accoutrements, Ice ex-plains: "Those are here to keep me home at night Some-times I might want to go out and party, but these items encourage a high enough activity level that there's no need to."

Back in the living room, Ice is dying to show off his newest gadget. Inside a little closet loaded with 8mm videos--Basket Case, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer ("The illest movie I ever saw," exclaims Ice), Shocker and the like-- is a control panel. "Trip on this," Ice says, flipping a switch so that a screen comes down from the ceiling and an accompanying video projector drops into place. "If I wasn't married, tell me that this wouldn't get me some pussy. You know the drill, after you watch something on the screen, everything slides back up, and the mirror in the bedroom comes into play."

Ice sends the video rig out of sight and flicks another switch that activates the sound system. A rough mix of his new record, O.G. (Original Gangster) pumps through a pair of Bose speakers propped on spindly six-foot high legs. Sitting on his black leather sectional couch that curves around a glass cocktail table supported by a crouching black panther, Ice regales me with a tale or two from his teenage street days. He mentions an episode that ended in a motel room with two armed tough guys and $400,000 in fives and tens on the bed, then shakes his head and concludes: "You got to stay out of that shit unless you're willing to play the whole game. That means kidnapping people, killing them, whatever it takes. You can't impose limits upon yourself unless you want to get taken out." For a moment Ice-T appears to con-template his own mortality. He somberly adjusts the bill of his cap--with a Ricochet logo on the front and the sprig of a ponytail in back--which causes a sleeve to hitch up and reveal a fat gold Rolex. "Don't fuck with crime. It's not the game you want to play."

I assure him that the game never appealed to me at any level, though the conversation leaves me curious about how Ice-T looks at Hollywood. The place is filled with legions of fake tough guys--people like Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal. Ice is one of the few who've managed to parlay actual street credibility into a career. It started with Breakin', continued when Dennis Hopper commissioned him to write the theme song for Colors, and has expanded in a big way with New Jack City and Ricochet.

I wonder how much of what we see on screen is Ice-T and how much is a scripted character. "It's mostly me on screen," Ice replies without missing a beat "I just say the lines and act the way I am. That's one reason why portraying an undercover cop [in New Jack City] was a stretch for me. I had nightmares about playing that role. I thought my fans would figure I had sold out. They know I'm a hero of the people. But a hero of the system? I figured they'd think Ice-T's gone over the edge. He's squared up. But t had friends on death row, and they said, 'Yo, Ice, don't hold your ideals so high.' So far there's been no backlash."

If anything, Hollywood's been courting Ice-T. And with all the talk about a black film renaissance, it's clear that Ice could find himself in big demand as the slick, urban heavy--sort of the film equivalent of his rap persona. That's not lost on Joel Silver, the producer who seems poised to take the tyro actor under his wing. "Joel is cool," states Ice. "Right now he says he's developing a character for me. He knows I can handle it. When we were working on Ricochet, Joel came up to me and said, 'Hey, Ice, you're Denzel's homeboy. I don't have to tell you how to dress, how to talk.' There were no read-throughs, no practices, no rehearsals. It was more like, You're gonna say this line and we're gonna blow up $10-million worth of shit, so say the motherfuckin' line right!'"

As our conversation winds down, members of the Rhyme Syndicate (Ice-T's music production posse) restlessly roam in and out of the house, mostly repairing to what had once been maid's quarters and is now Ice's office. The room's dominated by computer equipment, framed album covers, and a 28-inch Trinitron tuned to the Surveillance Channel--Ice-T's camera monitoring the front gate of the house. Occasionally glancing at the screen, the Syndicate members chomp down chili dogs from Pink's and rehash past run-ins with sheriffs and police officers. I have the distinct impression that I'm the only one in the room who's never been fingerprinted.

Ice's current crowd, it turns out, is not all that different from the gang he ran with a decade ago. The reasoning seems to be that if you can't trust a guy who hacked you up in a successful armed robbery, who can you trust? But it goes even deeper than that. "This business called show business is a perfect transition for a criminal," Ice maintains. "Everybody in this business is doing some kind of rip-off or scam. I did a recording deal with a guy once, and he said, Hey, Ice, you got a lot of spunk. Did you go to business college?' I said, 'No, man, I learned what I know from selling hand grenades in alleys.' " His homeboys get a big kick out of that and keep right on laughing as Ice-T adds, "Explosives, show-biz...It's all the same thing."


Michael Kaplan wrote about Sylvia Miles in our March issue.