We spoke to Ice-T, the original gangsta

Ice-T’s metal band Body Count is playing Heavy Montreal this weekend, and we were lucky enough to speak to the rapper/rocker/actor last week. Here’s part 1 of our conversation.


Body Count

The first tape I ever bought with my own money was Ice-T’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say. I was 11 and I remember the car ride home from the mall, with my headphones on, riding shotgun with Mom. I stole a glimpse at the sleeve art: a black man in a Raiders cap with double barrels to both ears and one in the mouth.

The intro track looped Sabbath’s “N.I.B.” as a narrator declared martial law to kick off the cassette. I’d recognize the song and the voice (Ice-T cohort and ex-Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra) years later, when I turned my back on hip hop for a while and became that rock kid. That happened around the same that Ice-T, ever the pioneer back then, released the first Body Count record, becoming the first MC to get on a hardcore/metal project.

For all the shit he caught for obscenity on his rap records — which were lewd, crude, violent and groundbreaking — nothing would hold a candle to facing a boycott by the police union and the NRA in the wake of lead single “Cop Killer” catching the wrong sheriff’s attention. It seems quaint now, but it was a huge deal back then. Ice-T, a spokesperson for free speech, had to cave and pull the track from the record to save his friends’ livelihoods.

He got called a lot of names. He gave no fucks. That’s probably why he is still here today. And so it is that I have the great privilege of sharing this conversation I had last week with Ice-T as he prepares to drop a new Body Count record (Manslaughter), bringing his band to Heavy Montreal on Sunday.

Here is part one of my interview with the Original Gangsta.


Darcy MacDonald: How are you today man?

Ice-T: Ah, you know, we out here on tour baby, so I’m in the tour groove right now. I’m at the hotel, ‘bout to go to a show, so I can’t complain at all.


DM: Why is now the time to get Body Count back together and on the road?

Ice-T: There’s no special answer to that. The band was ready to go. They called me last summer about making another record. I was willing, but I just said we need a record label and the advantages (that brings), and we need to have a good producer. I didn’t have any desire to make a half-assed record so I just said we need to get back to the old way, we gotta all be in one place.

All of a sudden, Sumerian stepped up — Ash (Avildsen, label founder) said he wanted to deal. And we were able to get together last summer and write the record in Las Vegas. We got a great producer, Will Putney, who produces lots of great bands, and he gave us a really nice, tight sound on the album. It just happened — no particular timing or reason.


DM: How long have you been on the road for and how have the shows been going?

Ice-T: We’re past the halfway mark on the tour, we’re about 20 shows in. It’s great. It’s great! You got your old-school Body Count fans but we’re really out on the festival circuit to get the new fans, and they’re falling right in line. I believe good music is good music and it’s also timeless. When an 18-year old hears “Cop Killer” live for the first time, he knows that’s a good song, you know? Like, “Yo – that shit’s badass!”

We’re out there trying to regain our position in the game. If you go to my Twitter page, I’ve been posting pictures every day, and there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of people just lovin’ it. We’re very happy.


DM: The last time I saw you was a rap show here in 2007. When it comes to those types of shows, do you tour, or do spot dates, or a mix of both?

Ice-T: When you’re doing Law & Order, you can only work on the weekends. They have you on the set five days a week so you can’t tour. But I can perform anywhere in the country on a Saturday night and be back for my day job. So I’ve been doing lots of one-offs, lots of hosting gigs, with me and my wife, we do that a lot, we do a lotta Ice-T shows. Body Count is a bigger machine. We started with the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Texas this year, and we been getting in a lotta gigs. So we plan on doing that throughout the year, doing a lotta spot gigs and then leading up to where next year, we’ll probably tour Europe.


bc350DM: What are the different demands and challenges in doing the rap show versus the Body Count show?

Ice-T: Body Count is more people. Body Count, you’re playing live instruments. Whereas the rap show, it’s two tracks – the DJ spins two tracks and I just rap over it. So there’s less potential for a fuck-up. With rock, everybody has to play the instruments. We’re not out there doing playback, we’re actually playing live. Now I was not aware that a lotta rock bands out there now are actually doing playback. We don’t do that.


I mean, I think that’s the intrigue of what watching a live show is, actually watching people play their instruments. So that kinda caught me off-guard when I became aware rock bands were doing that now. Like, “Wow, that’s kind of a letdown.” But we don’t. We’re just out there having a blast.

It’s a lot more people. You got drum techs, you got guitar techs. It’s more personnel. With Ice-T, me and Evil E just show up and do the show. Also, with rock, you got mosh pits and a much more different type of an audience. But it’s all fun. I’m in a beautiful place because I get to live and do all this stuff. And no one else really gets to have as much fun as me. (laughs)


DM: What were some of the pros and cons of coming up in rap around the alt and punk scenes on the West Coast in the late ’80s/early ’90s, as opposed to if you had been closer to the core and rap’s golden age on the East Coast?

Ice-T: I think it’s all pros. If I had come from the East Coast, it probably would have been harder for me to come out because I don’t know if I would have been unique. I think what gave me an edge in the rap scene was being unique, coming from the West Coast, and having other musical influences, and a rock understanding gave my rap music a little bit of a different flare. I think we are the sum of our experiences. My experiences led me to be how I am and I wouldn’t change any of it, it’s just how it is. Me being a West Coast artist and knowing I had to fight to get into hip hop made me try to be that much tighter, or at least that much more different, you know?


DM: I was reminded the other day, watching the “Lethal Weapon” video, and all the L.A. scene people in there: Dirty Walt from Fishbone is in that, (Body Count guitarist, pre-band) Ernie C is there, and so on. When I was a kid, I didn’t know who all those people were and I didn’t care. Just seeing an Ice-T video was a big deal. Now you look and it’s so indicative of where it came from. And this is before we had the idea of a West Coast rap scene. It kinda blew me away.

Ice-T: Well, there was also…especially with that “Lethal Weapon” video, they told us we couldn’t play it to a rock audience, and I was like “Nah, we can rock any crowd.” That was me saying that hip hop is rock. It’s all the same. It’s just a matter of what level of energy you’re pushing off of that stage. And that was waaaay before Body Count. So we were bubblin’ back then, we knew what we were trying to do, but we just didn’t know that it was gonna turn out to be Body Count.


DM: When you look at what they call the iPod Generation, it really seems borderless. When I was a kid it was like “Yo, I like rap music, fuck that metal noise” or “Fuck your stupid hip hop, I like rock!” There was that mentality. It seems to be gone now, and kids go from genre to genre in a click.

Does that make it harder to break through, be that for yourself or a new artist, or with old music or new? Or does it level the playing field to deal with an audience that is perhaps less judgmental nowadays ?

Ice-T: I think it’s good to remove the barricades between the music. Early in when (Body Count) did Lollapalooza, that’s what that was about. Because the artists, you know, we listen to everything. So for the fans to separate themselves, that’s just them not knowing. Like I was just up in Connecticut, working with Hatebreed. People don’t know, like, they hear “Hatebreed” and it’s like, “That sounds like the Klan!” Then they turn around and see me and (frontman) Jamey Jasta are like best friends. So then it’s like, “Maybe I can like Ice-T.”

The only thing I see going on with this new generation is it’s also the free music generation. You have a free audience. Everything you do is free. Your website is free, you’re tweeting for free. We have a saying: “Your free audience will kill you.” Because you get millions of people but then the second you ask them for a dollar, they act like you turned on ‘em! “What?! What?!?! You want me to pay $10 for an album! How dare you?” It’s kinda like you got this whole generation that’s used to getting everything for free. Or they’ll buy two or three songs for 99 cents and not get the whole album.

So it’s a different world and I think it makes it harder for the artist to drive revenue. I used to sell half a million records in three weeks. That doesn’t happen at all now. It’s hard.


DM: I remember when I saw you in ’07, you had a free one out and you told us, the audience, “I can give it away for free because I’m on TV, muthafuckas!” And at the time that was a statement, but that’s a long enough time ago that the culture of free music has even evolved a lot since.

Ice-T: I’ll say my theory on free music backfired on me! (laughter) Because at that time, yeah, I wasn’t really eating off of the rap music, and of course I got the day job and I could give you a free record and stuff.

But now, actually putting a new record out and watching how hard it is to sell it, it immediately makes me understand what the new artist is going through. They’re really struggling hard and busting their ass. So maybe that was a statement made out of ignorance. Maybe I can do it — but everybody else can’t. And I shouldn’t be so arrogant to say I can do it. I was lucky.

See, when I make music, I’m 100 per cent an artist. I focus on this world. When I’m acting, I focus on that world. Now, kinda having an active record out…thank God I’m on television! (laughs) Thank God I got a day job!

But I believe with enough touring and enough gigging, you can get your numbers up. You’re not gonna get ‘em up like the old days, like the Beastie Boys moving 10 million records. It’s different now.


DM: I think back then it was fair of you to take that approach. We didn’t have people getting famous off of YouTube yet. The idea of an established artist giving something away for free was special then. I wouldn’t say it backfired, but rather that the bigger picture of what it would become wasn’t clear yet to the industry.

Ice-T: The bigger picture wasn’t clear, no. And the other thing is, the Internet has diluted music because there’s so many fucking groups out. There was a time when you had to get a record deal and have a label because no one could afford to make records. Now of course it’s good you don’t have to have it, but you’re also thrown into the pile with 10 million groups out, every day, giving away free music. It’s really hard to rise to the top of that heap and become an artist that people will spend a dollar on. The thing of it is, I’m in a band now with five guys. I don’t need the money — they need the money! It’s not like I can be like, “Hey, I got a job!” I got four other guys waitin’ on a royalty cheque. ■


See part 2 of our this interview with Ice-T, wherein we discuss the rapper’s continued dedication to the culture of hip hop, free speech in the digital age and his new podcast, Final Level, here