“It’s got to feel real but not be Introduction

Introduction
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“It’s got to feel real but not
be real” (Ice-T)
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Josephine Metcalf and Will Turner
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In August 2012, the editors of this collection attended the European premier of
the Ice-T (né Tracy Marrow) directed documentary, Something From Nothing: The
Art of Rap. Held at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, the event was marked
by a palpable sense of excitement amongst an audience spanning all ages, races,
and genders. The two of us shared in this excitement, and the evening did not
disappoint. Following the warmly received film, we were treated to a question
and answer session with Ice-T himself, and a concert that saw the film’s director,
and a number of its stars, revisit some of their classic tracks. As Ice-T remarked
on stage that night, both the film and the evening offered “a love letter to
hip-hop.”
More than this, however, the event crystallized the multifarious and
contradictory aspects of the genre, and of Ice-T’s career. On the one hand,
The Art of Rap conveyed hip-hop as a localized and fiercely communal cultural
practice. In interviews conducted on the streets of Harlem, New York (NY),
South Central Los Angeles (LA), and elsewhere, the film’s stars explained
how their rhymes came from a highly specific sense of place, community, and
struggle. Yet, viewing the film at a press-packed premiere in London, it was
clear that the genre had long transcended these geographic boundaries. As the
film’s luminaries posed for cameras in the foyer—alongside Ice-T’s glamour
model wife (and reality television co-star), Coco—one could not help but be
struck by a very different context of hip-hop: as part of a global media empire.
A similar tension emerged later on stage, as Ice-T ran through his seminal 1991
hit “OG Original Gangster.” While Ice-T’s rhymes had not changed, his image
very much had, to the extent that it was hard to reconcile the lyrical message
with the man delivering them on stage. Instead, the 54-year-old Ice-T brought
to mind nobody else more than Detective Odafin Tutuola, the character he has
portrayed on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) since 2000. In that
moment Ice-T straddled a number of seeming opposites: outlaw criminal and
TV cop; South Central hustler and international celebrity.
The protean and contradictory nature of Ice-T’s star image was further
reinforced in the question and answer session. As Ice-T (introduced as “the
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Rapper, Writer, Pop-Cultural Player
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hustler supreme”) bantered and conversed with the audience, he came across
as extremely affable and forthcoming. For a brief moment he was no longer
merely a persona or a performer, but the “real deal.” That is, until a memorable
comment towards the end of the session. Responding to a question about his
composite star image (gangsta rapper, devoted TV husband, network television
star), Ice-T stated: “When you see a sound bite of Ice on TV, it’s an Ice, it’s
not the only one.” On one level, this is a statement that requires no further
discussion. Indeed, his prolific output speaks for itself (as a cursory glance
at this book’s “Ice-ography” indicates). We can confirm that Ice-T has played
roles in excess of 40 films and 13 television shows. He has produced, written,
or starred in more than nine documentaries. He has cemented his celebrity
status with two reality television shows. He has no fewer than eight albums as
a rapper and five as a member of a rock band, not to mention collaborating
on ten other albums. He has (co)-written four books and his voice has “acted”
in at least seven video games. We lost count trying to numerate his awards
across all the genres, and even as this book was in its closing stages Ice-T was
promoting further works (most notably his role as Executive Producer on the
2013 documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp). However, a more profound
and problematic question persists: which is the “real” Ice-T among all these
different and even contradictory versions?
This anthology does not attempt to provide any easy or absolutist answer
to this question. Rather, it seeks to open up the wider cultural and political
implications of the question itself. To this end, this collection of essays aims to
examine, explore, and critically engage with issues relating to African American
urban life and cultural production in the post-civil rights era. The project will
do so using Ice-T—and his myriad roles as musician, actor, writer, celebrity,
and industrialist—as a vehicle through which to interpret and understand
these issues. Questions to be considered include: how have African Americans
contributed to recent popular culture terrains (both as artists and producers)?
To what extent have the politics of race representation, gender, and class
evolved in recent decades? In what ways have notions of geographical and
generational space progressed in the same period? By focusing on the different
stages and multiple avenues of this most iconic of careers, this collection charts
the dynamics of continuity and change that has defined these shifts over the
past 25 years.
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Key Themes and Methodologies
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The long and varied career of Ice-T spans a turbulent period of American race
relations. Over the past three decades, African Americans have faced a number
of new challenges brought about by changes in the political, economic, and
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Introduction
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social structure of America. Few moments offer a clearer dramatization of
these challenges than the 1992 LA uprising, a subject explored by Ice-T in his
collection of essays The Ice Opinion: Who Gives A Fuck?, published in 1994:
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April 29, 1992 was the happiest day of my entire life. I’m so proud the people got
out there and made some muthafuckin’ noise when the four LAPD officers who
beat on Rodney King were found innocent in Simi Valley. Anybody who says
this uprising was ignorant is the stupidest muthafucka in the world. Rage ignites
the fire but once the flames get going, poverty takes over. The bottom line was
people were broke. The press was quick to report, “Well. They’re just looting.”
Yeah because they’re fuckin’ broke. They look at big stores, like the Good Guys,
as being the system, and the system owes ‘em. They’re saying “Pay, muthafucka.”1
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Ice-T delineates the LA rebellion as a decisive social and discursive flashpoint.
In particular, it was a moment that exploded the erroneous yet commonsense
notion of America as a society that was somehow “beyond race.” This upswelling of black urban “rage” made visible the persistence of racial and
class hierarchies, segregation, and police brutality. As we mark the twentieth
anniversary of the LA uprising (as well as the recent passing of Rodney King), it
is relevant to reflect upon the intervening two decades. In many ways, the essays
compiled in this volume are historical studies and combine to map the material,
as well as cultural, shifts that have defined the African American experience in
the US since 1992. Moreover, in the post-Obama, post-economic meltdown
era, it is an ideal time to once again explore what Howard Winant has dubbed
America’s “racial dualism,” in which a national discourse of “post-racialism”
co-exists with an insidious and deeply ingrained system of white supremacy.2
This vastly changed social landscape has produced a number of resonant
pop-cultural trends that have proved to be simultaneously innovative and
contentious, unifying and divisive. In his recently published memoir (2011),
Ice-T presents himself as a decisive presence in this new cultural landscape:
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If there’s any one thing I take pride in—as far as helping this hip-hop game to
grow into the empire it is today—it’s the number of firsts. I was the first LA
rapper respected in New York. First rapper to drop that street language—bitch,
ho, nigga. First to bring back the black heavy metal band in our generation. First
rapper to write a book when I dropped my first collection of essays, The Ice
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1 Ice-T with Heidi Sigmund, The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a Fuck? (London: Pan
Books, 1994): 147.
2 Howard Winant, “Racial Dualism at Century’s End,” in W. Lubiano (ed.), The
House That Race Built (New York: Vintage, 1998): 87.
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Opinion, in ’94. First rapper to start acting in films. First rapper to land a role on
a network television series.3
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Ice-T presents himself as a pop-cultural mogul, presiding over the growth of
hip-hop as a multi-national and cross-platform empire. The passage stresses his
success, ubiquity, and seemingly effortless ability to negotiate a number of cultural
terrains. Yet the wider significance of Ice-T’s pop-cultural prominence is hotly
contested. As Chapter 4 explains in more detail, nowhere is this contestation
more clearly evident than in the wide-ranging responses to his 1992 song “Cop
Killer,” a revenge fantasy that commented explicitly on the Rodney King trial.
On the one hand, the song was met with a police-led censorship campaign
championed by Vice President Dan Quayle, its lyrics held up as embodying the
most corrupting elements of gangsta rap (despite in fact stemming from Ice-T’s
heavy metal band, Body Count). On the other hand, organizations such as the
National Black Police Association and criminologist Mark Hamm celebrated
the song as proto-revolutionary, and a vital means of communicating black
urban realities to a wider audience. At the same time, commentators of various
political stripes dismissed the song as a “cynical commercial concoction” that
catered to the racial fetishes of white suburban youth.4 The controversy evokes
many of the debates regarding the political exigencies of contemporary black
popular culture, and of hip-hop in particular. Ice-T’s musical career maps a
progression in which hip-hop has gone from a position of social and cultural
marginality, to liminality, to inclusion and co-optation. Similarly, Ice-T’s
multi-platform “crossover” success can be placed within a wider explosion of
mass-cultural, mediated, and technological images of black urban life over the
past two decades. As Stuart Hall reminds us, establishing the politics of these
images is no easy task, being as they are “rooted in popular experience and
available for expropriation at one and the same time.”5
Following on from Hall, this collection of essays explores the way in
which Ice-T’s career captures a tension between black cultural resistance
and appropriation, expression and commodification. To be sure, Ice-T
has positioned himself from the outset as an artist concerned primarily
with material success, as opposed to artistic or political consciousness.
As he frankly stated in the documentary Pimps Up, Ho’s Down (1999):
“I can’t act, I really can’t act, I ain’t no rapper, it’s all game. I’m just working
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3 Ice-T and Douglas Century, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—From
South Central to Hollywood (New York: One World, 2011): 215.
4 Michael Kinsley, “Ice-T: Is the issue social responsibility …,” Time, July 28,
1992: 88.
5 Stuart Hall, “What is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” in Gina Dent (ed.),
Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992): 26.
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Introduction
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these niggas.”6 Ice-T’s jack-of-all-trades approach to the entertainment
“game” reflects a gangsta ethic of ruthless entrepreneurialism and
careerism. Yet this is no reason to dismiss him as a worthy subject
of study. On the contrary, as a self-confessed pop-cultural hustler,
Ice-T’s career raises the following question: what does it mean to be a
“successful” African-American cultural producer? As we shall see, his long and
myriad career shows us that the marker of “success” is in continual flux. For
instance, Ice-T’s acting career appears to have been marked by a progression
from Hollywood film to television drama to reality TV show. On film, he
seemingly ended up playing cameos—support roles—that almost pastiche
gangsta cred and authenticity. Meanwhile, his rise to prominence as a reality
TV husband is a move that speaks in complex ways to the masculinist gangsta
ethos of “telling it like it is.” In addition, Ice-T’s shifting status as a crossover
star speaks to the unstable and mutually constitutive boundaries of “black”
and “white” culture. From the public outrage that greeted “Cop Killer” in the
early 1990s, to his widespread public acceptance as a TV cop in the era of
Obama, Ice-T’s career continuously maps (and tests) the accepted boundaries
of black cultural production. Moreover, his success across a startling multitude
of pop-cultural arenas provides an opportunity to discuss how such criteria are
rearticulated across written, musical, and filmic forms. This is the first book
that, taken as a whole, looks at a black pop-cultural icon’s manipulation of (or
manipulation by?) so many different cultural forms simultaneously.
Perhaps most centrally, Ice-T’s career foregrounds the relationship between
racial authenticity and representation. This relationship is most clearly visible
in Ice-T’s adoption of the “pimp” aesthetic. Since his earliest days, Ice-T has
regularly cited pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim as his mentor and hero, because
“he made it real to me.”7 Similarly, it is with some irony that as Ice-T has moved
into Hollywood and network TV—including playing a police detective—he
has continuously maintained the need to “keep it real.” These ironies remind
us that being involved in the construction of reality is not the same as being
immediately authentic. As Ice-T himself asserts: “the trick I learned is that
when you’re making a movie—and later on doing television—it’s got to feel real
but not be real.”8 Ice-T’s chameleonic star image creates a highly visible friction
regarding the classic gangsta value of “real-ness.” Yet, just like his hero Iceberg
Slim, Ice-T’s central “hustle” is to project an image of ghetto authenticity
for financial gain, while playing with the contradictions this move throws up.
Ice-T, then, is both ultra-real and a total fake, a voice for and exploiter of the
black urban community, a savvy cultural producer and a commodified media
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6 Pimps Up, Ho’s Down, dir. Brent Owens (HBO, 1999).
7 Ice-T, Ice: 40.
8 Ice-T, Ice: 117.
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image. In many ways, the praxis of pimping can be said to define Ice-T’s
career, imbuing it with a shrewd attention to self-stylization, and a critical selfconsciousness. As Eithne Quinn has commented, the critical value of gangsta
rap’s pimp aesthetic lies in the ability to “comment on the discursive negotiation
of power,” reflecting back upon the “terms and conditions of its own popular
and commercial-cultural mediation.”9 As this collection of essays demonstrates,
the career of Ice-T raises a series of meta-themes regarding popular culture’s
ability to constitute racial identity, resistance, and exploitation.
Despite the heterogeneity and longevity of his career, most of the scholarly
attention to Ice-T has focused on his rapping career in the late 1980s and
early 1990s (including the “Cop Killer” debate), and his move into films
with New Jack City, a celebrated text in the early-1990s “hood” movie cycle.
Though today he is regularly booked on the college lecture circuit, his place
in the academy is mostly restricted to the political and social critique played
out in his rap lyrics and performance in New Jack City. There have been no
scholastic monographs or collections of essays dedicated to Ice-T alone and his
moves into the literary realm have been relatively untouched, in part because
of the recent release dates of his memoir and novel (both 2011). Since the
launching of this project, several colleagues and critics have drawn parallels
with Julius Bailey’s Jay-Z: Essays on Hip-hop’s Philosopher King and Michael
Eric Dyson’s Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic.10 There are comparisons
to be made between these respected edited collections and our own: most
obviously, that all three can be situated under the generic rubric of Hip-Hop
Studies. Certainly, more than a couple of the essays in Rapper, Writer, Pop-Cultural
Player draw logical and important analogies between Jay-Z and his older
counterpart. Nonetheless, there are numerous points of departure that
distinguish this collection from these previous two books. On a palpable
level, Ice-T’s career has a much longer trajectory (1987 to present) than either
Jay-Z’s or Nas’s whose first albums were released in 1996 and 1994, respectively.
Additionally, as already stressed, the multifarious nature of Ice-T’s career
distinguishes him as a unique scholarly subject. While Jay-Z and Nas may each
boast a brief filmography, they have not been inclined to journey into fiction and
memoir, nor into conventionally “white” cultural areas including rock music,
and a network television cop show. As such, while Dyson’s edition offered a
forensic analysis of an iconic work of rap music, this collection, in both its
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9 Eithne Quinn, “‘Who’s the Mack?’: The Performativity and Politics of the Pimp
Figure in Gangsta Rap,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 31, no. 1 (2000): 117.
10 Julius Bailey’s Jay-Z: Essays on Hip-hop’s Philosopher King (Jefferson, NC: McFarland
& Co., 2011) and Michael Eric Dyson’s Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic (New York:
Basic Books, 2009).
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historical scope and formal breadth, gestures towards the broader horizons and
intersections of black cultural production.
To put this point in its most basic terms, we believe that Rapper, Writer,
Pop-Cultural Player offers a truly inclusive approach to its subject matter,
exploring the politics of racial representation in their full heterogeneity. Taken
together, the essays in this collection use the case of Ice-T to interrogate how
black popular culture is constructed and policed, and how this has altered over
the past 25 years, and across cultural forms. Most centrally, they make visible the
vital yet paradoxical role of race in contemporary American society as described
by Winant:
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Race matters … not only as a means of rendering the social world intelligible,
but simultaneously as a way of making it opaque and mysterious. Race is not
only real, but also illusory. Not only is it common sense; it is also common
nonsense. Not only does it establish our identity; it also denies us our identity.
Not only does it allocate resources, power and privilege; it also provides means
for challenging that allocation.11
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If Ice-T’s career path is contradictory, then so is the very construction of race
itself. In this sense, any attempt to establish the “real” or stable Ice-T is to miss
the point of his wider social and cultural significance. Rather, Ice-T’s career
illustrates the unstable yet foundational role race plays in American society,
and the contradictory way in which it has been articulated over the past two
decades. This process of articulation is seen in every twist and turn in Ice-T’s
career, every moment of resistance and containment, every act of crossover
and censorship, and every dollar made or lost.
Following this introduction, the book is divided into three primary parts,
with each consisting of three to four essays. These are arranged as follows:
• Hip-hop contexts
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• Genre hustling
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• Activist, philanthropist, entrepreneur
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Following these essays, the book will feature an original interview with
Ice-T himself in which he reflects on all areas of his long and varied career.
The interview probes some of the critical lines of thinking that were raised
by the essays, capturing a black cultural producer in the act of simultaneously
11 Winant, “Racial Dualism”: 90.
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promoting and deconstructing his public persona; or as he puts it in the
interview, his “Napoleon pose.” The book then closes with an afterword.
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Part 1: Hip-Hop Contexts
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This first section addresses Ice-T’s position within the diverse traditions and
shifting contexts of hip-hop culture. Ice-T’s self-proclaimed status as the
“Original Gangsta” attests to his pioneering and foundational influence on
the genre of gangsta rap and his remarkable endurance within hip-hop music,
culture, and film. The moniker also constitutes a carefully crafted public image
or brand that denotes authenticity and seniority. Yet this is not to suggest
that Ice-T’s enduring status as an “OG” implies a principle of stability or
homogeneity. As these essays demonstrate, Ice-T’s progression within the
genre from young “pimp” to elder statesman is characterized by a process of
reinvention, articulation, and inter-generational tension. In this sense, Ice-T’s
long and uneven career provides a unique opportunity to map the formal,
industrial, and discursive changes (and continuities) that have marked hip-hop
culture over the past 30 years.
Murray Forman opens the section, and this collection, by analyzing Ice-T’s
status as both an “Original,” and an “Aging Gangsta.” The chapter is primarily
concerned with the generational politics of rap and hip-hop, engaging with
the 2007–2008 “beef ” between Ice-T and teenage YouTube rap sensation
Soulja Boy. According to Forman, Ice-T emerges as an important figure whose
relevance is significant not solely in relation to the history of hip-hop but also in
relation to the scholarly study of aging and ageism in popular culture. Perceived
as a fading MC, Ice-T is rendered vulnerable, redefined as a rap “has been” (or
worse) in an industry context that privileges the new and fetishizes the young.
Positioned in the discourse of decline, he is open to attack by younger artists
who reflect more contemporary styles and musical aesthetics and who seek
entrée to the upper echelons of hip-hop’s industrial hierarchy. Yet, as Forman
argues, Ice-T’s status as an “Aging Gangsta” illustrates the way in which tropes
of experience, respect, and nostalgia have worked to forge an (albeit incomplete)
continuum that places old and new schools into a complex, and potentially
more productive, dialogue. Ice-T’s enduring presence within the genre outlines
a new cartography of age and aging, a new means of charting social interactions
that facilitate the representation of hip-hop elderscapes.
A similar dynamic of conflict marks Ice-T’s Hollywood film career, a subject
explored by Keith Corson in his essay “Ice-T at the Movies.” While Ice-T’s time
in Hollywood is mostly associated with the handful of mainstream releases he
appeared in at the height of his music career (particularly New Jack City in 1991),
his supposed “second” career on screen spans a longer timeframe and has been
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far more prolific than his work as a recording artist. As Corson notes, while
Ice-T was one of a handful of rappers who transitioned into acting during
the boom of African American “hood” cinema in the early 1990s, his film
career can be traced back to 1984, pre-dating the commercial peak of hip-hop
music and cinema. In this sense, Ice-T’s screen image charts the evolution of
“gangsta” from a local cultural practice to a marketable Hollywood genre. More
broadly, by mapping the rise (and fall) of the “hood” film cycle of the early
1990s, Corson explores the changing way in which Hollywood film constructed
the figure of the black “outlaw,” a progression that captures dramatic shifts in
the era’s conceptualizing of black masculinity and urban experience. This cycle
of films, and the uneven trajectory of Ice-T’s big-screen career, reveals the
dialogic relationship between hip-hop and Hollywood and a reciprocal dynamic
of appropriation between the forms.
The final essay in this section looks at a different aspect of Ice-T’s film
career in order to explore the question of hip-hop historiography. In recent
years, Ice-T has emerged as a leading documentarian of hip-hop and gangsta
culture, most notably directing and presenting the 2011 documentary Something
From Nothing: The Art of Rap. In a close analysis of the film, James Braxton
Peterson explores how The Art of Rap simultaneously enacts and deconstructs
hip-hop’s performative and narratological strategies. As Peterson illustrates,
the film seeks to validate rap as sophisticated (black) art by appealing to
generic tropes of experiential, “natural,” and masculinist talent. Peterson
places these strategies not only within hip-hop currents, but within broader
traditions of black documentary, arguing that the film interrogates the
points of intersection between classical and “street” definitions of art and
performance. Yet, despite its claims to demystify the craft, the film—in both
its productive and problematic dimensions—indicates the presence of a rap
artist who continues to be in careful control of his image and its cultural
landscape, both in front of and behind the camera. What emerges is a series
of fascinating tensions: between a nostalgic and irreverent construction of
hip-hop history; between a celebration and critique of hip-hop chauvinism;
between the “reality” and artifice of the gangsta-as-performer.
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Part 2: Genre Hustling
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The second section of essays looks beyond the conventional boundaries of
hip-hop culture to examine Ice-T’s move into other forms and genres: rock
music, network television drama, reality television, and fiction. These career
moves can be viewed as significant inasmuch as they exceed the accepted limits
of black urban representation, situating Ice-T in a cultural space that can be
variously labeled “mainstream,” “family-oriented,” “middlebrow,” “bourgeois,”
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or “white.” Of course, we should resist essentializing these distinctions. As
bell hooks reminds us, the problematic cultural values associated with gangsta
rap are a reflection of, rather than a deviation from, prevailing societal values
“created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”12 The essays
in this section explore diverse areas of Ice-T’s career in order to address the
articulation between dominant and marginal (racialized) forms, and map the
currents of resistance and appropriation that characterize that articulation. In
particular, these essays ask the following question: does Ice-T’s “crossover”
success represent a productive form of intercultural communication, a
commercial hustle on the part of Ice-T, or the containment of an oppositional
voice within dominant culture industries?
In the first essay of this section, Will Turner looks back to Ice-T’s career as
the lead singer of the notorious thrash metal band Body Count. At the height
of the controversy surrounding Body Count’s 1992 song “Cop Killer,” Ice-T
remarked in an interview that the song’s heavy metal sound had “got inside
suburbia a little deeper than a normal rap record would.”13 The comment
can be read in two very different ways. On the one hand, Ice-T appears to
frame his foray into heavy metal music as a progressive act of intercultural
communication, in which profound racial/social inequalities (as illuminated by
the LA riots) were relayed to a white suburban audience. However, critics have
read Body Count’s transgression more cynically, arguing that in order to reach
their intended audience, the band repackaged these social issues as marketable
and titillating racial fantasies. While recent scholars have dismissed such charges
as “misreadings” Turner argues that Body Count’s music playfully foregrounds
these complications, taking the act of intercultural miscommunication as their
primary musical and lyrical theme. Through an analysis of Body Count’s
eponymous 1992 album and public image, it can be contended that the (often
jarring) juxtaposition of gangsta and metal tropes provides a vocabulary
with which Ice-T reflects back upon a broader moment of gangsta culture’s
“crossover” into the mainstream. In doing so, it makes visible a series of
problematic articulations: between black rapper and white consumer; urban
reality and bourgeois fetishism; revolutionary violence and violent fantasy.
Turning to a markedly different strain of Ice-T’s career, the next chapter
considers Ice-T’s role as Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on Dick Wolf ’s
NBC television series Law & Order: SVU. As Mark D. Cunningham details,
this televisual role lies in stark contrast to Ice-T’s earlier anti-police stance, and
Body Count’s unequivocal condemnation of police brutality. Yet, despite the
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12 bell hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York: Routledge, 1994):
116.
13 Alan Light, “Ice-T: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, August 20,
1992: 31.
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Introduction
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controversy inspired by this musical statement, Ice-T the actor has successfully
managed for 11 seasons to portray an example of law enforcement by infusing
the character with his own brand of street swagger and nationalist cultural
viewpoints. Cunningham juxtaposes Ice-T’s performance as the character
of Fin with his former artistic output, arguing that what he does on Law &
Order: SVU is far more than just simple contradiction. Instead, Cunningham
investigates how one artistic perception informs the other, staging a hegemonic
struggle between dominant and subaltern political meanings. In this sense,
Cunningham reads Tutuola as a “double agent” on a number of levels: as
a black police officer; as a black father to a gay son; as the son of African
revolutionaries working for a corrupt white state. Tutuola’s hybridity dramatizes
Ice-T’s own move into new cultural territories and the challenge this offers
to hip-hop culture’s own views on law enforcement, homosexuality, and black
masculinity more generally.
The next essay examines another aspect of Ice-T’s television career, and
the way in which it could again be said to test the conventional parameters
of hip-hop culture. Barry Shanahan addresses the convergence of gangsta,
neoliberal, and family values in the “E!” (Entertainment) channel’s recent
popular reality television show Ice Loves Coco. With the titles of each episode
of its first-season run inspired by Sir Mix-A-Lot’s seminal 1992 single “Baby
Got Back,” Ice Loves Coco draws explicitly from a range of hip-hop’s founding
myths in a manner that is at once laudatory and revolutionary, demonstrating
an investment in gangsta values while simultaneously advocating for a familycentered and near conservative worldview. Despite the show’s novelty value,
Shanahan demonstrates that Ice Loves Coco carries on a wider tradition of
incorporating hip-hop’s political and aesthetic qualities in media outside of the
musical locale. As Shanahan argues, this has historically served to demonstrate
the form’s heterogeneity and inherent complexity. In this instance, reality
television demonstrates how apparent disparities between certain ideologies
may be synthesized or ameliorated through the imposition of hip-hop in an
extra-musical form. In particular, Ice Loves Coco offers its titular relationship as
an example of how best to negotiate a contemporary heterosexual relationship
within the strictures of neoliberalism and late capitalism.
The final chapter of this section considers Ice-T’s move into an arguably
more prestigious cultural realm: crime fiction. Jonathan Munby asserts that
Tracy Marrow’s avatar, Ice-T, is grounded in veneration for the author Iceberg
Slim (Robert Beck), and a specific form of criminal self-representation that
seeks to be true-to-life, or “on the rilla.” Yet, Munby looks closely at how, in
turning his talents to fiction in his debut novel Kings of Vice, Ice-T has faced a
particularly intricate challenge in “keeping it real.” The novel’s central character,
Marcus “Crush” Casey is released on parole in 2011 after a 20-year sentence.
Casey walks out of prison as an old school veteran confronting the new reality
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Part 3: Activist, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur
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of a post-Wall Street collapse NY. On the one hand, the novel offers a sustained
critique of capitalist inequality, as Casey attempts to find an enlightened and
more ethical subjectivity in reaction to his post-Crash surroundings. Yet on the
other hand, the novel provides baser pleasures, as Casey must keep the gangsta
ideal alive and profitable in spectacular and violent fashion. Munby reads the
novel’s conflicted protagonist as a further incarnation of Tracy Marrow, this time
capturing the dilemmas posed by the gangsta turned respectable author. Just as
the category of urban fiction has moved from the street to the center of the
mainstream bookstore, Kings of Vice’s interplay of streetwise sensationalism and
structural critique further confounds the lines separating aesthetic categories.
Moreover, this aesthetic “mash” is integral to the socio-economic question the
novel poses about where the ghetto begins and ends in the context of a postmeltdown era.
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Ice-T appears to remain in careful control of his public persona, not merely
through cultural texts but also—as the final section of essays reveals—in his
role as a political activist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. In particular, these
chapters seek to assess the extent to which Ice-T can offer an instrumental
voice for the black urban communities he references so frequently in his music.
Indeed, Ice-T’s public image is synonymous with the deprived post-industrial
cities of California that Tricia Rose places at “the center of the hip-hop
universe.” Rose further identifies “rap’s hidden struggle” to be “the struggle
over access to public space, community resources, and the interpretation
of black expression.”14 These final essays assess the various extra-musical
strategies—philanthropic, entrepreneurial, new media-based, literary—used by
Ice-T to make this hidden struggle visible. Of course, this means negotiating
the paradoxical overlap between the materialistic, individualistic gangsta
ethos and the neoliberal policies that have wrought devastation on the postindustrial city. Yet, as these authors illustrate, Ice-T’s activities over the past
decade constitute an attempt to imbue his public image with a narrative of
redemption, particularly as it applies to gang violence. As such, Ice-T’s status as
an entrepreneurial philanthropist captures both the opportunities and limits of
“progressive” political discourse in the era of Obama.
In the first essay of this section, Greg Dimitriadis and Justin De Senso
address the “Complicated Faces” of Ice-T as a humanitarian. The authors
discuss Ice-T as an early example of a hip-hop industrialist as philanthropist,
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14 Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
(Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994): 34, 145.
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Introduction
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a role that reached something of a popular apogee with the megastar Jay-Z.
Dimitriadis and De Senso deliberate Ice-T’s commercial strategies, paying
particular attention to their social iterations through philanthropy (both literal
and metaphoric). Ice-T’s efforts to link this entrepreneurialism with philanthropy
provide an interesting way to think about emergent political possibilities within
the confines of a dominant neoliberal discourse. Nonetheless, these possibilities
are replete with contradictions. Despite his award-winning benevolent work with
Children Uniting Nations and YOGA for Youth as well as his public rejection
of criminality and pimping, Ice-T seems invested in maintaining a particular
type of realness that is dependent upon his early cop killer/pimp identity. In
particular, in 2009 Ice-T proudly announced that his Xbox gamer profile was
Lord 187X, a direct nod to murder and gangsta rap. Paying particular attention
to Ice-T’s position as a “Violent Gamer,” Dimitriadis and De Senso explore the
significance of these contradictory identities, and the matrix of philanthropy
and entrepreneurialism undergirding the contemporary Ice-T “brand.”
Remaining within a philanthropic realm, Josephine Metcalf tackles the
reality television show The Peacemaker: LA Gang Wars (2010) of which Ice-T
was creator and executive producer. Marketed as “putting the real in reality TV”
this program—with a goal of instigating gang truces—reminds us that hip-hop
artists giving back to their communities in a variety of benevolent endorsements
is commonplace. But Metcalf ’s overriding concern in this chapter is with the
popular cultural representation of gangbanging, a phenomenon that many
naively assumed peaked in the early 1990s (alongside gangsta rap and the ghetto
film cycle), and which many guilelessly understood from the melodramatic
coverage in the print news media of the late 1980s. African Americans seemingly
made significant progress in the realm of television in the 1990s (both in
on-screen representation and with behind-the-screen presences), with
documentary series such as Gangland (2007–2010) serving to educate
contemporary television audiences on gangs. Furthermore, in choosing
a reality-format as a medium through which to give back, Ice-T’s creative
vision is seemingly revolutionary. Yet at the same time, the show’s uniqueness
collided with a number of problematic questions when considering “the
burden of representation” for black artists and their subjects. This chapter will
contend that while The Peacemaker sought to ingeniously civilize and “refine”
the representation of criminal gang members, it ironically stereotyped them,
generating a number of fascinating conflicts pertaining to the show, the genre,
and the beneficiary/commercial exigencies of the gangsta rapper.
Continuing with the premise of gangland redemption (and its limits),
H. David Brumble analyzes Ice-T’s 2012 autobiography Ice: A Memoir of
Gangster Life and Redemption—From South Central to Hollywood. Brumble places
Ice-T’s as-told-to autobiography within the broader literary tradition of the
gangland memoir, and in particular a subgenre he terms the “DMZ,” or moral/
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psychological Demilitarized Zone. This kind of memoir warns against the
gangbanging life, with the narrator stressing how far he has come since going
straight (in the case of Ice-T, from South Central to Hollywood). Yet, in the
DMZ autobiography, there is no suggestion at all of a moral transformation
in the conventional sense. As Brumble argues, it is precisely Ice-T’s subsequent
success (or pop-cultural “hustle”) that problematizes this narrative of criminal
redemption. If gangsta rap, TV acting, and literary authorship are better ways
of making money than robbing jewelry stores, it is because they are safer and
unlikely to lead to prison. Brumble contrasts the trajectory of Ice-T’s postgangbanging career with that of ex-Crips member Colton Simpson, an Ice-T
devotee whose own memoir was cited as evidence against him in trial. Both
Ice-T and Colton’s memoirs suggest the power of language and writing as a
means of achieving redemption. However, the contrasting fortunes of the two
authors—mainstream celebrity and marginalized convict—remind us that the
relationship between writing and living social reality is complex and uneven.
In the final essay of this collection, Halifu Osumare broadens out to address
Ice-T’s cultural and political significance in the era of Obama. The essay
offers a comparative analysis of Ice-T and Obama in order to deconstruct a
dominant “color-blind” discourse. While Obama signifies a highly visible break
in America’s racialized history, the onslaught of political attacks to which he
has been subjected illustrate the way in which racism continues to operate both
overtly and covertly. Osumare identifies Obama’s “cool pose,” or performance
of “restrained” black manhood, as a key survival strategy in the face of these
criticisms. Moreover, it is a mechanism that ties Obama to the praxis of
hip-hop culture, and Ice-T in particular. With this in mind, the chapter examines
the cross-fertilization between Obama’s presidency and Ice-T’s own crossover
success. Osumare explores the two figures’ shared generational perspective
(located between Black Power and hip-hop generations), their mutual views on
the communicative potentials of hip-hop, and also their shared ambivalence
on the subject of race. On this last point, Osumare reminds us that a cool
pose is a coping, rather than revolutionary mechanism, and one that does not
wholly challenge a post-racial discourse. Both Obama and Ice-T, then, become
symbols of these persistent twenty-first-century, late capitalist contradictions.
Race, racism, and power politics have to not only be understood by the two
men, but also manipulated like a chess game for ultimate success.
Following the interview with Ice-T himself, the collection closes with an
afterword by Travis L. Gosa, who offers some reflections on the contemporary
cultural and political importance of Ice-T’s career—and this anthology. Gosa
takes as a focalizer a term used by Ice-T in the preceding interview to describe
his own celebrity appeal: his “ish.” Gosa meditates on the polyvalent meanings
of Ice-T’s “-ish,” both as a savvy public performance and a vital form of street
knowledge. For Gosa, Ice-T’s “-ish” is powerful because of its ability to negotiate
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Introduction
© Copyrighted Material
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these two functions—its contradictions signal the wider tensions within the
American capitalist order. Moreover, he suggests that with the publication
of this book, Ice-T is now laying siege to the ivory tower, and challenging an
intellectual model that has historically constructed black urban culture as a
deficit. Gosa unravels the nuances of Ice-T’s “-ish” from a number of angles:
personal recollections of Ice-T’s musical and film output; the “culture war”
arguments of the 1990s; and the contemporary debates over gun control and
criminal (in)justice in America. Indeed, Gosa suggests that with the recent and
highly publicized acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of unarmed
black teenager, Trayvon Martin, the power of Ice-T’s street knowledge has
never been more vital.
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Audiences and Contributors
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The essays collected in this volume will first and foremost be important reading
for those with interests in contemporary American Studies, particularly black
popular culture. But the nature of the subject means they will likely be equally
attractive to scholars from a range of other academic fields including Cultural
Studies, Literature, Music, Film, History, and Sociology, particularly urban/
political scholars studying modern-day LA and NY. The collection is userfriendly in terms of either individual essays (for example, film scholars exploring
Ice-T’s film career), or read in its entirety: it will hold great significance for those
readers who are not solely interested in Ice-T himself or rap music but rather
contemporary African American history and culture more generally.
It is our intention that these essays will appeal to scholars and students in
various disciplines, not only in the US but also further afield. Despite the
dramatic shifts in undergraduate education here in the UK in recent years (both
with the introduction of tuition fees and then the subsequent increase in said
fees), American Studies appears to have retained its popularity. The British
Association for American Studies (BAAS) was established in 1955 and serves
to highlight the long and popular history of American Studies as an academic
discipline in the UK. Today there are 45 UK universities and colleges that offer
an American Studies degree. We hope that this collection’s blend of American
and British/European perspectives reflects the fruitful opportunities for transAtlantic collaboration in American Studies. In addition to a number of respected
and established academics in the field, we carefully selected contributions
from a couple of impressive early career scholars, and one exciting graduate
student who is at the cutting edge of innovative thinking in contemporary black
popular culture. In part, this range of viewpoints serves to feed the energetic
dynamics of the collection and deliberately challenges the traditional belief that
experience equates with academic pre-eminence. As we hope the reader can
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appreciate, the assembled result is a diverse range of scholarly approaches and
styles that attests to both the heterogeneous nature of American Studies, and
the ambitious breadth of this particular project. We thank all those contributors
for their boundless energy and intellectual motivation.
We hope you enjoy reading the collection as much as we enjoyed editing it.
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Josephine Metcalf and Will Turner
May 2013
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Bibliography
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Bailey, Julius (ed.), Jay-Z: Essays on Hip-hop’s Philosopher King (Jefferson, NC:
McFarland & Co., 2011).
Dyson, Michael Eric, Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic (New York: Basic
Books, 2009).
Hall, Stuart, “What is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” in Gina Dent
(ed.), Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992): 21–33.
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South Central to Hollywood (New York: One World, 2011).
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Kinsley, Michael, “Ice-T: Is the issue social responsibility …,” Time, July 28,
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Light, Alan, “Ice-T: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, August 20, 1992.
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