Ice-T Reveals How He Conquered the Streets and the Entertainment Biz

Musician, actor, and reformed hustler makes his Stern Show debut

June 28, 2017

Ice-T made his Stern Show debut on Wednesday and the hustler-turned-entertainer took Howard on a journey through much of his life and career, starting with his tumultuous time on the streets and ending with him conquering rap, metal, TV, and film.

Check out the highlights from his interview (below) and pick up a copy of Body Count’s “Bloodlust” here.

Original Gangster

Ice-T moved to Los Angeles at an early age and, despite living in an upper-middle class neighborhood, he told Howard he spent a lot of time at Crenshaw High School, which had been nicknamed “Fort Crenshaw” because of all the surrounding gangs.

Howard wondered if he was ever afraid of what he had to face on the streets.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Ice-T told him. “I’m not afraid of Godzilla, the boogey-monsters, gorillas — nothing. Anything I can fight, I’ve never been afraid. When you came from where I came from and you went through that so early, you get a thick skin.”

He said he was affiliated with the gangs in his neighborhood, though he never needed to become an official member because he was friends with the gang bosses. “Basically, I had the street power and the clout necessary not to have any problems.”

Despite dealing weed at that age, Ice-T explained that he never drank or did drugs because he needed to stay sharp on the streets. “I had to be hyper on-point,” he explained.

He lived by himself in the 12th grade though and Howard correctly guessed that his apartment became party central. “There was a lot of Parliament [Funkadelic] playing … and [my boys] would roll joints like all day and all night.”

“That’s basically how I ended up with my daughter,” he added.

In the Army Now

Ice-T wanted to be a responsible parent, however, so he decided the best way to make more money and stay out of jail would be to join the Army. He told Howard that his decision to enlist came down to two factors: what kind of recruitment bonus he’d receive and the colors of his uniform.

“‘If you do [Army] Airborne you’ll get a red beret,'” he recalls the recruiter telling him. “But I’m like, ‘I’m from a Crips hood, I can’t come home in a red beret.'”

Ice-T said he did his four years in the military and was honorably discharged, but not without avoiding incident entirely. He told Howard he actually spent some time in military prison after getting caught stealing a rug. The thievery itself went fine, as he explained it, but his getaway driver never showed up, so he was forced to call a cab to pick him and his loot up.

“What ended up happening is I got put in [military] jail, but they made a mistake … they gave me my $2,500 bonus while I was in jail,” he said with a laugh.

Ice-T revealed his criminal mishaps weren’t limited to his military career, either. He shared another story with Howard about a jewelry store heist gone wrong, resulting in him getting shot.

“I got shot through the leg,” he told Howard, explaining he didn’t feel the pain until he was back in the car. He said the bullet passed right through him which, thankfully, spared him a doctor visit, “You can’t go to the hospital with a gunshot wound,” he said.

He and Howard also discussed his reputation as a former pimp. “[It] was more of an attempted pimp,” Ice-T explained. “I never was no knock-down, drag-out, Cadillac pimp with, you know, a bunch of hoes or nothing like that.”

“I’ve tried to pimp on a few women,” he added. “But it’s very difficult.”

Ice-T revealed he was tempted to try his hand at pimping after a friend suggested he might be good at it, as he had “light eyes,” “nice, long hair,” and the right temperament to wrangle women.

Life-Changing Rhymes

After a bad car accident, however, he had a life-changing moment of clarity. He put hustling behind him and coincidentally caught a career break from Kurtis Blow, the hip-hop legend behind “The Breaks.”

Ice told Howard he had only dabbled in rapping up to that point, but didn’t expect it would amount to much. “I was writing rhymes for the hood. I was writing gang-banger rhymes, just to entertain my boys,” he said,

“I didn’t think anybody was into those lyrics,” he explained.

As it turned out, he was wrong. His first taste of success came after friends coaxed him into entering an impromptu rap contest at a club. Blow was there and he was so impressed by Ice-T’s rhymes that he declared him the winner. That’s when Ice-T realized he should be putting more energy into trying to make a rap career happen.

Still, there was no guarantee he could make a living that way, especially back then. “No one had ever bought a car rapping,” he explained. “For me, to rap was to go backwards because we were making money [before that].”

Not long after his rap victory he signed with renowned music mogul Seymour Stein of Sire Records. “He was like the biggest record person I had ever met,” Ice-T explained, adding that Seymour had told him he sounded like Bob Dylan.

Ice-T said Seymour was instrumental in helping him understand that his street lyrics might not be for everybody, but they were definitely connecting to some people. Ice-T continued to write songs about the street and eventually his metal band Body Count released its self-titled debut in 1992, which contained the infamous track “Cop Killer,” based in part on the Talking Heads’ song “Psycho Killer.”

Ice-T explained to Howard how it all came to be on Wednesday: “I’m in the studio and I’m singing ‘Psycho Killer.’ I’m like, ‘Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est’ — playing around. And my drummer, Beatmaster V — who passed away from leukemia — he’s like, ‘We need a cop killer.'”

He said Beatmaster V shared horror stories with him about violent cops abusing citizens and that’s what inspired the song. “My brain just starts thinking, I’m like, ‘What if somebody snapped based on police brutality? What if some person just lost it and went on a rampage because of it?’ And that’s the idea where the song came from,” Ice-T said.

As Howard pointed out, Ice-T has received a lot of blowback over the years for “Cop Killer.”

Ice-T agreed. “It’s a pretty brutal record,” he said. “It’s a protest record.”

Bathroom Audition for “New Jack City”

In addition to being a Grammy-winning rapper and heavy metal frontman, Ice-T is an immensely successful film and TV actor. One of his first major roles came in the critically acclaimed 1991 crime film “New Jack City,” co-starring Chris Rock and Judd Nelson. On Wednesday morning Ice-T shared the surprising story of how he landed the part.

He said it all started when he was in the bathroom of a club: “I’m in this stall, right? And someone’s talking shit to me. And I’m just like, ‘Look, man, if they could put me under a microscope and find one molecule of me that gave a fuck, then maybe they could angle me. But they can’t. So they can’t fuck with me.'”

Well, little did Ice-T know, but “New Jack City” director Mario Van Peebles was in the very same bathroom. He overheard the argument and he was impressed with Ice-T’s retort.

“He was in there and he said, ‘Whoever fucking said that is the star of the movie,” Ice-T recounted. “So, I came out after I wipe my ass and [there’s Mario.]”

When Ice-T eventually read for the role of Scotty, he was surprised to find out that the part was not only a major one but that of a police officer. At first he wasn’t sure he could handle the role, but after talking to his friends he realized it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

He said Van Peebles was supportive, repeatedly telling him, “You can do it.”

Ice-T also credited his co-stars with helping to relax him on set. “[Judd Nelson was] just the coolest person. He was like, ‘Relax, we’re all going to fuck up. Do not worry about fucking up,” Ice-T recalled. “Also, Chris Rock was like, Don’t be tripping off these actors … He’s like, ‘Ice, you’re the biggest star here … you’re the one pulling up in the Bentley.”

The Other Side of the Law and the Ultimate Compliment

Ice-T has also played a police officer for nearly 20 years on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Howard wondered if it was difficult for him to train with actual law enforcement after writing a song like “Cop Killer,” but Ice-T revealed his life on the streets was all the training he ever needed.

“I never really had to do any studying with cops because I’ve been around a lot of cops, usually in the back seat,” he explained.

“Playing a cop and playing a gangster is the exact same acting,” he continued. “So, when I’m doing ‘Law & Order’ and interrogating the dude, I’m not [thinking] like I’m a cop. [It’s more like] this motherfucker stole some money from me and I need to know some answers … It’s just two different sides of the coin.”

He also spoke about how much he enjoyed working on “SVU” for all these years, even revealing the ultimate compliment he got from “Law & Order” mastermind Dick Wolf. “He said, ‘Ice-T is the least pain in my ass.’ You know why? Because I have a reference point that’s fucked up and everybody needs a reference point that’s fucked up,” he explained.

“I could be dead, I came close, I felt its breath. I know how lucky I am. So, I’m not going to be late, I’m not showing up high. I know this is an opportunity to take care of my family, to stay out of trouble,” he continued. “Why would I mess that up?”

Kangaroo Pay Day

“New Jack City” was a critically acclaimed box-office hit and Ice-T’s acting chops were praised, but he told Howard the movie didn’t actually make him very much money. He made a bit more cash co-starring alongside Denzel Washington in “Ricochet” but said his first huge acting payday didn’t come until “Tank Girl” in 1995.

“My first real check was ‘Tank Girl’ with Lori Petty, playing a fucking kangaroo,” he said, adding that they paid him $1 million to play the part.

He told Howard he was on the set of “Johnny Mnemonic” with Keanu Reeves when he got an offer for the role. When they sent him the details, however, he was underwhelmed. “They sent me a picture of a kangaroo and I’m like, ‘What the fuck? … Am I not, like, with Keanu Reeves? What the fuck? Are we going backwards? Do I owe money? What’s happening?'” he said.

“Then they go, ‘They’re going to pay you [$1 million],'” he continued. ” I started hopping around the room like the fucking kangaroo.”

Writing the Original “99 Problems”

While playing a kangaroo was lucrative, it turned out penning one of the biggest rap hits ever didn’t get him as much money or acclaim as some might expect. Many might not realize, but Ice-T wrote “99 Problems” with Brother Marquis of 2 Live Crew in 1993, well before Jay-Z turned it into a monster hit.

“That’s my song,” he told Howard on Wednesday. He said Jay-Z and Rick Rubin paid for the publishing rights to use the song, but he didn’t know until the record came out.

“I’m friends with Jay-Z. I have no hard feelings,” he continued, adding: “It’s all hip-hop. It’s all good.”

A New Album

In addition to sharing his life story, Ice-T joined the Stern Show Wednesday to tell listeners about his heavy metal band Body Count’s latest album “Bloodlust.”

Though some are surprised to learn one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap is a big part of the hardcore scene, Ice-T said rock was part of his upbringing. “When I was growing up … I was forced to listen to rock ‘n’ roll … eventually you’ll pick up songs you like,” he said.

Howard has long praised his band’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and on Wednesday Ice-T revealed he had become aware the Stern Show was playing his version while on the set of “SVU.”

“The word hit the street, Howard, that you liked the record,” Ice said. “I was at work—all my guys on ‘Law & Order,’ the teamsters, they keep you on all day long. So, they were like, ‘Yo, Howard’s playing you, Ice. Howard’s playing you.'”

Howard continued to praise the song on Wednesday, saying it also inspires him while he’s painting.

Ice-T said Body Count will be touring when his “Law & Order” schedule eases up, adding that he has no plans to quit making music anytime soon.

“I love it. It keeps me alive,” he said. “Music is the fountain of youth.”

“Bloodlust” is in stores now. Pick up a copy here.