Perhaps because he moved back to the East Coast and became an actor, Ice-T is sometimes overlooked in conversations about West Coast hip-hop titans. This is ridiculous, considering he pretty much invented gangsta rap (though Philadelphia's Schooly D also has a claim). As Dr. Dre notes in Ice-T's new documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Eazy-E's breakthrough single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” is pretty much a reworking of Ice's “6 in the Morning.”
In any case, the ambitious film, which opened on Friday and which Ice and I discussed recently in Beverly Hills, will likely help remind folks of his place in West Side lore. In excerpts from our interview that didn't make the story, below, he talks about the film, why he doesn't hate the South, and why he once wore leather and spikes.
Did you have a budget to pay the rappers who appear in the film?
With a movie like this, they're doing you a favor. There's no budget in it. They're like, “Yeah, I got you.” And getting them to stop for that second, and to get the crew together, it's a lot of work, but it all pays off.
Did you have to put up your own money to get this done?
We put up the money to get the first part of it done, and then the investors came in. We didn't even have a lot of investors. My job was to access the artists, guide them through, then edit, and then come up with a feeling of the movie. With my job, I said, “OK, this is what we're gonna do.” We used no stock footage, we don't want to rappers to say anything they've ever said before, and freestyle rhymes, that way we don't get caught up in the record labels.
The film is shot beautifully.
What we did was we shot every city dirty and clean. So when you're hearing the rap of somebody like Joe Budden, you're seeing the [gritty] images. You're not watching him do a rap about hard times, sitting in a penthouse. Doesn't work. You saw the grimy side of New York, then we made the city look like jewelry. We pumped the colors, so it's kinda like it's rough, but it's beautiful. We shot L.A. like it's rough, but it's beautiful. Those are like directorial and production calls, that were beyond the interviews to make the movie cinematic.
There are so many big stars in the movie, it must have been hard to know how to market it.
Yeah, we did things like run credits alphabetically. [On the movie poster] everybody likes the
name way their names look. One of the questions I ask in the movie is, “Hip-hop is a masterpiece, but nobody painted the whole thing. So what stroke did you put on the painting?” It needs all of us.
The movie opened in 150 theaters across the country, which seems like a lot for a documentary.
Well, it's taken on a life of its own. I didn't get it into theaters, we just put out the movie. It's gonna be more than that, trust me. After the first weekend, that number will double, I promise you that. It's a documentary, but people will want to see it. Every one of those artists have sold a million records, so when you think about it, hip-hop is such a strong culture. I think once the word gets out that it's not a bullshit movie, there's nothing negative about it… There's nothing about it that people are going to find offensive. The only thing that could be considered offensive might be the language, but after two minutes of it, you don't even hear the language anymore.
New York and L.A. artists couldn't be better represented in the movie, but I noticed that there's almost nobody from the South. Does that go back to your beef with Soulja Boy, and your belief that we're straying from the original ideals of hip-hop?
I tried to get Goodie Mob. I was able to get Bun B, [from] UGK, I grew up with Luke [Campbell], but 2 Live Crew is disbanded. The stuff about the other guy [Soulja Boy] — I don't even say dude's name anymore — but that was more about me saying it has to require a degree of difficulty. And if you drop the bar down to this, we'll call it ringtone rap, it's no longer an art form.
I wasn't trying to
dissing dis the South or dissing anybody, but I was saying that you have to really try with this. We took it too far for you to start playing with this shit now. This is dead serious. So now you've got people like Lupe Fiasco, you've got Kendrick Lamar, what we in hip-hop call spitters. Like, 'Rhyme, motherfucker. Just rhyme.'
I think Raekwon said it best, he said rappers are in a fraternity. There's a perimeter we've set, and if it doesn't penetrate that, we're like, “Go put a band-aid on that, come back later when you've got your shit up.” So, my statement a few years ago was just me saying 'Y'all playing with it.'
What about guys like Waka Flocka Flame, who admits not being lyrical, but he's clearly using heavy hip-hop beats?
That's different, that's something else. This is “the art of rap.” I mean, I don't listen to him. I don't have nothing against him. There's lots of styles of rap out there, and everybody picks their own, but this movie is about lyrics. Once you say you're not lyrical… You know, [Grandmaster] Caz says, rap is about lyrics. If you're doing party music, or trap music, you've given it another name. But if you're gonna call it hip-hop, then there's that perimeter that we've set.
You can play with it if you want, but if you wanna be in this house, you want to stand next to Rakim, can you really? Should you? It's a different art form. My thing is, I'm not a hater, I don't have a problem with what everybody wants to do. The music has to grow and go in different directions. Like techno, I did Body Count, that wasn't rap. So you're free to do whatever you do. Like if I say I'm doing classical music, then there's a certain area that makes it classical. Other than that, they'll say, “You don't really fit into this box.”
It seems like we love our classic rap artists out here in L.A. — Snoop and Dre just had huge shows at Coachella — but the New York trailblazers get largely forgotten. Any idea why that might be?
I don't know, it's a weird thing. New York is an interesting place. For a while, they didn't like the South music for a while, now that's all they play. They had a problem, when they weren't playing L.A. music, when we played their music. New York radio is very interesting. I don't really know why it's like that. I think L.A. radio is learning from the Bay. The Bay is a very classic place. Mac Mall, C-Bo, all that stuff, they love their artists, they're old school up there. My first big concert was playing in the Bay, I played the Fillmore.
Detroit is like that, Detroit is kinda like very traditional. Chicago is like that, they're very traditional. New York is very pop in its way. But that has to do with Clear Channel mostly owning the stations, they have 20 or 30 songs that they play in rotation, and that's just how that operation works. So you have to go to the ma-and-pa stations. Thank God for satellite radio, so you can go Backspin, Shade 45.
To answer your question, how New York handles their legends, hopefully this movie will kick New York in the ass and
see say you better start respecting these guys, because they deserve it. You know what it is, your own town never really respects you as much as the outside. Because the rest of the world loves Dre, L.A. represents him. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, that's us.” As L.A. starts to fall in love with New York artists, it's like “Okay, okay, I like you.” It's almost like you have to let someone else like you to get respect. You know, I had to go off and take over the world before I could come home to a great reception in L.A., like “Ice is West Coast.” Still today I'm on Law and Order and people are like, “No, Ice is West Coast!” They fight for you if you do good. They discard you if you do bad.
But hopefully that this movie will set a reset button the game. They'll say all these people deserve respect, like if you didn't have one you wouldn't have the other, like the foundation is built. The new kids, go on and do your thing, but don't diss the foundation. That's the thing, you might say something about Gucci Mane and all that, they might not necessarily be my style, but because I'm not going to diss them, I'm not dissing the foundation. That's not their agenda, they're not out there saying, “Fuck Kool Herc.” I'd be enemies with that bullshit, but they're just doing it their way.
Do people often comment on how you've changed?
I think, people look at me and they say you were very aggressive, I say yeah, you know, and I've made a better
like life for myself, for my son, so I should reflect that with my music now. I shouldn't still be rhyming like that, that would be me lying. I think as hip-hop grows, our job as the architects should be to take you on a ride and elevate you with this.
Somebody might see me walk up in here with an Aventura shirt, and they think “Oh, so that's what Ice T is now.” Yeah, but don't mistake it, don't get it twisted. This is me now, like what you said before was a lie. That was me then. This is me now. But you can still get fucked up, don't get it twisted. I've evolved, but I'm the same dude, I'm just in a different place. We all change, we all grow. I shouldn't be in the same place that I was 30 years ago, I should be more intelligent, you know.
It's interesting to hear some of the rhymes in your movies, like Joe Budden's, who talks about being a bad father, which is a perspective you don't hear a lot.
You wanna hear a story? I got a friend, I'm gonna leave his name out of it, but he tells me, “Yo, you gotta hear my son rhyme, he can really rap, he can really rap.” So I'm like “Cool, cool.” So we get his kid in, and he's like “You ready to spit?” And he goes like “My daddy ain't shit, never gave me nothing, never bought me new shit, always fuckin' new bitches.” So he says it, and his father is like “He got skills.” I'm like you don't even know what he's saying! “The cat's bunk, he ain't shit, like motherfucker…” It's crazy.
I heard that you used to
weather wear leather when you first started out.
Early MCs were dressing like the spikes, and the shit, like Melle Mel, like the original gangster. So I had that on in Breakin'. I said that in “Original Gangster,” I said [begins rapping] “Ten years ago I used to listen to rappers flow/talkin' about the way they rock the mic at the disco. I liked how that shit was going down, dreamt about ripping the mic with my own sound. So I tried to writing rhymes something like them.”
So that was me, like, trying to be a New York rapper, and my boy said “Ice, that doesn't sound like you, that sounds like you're trying to be one of them.” So I said…[raps] “A young nigga from the West Coast, L.A., South Central, where the Crips and the Bloods play/When I wrote about parties, it didn't fit/'Six in the Morning,' that was the real shit.”
So it was kinda like me stepping into hip-hop, but I was afraid to be L.A., until one of my homeboys, Randy Mac, said “Man, that other shit. Once you start rapping that, you take off the costume, and just go in there the way you normally are.”
Talking about the origins of street rap: You were also a fan of Too $hort, who wasn't exactly gangsta in the early days, but he talked dirty.
Yeah, he was just talking like, about him running into weird, freaky girls and stuff. But early L.A. rap, like Toddy Tee, was doing like rap parodies, like taking “Freaks Come Out At Night” and turning it into “The Clucks Come Out At Night,” meaning crackheads. The “Batterram,” and all that stuff. Like I was really at the forefront, and I was trying to break, and of course you think that you gotta be like New York to break. And then finally when I just started like just being normal, it hit. That's when I was like, “I'm missing the point.” Rap is regional. You have to cheerlead for your city. Get your city first. And I tell people that today who tell me they wanna break out. I'm like, first you gotta be the biggest in your school. Then you gotta be the biggest in your neighborhood. Then your city, then your coast, then you make that move.
You talk in your 2011 memoir about imagining dudes coming through your door with ski masks.
Now, I got cameras. Put the heat sensor on them, see if there's any metal on them. I got tech shit.
Is that real?
[Shrugs and laughs] If you come to my house you'll be fully screened, before you even get to the door.