He’s not a cop; he just plays one on TV. He’s not a cop killer, he just sings about it on a record: “I’m a cop killer, better you than me / Cop killer, fuck police brutality!”
On TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, as a compassionate detective, he tracks a serial rapist through NYC in an episode called “Outsider.” In “KKK Bitch” he sings, “She got wild in the backstage bathroom / Sucked my dick like a muthafuckin’ vacuum / Said ‘I love you, but my daddy don’t play / He’s the fuckin’ grand wizard of the KKK.'”
So who is Ice-T? He’s a self-proclaimed orphan who wrote a song inspired by his father on the new Body Count album, Manslaughter. (Both parents died before he was 13.) He’s a seminal African-American rapper with respect from the street and the critics; an OG, original gangster, since the ’80s, who may have written one of the best metal records of 2014. He’s also Tracy Lauren Marrow, 56, and to millions, for nearly 15 years, brusque but humane TV detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola.
The seeming contradictions are what can make Ice-T a polarizing figure — but that’s what they mostly are, seeming. He’s got a gift for being legit in everything he does, hence his success in various musical and media genres. Is he the rapper/metaller with a heart of gold and mouth dirtier than a Superfund site? Maybe. He’s no dilettante, but is a consummate actor, both on screen and stage.
In his distinct, Jersey-by way-of-L.A. voice, he explains his fronting Body Count since 1989. “I’m playing a role. All the time,” he says over the phone. “With acting, it’s your script; I have to do it till you like it. With Body Count, I’m not a cop killer. I never cared to kill no cops. I become the characters, and I take on the rage or the attitude of the song, so it is acting to an extent. More like channeling. Before I do [Dennis Hopper–directed 1988 film] Colors, I become 15 years old and I’m gang-banging again. That’s what a good artist will bring to the stage. If I’m singing ‘Pray for Death,’ I’m really thinking about killing a motherfucker, about my enemy, about this dude I fucking want to torture, and you’ll see it in my face and you’ll hear it in my voice.”
That voice became an aggro metal one in the late ’80s Los Angeles with Body Count, the metal band he founded with Crenshaw High School pal Ernie C. (Cunnigan), now the only other original member of the group: Bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts was killed in a drive-by in South Central in 2001; guitarist Dennis Miles, aka D-Roc, succumbed to lymphoma in 2004; drummer Victor Ray Wilson, better known as Beatmaster V, died of leukemia in 1996. By the time Body Count got signed to Sire/Warner Bros. in 1991, Ice had established his name as a rapper and actor, thanks most notably to 1991’s O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album, where he introduces Body Count on the record’s 18th track. (He left the label in 1993 following the political fallout from “Cop Killer;” then-President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were not fans, though Sire supported him and his freedom of speech.)
Detractors and rabid fans, Ice has both, and thanks to SVU, Cunnigan observes, “He’s been in your house for the last 16 years. Your grandmothers know him.” And many have no clue about Ice-T the rapper, let alone the metal frontman, says Cunnigan: “People see our videos and the comments are like, ‘Isn’t that the guy from Law and Order?'”
That said, early buzz for Manslaughter and the revitalized Body Count is loud, credible, and deserved. An appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon further legitimizes the band and closes the loop for Ice-T, star of stage and screen. While Ice did reality TV (Ice Loves Coco) and SVU, living in his home state of New Jersey, Body Count was on somewhat of a hiatus in California, their last album, 2006’s Murder 4 Hire, released eight years ago. While most artists won’t dis previous work, Ice-T is candid: “The last couple albums I mailed in.”
Guitarist Cunnigan concurs, laughing, “I don’t even know what the last record was. We try to forget. This time we sat in the room and wrote a record the way we used to. We stayed damn near in the same house for a month.” Cunnigan, who in high school took the bus from South Central to West Hollywood’s infamous club the Starwood to check out rock gods like Randy Rhoads in Quiet Riot and Eddie Van Halen — along with alt acts like the Blasters and X — is essentially Body Count’s musical director, and for Manslaughter, he and Ice-T put together 13 songs that are incendiary, melodic, heavy, pointed, poignant, dirty, and funny.
“If you don’t get the humor, it’ll scare the shit out of you,” Ice-T says. The album’s title track, “Manslaughter,” refers to — as Ice-T sings in the thrash-metal, shredding guitar and chant-along riff rock tune — how “manhood’s dead. It’s a play on words. Hip-hop got real soft, real pop, now everyone is trying to be politically correct,” he explains.
As expected, and in his trademark clever, foul and biting way, on Manslaughter, Ice-T criticizes the pop culture he’s part of, ranting about Oprah’s dating life, email passwords, and vegans. Socio-“political lyrics are about poverty (“Enter the Dark Side”), the military (the surprisingly tender anthem “I Will Always Love You”), and a friend’s addiction (“Back to Rehab”); in true hip-hop tradition, he pays homage and refers back, covering and updating the Suicidal Tendencies classic “Institutionalized” and a hit from Beyoncé’s husband, “99 Problems.”
“It’s kinda like a sucker punch, to get people asking, ‘Why is Ice-T making Jay Z’s record?'” Ice-T says. “Then somebody can come along and smack the shit out of them. It’s a booby trap on the album.” To wit: “99 Problems” appeared on Jay-Z’s 2004 The Black Album, but the song’s chorus hook is taken from “99 Problems” from Ice-T’s 1993 Home Invasion album. “Now it allows me to play ’99 Problems’ in a Body Count concert,” Ice-T notes.
It’s the rare savvy artist who manages equal success across artistic platforms, and with a little luck, Manslaughter will put Body Count back on the metal map. Ice-T ruminates on his time in the spotlight. “With a movie, you’re gonna get paid whether it sucks or not. TV is more stable. But there’s nothing I’ve done that can compare to being on stage or being a rock star. It’s better than being the fucking president,” he raves. “You stand on that stage, and when you get 10 or 20,000 people there and you can hear a pin drop, and you go, ‘I want a glass of water,’ and you hear everybody go ‘Yeah!’ It’s so raw. It’s the shit.
“It would be wonderful for Body Count to get back to the top of the game,” he laughs, “so people would have to deal with me again.”