Any studied hip hop buff knows that Tracy “Ice-T” Marrow is a pioneer on the socially conscious side of gangsta rap, and the name behind 1992's “Cop Killer” hasn't changed in being outspoken.
Close to 25 years after the controversial record was released, police brutality is still an issue. As we’ve seen most recently after the deaths of Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott, the reaction to cops killing unarmed Black citizens has reached a boiling point. "People just want respect and that’s what they’re fighting for in the streets," Ice tells BET.com. "The cops have to be held accountable for how they’re behaving."
As he gears up to debut the very first Art of Rap Music Festival this July, the 57-year-old rapper/actor and Mickey Bentson co-founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, spoke further on the Baltimore protests, the state of hip hop, and why every rapper shouldn’t be expected to speak on social issues.
BET.com: The Art of Rap doc came out in 2012, what made you want to kick off the tour now?
Ice-T: We didn’t have the right people to get the tour off the ground [back then]. Last year I went on a rock tour called the Mayhem Fest and we ran into a man named John Reese, and his profession is big festivals. We talked to him about maybe doing something for hip hop and he was 100 percent with it. To do something of this caliber you need professionals, and we just needed somebody to help us make it happen.”
Was it hard getting the artists on board?
Ice: [I did it] the same way I did the movie, it was just about calling people up in my phone. Mickey, being one of the founding members of the Zulu Nation, Afrika Bambatta, Cold Krush Brothers, all of them are on his phone. So many people were down but couldn’t do the dates. Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan…hopefully once we brand this tour the roster can be totally different.
Is there a plan to expand the festival this year?
Ice: They say the journey of a million miles starts with one step, so we didn’t want create a huge tour right out the gate. We plan on branding it all the way from venues the size of the House of Blues, all the way to big festivals. The show will always consist of old-school/new-school, East Coast/West Coast artists. We’re trying to just show people that we can do concert tours without the people that may be No. 1 on the charts.
Mickey: Our job is to add the elements in our Art of Rap Fest. I see concerts and they’re dope, but that’s all I get is a performer. Can I get some break dancing, can I see somebody out there spray painting graffiti, can I see some DJs getting it in? Hip hop is more than just a rapper on stage, it has elements.
With Rock the Bells and Paid Dues going under, is there any fear that Art of Rap won’t do well?
Ice: We’ll see what happens. I’m Ice-T so I try s**t and if it works it works, if it doesn’t I keep it moving. We have a lot of confidence, we have people who believe in it, and we’ll see what happens. I’m very humble, we hope this works, that’s all you can say but at least we’re taking a chance. As it stands now, the tickets are selling like hot cakes. We just want to give people a chance to be seen.
What are your thoughts on Baltimore and what hip hop can do to show more support?
Ice: The average hip hop artist is very pop, they’re just trying to stay on the radio, so that’s why you’re not gonna hear many of the [popular artists] speak up because they’re concerned with their careers. You gotta go back to people like me, Chuck D... [artists] who never gave a f**k. There’s a key element to that, and that is be knowledgable and know what you’re talking about so when they challenge you, you have something to stand on.
You guys pioneered that movement, how can this generation keep it going?
Ice: Explain how you want [police-involved killings] addressed. Maybe they need an independent prosecutor so when [cops] go to trial, they’re not sitting in front of their friends. Maybe we need body cams [for all cops]…be intelligent enough to know what you’re talking about, don’t just rant and rave. I’ve taken my hits in my career for being outspoken, but that’s part of being a man.
Do you think bigger artists aren't speaking out enough?
Ice: You just gotta call it out how you see it. I’m not hating, I’m not going to say names but yo that question would arise. If Ice-T is on TV playing a cop, and he’s talking s**t [about cops], why the f***k ya’ll ain’t saying nothin’? Maybe that’s your character, who you really are. It’s a damn shame that there’s no 21-year-old KRS-One [out right now].
So where does that leave the artist?
Ice: You still make the record. I did a [unreleased] record called "Message to the Soldier," which you never heard but it’s all about that. If you’re an artist you still gotta make the art. Radio doesn’t dictate what you do. If you’re real, you say that what you gotta say, it can’t always be about getting paid. That dictates how I respect people, I might respect your music but I don’t have no respect for you because I don’t really see you moving s**t other than your bank account.
Is it hard for you to watch hip hop grow in a different direction?
Ice: I’m very hopeful. Look at Kendrick Lamar, he’s f***ing incredible. I love Lupe Fiasco, I love T.I., these rappers are really great. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. I’m not dissin’ I’m trying to inspire them. I’m saying 'Ice-T is talkin s**t and he still got cake [money]. Don’t let ‘em scare you!'
Speaking of K Dot, he said you helped inspire the concept for To Pimp a Butterfly.
Ice: He’ll say my name and now a world of kids who wouldn’t pay a word of attention to me, start paying attention because the guy they look up to, looks up to Ice.This is the trade off, you dig what I’m saying? I respect what he’s saying so I mention him, but I’m not mentioning a lot of motherf***as because they ain’t saying s**t. But you know what? If that’s what you make, club music, then God bless you. A lot of people aren’t even intelligent enough to comment on social issues, so you can’t expect them to.
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(Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images for CBGB)