Rapper-turned-actor Ice-T reflects on his journey from the streets of South Central L.A. and his decision to turn away from a life of crime, which he chronicles in his memoir, Ice.
Tavis: Ice-T is a legendary hip-hop artist who has enjoyed a terrific acting career as well, starring, of course, on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” He’s out now with a new memoir about his unique and unlikely journey. It’s called “Ice: A Memoir of Gangsta Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood.” He joins us tonight from New York. Ice-T, good to have you back on the program, brother.
Ice-T: Hey, good to hear from you, Tavis. Yeah, man, it’s an honor.
Tavis: I think most people, as I mentioned a moment ago, most of us know you as a West Coast rapper. When you get into your memoir you come to understand that it really didn’t start here on the West Coast, it started not too far from where you are tonight, in Newark, New Jersey.
Ice-T: Yeah, I was born in Newark, New Jersey, raised in Summit, New Jersey. My mother passed when I was in the third grade, my father when I was in the seventh, and that’s when I was shipped to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. That’s where the story most people are familiar with begins.
Tavis: That doesn’t sound like Ice-T, that sounds like Will Smith, the Fresh Prince.
Ice-T: Oh, no, absolutely. (Laughter) I lived in a nice, middle class household. Even when I moved to L.A., my aunt was a social worker. We lived in an area called View Park. It wasn’t that bad. But when I made the decision to go to Crenshaw High School, which was at the time one of the toughest high schools in L.A. – it still is – that’s when I ended up dealing with the gangs and starting to make some different decisions with my life.
Tavis: They called it, as you recall, Fort Crenshaw. That’s how bad things were then, they called it Fort Crenshaw. How did you get pulled into that? How does a kid who grows up in a nice area like View Park get pulled into that?
Ice-T: Well, you’re going to have to deal with what the masses are doing, and Crenshaw’s on the other side of Crenshaw Boulevard, so all the kids from the avenues, Horace Mann, Bethune, all those different junior highs that come into that high school. It’s rougher turf, and you’re going to either be with them or be without them.
It was funny, in the book I actually said three guys from my neighborhood went to that school. We had to convince them that we had a gang. We had them convinced that we had our own gang up in the hills, just to keep people off of us.
Tavis: You write in the book, though, that even though you got pulled into it, you never got caught up in the drinking and the drugging.
Ice-T: Nah, when I was younger, no, I never drank. Even today, I sip occasionally, socially, but no, as a kid, no, I never drank, I never did any weed or drugs or anything because I felt it would compromise my position. I was an orphan, and I had a feeling like if I ever hit the ground I may never get back up. So yeah, I was very straight-edged, but it was a survival instinct that I had.
Tavis: When you say you thought if you hit the ground you might not get back up, it reminds me of the subtitle of your text, which again is “A Memoir of Gangsta Life and Redemption.” There clearly has been redemption for you, but is there redemption for everyday people that end up not being a rapper, end up not being on “Law and Order?”
Those other kids that went to Crenshaw, other kids right now wrestling with the gang culture, is there redemption for them? Is there redemption for everybody, or are you just unique?
Ice-T: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Redemption just means you just make a change in your life and you try to do right, versus what you were doing, which was wrong. So I think a lot of people, people get hooked on drugs and when they get over that addiction they go out and they try to talk to kids and they try to work in rehab centers.
A lot of people start off in the wrong direction. I was a full-blown street cat. I was trying to hustle my way. I thought I was going to hustle my way to a mansion or something. I was doing pretty good, but I was just – I didn’t realize that there was no way to win that game.
Then all my friends started to go to prison and started to die, and it started to sink in. Rap music just came along and saved my life, and I started to tell the stories of the streets and that was my way out. But now I talk to kids at elementary schools and junior highs, and I go to the penitentiaries and juvenile facilities.
I think everybody wants to redeem themselves after they’ve done something that might be considered negative. I don’t think anyone wants to go to the grave negative.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not you have a thought on this – I’ve often wondered, and particularly after reading the book this time, whether or not I’m more impressed with your life vis-à-vis the change you made from the gangsta lifestyle to the straight and narrow, whether I’m more impressed with that or impressed with the fact that you made an anthem out of a song called “Cop Killer” and you end up playing a detective on television. (Laughter) How do you pull that off? What do cops say when they see you these days on the streets?
Ice-T: I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with the cops, and when I was out there breaking the law I didn’t hate the cops, they were just the opponent, and I thought I could beat them. I have no hatred for cops. I have hatred for racists and brutal people, but not necessarily the cops. The cops are just doing what they’re told to do.
So when it was time for me to play a cop, I played a cop in “New Jack City,” I was worried. I was like, “Wow, how will my fans take it?” They know me as the original gangsta, but they said, “Hey, Ice, you acting.” Now after 12 years on “Law and Order” I have no problem with it. I sleep good at night.
Because even in my role on “Law and Order” I’m chasing child molesters and rapists. Even criminals don’t like them. So I’m good in the hood, I’m good on both sides of the fence. Let’s put it like that.
Tavis: When you put out a song like “Cop Killer,” you end up then becoming a regarded actor on a very popular television show. I wonder whether or not you’ve ever had to encounter an element of your former life that regards you as soft, as a sellout, as a traitor. You ever have to deal with any of that?
Ice-T: Well, you know what it is is when you come out the hood you’re always going to have certain people that might feel that you’re doing something that they necessarily wouldn’t do. The thing of it is that I look at somebody like yourself – I’m a guy that really admires you, Tavis, because I watch how you can flow with the highest level of politicians when you take over for Larry King and was doing your thing.
I watched that, then I watch how you can kick it with me. A real player, man, there’s no limits. I can talk this way, I can talk that way. It depends on who I’m dealing with.
So the real cats that I admire, they always love my get-down, they always love my get-down. Now, the suckers on the sideline, they always going to have something to say, you dig? (Laughter) So I never really worry about them. I look at people like you, I look at people that have always been moving upwards, and I say that’s who I’m rolling with, because no matter what I do or what I play, a person like yourself, you know who I am so it doesn’t really matter.
Tavis: Is there anything that ever happened in your life that that you did or did not talk about in the book that you wonder might come back one day to boomerang on you? I’m deliberately asking an open question because I don’t know what that might be. Anything that you have concerns about, that does trouble you from time to time, that it might boomerang?
Ice-T: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. When you’re out there and you’re doing things, I never know if the person I’m shaking hands with is coming to kill me. I don’t know. I kicked up a little bit of dust when I was young. You don’t know. That’s something you have to live with when you cross those lines. But I’ve been on the right side and the positive side for a long time now – 25 years in the rap game and in the film game – and I’m not really worrying about it at this point. I just try to do the right thing, you dig? I’m not trying to make any more problems.
Tavis: Right. Speaking of not making more problems, that’s one way to view it and I know you view it that way. The other way to view it is that every day you wake up you get a chance to do some good, to make the world a better place when you leave it than when you found it.
So for those who are trying to find redemption, particularly those who the folk around them, the system, everyday people won’t let them redeem themselves, what’s your message to them about how to use every day to redeem themselves?
Ice-T: It just goes on inside of you, in your head. You really wake up saying, “Hey, I’m going to try to do the right thing,” or “I’m still going to try to do the wrong thing.” I’m always going to be considered wrong because I’m opinionated. I’m going to speak on a topic in a different way. I’m a far cry from politically correct, because I don’t really care what the political views are. I don’t care what the people say. I’ll say my opinion. That will always make you controversial.
But it’s all in your heart. It’s what you really believe, and if you’re doing the right thing – I think you know when you’re doing the wrong thing. The thing of it is for me is when I was doing the wrong thing, at the time I thought I was doing the right thing.
It’s like if you’re dealing with somebody who is high on drugs, they can look back at it and say, “Wow, I was destroying myself.” But during the period, they think they’re doing the right thing. So it’s very confusing. You just have to let the smoke clear so you can see the whole picture, and fortunately I made it to this position where now I can look back on the whole thing, and that’s why I wrote the book.
Tavis: Ice-T is doing his thing. For more of my conversation with Ice-T, hit our website at PBS.org. The book from Ice-T is called “Ice: A Memoir of Gangsta Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood.” Ice-T, I love you, man. I’m honored to have you on this program.
Ice-T: I followed you on Twitter. Follow me. I’m @FinalLevel.
Tavis: I’ll find you. Good to see you, Ice.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.