When Ice-T took on the role of two-fisted, no-nonsense detective Fin Tutuola in the hit NBC series Law & Order: SVU in 1999, it was supposed to be for just four episodes. As the story goes, the legendary (or infamous, depending on where you stand) 61-year-old West Coast rap god-turned-respected-working actor had known Dick Wolf, the creator and producer of the seemingly unsinkable Law & Order franchise since the mid ‘90s when he appeared as scene-stealing ruthless drug kingpin Danny “Danny-Up” Cort on the FOX cult classic New York Undercover. Wolf had also conceived the fresh-faced, urban-inspired cop drama and thought the charismatic Tracy Marrow would be a perfect fit for the part of a former undercover narcotics officer.
Yet not even Ice-T, former street hustler and jewelry store robber, could ever imagine becoming one of the principle stars of the soon-to-be longest running scripted show in television history. “It’s a gig,” he muses to BET in his trademark Ice-T deadpan delivery. “I’m lucky to be on a show now approaching 21 seasons. The beauty of Law & Order is my real fan base matured with me as they watched it. So now all the girls who were at my concerts, they are mothers and they watch SVU. If you are 20 years old, then I’ve been on Law & Order your whole life.”
There is little debate when it comes to Ice-T’s historical standing as the godfather of not just Cali gangsta rap, but the entire LA hip-hop scene. Indeed, it was the South Central-stamped OG’s groundbreaking 1986 “6 ‘N The Mornin’” that tore down the gate for the cultural-igniting N.W.A. Without that one pivotal record, it’s highly doubtful that Ice would go on to garner the clout to write the seminal, throat-grabbing title track for the 1988 Crips and Bloods cop drama, Colors . But there were never any serious plans to become a leading man. Ice was too busy inventing West Coast gangsta rap.
“Being the first was never my intention,” he explains. “I just wanted to rap. I got the hip-hop bug just like everyone else. At first I tried to rhyme like I was from New York [laughs]. But then I would recite these gangbanging rhymes. My boys would tell me, ‘Say that street sh-t you be saying.’ ‘6 ‘N The Mornin’’ was a B-side. When that song blew up, acting was the last thing on my mind.”
Soon the pioneering Ice-T and the Ruthless crew of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella were joined by a diverse onslaught of West Coast rap heroes and heroines like King T, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, the Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, Yo-Yo, Compton’s Most Wanted, Above The Law, the Conscious Daughters, DJ Quik, and Tha Alkaholiks. In fact, Ice’s DNA can still be found today in the likes of the Game, Kendrick Lamar and the late Nipsey Hussle. The reality-rap visionary would go on to sell nearly 15 million albums highlighted by such landmark, advisory-sticker-slapped gold and platinum statements as Rhyme Pays (1987), Power (1988), The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say! (1989) and O.G. Original Gangsta (1991).
But when it comes to Ice-T’s cinematic and small-screen run, it gets a little more complicated. Which is why it’s time to acknowledge the man’s impact as hip-hop’s first Hollywood change-agent. Know this: before Ice was cast as undercover detective Scotty Appleton in the classic 1991 gangster flick New Jack City rappers basically played themselves on the big screen. From Run-D.M.C. (1985’s Krush Groove and 1988’s Tougher Than Leather) and the Fat Boys (1987’s Disorderlies) to Kid ‘n Play (1990’s House Party), emcees were not exactly stretching the boundaries of their hip-hop personas.
Even Ice appeared in the corny, guilty-pleasure, street-dance movie Breakin’ and its brazenly cornier sequel, Breakin’ 2 (Electric Boogaloo) (1984) — dressed as a baseball cap-wearing club emcee and a leather-and-spike clad rapper who looked conspicuously like he just got kicked out of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5.
But less than a decade later, Ice-T showed his peers the way to Tinsel Town glory, albeit with some apprehension. When rising filmmaker Mario Van Peebles approached the rapper in 1990 with a pitch to co-star in a movie he was directing about the violent explosion of the crack epidemic in New York, he laughed at the idea.
“He heard me talking sh-t in the men’s room in a [LA] club,” recalls Ice. “Someone was saying something I wasn’t trying to hear, and I was like, ‘Look man, if they could put me under a microscope and find one molecule of me that gave a f--k then maybe they can angle me… But they can't. So they can't f--k with me.…” Mario just happened to be there. He was like, ‘Whoever said that is the star of my movie!’ So I’m in the same club talking to a couple of girls, and Mario comes up to me with what I thought was that Hollywood bullsh-t, like, ‘You should be in my movie.’” And I’m like… man, cut it out. You just want to talk to these girls.”
However, Van Peebles was serious. When Ice-T made the call ,a receptionist at Warner Bros. studios picked up. Soon he was asked to read for New Jack City, a film that would also significantly raise the profiles of Wesley Snipes and comedian Chris Rock. “And I’m looking at the script like, 'Wait a minute… my character is talking a lot on these pages. I have a perm and it says here my character has dreads. And he’s a cop?!!!' I can’t play a cop [laughs].”
Ice nearly turned down the life-changing role fearing that playing a police officer would sink his gangster-certified image. It wasn’t until he got some sobering advice from some “sisters” that he changed his tune. “I went to this spot where I used to get my hair done in the ‘hood,” he says. And the women there were like, ‘Ice, if you don’t take this part [in New Jack City] you are a sucker. You can act, because you act for us every day. If you don’t do this movie, don’t come back to the shop.’”
Released on March 8, 1991, New Jack City became the surprise box office hit of that year, pulling in nearly $50 million on a minuscule budget of $8 million. Movie studio bosses saw the future. Many of Ice-T’s friends and fellow hip-hop artists whom he toured with during rap’s late ‘80s golden age suddenly started receiving calls from producers and directors looking to take advantage of their built-in audience.
Of course, critics will point to the fact that Ice never reached the box office king heights of Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s Will Smith. He never took on the reigns as a legit screenwriter, producer and director like his friend Ice Cube. There was no talk of Ice-T being celebrated as a gifted, layered thespian on the level of the late Tupac Shakur. And he has yet to receive a critically acclaimed Oscar nod or Emmy, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe wins like Queen Latifah.
In fact, Ice’s patchwork acting career can be categorized as an interesting oddity of action films (1991’s Ricochet); a Blaxploitation-tinged crime flick (1992’s Trespass); blink-or-you’ll-miss guest spots (1992’s CB4 and 1993’s Who’s the Man); and an ambitious, underrated morality tale (1994’s Surviving the Game). Ice has also appeared in left field indie films (1994’s Tank Girl); a cyberpunk thriller (1995’s Johnny Mnemonic); a violent shoot ‘em up (1997’s Mean Guns); and a string of absurd straight-to-video romps (among them 1999’s Stealth Fighter, Final Voyage, Corrupt and the peak B-movie ridiculousness of 2000’s Leprechaun in the Hood).
No one would ever confuse Ice-T with Denzel Washington. But Mr. Marrow has forged a sturdy career in which he has appeared opposite the legendary two-time Oscar-winning acting giant as well as the late Rutger Hauer, Charles S. Dutton, Keanu Reeves, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. Just embodying the possibilities of acting as a legit career move was a powerful statement within itself.
And Ice is still embracing both high and lowbrow art. In addition to Law & Order: SVU, he recently appeared in the indie horror flick Clinton Road, in which he plays a grizzled club owner who warns a group of party revelers not to set foot in the "dark, evil" haunted section of New Jersey. (An oxymoron, no?)
"I did the movie as a favor," Ice says. "One of the guys I know named Noel Ashman, a night club promoter, he’s been a friend of mine for years. He tells me, 'Ice, we are doing an indie film… would you be in it?' They told me they only needed me for a day or two. They give me a little money, and I showed up and knocked it out. I’m always game to help people that are really trying to get their sh-t off the ground."
As for Ice-T’s Hollywood legacy? He’s too busy enjoying the ride.
“I made the right move when I went into acting,” jokes Ice, who last month released the ominous banger “Feds in My Rearview," his first gangsta rap track in a decade. He co-created the Art of Rap tour, a rotating trek of a who's who of revered hip-hop headliners and past hit-makers that have included Ice, Public Enemy, Too $hort, 50 Cent, Slick Rick, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface & Rakwon, MC Lyte, Biz Markie, JJ Fad, and Suga Free. And he still tours across the globe with his heavy metal outfit, Body Count.
“I can come back and do a rap record whenever I want," the Grammy and two-time NAACP Image Award supporting actor winner adds. "But what’s funny is there are people out there who have no reference point to Ice-T rapping at full power. There are people who actually have no reference point to [NCIS: Los Angeles], LL Cool J rapping, unless you go to YouTube, which is crazy. But every once in a while I meet kids that tell me, ‘My mom made me watch New Jack City, Ice.’”