I believe it’s pretty accurate to say that a good majority of us good citizens get a bit jumpy when a phrase like “The Man” comes into play. It’s natural to equate it with some sort of oppressive unit that takes the fun out of living, or some villainous figure who makes it uneasy for the common Joe to exist in society. When you’re blazin’ some reefer with your buddies out in a public area, the first warning is always, “Watch out for The Man.”
But then again, it’s the universal term for someone who’s at the top of their game, king of the real deal, the one that gets all the respect—it’s all in how it’s said, grinned sly and drawled with a nod: “The Maaan.”
If anybody deserves that title, it’s definitely Ice T. When I heard my first-ever rap tune, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, it struck the precise tone for what I felt rap music was supposed to be about: mirroring ghetto life, understanding the plight and overcoming the oppression. You think rap artists from that time period followed suit? Not really. It was all ego and living large.
That is, until Ice T’s Colors. What a freakin’ wake-up call, that one, bringing gang reality into the public eye with lyrics like “I don’t need your assistance, social persistence, any problem I got I just put my fist in…my life is violent, but violent is life, peace is a dream, reality is a knife.”
I scored a copy of Ice T’s second release, Power, and from then on I was back in the game. Despite the fetching cover model Miss Darlene, despite the player attitude, this wasn’t just about narcissism and gain; this was about a level of responsibility that went along with being a proud, intelligent man. Ice T (along with the masters, Public Enemy) became a transcendental figure in rap, pushing his growing celebrity by issuing the verbal test/threat to wise the %#@* up. By the time he released his third LP, The Iceberg/Freedom Of Speech (which included spoken-word cameos from Dead Kennedys’ martyr-mouth Jello Biafra), he was taking on the biggest, coldest fish in the pond. The Iceberg condemned everything from the ethics of the senior Bush administration to the conservative American way of life to the cops and the PMRC.
Remember the PMRC? Headed by Tipper Gore, the Parents Music Resource Center had the “good” intention to protect children from cusswords and shocking imagery by putting rating labels and restrictions on music products. The backlash was fierce. Ice T was in the front ranks of those artists willing to stick their necks out to keep the First Amendment a social priority, debating the subject head-to-head with Tipper and assaulting the PMRC in “Freedom Of Speech,” which will go down in history as one of the most vital rap tunes ever, with commercial suicide written all over it. He continued to push the point with his next release, Home Invasion, the cover of which shows a young boy listening to an Ice T cassette, encircled by thought-bubbles containing brutal depictions of crime, rape and violence. A blunt statement if ever there was one, but effective in capturing the weird world of those demonizing rap for society’s faults.
Ice T’s seditious opinions kept coming, crossing yet another boundary when he got together a thrash band named Body Count. They debuted on Ice T’s amazing O.G.—Original Gangsta and toured as a main act on the first Lollapalooza. That band’s eponymous first LP was met with an unprecedented fury of criticism for a certain controversial track protesting the Rodney King beatings. I’m not going to enter into that discussion, if only because I refuse to re-fan fires just for some more useless media hype on some long gone topic. Let’s just leave it by saying that the song became a monkey on T’s back, but when Eminem says something similar, he’s cute.
These days, Ice T has become a more or less model citizen. No major controversy for his rhymes, some notoriety for his movie and TV acting. That’s cool, he’s still The Iceberg no matter what—an intense cultural hero who understands both sides of the coin, a true product of his environment who lived to tell the tales. So what if he’s down with the pimps and the gangsters? You can take The Man out of the ghetto, but…
Since the rest of the country was hell-bent on ignoring the inner city, he brought it to the citizenry whether the citizenry liked it or not. I appreciate Ice T for defending our rights to express, for sharing wicked stories of the hardships of living in South Central L.A., for influencing other rappers toward responsibility for their words and methods, for the killer beats and DJ Evil E, for seeing the worth in, and defending every corner of, our wild American culture.
And for some of the best rap music I’ve ever heard! You’re damn straight it still holds water! Hey T, this one’s from me.