A native of Newark, N.J., who migrated to Los Angeles as a teen, Ice-T (born Tracy Marrow) is widely credited with having sparked the West Coast “gangsta” rap style. His music has exerted a deep influence on such artists as N.W.A., Compton’s Most Wanted, Snoop Dogg and many others.
Before he turned 13, Marrow lost both parents to heart failure, and moved west to live with his father’s sister. There he attended South Central’s Crenshaw High, then considered one of the roughest in the nation because of its proximity to gang-controlled neighborhoods. A devotee of pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim and his hardboiled tales of street hustlers, he adopted the name Ice-T in tribute. Although he became affiliated with gang members, he was never initiated, but that didn’t keep him out of trouble, so he sought stability with a four-year stint in the military. After his discharge, he started DJing parties while robbing jewelry stores and living a brazenly criminal lifestyle.
Ice “went straight” when he got his first record deal in 1987, thanks to connections he’d made in New York City with Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation and DJ/producer Afrika Islam. On the strength of songs like “6 ’N the Mornin’” and “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy!!!),” Ice’s debut album Rhyme Pays sold more than a half million copies with minimal radio airplay; it was also the first Hip Hop album to be labeled with a parental advisory label, due to violent and sexual content. The follow-up, 1988’s Power, stirred controversy with “I’m Your Pusher” (actually an anti-drug song) and the provocative shotgun-toting cover pose of Ice’s scantily-clad girlfriend Darlene Ortiz.
Ice-T’s unvarnished depiction of the mean streets of L.A. reached its apex with “Colors,” the title song from the popular film about rival gangs, gunplay and the LAPD. He raised the bar again on 1991’s O.G. (Original Gangster), which featured his thrash-metal band Body Count and the hit single “New Jack Hustler,” from the New Jack City soundtrack. The film also marked Ice-T’s major acting debut; ironically, he played a police detective, a role he would develop further when he joined the cast of the TV drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2000.
Throughout his career, Ice-T has maintained a complex relationship with law enforcement. Tensions flared in 1992, when Body Count released the graphic punk-rap song “Cop Killer,” drawing condemnation from police advocates, concert promoters and even the White House. Even so, Ice avoided most of the fallout; in fact, the incident seemed to only increase his popularity, demonstrating his ingenuity in walking the fine line between “selling out” as a rock star and “keeping it real” as a gangsta rap icon — a duality he addresses at length in his 2011 autobiography Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption – From South Central to Hollywood.
While his ongoing role on Law & Order SVU has prompted a focus on acting, Ice-T continues to record and perform, both as a solo act and with Body Count.