Ice-T interview

Tom Huddleston hangs with the Original Gangster

Ice-T is a hip hop pioneer. The foul-mouthed, gun-toting, parent-frightening rapper was the first musician ever to have a ‘parental advisory’ sticker slapped on his LPs. But he’s also a versatile actor whose range extends from gangland thuggery (‘New Jack City’ and ‘Trespass’) via comic weirdness (‘Tank Girl’ and ‘Leprechaun: In the Hood’) to a 12-year stint on TV’s ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’.

And now, at 54, he’s a director. His documentary ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ may, as Ice himself admits, pluck ‘the low-hanging fruit’  and play to the first-time filmmaker’s strengths,  but it’s not the artless digicam nostalgia-fest it might have been. Instead, it’s  a sumptuously photographed look at how rap, originally an outsider music style, has taken over the world,  one teenage bedroom at a time. Ice talked to us on his car phone (old school!) from Washington DC, where he was cruising the streets in what we can only imagine was a heavily pimped stretch Hummer.

Did you always have ambitions to get into film?

‘Absolutely not. When I first started out in music I was so negative. I was knee-deep in the streets. Then my friends started going to jail. They said, “Boy, you better start taking this seriously, you got a chance to do something with your life.” That’s when I realised I had to focus. The music led to the acting. But movies aren’t something you can just will yourself into. Someone has to choose you, and you have to be quite fortunate to be chosen.’

Do you think every rapper has an actor inside them?

‘I think singing and acting go hand in hand. Take an R&B singer: one song says, “I love you”, the next is, “Baby, don’t leave me’, the next is, “If you leave me I don’t care”. You have to drop in and out of different perspectives. If I do a song where I’m angry, when it’s time to perform it live I’m not mad, I’m happy. I’m at a concert. But I have to somehow drum up that rage. That’s acting.’

Your first LPs were almost documentaries, but there are a lot of gangster rappers who were clearly playing a part. How do you tell the difference?

‘Some music comes from a real place; some music comes from your imagination. It’s difficult to find out what’s real and what’s not, especially with the gangster stuff. But, like I say in the movie, if you talk like nothing will ever happen to you, and the gangster life is a great thing, I know you’re lying. That’s how I can detect the fakes.’

Were you concerned that Hollywood would glamorise some of the real things that you’d seen?

‘It’s funny, I talked to Tarantino when I first wanted to direct. He said, “Why not? You’ve written some of the greatest action dramas in history.” That was inspiring. But no, I wasn’t concerned. Hollywood has its own way of telling stories. I was just telling stories that I was familiar with. And it’s what I want to do in the future: I want to take my audio cinema and put it on the screen. People have been listening to my music with their eyes closed. Now they can open their eyes and see the whole picture.’

Your first serious film role was in ‘New Jack City’ (1991), one of the first movies to bring Hollywood and hip hop together...

‘“New Jack City” was a perfect marriage of music and film. They used a lot of musicians: myself, Christopher Williams. People that were popular because of their music were given the chance to act. And the soundtrack was incredible. It caught the whole vibe of that early crack era in New York.’

You played a cop. Were people taken aback?

‘I think I was more taken aback than anybody! I had an album out at the time called “Original Gangster”. But I was also aware that this was a chance to be in a movie, and very few people get these opportunities. So I took a jump and it turned out nobody cared; everybody was like, “Wow, you did a great job.” That’s when I learned that people understand the difference between acting and real life. And since then, Tupac played a cop, LL Cool J played a cop. I think when you cast a street guy as a street guy, that’s not acting, but when you cast him as a cop you get an interesting dynamic.’

It feels like you sought movies that didn’t have any hip hop connection. Was it important to move away from that?

‘It wasn’t conscious; I was just getting offers. That’s the thing: if you’re Will Smith you can guide your career, but if you’re a new artist you’re just taking gigs. When Joel Silver calls and says, “I want you to be in a movie with Denzel Washington,” I don’t think you give a fuck what it’s about, you think: What? Do you have the right number? Me?’

Your first film as a director looks fantastic. How did you go about getting that super-saturated look to it?

‘We said to ourselves, no stock footage; it can’t be like anything anyone’s ever seen. We shot New York to look dirty, but then we shot it to look like a jewellery box. We wanted to make the film original.’

When you were casting your interviewees, did you go through your address book for guys you knew?

‘Those are the only people I used! I didn’t reach out to anybody I didn’t have a relationship with, because the movie’s not about having everyone’s favourite rapper. I tell people, “You may not see your favourite rapper, but you’ll see your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper”

Are you planning to direct again?

‘I want to do a feature. Either I’ll do something that’s very Ice-T, or something that’s the complete opposite. Either I’ll do a kids’ thing, because I know kids’ movies are huge, or I’ll do something like Tarantino, something that’s on the edge, crazy, a little kung-fu, a little bit gangster: all that shit balled into one.’

Lots of hip hop artists revert to their birth names when they get serious. Did you think of making this a Tracy Marrow joint?

‘No, I’ll stay Ice-T. This is what got me here, I’m always going to stay true to that. If it weren’t for hip hop I wouldn’t be doing all these other things.’

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ has its public premiere at Hammersmith Apollo on July 19 and will be on general release from July 20.