Today’s kids listening to the latest trendy rapper on their iPhones probably can’t picture it, but when Ice-T broke into the business rap was considered dangerous.
Mainstream radio stations gave it no airplay. Many of the MCs that rapped about hustling on the streets were really getting shot. There wasn’t much of the bling and expensive cars that rappers today put in their lyrics, either; Ice-T lucked into his first major-label record contract in the mid-’80s — for just $40,000.
That was a fortune in the mind of a guy who ran with gangs and did a whole lot of more running from the LAPD.
“I had something that was unique, I was an L.A. guy talking about gangs,” the 54-year-old rap legend tells the Daily News. “The country didn’t even know there were gangs in L.A. Rap was new. At the time, you could buy every rap record that was out ... Beastie Boys, Ice-T, LL [Cool J], there was only a few of us. Now, if I was talking in hustling terms, the block is loaded, flooded. There’s a hustler on every corner. I couldn’t shine like I did. Now, the new rap is about being rich. I’m richer than you, I’m richer than you.”
Worried that the music’s rich (of the more figurative kind) history was being forgotten, Ice-T set out to do something about it.
The result, “The Art of Rap,” opens in New York Friday. And the “performance documentary” adds another hyphen to his job description, which already includes rapper-actor-reality TV mogul: first-time director.
Shot over two years between his full-time acting commitments on the NBC series “Law & Order: SVU” and seasons of his E! reality show, “Ice Loves Coco,” Ice-T and his skeletal crew tracked down a who’s who of rap’s history makers in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles and got them to talk about what goes into their music.
“You should always go for the lowest-hanging fruit for your first film,” he says. “So I said let’s make a movie, but let’s not ask the kids about the money, cars, the gold, the jewelry, the beefs, let’s ask about the craft.”
Among the 52 MCs he interviewed: Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, Salt of Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Common, Nas, KRS-One, Grandmaster Caz, Kanye West, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim and Eminem.
Ice-T laid out ground rules: no stock footage, every rapper should perform a cappella raps so the audience could hear the words, and they wanted the tough neighborhoods, like the South Bronx, where hip hop was born, to look good for their closeup.
So to capture the breathtaking aerial footage of New York and L.A. that intercuts the interviews throughout the film, “we rented a helicopter and flew the f— around,” says Ice-T.
His favorite moment? Rev. Run of Run-DMC fame recounting the moment when he realized his lifestyle was out of control. Right about the time he found himself in an expensive hotel suite with Ice-T on his way to see him and a Rolling Stone magazine reporter waiting for aninterview. Inside, while prostitutes were cavorting in the room, the rapper himself was eating pancakes in the bathtub with the syrup spilling into the water.
“He’s Reverend Run now, but all of a sudden he was talking to his buddy Ice-T about the hos,” he says. “He went back to that point and it was good to see him in the moment.”
Ice-T still breaks out laughing thinking about the syrup.
He also was impressed by some of the new generation of rappers.
“When you see Kanye start rapping, he almost goes into a zone,” says Ice-T. It’s not like he’s singing four-bar songs, he’s in a place — it’s like when you watch Jimi Hendrix start playing his guitar, he leans his head back and starts jamming.”
All these years later, and Ice-T is still hustling.
“We’re letting the critics see it first,” he says at the end of the interview. “Hopefully you guys will help the movie sell, because we ain’t got ‘Avengers’ money, man. See you at the Oscars.”