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Hiphop Nation: America Raps Back

Nationwide: America Raps Back
January 19, 1988

Record Industry types used to ask me, “How long will this rap thing last?” They don’t any longer. Not when three different hip hop tours played to near-capacity crowds at sports arenas and concert halls across America last summer. Not when they can look at Billboard’s black album chart last No­vember and see that eight of the top 30 albums are by rappers, including three of the top 10. Not when their kids ignore Marlon Jackson, the Bar-Kays, and Sha­lamar for the simple pleasures of U.T.F.O. and Kool Moe Dee.

Rap, and its hip hop musical underpinning, is now the national youth music of black America and the dominant dance music of urban America, with the possi­ble exceptions of Washington, D.C., spawning ground of the hip hop influ­enced go-go scene, and Chicago, with its retro-disco house music. Rap’s gone na­tional and is in the process of going re­gional. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s actually easily explained. Rap spread out from New York to attract a loyal, national audience. New York rapped and America listened. Now Amer­ica is rhyming back.

Over the last year and a half labels like Miami’s Luke Skywalker, Houston’s Rap­-A-Lot, and Boston’s Beautiful Sounds have emerged, independent record com­panies nurtured by local rap scenes and often fighting losing battles for radio play in their areas. While creatively these cit­ies have yet to spawn Def Jam/Rush level stars, these fruitful hip hop markets will inevitably produce talent with national appeal. Dallas and Houston, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami, and even Los Angeles can, according to Def Jam promotion vice-president Bill Stephney, “outsell New York on certain records.”

While judging last summer’s raucous hip hop competition at the New Music Seminar, it was clear that there was more to rap than Uptown. Three of the four finalists in the scratching DJ throwdown were from outside New York: Philadel­phia’s Cash Money who, with MC Mar­velous, cuts for Sleeping Bag; Los Ange­les’s Joe Cooley, who works with rapper Rodney O; and Miami’s Mr. Mix, of the notorious 2 Live Crew. Though none of the out-of-town rappers made the finals, several were among the most memorable, including Detroit’s Robert S., who’s re­corded two poorly promoted 12-inches on Epic; Philadelphia’s well-regarded M. C. Breeze; and Cleveland’s Bango the B-Bov Outlaw, who’ll be heard on the sound­track to Dennis Hopper’s Los Angeles gang melodrama, Colors, in late February.

The reasons for rap’s growth are easy to trace. First, there’s the music; direct, raw, easy to emulate. Equally important have been New York rap tours, and not just the big arena extravaganzas of recent years. When Kurtis Blow and Grandmas­ter Flash hit the road in the early ’80s, they helped create a new chitlin’ circuit of teen appeal clubs and auditoriums. Be­cause it was so inexpensive to book rap acts — Blow traveled with just a DJ and a road manager — dates were possible not only in small venues but, in towns like Gary, Indiana, and Lake Charles, Louisi­ana, a rapper could play multiple dates in one night. So the generation of rappers and scratchers now emerging first tasted hip hop up close and personal.

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In each city where rap’s appeal has expanded there have been key figures who’ve fought authori­ties, peer pressure, and local inferiority complexes. In Cleveland WZAK program director (and sometime rapper) Lynn Tolliver has been on point since the early ’80s by fearlessly programming rap at all hours, where many other PDs try to limit it to late hours. In Philadelphia (first at WHAT and now at WUSL) DJ Lady B has been “the Godmomma” to the most impressive community of rap talent beside the Apple. Because Lady B has al­ways played homegrown talent beside New York honchos, Philadelphians be­came aware of local groups and pur­chased their homies’ records. Because of Lady B’s advocacy Jive Records has in­vested heavily in Philadelphia hip hop in the past year, signing Schoolly D, Steady B., and Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince. In Miami a homeboy using the handle Luke Skywalker founded Luke Skywalker Rec­ords, which is anchored by the ultra­raunchy 2 Live Crew. Their ribald 2 Live Crew Is What We Are was so lyrically foul several localities sought to ban it (and even got a record store clerk arrest­ed down South for selling it), yet it was the first non-New York area rap album to sell over 500,000 units. (I don’t count Whodini’s three made-in-London albums since they all involved New York talent.)

Of all the local hip hop catalysts, I’ve found two — Houston’s Steve Fournier and Los Angeles’s Jorge Hinojosa — the most interesting because of their ambi­tion, energy, and location. Fournier is a stocky, bearded white Texas DJ who five years ago fell in love with rap. He landed a gig at a big barn of a dance hall called Rhinestone’s and, because of his “110 per cent rap” policy, the place became the Gilley’s of hip hop. Recently Fournier moved to a new barn, Spud’s of Houston, where he still plays to crowds as large as 2000 seven days a week. There’s very little rap played on Houston radio, so Fournier’s club play constitutes the medi­um of most exposure for rap, not just in Houston, but in the Southwest.

But Fournier wants more. Like many of the non-New York rap entrepreneurs he seeks the respect of New York and acknowledgment of his area’s importance to rap’s future. As a result Fournier has founded the Rap Commission, a national record pool based in Houston with offi­cers in New York and Los Angeles. Four­nier, of course, heads it and acts as a conduit for rap records to reach the DJs and club jocks scattered around the coun­try. The Rap Commission would then have the most comprehensive list to date of labels, club jocks, and radio outlets for hip hop. The idea that such an institution would be run by a white man in Texas makes many brothers here in the Apple bristle, as if Fournier’s efforts were an affront to the black roots of rap. Four­nier feels that’s simply New York chau­vinism. “Texas is centrally located in one of the biggest hip hop markets,” he says. “There are tons of local groups here and I think acts like the Ghetto Boys, Jazzy Red, or R.P. Cola are competitive with New York and Philly but don’t have the national exposure. Hey, New York is still where it was born, but the rest of the country has something to contribute.”

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Not surprisingly, one of Fournier’s chief supporters is another non-New Yorker, young half-Bolivian hustler Jorge Hinojosa. Often described to his chagrin as “a West Coast Russell Simmons,” Hinojosa has an enthusiasm and quick wit reminiscent of Rush Pro­ductions’s founder. Hinojosa manages the city’s best known rapper, Ice-T (whose Rhyme Pays on Sire has sold over 300,000), signed an L.A. rap compilation album called Rhyme Syndicate to Warner Bros. (out in March; it includes a 20-page comic book highlighting L.A. hip hop), and is the top rap promotion man there. (He broke Salt ’n Pepa’s “I’ll Take Your Man” in L.A. and worked the early Man­tronik records for Sleeping Bag.)

“I never wanted to be a manager,” he says, “but when I worked at Island rec­ords Ice-T and his producer Afrika Islam couldn’t get signed there. I begged Island to sign him. When they didn’t I quit my job to work with him.” In the early 1980s New Yorkers considered Los Angeles “too soft” to be a factor in hip hop, and those horrible Cannon break-dance flicks (Breakin’ and Electric Boogaloo) seemed to confirm Southern California’s cotton candy approach to street music. But the tone and, as a result, the image of that city’s street culture has changed pro­foundly. The tension between lower class black, Latino, and Asian youth in LaLa­Land has created a mean streets lifestyle that embraces rap’s hard edge, sometimes explosively, as in the notorious gang riot during a Long Beach rap show in 1986.

Hinojosa, aided by the heavy rap pro­gramming philosophy of KDAY’s Greg Mack, has capitalized on the growing awareness that East Los Angeles has its own street culture, one understandable on the East Coast. That the West Coast based Warner Bros. signed Rhyme Syndi­cate (and recently negotiated a distribu­tion deal with New York-based Cold Chillin’ Records) is, to some degree, a byproduct of Hinojosa meetings with El Lay’s once suspicious record executives.

Hinojosa, Ice-T, who was born in New­ark but raised in Los Angeles, and former Soul Sonic Force member Afrika Islam formed a team, one that anticipates the future of hip hop. Hinojosa, a resident of the San Fernando Valley, is an upper-­middle-class kid with business savvy; Ice-­T is street, but L.A. street, with long red hair and raps that refer to West Coast scenes; and Afrika Islam, who was once a Bronx fixture but now living and spin­ning in Los Angeles, and brings New York expertise to Ice-T’s music. As a unit they illustrate the local flair, old school style, and ambivalence that mark this phase of non-New York hip hop.

I say ambivalence because Ice-T re­corded his album in New York, subcon­sciously confirming the idea that quality rap can only be recorded here or with New York involvement. Moreover, too many non-New York rappers “bite” the styles of Run, the Fat Boys, Slick Rick, L.L. Cool J, etc., failing to localize the music. Case in point: Boston Goes Def! on Beautiful Records. It contains 15 cuts from different rappers, yet there are only two specific references to Boston. A shame, since the beats, samples, and verbal dexterity of the rappers, overall, was as good as anything you’ll hear on Magic or Red Alert’s shows this weekend. Of the Philly crew Schoolly D is the most bellig­erently local. On occasion he writes quite powerfully about the violent world of his Philadelphia (e.g., “P.S.K.”), detailing a landscape specific and personal. More­over, he is contemptuous of New York’s superstar rappers, rarely performing here or even traveling north for business meetings with Jive. If Schoolly D can consistently funnel that anger into good music — which, alas, he hasn’t — then he could set the tone for a new non-New York hip hop. To date the most effective non-New York rap record is that contro­versial 2 Live Crew album. To my ears it was crude on all; levels; the raps were witless (“Throw the ‘ D’ ”), the elocution sloppy, and the recording quality awful. Yet its fast tempos (surely influenced by Miami’s enduring disco romance), in-yo-­face words, and down-home flavor made it, for a time last spring, the South’s hottest rap record. And, maybe, that’s the point. The rap that’ll surely flow from down South, the Midwest, and the West Coast will not, and should not, feel be­holden to what came before. Just as hip hop spit in the face of disco (and funk too), non-New York hip hop will have to use its own accent, its own version of B boy wisdom, if it’s to mean anything. After all, New York is already paid in full.

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MASTERS OF CEREMONY: Best Crack Record

From its “Atomic Dog”-struck opening strains to the chorus that chimes in, “You are what you are,” to the little sister with the Big Lie — “Crack is the word” — “Cracked Out” (Strong City) runs amok like a record possessed, reaching a level of self-contradiction and paranoia analogous to that of the substance-abuser. Masters of Ceremony’s production style might best be described as Desperately Seeking Confusion, with a mélange of voices, rhythms, and forces trying to get their two cents in before the record ends. (Turn up the base!) Vocalists Bill “Grand Poobah Maxwell” Dixon and Todd “Dr. Who” Dixon saunter in with the most unaffected banter ever heard on a hip-hop record, and proceed to act as witting foils in superdetailed tales from the curbside. It’s dirty and dope.

So what was the next move to break open? Producer Jazzy Jay did the all-too-rare by creating a remake where the hype level is even stoopider than on the original (“Cracked”Out [Remix]”), and, thusly, declared himself an old-school force to be reckoned with still. Best part of the cut: the siren that plays over and over but fails to resolve itself. This is truly hell; the sound of self-torture made evident.
—Harry Allen

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SHARP HK-9000: Box Most Likely to Accidentally Start a Nuclear War

Am I lying? Even the name sounds like some kind of supercomputer. HAL’s little cuz, no doubt. SPECIFICATIONS, y’all. Price: $299.95. Length: 33 inches. Width: 9 inches. Height: One foot. Weight: 32.5 pounds, without batteries. And that’s until you decide you wanna rock “Two, Three, Break” on the Queensbound Goetz Local, or bust your own funky fresh ditty on the built-in PA system. Put in 10 D cells, call your homey, ask him to grab a 9, one end, and walk.

Yeah, I know. Technosonic. Junk. A lot of plastic, a lot of empty space inside, and a motion-sensitive burglar alarm. Gimme a break. Yo, if I keep selling enough of these articles, I’m gettin’ myself hooked-up correct. See you the Day After.
—Harry Allen

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What Do Madonna, Ice-T, and the Ramones Have in Common?

You can read a lot of record executives’ memoirs and, between the boasting and humblebragging and score settling, the usual courses through which the genre hops, you’ll have a hard time finding much that feels like real passion for music. Making hits, achieving success, counting awards, sure — but music itself, less so. Of course: The music industry hardens people. Even the likes of the late Warner Bros. PR genius Stan Cornyn (2003’s Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group) or Nirvana manager turned Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg (2009’s Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business), two of the biz’s sharpest observers and most eager fans, couldn’t quite overcome the format’s limitations — both clearly loved music itself, but by each book’s end the spark had dissipated, whether via disappearing into minutiae, à la Cornyn, or blanding out some, à la Goldberg.

This happens as well with Siren Song: My Life in Music, the new memoir of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna to his label, as well as being a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. But it’s equally clear that Stein cares more about music than anything else. That’s a reason the book’s finale retreats to earth — he’s accounting for the costs of that fanaticism: not only a failed marriage to Linda Stein, who became the Ramones’ co-manager with Danny Fields (and was brutally murdered in October 2007 by an assistant who’d been skimming money from her), but also guilt over his admittedly absent fatherhood and the grief he felt at the death of his elder daughter, Samantha. Not to mention Stein’s own frequent hospital visits (heart problems exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine use) and his own lack of foresight to the costs of doing business with Warner Bros. — a great office overlooking Rockefeller Center, but a diminished stake in his own company, which would be folded into Elektra during Warners’ Nineties merger mania before being unfolded back into a freestanding label.

Seymour Stein (4th from right) with The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and his wife Linda Stein

If the downfall of most music-biz books is keeping the suits straight, Stein sidesteps that neatly; his portraits of his colleagues, in and out of Warner Bros., are indelible. His co-writer likely contributed as well: the Irish music journalist Gareth Murphy, author of 2014’s Cowboys and Indies, a lively if occasionally shaky record-biz history, whose broad strokes match well with Stein’s sure-footed historical grasp and crisp phrasing.

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Seymour Steinbigle grew up in postwar Brooklyn, a melting pot where, he notes, “Going to university was not what people did or expected of their children.” Like many city kids of the time, he became an ardent fan of R&B — which, even before Elvis, was a “fast-growing craze among white teenagers.” A rabid follower of the charts, teenaged Seymour finagled his way into the Billboard office, copying out charts by hand and eventually finding himself interning for Syd Nathan, the imperious founder of King Records — one of the greatest postwar indies, with equally important rosters of country (Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny) and R&B (Wynonie Harris, the “5” Royales, Little Willie John) before signing James Brown — who insisted the kid lop off half his surname.

Stein also gives it up for David Geffen, whom he calls “the smartest record boss of us all,” singling him out for praise for having paid for the funerals of so many AIDS victims: “For this alone, I will not tolerate a bad word about David Geffen.” He’s a lot meaner, and funnier, about Clive Davis, who joins the table of Stein and his boss, Mo Ostin, one morning for breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Davis claims with a straight face that his label, Arista, won’t release a Barry Manilow best-of because, since he had chosen the singles, “it should really be called Clive Davis’s Greatest Hits.” In response, Stein reports that “a muscular spasm in my left leg kicked Mo under the table”; showing the subsequent bruise, Ostin admonished him, “Look what you just did to me!” after Davis went to take a phone call.

Stein was born April 18, 1942, and grew up “on Dahill Road, just off King’s Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn’s Little Italy,” he writes.  His parents had him at comparatively late ages for the era, she 36, he 41; the family was in the grocery business, with one great-uncle a successful olive oil importer. His father was Orthodox, but lenient; they left Seymour to his obsessions: “collecting stamps, bottle caps, and trading cards, anything interesting and flashy.”

Seymour Stein

Growing up, Stein knew he was gay but wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it; he knew, like so many of the people he’d come to know, that “the coolest thing about me was my record collection.” Though Stein is quite comfortable with his sexuality, he retains an unfashionable discreetness about it, with no qualms about having never come out to his parents: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think we become more enlightened by kissing on subways or by talking the life out of our quirks and kinks.” In one of the book’s clear money stories, he’s not merely discomfited by the sexual advances of Dee Dee Ramone — who waltzed into Stein’s apartment after Linda had left and displayed himself, ready to go — but caustic about it: “For a prostitute, Dee Dee obviously hadn’t progressed very far up from public toilets.”

Stein founded Sire in 1966 with producer-writer (and occasional performer, as with the Strangeloves of “I Want Candy” fame) Richard Gottehrer, initially the company’s in-house producer and A&R man. Sire’s early releases were primarily imported British blues-rock; Stein scored his first major hit with Dutch prog-rockers Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” which went top ten in 1973. Another early British signing, Climax Blues Band, went to number three (thanks in part to some grease, as Stein notes) with “Couldn’t Get It Right” in 1977. That success helped to finance Sire’s signing up many of the mid-Seventies bands playing downtown.

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It’s refreshing to read such a clear-eyed account of the CBGB’s era, even one written from a Midtown office. In the fall of 1977, Sire released debuts from Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids along with the third Ramones album, Rocket to Russia, through a new deal Stein had made with Warner Bros. Initially, Sire was looking for distribution; Mo Ostin instead suggested a partnership. For Warner Bros., Stein surmised, getting on the New York punk train was “a way to get hip and to do it pretty damn quickly.” Warned of Ostin’s Machiavellian ways, Stein nevertheless entered into what he’d later term as “about as joint a venture as a whale swallowing a fish” with Warner Bros., reveling for a few years in near-unlimited power to sign whatever he wanted.

Stein’s attitude was simple: Get there first or don’t bother. “I thought bidding wars were pointless,” he writes. “Why waste a pile of money on one act when half as much money could get three up and running?” That philosophy put Sire near the top of independent rock at the turn of the Eighties, as Seymour found gold in artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and the Cult. It helped that Stein was nearly alone in going after these prime post-punk and alternative acts: “The weird thing about the early-to-mid-Eighties was how unadventurous nearly all the American majors had remained,” he writes. But Stein certainly noticed when Ostin stole the B-52’s right out from under him, the band’s manager mollifying Stein by insisting the Sire label go on the LP anyway.

Stein with David Byrne and Madonna at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996

As any A&R person would, Stein spends an entire chapter detailing his biggest catch ever — “the record man’s equivalent of Florence Nightingale,” as he describes Madonna, walking into his hospital room shortly after his open-heart surgery. Stein’s initial interest was in her producer, Mark Kamins, a Danceteria DJ he admired: “He already had a sound.” Kamins brought Madonna the evening Stein heard the cassette: “I told her you were sick, but she really wants this,” he explains to Stein, who asks the nurse to “send me in a hairdresser as quickly as you can. … Of course, Madonna took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed.” Though he was impressed with her forthrightness, Stein writes, “there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.” Indeed, Ostin refused to sign off on Madonna, figuring her music, Stein writes, as “a downtown dance experiment … pointless twelve-inch bullshit.” Stein quickly learned better: “Madonna was always the smartest person in the room, even when she wasn’t physically there.”

In Stein’s life, the highest moments invoke the true fellowship music can bring. He doesn’t puff up his signees’ talent, instead highlighting great moments like a fan: Writing about the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” he pinpoints its opening line, “I found a picture of you,” as its center: “Isn’t that how bereavement feels?” Stein takes pride in his place on the committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; with honorable candor, he dubs the latter “some kind of mausoleum for our own community.”

One of Siren Song‘s most indelible moments comes when Stein is trying to sign Ice-T to his label. Accompanied by his manager, the L.A. gangsta rap pioneer and actor sits in Stein’s office and asks the old record man straight out why Seymour wants him. Stein’s inspired answer is to play him the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso classic “Jean and Dinah,” about Trinidadian prostitutes left without work in the wake of the island’s U.S. military bases closing. A bawdy social satire, this song sounded absolutely nothing like the records Ice-T had already made or would make for Sire, but was totally on target as an assessment of the kind of public truth-telling role Stein saw in his gangsta rap. “I want to sign with you!” Ice-T exclaimed. Who wouldn’t?

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Jeopardy’s Five Best Music Moments

Sure, selling almost 180 million records worldwide is pretty special. As is winning 17 Grammy Awards. But last week, Beyoncé’s legacy was bestowed with arguably the highest of all honors: She got her own category on Jeopardy. Personally, our favorite part was Alex Trebek’s delivery of the phrase “Jay-Z is featured on this Beyoncé song that mentions ‘that liquor get into me.’ ”

In case you missed this glorious moment, you can see it here:

See also: An Illustrated Guide to Beyoncé’s Insight and Empowerment

Jeopardy, of course, has a long and rich history of taking stuff that’s cool and sexy and For The Kids and making it sound extraordinarily awkward and sanitized and, rather ironically, really damn stupid. Here are some of our favorite musical moments from the show’s history.

1. We’re guessing a student intern was responsible for this.
In 2012, Jeopardy reduced much-lauded emotive indie quintet Fleet Foxes to “folk-rockin’ dudes” with this clue. To celebrate, Sub Pop Records tweeted a link to the incident and hashtagged “Trebek!” for good measure.

2. ‘The 1990s Rap Song’
In a particularly delightful episode of Jeopardy: The Battle of the Decades, there was, rather magically, a category titled “The 1990s Rap Song.” The questions — er, answers — included clues relating to Notorious B.I.G., Shock G, and MC Hammer, but it was Trebek’s enthusiastic renditions of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” and Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” that truly made this a special moment in TV game show history. This is possibly the most animated we’ve ever heard him.

3. Who Is Buddy Holly?
Sometimes, under pressure, contestants do crazy things on Jeopardy. One time, a guy actually ended up face-down, passed out, during Final Jeopardy, and another lady got laughed at super-hard by the audience for giving “Chris Farley” as a response to a Johnny Cash clue. However, it’s difficult to imagine how one woman, in response to the clue “His widow Maria Elena and actor Gary Busey were on hand when his star was dedicated outside Capitol Records in 2011,” came up with this:

We hope that when someone finally makes a movie about Ice-T, Gary Busey is allowed to at least audition. We would pay to see that.

4. Most Bizarre Clue Ever
We’re pretty sure you could put this in front of every single member of Mötley Crüe and even they wouldn’t answer it correctly. Who the hell came up with this?

5. ‘It’s a Rap’
Plucky contestant Mary holds her shit together really, really well until the very last moment of tackling the “It’s a Rap” category. What sends her over the edge? Trebek doing Public Enemy, that’s what. “I don’t know why that’s making you laugh so much!” the host declares. We think you do, Trebek. We think you do…


 

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Body Count: “Cop Killer” to Manslaughter

He’s not a cop; he just plays one on TV. He’s not a cop killer, he just sings about it on a record: “I’m a cop killer, better you than me / Cop killer, fuck police brutality!”

On TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, as a compassionate detective, he tracks a serial rapist through NYC in an episode called “Outsider.” In “KKK Bitch” he sings, “She got wild in the backstage bathroom / Sucked my dick like a muthafuckin’ vacuum / Said ‘I love you, but my daddy don’t play / He’s the fuckin’ grand wizard of the KKK.'”

So who is Ice-T? He’s a self-proclaimed orphan who wrote a song inspired by his father on the new Body Count album, Manslaughter. (Both parents died before he was 13.) He’s a seminal African-American rapper with respect from the street and the critics; an OG, original gangster, since the ’80s, who may have written one of the best metal records of 2014. He’s also Tracy Lauren Marrow, 56, and to millions, for nearly 15 years, brusque but humane TV detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola.

The seeming contradictions are what can make Ice-T a polarizing figure — but that’s what they mostly are, seeming. He’s got a gift for being legit in everything he does, hence his success in various musical and media genres. Is he the rapper/metaller with a heart of gold and mouth dirtier than a Superfund site? Maybe. He’s no dilettante, but is a consummate actor, both on screen and stage.

In his distinct, Jersey-by way-of-L.A. voice, he explains his fronting Body Count since 1989. “I’m playing a role. All the time,” he says over the phone. “With acting, it’s your script; I have to do it till you like it. With Body Count, I’m not a cop killer. I never cared to kill no cops. I become the characters, and I take on the rage or the attitude of the song, so it is acting to an extent. More like channeling. Before I do [Dennis Hopper–directed 1988 film] Colors, I become 15 years old and I’m gang-banging again. That’s what a good artist will bring to the stage. If I’m singing ‘Pray for Death,’ I’m really thinking about killing a motherfucker, about my enemy, about this dude I fucking want to torture, and you’ll see it in my face and you’ll hear it in my voice.”

That voice became an aggro metal one in the late ’80s Los Angeles with Body Count, the metal band he founded with Crenshaw High School pal Ernie C. (Cunnigan), now the only other original member of the group: Bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts was killed in a drive-by in South Central in 2001; guitarist Dennis Miles, aka D-Roc, succumbed to lymphoma in 2004; drummer Victor Ray Wilson, better known as Beatmaster V, died of leukemia in 1996. By the time Body Count got signed to Sire/Warner Bros. in 1991, Ice had established his name as a rapper and actor, thanks most notably to 1991’s O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album, where he introduces Body Count on the record’s 18th track. (He left the label in 1993 following the political fallout from “Cop Killer;” then-President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were not fans, though Sire supported him and his freedom of speech.)

Detractors and rabid fans, Ice has both, and thanks to SVU, Cunnigan observes, “He’s been in your house for the last 16 years. Your grandmothers know him.” And many have no clue about Ice-T the rapper, let alone the metal frontman, says Cunnigan: “People see our videos and the comments are like, ‘Isn’t that the guy from Law and Order?'”

That said, early buzz for Manslaughter and the revitalized Body Count is loud, credible, and deserved. An appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon further legitimizes the band and closes the loop for Ice-T, star of stage and screen. While Ice did reality TV (Ice Loves Coco) and SVU, living in his home state of New Jersey, Body Count was on somewhat of a hiatus in California, their last album, 2006’s Murder 4 Hire, released eight years ago. While most artists won’t dis previous work, Ice-T is candid: “The last couple albums I mailed in.”

Guitarist Cunnigan concurs, laughing, “I don’t even know what the last record was. We try to forget. This time we sat in the room and wrote a record the way we used to. We stayed damn near in the same house for a month.” Cunnigan, who in high school took the bus from South Central to West Hollywood’s infamous club the Starwood to check out rock gods like Randy Rhoads in Quiet Riot and Eddie Van Halen — along with alt acts like the Blasters and X — is essentially Body Count’s musical director, and for Manslaughter, he and Ice-T put together 13 songs that are incendiary, melodic, heavy, pointed, poignant, dirty, and funny.

“If you don’t get the humor, it’ll scare the shit out of you,” Ice-T says. The album’s title track, “Manslaughter,” refers to — as Ice-T sings in the thrash-metal, shredding guitar and chant-along riff rock tune — how “manhood’s dead. It’s a play on words. Hip-hop got real soft, real pop, now everyone is trying to be politically correct,” he explains.

As expected, and in his trademark clever, foul and biting way, on Manslaughter, Ice-T criticizes the pop culture he’s part of, ranting about Oprah’s dating life, email passwords, and vegans. Socio-“political lyrics are about poverty (“Enter the Dark Side”), the military (the surprisingly tender anthem “I Will Always Love You”), and a friend’s addiction (“Back to Rehab”); in true hip-hop tradition, he pays homage and refers back, covering and updating the Suicidal Tendencies classic “Institutionalized” and a hit from Beyoncé’s husband, “99 Problems.”

“It’s kinda like a sucker punch, to get people asking, ‘Why is Ice-T making Jay Z’s record?'” Ice-T says. “Then somebody can come along and smack the shit out of them. It’s a booby trap on the album.” To wit: “99 Problems” appeared on Jay-Z’s 2004 The Black Album, but the song’s chorus hook is taken from “99 Problems” from Ice-T’s 1993 Home Invasion album. “Now it allows me to play ’99 Problems’ in a Body Count concert,” Ice-T notes.

It’s the rare savvy artist who manages equal success across artistic platforms, and with a little luck, Manslaughter will put Body Count back on the metal map. Ice-T ruminates on his time in the spotlight. “With a movie, you’re gonna get paid whether it sucks or not. TV is more stable. But there’s nothing I’ve done that can compare to being on stage or being a rock star. It’s better than being the fucking president,” he raves. “You stand on that stage, and when you get 10 or 20,000 people there and you can hear a pin drop, and you go, ‘I want a glass of water,’ and you hear everybody go ‘Yeah!’ It’s so raw. It’s the shit.

“It would be wonderful for Body Count to get back to the top of the game,” he laughs, “so people would have to deal with me again.”

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Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp Glamorizes The Criminal Life It Intends to Rebuke

Intentions and effect are at odds throughout Jorge Hinojosa’s one-note documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, which like its subject—the pimp-turned-author who found success with books like 1967’s Pimp: The Story of My Life—nominally censures the women-exploiting business that it not-so-subtly celebrates. Slim is presented as a suave, coldhearted gentleman who had a change of heart and took to the typewriter after repeated stints in prison. Hinojosa employs stock archival materials, stylish animated sequences, and enthusiastic talking heads (Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Bill Duke, producer Ice-T) to argue that Slim was a pioneer for being the first to authentically write about the inner-city streets. Influential as his writing may have been, however, what emerges via lengthy chats with his alternately laudatory and critical wife and kids is a picture of an emotionally detached, self-interested man (replete with mommy issues) who, even during his later years, continued pimping while being a lousy husband and father—and one whose lasting legacy, as confirmed by one daughter hilariously praising her dad for being calm and understanding after she was arrested for possession of a kilo of coke and $1 million cash, was painting the criminal life as respectable.

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Rooted in History, Assaulted: Civil Rights Under Fire Steers Clear of Emotion-Based Rhetoric

Opening with a male country singer crooning, “We might as well give up and run/If we let them take our God and gun,” Assaulted (narrated by Ice-T) might well inspire groans at first, especially as it seems to be taking the familiar rightwing agitprop approach to the subject of gun control. What follows though, is a surprisingly thoughtful, well-researched attempt to give both sides of the argument respect while illuminating the long history of tensions surrounding gun ownership in America. Writer-director Kris Koenig rolls out fantastic archival footage, newspaper clips, and old photos, as well as historians who illuminate the racial and class biases historically held by many of the Americans calling for gun control—and who make clear how those biases are still very much in play. He also showcases gun advocates from demographics that might surprise some viewers, such as LGBT activists and groups of disabled Americans. Yes, Ted Nugent also makes an appearance, and it’s unlikely that stalwarts on either side of the matter will change their minds. But that doesn’t seem to be Koenig’s goal. While the film leans more heavily toward gun-ownership, finessing that position with a nod toward left-leaning politics, its real purpose is to bring some historical perspective to the argument, to move the conversation beyond emotion-based rhetoric.

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Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

A loose inquiry into the origins and craft of hip-hop, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Ice-T’s enjoyably clannish, idiosyncratic directorial debut, features some big names: Snoop Dogg, Nas; Prada, Gucci. A more consistent and impressive source of anecdote than analysis, Rap travels from the East to West Coast via Detroit, while canvassing Melle Mel and Eminem, Grandmaster Caz and Kanye West. Ice begins with a baseline set of questions—about influences, technique, and style—and has each subject sign off with a few bars. (Kanye’s impromptu “Gorgeous” is riveting.) Styled as an antidote to the homogenizing effects of popularity, the film’s thesis—that rap lacks the respect given to jazz and the blues—feels thinly argued. Now a mass-cult phenomenon, hip-hop emerged from a complex respect-based economy (Nas alludes to the eff-you attitude behind ass-baring pants; KRS-One describes being drawn into rap by a public dissing); a sensibility, as the hyper-confrontational lyrics suggests, that revels in aggression, not acceptance. More persuasive when it explores the importance of place and brands to sound and identity (and the distinction between a rapper and an MC), Rap confirms the art of the form from the inside. Only time can sort out the rest.

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MAKE IT RAIN

Not long ago, New Jersey–based music journalist Ben Westhoff hopped into his Hyundai and drove south in search of the roots of Southern rap, a genre that has dominated the airwaves and earned itself plenty of haters (you may recall Ice-T claiming that Soulja Boy was responsible for “killing hip-hop”). His new book, Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop, takes us along on his journey from observing rappers at a Houston strip club to partying with Luke Campbell and visiting the rough neighborhoods where T.I. and Lil Wayne were raised. Tonight, join Westhoff, who recently wrote the Voice‘s definitive guide to the best dive bars in New York City, at this reading and discussion at Book Thug Nation (100 North 3rd St., Brooklyn).

Thu., June 9, 7 p.m., 2011

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BAD ASS 4 LIFE

If you’re of a certain age, you probably have fond memories of those days when you had to sneak a copy of Ice-T’s song “Cop Killer” into your Walkman. Of course, so much has changed since then for the former frontman of Body Count. These days, he’s married to swimsuit model Coco and ironically plays a cop on Law & Order: SVU. But how Tracy Morrow, his given name, became a star is the subject of his second autobiography Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—From South Central to Hollywood. In the book, he recounts his move from New Jersey to Los Angeles at the age of 12 after the death of his parents, becoming a father at 18, his four-year stint in the Army, his time as a jewelry thief, and how all of his many roles in life prepared him for survival in the trenches of Hollywood.

Mon., April 25, 7 p.m., 2011

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Body Count

How does Ice-T find the time? One day he’s recording lo-fi dis videos aimed at Soulja Boy and posting them to YouTube. The next he’s acting on Law & Order: SVU. (OK, “acting”) Then he’s on Celebrity Family Feud! All that three-strike aggression must be coming out during this show by his not-as-bad-as-you-remember rock band Body Count. Go on and crank dat Soulja Boy during his set and see if he boils over. With No Redeaming Social Value, Maximum Penalty, and Billyclub Sandwhich.

Thu., Aug. 14, 8 p.m.; Fri., Aug. 15, 6 p.m., 2008