ICE-T: Reflections On A Life Of Lessons Learned

Millennium Magazine was granted an exclusive interview with Ice -T, The Grammy Award winning pioneer of Gangster Rap, record producer, and star of the Emmy Award winning series, ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’.  Now a record label mogul of Electronic Beat Empire (EBE Nation) with long time friend, producer and collaborator, Afrika Islam, Ice T reflects on his childhood, career, friends and family; From orphan, to a life of crime, to serving in the US army, to becoming a DJ, we learn all about the rise of Ice-T.

By Lauren Clarke-Bennett & Taylor Clarke-Bennett

Photography: Ron Contarsy for Highmark StudiosArt Director & Stylist: Ty-Ron Mayes ( Ty-Ron Mayes (Paper Faces)Photo Assistant: Sarkis Delimelkon

Ice-T wears a Balmain black and white sweater with jeans and cap by Body Count.

When Ice-T, born Tracy Lauren Marrow lost his mother at the age of 7 and then his father at 12 in 1971, the loss was more than a shock to say the least. The family was in a dilemma over what to do with the orphaned tween.

“I had an aunt that lived near my father in New Jersey but they decided to send me to another aunt in South Central, LA for the summer — then all my clothes showed up — I felt unwanted and I was pretty miserable,” Ice T said recently from his modern home in Englewood NJ that he shares with his stunning wife Coco Austin, their daughter Baby Chanel, and their two Bulldogs Maximus & Alexus.

Looking back at his youth, the one high-light for Ice was his cousin who thought of himself as Jimi Hendrix. He would walk around the house with scarves tied around his head, playing ‘air guitar’. “He had the radio station turned to KMET and KLOS and he wouldn’t let me touch his radio — I was force-fed rock ‘n’ roll!”

The kids Ice had hung out with in Newark, NJ where he was raised were listening to James Brown and he was listening to Black Sabbath, Mot The Hoople, Jethro Tull and Neil Young— so his exposure to music was quite diverse.

At age 17, Ice was ready to move on from his aunt’s house, so she transferred the $250 a month social security payment from his dad’s account over to him and he found an apartment for $100 a month. “I told her if she signed that check over to me she would never have to see me again,” Ice recalled.

With very little money left for food and other expenses, Ice started to pursue his passion for cars by doing auto body/fender work and then went to technical college learning how to paint and repair automobiles. “My love for cars came from my love for girls,” he said. “When I was in the 10th grade all the pretty girls would talk to you, all through the school day but then the guys with beautiful cars would pick them up outside of school — I said, ‘I got to get a car immediately!’” He understood especially in California, “vehicles rule — girls don’t want to walk nowhere.” Ice would customize cars; building and fixing ‘Low Riders’ which he assumed would be his career.

“My first real role models were gangsters and the drug dealers in South Central — that’s who had it. There were no lawyers or doctors that I knew but there were plenty of players, drug dealers and hustlers — they had everything,” He wanted the flashy cars, unlimited money and the girls. “There’s a reason that the criminal lifestyle is so romanticized in movies and television, until you get caught it’s pretty exciting.” He recalled, “Until you go to jail or die, which we call the B side of the game, it sometimes takes a while for it to sink in because the group of people you’re rolling with have to hit this threshold, then they start getting caught and killed.”

Ice maintains that kids steal out of the cooky jar because they get away with it and only when they hit that threshold do they get sloppy with too many people knowing their business — then they’re doomed. “Me as an old man — I could tell you point blank it’s not the move cause now I have the data to prove that none of my friends either made it out alive or they wound up in prison doing life sentences,” Ice reflects. “So now I could actually tell you, you’re not gonna win, it’s statistically impossible but from the other side of the game you don’t see it.”

Ice-T wears a Balmain black and white sweater with jeans and cap by Body Count.

He believes that people hear what they want to hear and people see what they want to see. “Before we do stupid things we justify the stupid things we’re about to do — that makes it OK for us to do it.” First Ice had to idolize that lifestyle, then he started to work his way in — and the streets are an equal opportunity employer. “There is no dress code, you don’t need an education, you’ll be taught how to do it, so it’s easy to get involved — all you need is the desire and nerves.” Ice adds, “You don’t see kids that are going to Harvard Law School robbing liquor stores, because they have an option of having a great life. But if you don’t have any real future and are coming home with nothing … jail may not be that bad.” Ice laments. “There’s that point in a young man’s life when you feel you can do time and that’s when they are very dangerous — in that 15 to 25 year old zone, they feel they could do 10 years but when they’re 40 to 50 years old, 10 – 20 years is a life sentence.”

For self preservation reasons, Ice never did drugs, never smoked tobacco or weed and never drank alcohol. Being an orphan if he went down he’d be out.

“You always have to know that you can aim straight not because I’m a tough guy but because I was the only guy — I was by myself — nobody had my back — I had friends, but I didn’t have a family to go to if I was broke,” said Ice, now celebrating Law & Order: SVU’s 21st season.

So at 19 he was already out there taking risks and trying to live that lifestyle but two things changed him; one he had a daughter right out of high school so at that point he tried to change, and two he went into the army for four years. Luckily for Ice he had a sergeant who had a profound effect on his life. One day in formation the sergeant barked, “You’re here because you can’t make it in civilian life.” Ice was shaken. “A lot of people are all into positive reinforcement with their kids but sometimes a good negative slug in the gut like saying, ‘You’re going to be a loser if you keep doing what you’re doing’, works — it worked for me.” Ice divulged. He thought he was a winner, then he was told he couldn’t make it in civilian life? “A lot of people’s success stories are based on proving others wrong — that’s what makes them go.”

While in the army Ice bought some stereo equipment with all the intentions of coming back to LA to be a DJ and promoter.

Ice-T wears a Balmain black and white sweater with jeans and cap by Body Count.

“There were people like Uncle Jam’s Army and Bay Five throwing parties — they would get a couple thousand kids in a club and make a nice check playing electronic dance music.” Ice said. “Hip-Hop hadn’t really come to LA at that time but the Sugar Hill Gang had just broken in New York.”

When he was discharged from the Army, Ice still had to care for his daughter. “At the time my friends who had been small time criminals had elevated their game — they were into robbing banks, jewelry stores and credit unions,” he said, “Their concept was, ‘As long as we’re doing it with insurance companies then there’s no problem. If you took the businesses for $100,000 they would claim they were robbed for $500,000 and tell the authorities the robbery was done by a bunch of white guys — and everybody wins’.” Ice and his cohorts believed if you robbed a hard-working person, that was evil and somebody could get hurt. He was playing the game and felt pretty confident that, that was going to make him his million dollars so he could retire. “I didn’t realize how much money it took to live like I do now… my money numbers were way off.”

Ice was involved in the gang world, wrote raps for them but was never in one — it was a political move. “There were four gangs so I figured that if I joined one gang I’d have three of them against me so I became friends with the shot callers; the leaders of the gangs, so if I’m cool with the leader of the gang, I might as well be the leader of the gang.” As a lot of the kids in the neighborhood became gangsters, Ice wanted to become a player, so he permed his hair, wore really nice clothes like Fila and had diplomatic immunity. “We were the hustlers, the ‘players’ we had the clothes we had the jewelry because we were robing everybody and we had the guns to sell, so the gangsters wanted what we had.” said Ice. “You had to know the dudes to go into the neighborhoods to get the girls and when the gangsters saw us we were the ice cream, they’d say, ‘Crazy Tray, man what y’all got?’”

Ice went on to define, “The difference between a gangster and a player is a gangster does things by force, and a player will play you out of it, making you feel like you want to do it.” The girls were the coldest players — people would think he was out pimping them. “But it wasn’t like that — the chicks weren’t out selling, they were much more scandalous than that — they would get your money one way or another — making you think they liked you.” Ice reminisced. “They hung with me by choice not by force and I would say if you want to go with them go ahead and they would say, ‘No Ice, I want to be with you’ and we would call that you refusing freedom.”

Ice was now entrenched in trying to become a DJ. “I found that by going in there and saying rhymes I was getting more attention then just DJing,” Ice recalled. “Then when I heard hip-hop I said, ‘I can do that’.” He then started rapping like New York rappers. “Get your hands up, party party!” He rapped, but his friends would ask him to, ‘Say that shit You be saying’. So Ice went on to make a record called, ‘Six In The Morning’ and that was the invention of the scandalous Gangster Rap. “I was inspired by Skooly D from Philly and after that everybody else came behind us— everybody was telling me to sell it and I said, ‘OK’ and it hit!”

Ice’s music evolved through the years because of his several different personalities; a dead serious side that can talk to you about political & social issues. There is the criminal Ice T that will tell you what it’s like to rob a bank. There is the sexual nasty Ice T and there’s the funny Ice T that is going to say things that bother you because he knows they bother you.

“I think the trick with my music is that I always tried to keep it with my age.” What Ice sung about at the age of 20 was from a 20-year-old’s perspective. Now he tells it from his six decades plus perspective. “I’ve always rapped to somebody that understood where I was coming from — I’m not trying to rap or act like I’m 18 now and I think the worst thing an artist can do is look for an audience.” His fan base has grown up and matured with him. “The same fans that enjoyed my gangster rap, now watch me on Law and Order SVU.” They have also enjoyed; several seasons of ‘Ice Loves Coco’, a reality TV show on E Channel that chronicled he and his wife’s life together with family, along with never ending press coverage.

Ice-T with his daughter Chanel Nicole.

Ice feels an artist just has to make their art and the audience finds them, otherwise it can come off as not authentic. “I think its important for humans to be honest — as soon as you start living for the audience — the Instagram pictures and all the likes, you can get caught in a trick bag and ruin your life… I’ve always respected real people just being real.”

When Ice started rapping in LA, there was a club called the Radio where Madonna played. It was a mecca for cutting edge music and it was were hip-hop artists & rappers would perform; many from New York City. “Now I had a Porsche — I had jewelry — I had good clothes and all these rappers from New York were like why do you want to rap? They weren’t making any money and they figured I had it all going on.” Ice eventually became friendly with DJ Afrika Islam (DJ/ Mr. X) and his crew. They were trying to pick his brain and figure out how he had all his money along with the girls, “And I was trying to pick their brains about hip-hop.”

In 1986 when he made the record ‘Six In The Morning’ and contacted Islam to help break it in New York City, Islam told Ice that he would take the record around but the radio stations would want to meet the artist. “So I came to New York and Islam was living in a tenement, but because he was such a high ranking DJ, I met all the rappers from the top down.” Islam who would go on to produced Ice’s next three gold and platinum rap albums, secured a record deal for Ice with Sire Records owned by Seymour Stein. “Then Islam said, I’ve got to go on to Japan and wound up in Europe producing other people and spinning techno music.” There, Islam hooked up with a DJ named Mr. Y and started performing as ‘Mr. X and Mr. Y’.

Ice-T with long time friend Afrika Islam.

When Islam called to tell Ice he was ready to come back to the US, he stated, “I know the whole techno music DJ thing and I want to come back.” Ice responded with, “OK — I’m up a bit and this is full circle.” Then the friends created the Electronica Beat Empire (EBE) record label which for now is just a laptop. Islam Afrika has the DJ and producer skills with the music being techno with flavor. “We are black people so we’re going to do it a little bit more funky.” Ice mused. “You can put out records by yourself now, so why wait around for other people to say. ‘I’ll put you out’.”

For this business venture Ice is pretty much the owner and the financier. “At the end of the day we hope to have more artists and a sound that is unique to us,” Ice disclosed. “So we’re just getting started — we are getting Mr. X out there playing in some of the festivals — inserted into the music landscape. I could perform but that’s only if Mr. X thinks so.” Ice emphatically insists, that this is not his brain-child, it’s Afrika’s idea but of course he is there to help and feels he is not knowledgeable enough to be able to produce. “As far as the artists they would want to sign, they would need to be great!”

The music they are looking to produce will not only be techno EDM but fused with hip-hop and singer songwriter. “The longer I’m involved in the EDM world I’ll probably be able to make an EDM record — maybe the best EDM record ever made but not yet — I don’t know that much,” said Ice. “And you never know what is going to be a hit now — you make it and you put it out and you love it, then hopefully other people like it.” What’s new about EBE Nation is that they’re bringing new players into the game from different places and they have a strong powerful producer, Afrika, who actually understands the techno backwards and forwards. “We’ve put out a bunch of mixes already but we’re really just getting started,” Ice adds. ” Our thing is Techno DJ, then we’re going to figure out where this thing goes from there.”

Where does Ice think the music industry is heading? “If I knew where it was going I’d get there and wait on everybody.” He agrees that live performances are incredibly important because you cannot reproduce the experience and music now is a different commitment. “When an artist sold a 1 million records that meant that 1 million people had to get out of their cars, walk to the record store and buy that record but now people push a button and buy one song off of an album — there isn’t as much commitment to the artist,” Ice said. “I talk to artists who say they’re no longer going to make albums or EP’s, only singles and sell them for $.99.” Unfortunately in this environment people invest a lot of time and money into entire albums and maybe one or two songs off the album get played.

“However music is something that you should create because you love it not because you think you’re going to make an income off of it. That’s why I just made a new rap song but I’m not expecting to make money from it — I do it because I love it!”

“In five years I see myself hopefully breathing — just being alive is important! At this point in my life I am actually someone who has done everything that I’ve wanted to do on my bucket list,” said Ice. “EBE Nation is an extra inning — I’ve created these new things I didn’t even know I wanted to do — Just to stay awake. This company is about the creation of another arm of Ice-T helping my friend — this is about a friend who has gone off to become an expert and Islam needs to be seen and heard — America deserves it! If he was wack I’d be like fuck that — I’ve got 100 friends that have an idea and I say no you don’t…go away!”