Most Law & Order junkies and millennials probably only know Ice-T affectionately as the gruff, no-nonsense NYPD Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But the rapper Ice-T came well before his nearly 20-year run on the television show. The story of Ice-T the rapper, including his crime-ridden days and his musical career, is being told on Sunday’s episode of Unsung.
Some would argue that his body of work precludes him from being “unsung,” but Ice-T begs to differ.
“I think I might be unsung ’cause I’m an old-ass nigga,” Ice-T told The Root by telephone. “If a kid is 20, they were 1 years old when I went on Law & Order. They don’t have any reference point to the music. If you don’t know anything about me, it gives you a chance to learn about me.”
Ice-T was orphaned early. His mother, who was Creole, had a heart attack while he sat in her lap when he was in the third grade. A few years later, his father, who was African American, died of natural causes. He was sent to live with an aunt in Los Angeles in Crenshaw, a predominantly black neighborhood. The Crips and Bloods gang members ran his local school.
Urban legend has it that Ice-T was a gangbanger in his youth, most notoriously with the Crips. But he refutes that, saying that he straddled both worlds, being friendly with both sides. In fact, Ice-T never drank, smoked or did drugs, he claims, even to this day. He says because he was an only child and an orphan, he didn’t have anyone to look out for him, so staying sober helped him stay on point to survive.
“I found that when you’re in a school full of gangs, if you can entertain motherfuckers, you can keep them off your ass,” he told The Root. “I would write rhymes for gangbangers.”
But after a stint in the Army, Ice-T found that his boys from around the way, with whom he had committed petty theft, had graduated to robbing banks and jewelry stores.
“I was running with a band of thieves, and it was a survival tactic,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I just didn’t know a way out, and when rap music came, I found my way out.”
His two major influences for his music were Philly rapper Schoolly D and author Iceberg Slim. Iceberg Slim influenced him to become a self-professed pimp and to bring stories to his music—stories of pimps and hustlers, telling the “games of street cats over music.” Schoolly D would influence him for his first big hit, “6 ’n’ the Mornin’,” which inspired him to continue writing unapologetically about street life.
He had heard Schoolly D’s single “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” in the club, a song that talked about gang life and the Park Side Killers gang in Philadelphia. Adopting Schoolly’s style and sound, he wrote a more graphic version of gang life, talking about Uzis and hand grenades on “6 ’n’ the Mornin’” using minimal beats with a Roland TR-808 drum machine.
From there, he would become both beloved and criticized as the first gangster rapper. “That record got credit for being the first gangster rap record, but I always try to pay homage to Schoolly D for inspiring me,” Ice-T said.
A huge heavy metal fan, Ice-T also co-founded the group Body Count and featured them on the track “Body Count” on his fourth studio album, O.G. Original Gangster. Songs like “Colors” and “I’m Your Pusher” continued his reports from the streets. But it was the 1992 single “Cop Killer” by Ice-T and Body Count—which was meant to be a rock song but was billed as a rap song—that got then-President George H.W. Bush, then-Vice President Dan Quayle and the National Rifle Association’s panties in a bunch.
The song, released on the eve of the Rodney King beating, was meant as a protest record to shed light on police brutality. Instead, Ice-T received threats from the Los Angeles Police Department and was lambasted on television by the president and vice president.
“Warner Bros. was getting death threats. Cops were like ‘Don’t count on the police anymore, we see you, good luck.’ They were after me and N.W.A at the time. But ‘Cop Killer’ was just one degree worse than ‘Fuck tha Police.’”
Ice-T’s Unsung airs Sunday on TV One at 10 p.m. ET.