Los Angeles rapper-turned-actor Ice-T made his solo album debut in 1987 with Rhyme Pays, waxing poetic with his pimp philosophies and hustler hijinks. While west coast crime scenes became the basis for Ice-T’s cinematic tales of fun and violence in the sun, the crafty veteran was always searching for other ways to challenge his artistic temperament. Flipping the script in 1991, Ice starred as a cop in the classic crack-era film New Jack City, and proceeded to establish yet another pimpin’ path that today includes various films, a regular gig on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU and the E! reality show Ice Loves Coco with his pinup-worthy wife, Nicole “Coco” Austin.
Now Ice is stepping behind the camera, making his directorial debut with The Art of Rap (Indomina Media), a documentary about hip-hop’s continuous rise in popularity. Ice gets personal with his lyrical peers, who reveal their own process of transforming life into a perfect blend of street swagger, urban poetics and pop-culture success. The film, which received positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is scheduled to hit theaters nationwide June 15.
Turn the mic up.
XXL: What was the motivation behind making this film?
ICE-T: I have a sincere love for hip-hop. Hip-hop had a lot to do with getting me out of trouble and putting me in the position I am in today. I’m totally aware of its power. With artists like Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, KRS-One, the music was able to change the world. This film is my way of giving back to hip-hop. When I came into rap, I came from L.A. and kind of had to come and bow down to the Zulu Nation and have them co-sign me to get into rap. There were times if you weren’t from New York City and you didn’t have the right connections, you couldn’t rap.
Was that when you started working with Zulu member DJ Afrika Islam?
I was introduced to the Zulu Nation where hip-hop started, in the Bronx. They taught me that hip-hop required skill. If you wanted to be the DJ, the breakdancer, a graffiti artist, you don’t want to be a toy, you want to be a bomber. You want to be respected for your skills. But more recently, I started seeing this art form that I love becoming diluted, because once you take the skill level out of it, hip-hop just becomes a joke.
What do you want the audience to learn?
The passion and respect that should be connected to hip-hop, that’s really what I want. Ninety percent of the new rappers, they got skills, they can rhyme, but they don’t have any real guidance. But, there are 10 percent who don’t give a fuck, and it’s a joke to them. It’s about whatever they gotta do to get money. That is poisoning hip-hop. To some people, hip-hop is symbolic, like a church. If you say something bad about rap, muthafuckas want to fight. I hope my film helps hit the reset button on the hip-hop scene. I want to make the old-timers feel good and show the new kids where it’s been so they know where it should go.
You’re one of the originators of gangsta rap. What is your opinion of the genre today?
I came out at a time when you couldn’t lie on the mic, because brothers would call you out. I think to be a true gangsta rapper, it has to come from a real place; it must have some form of legitimacy. Gangsta rap is about rapping from the experience of where you’ve been and what you’ve been through. Coming from that, I would tell stories that always ended with the gangster dead or in prison. That shit might look like something fun to do, but it’s not. I didn’t want to send a message to nobody out there that they were going to get away with that shit. I think 50 Cent was the last gangsta rapper. People like to tell me that Tupac and Biggie wasn’t gangsta rappers, like they was above that, but I don’t agree—that’s exactly what it was.
One of the highlights in the documentary was your visit to the legendary Grandmaster Caz’s house in the Bronx. What was that like?
Well, that was like going to the Mecca. When you walk into Caz’s crib and see all these laminates that say “Cold Crush Brothers,” you see where this music came from, and that’s a humbling moment. Hip-hop is not a game to them. It’s not a joke; it’s a serious thing, rap. I wanted to start the movie with people like Caz and Afrika Bambaataa. These cats, if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be doing it.
What did you learn?
It just confirmed my beliefs. It was good to learn that most of [the artists] had the same passion about rap that I do. Like, when Raekwon says, “Man, there’s got to be some dignity behind this rhyme,” [that] makes me know that I’m not insane. It’s important to keep some guidelines, some bars and levels that you have to pass. That’s the bar that we as MCs need to reach for.
This film covers rappers ranging from Caz to Kanye.
To me, Kanye is a spitter. He is sincere about his hip-hop. He can do pop music, but he can also rap. When you see him, you’ll be like, “Yo, this nigga is going in.” I think that’s because he knew where the bar was for this movie. He knew he was going to be around Rakim, Mos Def and people that he admired. He didn’t say no little lightweight rhyme; he got emotional.
Are you political?
I voted for Obama, so now I’m part of the system. I was a street cat, so I never registered to vote, and as soon as I did I got jury duty. I don’t think Obama has much to worry about this time around. I think the Republicans are just going to dumb themselves right out of the race. If I was his advisor, I’d tell him just sit back and chill.
Are you still making music?
I record a lot, working mostly with my friends just for fun. I don’t make records now to sell, because it’s such a different world out there. I’m fortunate that I’m in the acting business, but I would like to make more movies and have control of soundtracks. That’s where I’ll put my new music.