Like fellow local hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg, Ice-T has made a career out of cashing in on his former street credibility. It's understandably lucrative, as audiences never seem to grow tired of seeing the former heist specialist and pimp in fish-out-of-water scenarios, be it as detective “Fin” Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU or as a married, domestic guy on E! reality show Ice Loves Coco.
One could almost forget that he was (arguably) the first gangsta rapper, but hip-hop remains close to Ice-T's heart. His documentary, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap — which he directed, partly funded and hosts — explores the nuances of his original craft. For the film, which opens at about 150 theaters nationwide on June 15, he went deep into his Rolodex and traversed the country to secure interviews with the genre's biggest names — Eminem, Kanye West, Dr. Dre — many of whom perform on-the-spot freestyles.
Speaking out against “pop rap,” he commiserates with the genre's originators; scenes with such practically forgotten trailblazers as Grandmaster Caz and Doug E. Fresh are particularly memorable.
We caught up with Ice-T at the Beverly Hills Montage hotel, where he was promoting the film. Looking fit and sporting a diamond bracelet and red Adidas, he discoursed on everything from Dr. Dre's luxurious new house and the LAPD to his curvaceous wife, Coco, at times standing up to act out the scenes he was describing and even rapping old verses. Below are highlights from our conversation.
L.A. WEEKLY: You got practically everyone notable in rap for this documentary. How long did it take to film?
ICE-T: Two years. We shot [the trailer] and got the film funded, got a few hundred thousand dollars, and now we can get helicopters, we can step it up. Then, we had to triangulate, which means get the film crew guys from London, the artists and myself — who's doing Law & Order full-time — in the same place on a particular day at a particular time. You have no idea how hard it is to get a rapper to stop moving.
Who was the hardest person to get, logistically?
We had to go to Detroit to get Eminem, but then when he's ready, I'm not because I'm working, or the guys in London are doing their thing. So we had to fly out there, and we actually had to get the aerial footage another time. We really wanted to shoot Eminem in Detroit because we wanted to use that movement across the country. But he gave me unparalleled access.
[We used] no stock footage. We don't want rappers to say anything they've said before. Basically you're making a movie of talking heads. How do you make a movie of people talking for two hours without making it boring? So you shoot them, you get the shoes, you get the feet, get the hands. Some of the best shots are when you see that we both have the same sneakers on. The aerial shots are to let the movie breathe, so you don't feel so claustrophobic.
The aerial shots of Dr. Dre's house are especially cool.
We wanted to show something from nothing. The [shot] starts off grimy, and then it ends up in Beverly Hills. I thought Dre's house said it all. It's his new house, the $13 million house, with a view of downtown to the beach, unobstructed. It's the craziest view ever. I was, like, “OK, you make N.W.A, you make Tupac, you make Eminem, you make The Game, you make 50 Cent, you get a $13 million house.”
Beyond the freestyles, the film featured tons of classic, and I'd imagine very expensive, hip-hop songs. How'd you get the rights to all of them?
We did a “favored nations” scenario. It's something they do on compilations, where they say that everyone gets paid the same. So with the soundtrack, we told everybody, “We have this much for each song, and we're paying everyone the same — do you want to be on the soundtrack?” The only people who had a problem were the sample licensees who aren't hip-hop.
The film goes out of its way to emphasize the craft of hip-hop, rather than pop-oriented rap.
Pop was always the enemy. You heard Mos Def say in the film, “Rap is not pop. If you think it is, you need to stop.” Quincy Jones taught me that pop is doing what everyone else wants you to do. Art is doing what you want to fuckin' do. If you're just saying what everyone wants, you're being pop. If you say, “I don't give a fuck,” then you're rocking. …
Here's my comment. If you have more words in your hook than in your rap, you're not rappin', you're hookin'. [Laughs.]
What was Coco's role in the documentary?
She was rollin' right behind me every day, on the phone. While I'm on the camera, somebody needs to be wrangling artists. Today, actually, she would be here, but she's doing RuPaul's Drag Race. Coco's been there for years, like my executive secretary. She helps me handle everything. I have to give her credit because she sat through every interview.
Do you two have a place in L.A. anymore?
I sold my house in L.A. It was up on Sunset Plaza. So now we have the house in Arizona, New York and a spot in Miami. Even after I [moved to New York] I used to have a house in L.A., and I let my buddy live there. I would call him and be, like, “How's my house?” I'd hear people in the background laughing, jumping into the pool, and he's like, “Hold on.” I'm going, “Motherfucker, it's my house!” It was cool. It was documented on MTV Cribs, but there's no sense in my holding that property. …
We figured out we want to plant our roots in New York. I operate out of New York a little bit better than L.A. L.A.'s cool, but people move slow here compared to New York. I like the grind of New York. Now I live in Edgewater, N.J., which is facing Manhattan over the Hudson. When I first got to New York I was staying there, but then I was like, “They got the good view of Manhattan.” We're actually building a house over there now; we live in a condo now.
You've talked about how L.A.'s changed since the riots. Do you think the aftermath ultimately compelled the cops to be more respectful to inner-city residents?
People have to police the government just like the government polices us. When we break the law, there's a consequence. When they break the law, there should be a consequence, or else they'll keep doing it. Like with the Occupy Wall Street thing, they have to know that people aren't going to take it. Like, if I take your pad and I take [your recorder], I'm going to keep taking things until you stand up [for yourself].
LAPD only checked themselves when the people demanded it. Now, when a cop pulls you over, other people might pull over and watch, too. We need to police the police. That's how we gotta be, because they're not all good.
That's the way that the world should operate. We need to watch everyone else, like even with a Neighborhood Watch. You're just supposed to make the phone call; it's not “neighborhood hunt.” Everybody has to be accountable for everybody else.