We’ve Got A File On You: Ice-T
The actor and musician on "Cop Killer," the late Riley Gale, SVU, Analog Brothers, video games, Breakin', and much more.
Ice-T is in jail — kind of. “I’m incarcerated right now,” the 62-year-old actor and musician says with a wide grin when he pops up into my Zoom room, with a custom background that makes it look like he’s in a grody jail cell. “This is the background I put up to signify being on quarantine.” In reality, when we spoke last week he was in the midst of a marathon of interviews scheduled during a day off from shooting Law And Order: SVU, which he’s starred on for over two decades straight. His press schedule was so jam-packed that, three-quarters into our conversation, he briefly vanished after his laptop died because he forgot to plug it in earlier.
Obviously, Ice-T is always on his grind; regularly acting on a network TV show for more than two decades is proof enough of that. But even if Ice wasn’t an SVU regular, his career would be undeniably impressive. Born Tracy Marrow in 1958, he’s made hit records in the rock and rap arenas, collaborated with an array of legends across genre, and has one of the most perfect Twitter accounts in existence. His long-running metal band Body Count is up for a Grammy this year for their latest album, Carnivore. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed, and even though we could’ve talked for hours longer than the time allotted, in that time he shared plentiful insight and informative anecdotes as we traipsed through the myriad benchmarks of his storied career.
ICE-T: There was a club in Los Angeles called The Radio. It was one of the early hip-hop clubs that was done in the underground scene, with white kids that were getting into hip-hop. We had Madonna show up there, Adam Ant, Malcolm McLaren — it was a very cool crowd. These producers walked in there and saw the breakdancers and rappers and said, “We’re gonna make a movie.” So they literally used everybody that was in there — Shaba Doo, Boogaloo Shrimp. I happened to be the guy onstage that was the MC in the real club, so I got cast in the movie. I’m called “Featured Rap Talker” in the movie. [Laughs] They didn’t even know what rap was. They put me into wardrobe, and it was more flamboyant than how we were really livin’. They didn’t want to keep it raw, they wanted a little more colorful. It was my introduction to film.
STEREOGUM: You’ve said in the past that you weren’t happy with your performance in Breakin’ or the sequel.
ICE-T: Well, I don’t think I was a good actor yet. I was starting out, and I was young. There’s very few actors who are gonna look back at their first performance and say, “Wow, I was right in there.” It’s called payin’ your dues. You’re growing and learning as an artist. I watched Breakin’ 2, me out there singin’ for the Miracles, and it was kinda corny. [Laughs] At the time, it was cool though. A lot of people try to ask me, “Oh man, I saw you in Breakin’,” and I say, “Before you say anything, I want to see a picture of what you looked like when your mother took you to see that movie. You had the same parachute pants, so shut up.” [Laughs]
ICE-T: At that time, I was underground. I was selling a nice amount of records, but not nationally. I’d already transferred from being on the streets and making money illegally to making record money, so I was done with my previous stuff. I had an album out already on Warner Bros. called Rhyme Pays, and a song called “Squeeze The Trigger.” Warner Bros. were doing the soundtrack to Colors, so they said, “We’d like to use ‘Squeeze The Trigger.'” Somebody told me, “You can ask them to see the movie if they want to use your record.” I was gonna give them my record regardless, but I wanted to flex a little bit, so they let me go see the movie.
I saw what it was about, and I said afterwards, “You got a title song?” “Yeah, Rick James did it.” Now, rest in peace Rick James, but there was a song on the soundtrack’s B-side called “Colors” by Rick James. It’s awful. [Sings] “Look at all these colors!” I’m like, “No, Rick, I got this.” So I went into the studio with my producer at the time, Afrika Islam, and we recorded the title song. Coming from LA, knowing the gang world, I laid down that song. It got an MTV Award and we broke nationally. That record told the world that there was a guy named Ice-T, and to this day I still close my show with “Colors.”
“Superfly 1990” With Curtis Mayfield (1990)
ICE-T: All of Ice-T’s early music used the bedrock of blaxploitation films. Paid Da Cost To Be Tha Boss, Black Ceasar. They knew that I lived in that element, so they say, “We’re gonna do ‘Superfly 1990,’ and Curtis Mayfield wants you to be involved.” I was just honored. Hey, you can like them, but don’t mean they gotta like you, you, know what I’m sayin’? I can be a fan of you, but you don’t gotta be a fan of me. To have the mutual appreciation blew me away. Right when I was getting ready to do the song, he had his accident. Some lights fell on him. I was unable to actually work with him, so all I could do is just lay the track. Unfortunately, I never actually got to work with the man. But it was planned that I was gonna. It just didn’t happen.
LL Cool J Beef (1988-1990)
ICE-T: I was coming out of LA, and the key to hip-hop is that you have to win your area. When you’re a rapper, first you rep your neighborhood, then you rep your city. Most rappers are reppin’. Jay-Z is Marcy Projects. LL at the time was already saying he was the greatest rapper alive. Well, how am I gonna come out of the West Coast and allow that to happen? I gotta say, “I don’t think so.” I’m trying to get my name out there! So you attack the GOAT, the big guy. We went back and forth, it never got aggressive or violent.
Hip-hop is music and a sport. A lot of great battles in hip-hop came from one person talking about the other one, because that’s the culture. “My DJ’s better than yours, my graffiti’s better than yours, our MCs are better than yours.” And if you listen to most early rap, it’s every rapper saying, “I’m the best.” The battle is part of us. Now, having the battle translate to violence? That was never supposed to happen.
So me and L went back and forth, and then we agreed not to talk to each other, because Afrika Bambaataa stepped in. The Zulu Nation said, “Y’all can’t fight if you’re gonna be in the same organization.” It was nothing serious, just a little rap jousting. Now me and him are friends, it’s water under the bridge. He battled Kool Moe Dee — a lot of people battled LL Cool J, because he was so good.
New Jack City (1991)
ICE-T: That was my first role acting. I wasn’t acting in Breakin’ — I was singing a song or something. [New Jack City] just happened because there were a lack of Black actors at the time. Wesley Snipes had only done Major League and some theater, and they wanted a really hip, urban Scarface. So they looked over and said, “Well, Ice is a gangsta rapper but he’s also kinda conscious. He’s sold millions of records. It could work.” Chris Rock, he’s this young street comedian. So they had to pick from other lanes to bring us together in this movie. Judd Nelson’s been in a few movies too. All of us were new jacks.
When they asked me to do the movie, I was really excited, but then I found out I had to play the police. I was like, “I got an album called Original Gangsta! What do you want me to do?” They wanted me to wear dreads, and I was like, “I got a perm, what the fuck!” I was really distraught over making that movie, but I knew it was an opportunity. I used to go get my hair done at this spot, and the girls in there said, “Ice, you guys always complain about opportunities, and now you have an opportunity. If you don’t take that opportunity, you’re a real-life sucker. This is a chance. We already know you ain’t the police! Fuck it, go for it!”
I did the movie, and it was a huge success. I always tell people that I made $23,000 — I worked for scale and the movie made $87 million. Welcome to Hollywood. It got me through the door, and it got me more and more films.
STEREOGUM: You sampled Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin on this song. Tell me about that track and your love of rock music.
ICE-T: I’ve always liked rock music. My mother died when I was in third grade, my father died when I was in seventh grade, and I was shipped to live in Los Angeles with my aunt. I had a cousin who thought he was Jimi Hendrix, even though he couldn’t play any instrument. His name was Earl. He’d tie scarves around his knees and play air guitar. He kept the radio locked to KMET and KLOS, which were the two LA radio stations that played metal and rock. So I was force-fed rock. I know everybody from ELO to J. Geils Band to Edgar Winter to Boston to Iron Maiden to Traffic to — I could do classic rock with the best of ’em. Blue Oyster Cult.
I started to get into the heavier stuff, and I liked Black Sabbath. I was probably the only kid in my high school to know about these records. I always tell people, “You may not know reggae, but if you work at a restaurant and they play reggae music all day, eventually you’re gonna pick out your favorite songs from the playlist.” That’s how music is. If you listen to it enough, you’ll be like, “I like this one.” So when I got the chance to make my first album, I used the hook from “War Pigs” on “Rhyme Pays.” I’d always put guitar hits on top of the records, and I always knew that metal worked with hardcore rap. So by the time we got to “Midnight,” we just laid “When The Levee Breaks” — which had been used already by Beastie Boys — and Black Sabbath on top of it, and I told my stories. And it worked, and I perform that in concert.
Body Count’s “Cop Killer” (1992)
STEREOGUM: How do you think this song would be received if you released it today?
ICE-T: I wouldn’t release that song today, because right now people take shit too literally, and I wouldn’t want nobody to go out there and kill no cops. People are too active right now, so it would look like I was trying to trigger people to go kill somebody. When I did it, there were no protests. That record was at least two years before Rodney King. So I was just kind of predicting.
The story of “Cop Killer” starts with the song “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads. I go in the rehearsal hall and I’m singing [sings chorus of “Psycho Killer”]. My drummer, Beatmaster V — rest in peace — he said, “We need a cop killer.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “The cops did this and that, and if somebody started taking off on these cops, maybe they’d calm the fuck down.” My brain went off and I said, “What if somebody snapped based on police brutality and went after them?”
So I created this character, and little did I know this guy would become a hero. They were attacking me saying the song was about killing cops. The song wasn’t, “Lets go cop killin’,” or, “You should go cop killin'” — it’s a song about a character. And it’s a protest record. “Cop killer/ It’s better you than me/ Cop killer/ Fuck police brutality.” That’s what the song is about. I think that record only needs to be made once. It’s done. If someone else did it, it’d be like, “Ice did that.” Certain things only need to be done once.
Making “Disorder” With Slayer For The Judgment Night Soundtrack (1993)
ICE-T: I got a call saying they were gonna do a mashup album connecting hip-hop people with metal. I’d always hated the term “rap-rock” because Body Count is rock. Even though on my last album I did “Colors” and “Six In The Morning” to metal, rap is funky — it’s different than rock. So I was like, “I got a rock band, how are we gonna do this?” And they said, “The metal bands picked who they wanted to work with, and Slayer wanted to work with you.” I was like, “Oh, hell yeah.” Slayer were one of my metal idols. I heard a lot of the early stuff. It was an honor.
I went to the studio, [Rick Rubin] was in there, [Tom Araya], [Kerry King]. We sung it side-by-side, it was amazing. Slayer doesn’t do duets with people, so it was dope. It was crazy, because the night we were there, we were watching TV and there were these racist kids on there with Slayer shirts. Kerry thought it was so funny that they were working with Ice-T now. “Get a load of this track!” Because they’re not racist at all. Later, on [Body Count’s 2017 album Bloodlust], we covered “Raining Blood.”
Doing Spoken-Word On Black Sabbath’s “The Illusion Of Power” (1995)
ICE-T: I admired Black Sabbath so much. The big riffs — if you listen to “There Goes The Neighborhood,” that’s Sabbath all day. Tony Iommi said, “Hey, I want you to produce this Black Sabbath album.” I was like, I’m a guitar player, I’m not gonna turn it down. I went to London, stayed with them, vibed with them, and helped them make the album. They had “Illusion Of Power,” and they were like, “We want Ice-T on it.” I did my little thing on it.
To be able to even work in the same world as some of these legendary bands — I mean, Ozzy wasn’t on that record, but it validates what you’re doing. I don’t just rap with anybody. I pick who I wanna fuck with, so to speak. People like Henry Rollins and Guns N’ Roses and Metallica validated Body Count at a time in which we might have even been questioning ourselves as far as how the metal world would accept us. But now that we got accepted by all the bosses? You can’t tell us shit. [Laughs]
Analog Brothers’ Pimp To Eat (2000)
ICE-T: Kool Keith and I have been friends since the beginning. When I came out to New York do do my first album, I met the Ultramagnetic MC’s. I am a person who’s a big fan of originality. If you sound like somebody else, you don’t get my full attention. But if I’m listening to you and I’m like, “I’ve never heard nothing like this”… My manager was connected to one of the first indie labels they were signed to, and that’s how I heard “Ego Trippin.'” I’m listening, and I’m like, “They’re talking about Run-DMC.” They’re down-low dissin’ Run-DMC! I thought it was clever, and they’d rap in a way where it didn’t rhyme in iambic pentameter. Then I met ’em, and they were the most outrageously strange motherfuckers ever. Ced Gee used to walk on stage with a house phone. I was like, “These are my friends.”
I became really close friends with Kool Keith, and he moved to LA. His cousin made an album in my studio, so we had all these people in my studio, and they were like, “Let’s just do an album since we’re always here.” This guy Rex did all the music, and they’d just come in and say, “Ice, you need 16 bars here, this that and the other.” The way Kool Keith raps is very outrageous, and all of us were trying to catch his vibe, which might’ve taken me a minute to do. That’s just how his brain works. [Laughs] He’s talking about reaching into Jennifer Lopez’s buttcrack with a Zorro sword. I’m like, “Who the fuck writes shit like this?” But this is Kool Keith’s brain!
For the Pimp To Eat album cover, we all dressed up in our pimp suits and went into the supermarket. The photographer said, “Act like you guys are stealing.” We all grab shit, he took the pictures, and they put space behind us. We named it Pimp To Eat because we figured that was the lowest form of pimping — you’re pimping just to eat. [Laughs] You’re just trying to get a meal off of pimping! Music is entertainment, and it should be fun. I always tell people in the entertainment business, if you’re not having fun, you’re missing the point. It’s a dream job, and when you get to do a collab like that, it’s fun and easy.
Law & Order: SVU (2000-Present)
ICE-T: My TV journey started because I had Fab 5 Freddy over my house in LA, and Andre Harrell got on the phone with Freddy — rest in peace, he recently passed away. He was a producer on New York Undercover, and he goes, “Hey, if you’re over there with Ice-T, tell him to be on my TV show.” I go, “Fuck your TV show! That’s a rip-off of New Jack City.” So he’s like, “Oh, you’re too big now that you’re in the Hollywood Hills?” I said, “Alright, give me a bad guy role and I’ll do it.” Actors want to go from one thing to the other. You don’t want to get caught up — it’s no fun after a while.
They had this role for this white cat selling meth, and they said, “We’ll flip it, you can do it.” First episode was so good, Dick Wolf said, “Will you stay and do two more episodes?” I did, and that led to me playing a gangster on his show Swift Justice, which led me to be in the Law & Order movie Exiled with Chris Noth. I played a pimp, they killed me with a bowling pin.
Then I get a call for SVU. I didn’t want to do it at the time. I was living in LA trying to create a digital record label. I knew about MP3s ahead of time. If you want to bug out, Google “Ice-T invents iTunes” and you’ll see me break down iTunes 10 years before iTunes. I knew it was gonna happen, and I never made a dime — but that’s another story. [Laughs] I got the call to do the show, and I said, “Ah, nah, I can’t go to New York.” They wanted me for four episodes, and my boys were like, “Go Ice, you love New York. We’re not gonna steal any money from you — we’re not making any money yet.”
I went, and four episodes turned into 21 years. It’s been a beautiful thing. It was something I never expected to be this stable and long-running. It’s such a great show to work on. One of my mottos is, “You don’t guide life — you ride life.” No one can tell where you’re gonna go and where you’re gonna end up, and now we’re on season 21.
STEREOGUM: Taylor Swift recently said she wanted to be a guest star on SVU.
ICE-T: That’ll happen. I got Snoop Dogg on there. I get a call from Snoop one day, and he goes, “Yo, Ice, O.G., I’m not gonna lie man, I never looked at your show. I start watching it the other day, and I watch 20 episodes, cuz. That shit’s hard as a motherfucker. Get me on there, O.G.!” And I was like, “Word? You wanna be on there?” So Ice went down to production and I threw his name in the hat. I said, “Hey, Snoop Dogg would like to be on the show.” Everybody knows who Snoop Dogg is, so five or six episodes later, out pops the script for Snoop. So, somebody like Taylor Swift, if you have that kind of profile, they’re gonna put you on the show. Also, she’s friends with Mariska, she was in the “Bad Blood” video — so that’s a no-brainer.
Body Count’s “Point The Finger” With Riley Gale (2020)
ICE-T: Usually, when we do collabs, it’s people we come in contact with while touring. We’ll be touring and someone will be like, “Yo, when you’re getting ready to make an album, call me. I got some ideas and I’d love to fuck with y’all.” I met Riley out on the road. We loved Power Trip, because they have a vibe like Body Count — they have big riffs and a big sound. So I see this little guy jumping up in the air and kicking, and I like him. I introduce myself and he’s like, “Oh shit, I know who you are.” We had a very interesting conversation, and he was like, “If you guys are doing any shows, put us on.”
When it was time to do our album, we said, “We’d love to collab,” and we got “Point The Finger” done together. Nowadays, you’re not in the studio together, so you send the tracks back and forth — but there were a lot of conversations, and then we made the video on iPhones, and I let everyone know it was a COVID video.
Body Count - Carnivore [LP]
When we shot the video, he looked healthy. It was a good vibe. That’s why I got blindsided when I got the call from his dad, who said that Riley passed away. Apparently, he was dealing with the same bullshit everyone is — this opioid stuff. He’d gotten clean, and when you relapse, you go back to the same dose you’re used to and it kills you. It was a really sad thing. Now we’re going up against Power Trip at the Grammys. That sucks. We were against Code Orange before, and Mastodon won.
Awards are like this: “Fuck the awards! Fuck Grammys! Oh, wait, I’m nominated? What am I gonna wear?” [Laughs] But you think of the thousands of people that make records, and just to be acknowledged is a win, especially alongside Riley. I probably have the last song he did. It’s bittersweet, as they say. He was just getting started, too.
Doing Voicework On Borderlands 3 (2020)
STEREOGUM: I poured hundreds of hours into Borderlands 3 this summer, and I didn’t even realize you were the voice of Balex until I was doing research for this interview.
ICE-T: [Laughs] I met [Gearbox head] Randy Pritchford at a magic show — I’m into magic. I said to him, “Oh, you do Borderlands, you should put me in the game.” I did that, and it was fun. I was recently in Gears Of War too. I didn’t die. People want Griffin back! Because in multiplayer, I got the best dialogue. I’m saying the worst shit. I smash people’s heads and say, “Now you look just like your mother.” I enjoy it. It’s another level of acting.
STEREOGUM: I also saw that tweet from way back when you were playing Fallout 4 in the hospital as Coco was giving birth.
ICE-T: You’ve been following me, huh? [Laughs] OK, yeah, that’s the truth. There’s this thing out there that says only nerds play video games. This stigma. And I don’t get that. Every tour bus I’ve ever been on had a video game. Every crack house I’ve ever been in had a fuckin’ video game console. I got turned on to video games by playing Resident Evil, walking around and shooting motherfuckers in the head with a shotgun. What part of Ice-T does that not connect with? “Oh, you’re not a gamer.” Why not? I had video games in my house. I had the actual arcade cabinet of Mortal Kombat in my house. I had NBA Jam. I had Virtua Fighter, which is a dope game. I’ve been playing video games since they came out, and I tell people that I play video games to prevent me from killing people in real life.
So, Fallout 4, RPG — you’re gonna play that shit and go on indefinitely. Some people go on that shit and just stay around to build fucking forts. You don’t have to do anything but go into that world and play. I was deep in, and Coco goes, “Hey, I think I’m gonna have the baby.” I grab my PlayStation, wrap it up, and brought it to the delivery room. I was like, “Yo, can I plug in?” They said, “We’ve never done this,” and I said, “I’m sure I can do it.” I got up there with my gadgets and I was ready to go.
When you play video games, time flies. You can be playing at 1 o’clock and look up and it’s 5 o’clock. I’ve always said that if they put video games in prison, cats would be like, “Hold up, give me another month — I gotta finish this level.” So I went in there and played Fallout until the next day, when Chanel came. Video games relax me because no longer can I think about my problems — I’m thinking about the problems in the game. I transport. I’m not one of those guys who’s playing for kill-to-death ratios. I don’t give a fuck about all that. I’m a “casual gamer,” as they call it.