Rapper, actor, reality television star. Ice T has nearly done it all in the entertainment world. He can now add director to his resume after the release of his first feature film "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap." The documentary about the origin of rap music opened in theaters nationwide last week.
Ice T was in Washington D.C. promoting the film, when the Times caught up with the godfather of gangsta rap, and talked about the film, the evolution of hip hop, and his plans for the future.
Q: So Ice, "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap." Tell me about the documentary and what inspired you to take this project on?
A: I want to direct features. I was sitting around one day watching the news, watching the weatherman, sportscasters rapping back and forth ... I just came up with an idea where I wanted to do a film to make people kind of grasp my appreciation for the culture. [I] called up my friends, I said, "Look, I want to do a movie, but I'm not going to ask you any questions about money, cars, girls, jewelry - none of that, I want to talk to you about the history of rap." They were like, "Wow, nobody asks us those questions."
So we shot the film, took it to Sundance [Film Festival], it blew up at Sundance, and we got a theatrical release. So it's in select theaters nationwide right now.
Q: Directing is new to you. What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in making this project?
A: The first thing is logistics. I'm doing "Law and Order" full-time, so I'm on that show. I got a camera crew that's from London and then I gotta get the homies to stop for a second so I can get a camera crew out to them. So it was difficult. So calls went out, everybody said yes not a problem, but then actually getting them was difficult.
[The second thing is] editing. We ended up with a six-hour edit of the film which had to be brutally cut down to two hours. Then licensing, music ... it's a lot different than acting where you kind of just say your words and walk away from the project.
Q: What are you hoping that viewers take away after watching the film?
A: Just an appreciation for hip hop. Appreciation for an American art form that was born in the Bronx by kids, and a culture that now has become part of the global fabric. You know, you can't go anywhere where somebody ain't got a little hip hop in the way they walk; or your mailman comes, he got his hat twisted a little bit to the side. In Japan, kids are wearing shell-toe Adidas and rocking the look. It's part of the global culture, and I just want people to understand where it came from and give them a little idea how it happened.
Q: You're right. Everyone it seems is just drawn to the culture. It's not just one particular race or ethnicity which has embraced hip hop. What do you think draws everyone to the culture?
A: Well hip hop is a multi-dimensional culture. It has DJ'ing, it has graffiti, it has break-dancing and it has MC'ing.
The first word in hip hop is hip. It's just the coolest [stuff] to do. Even, you can have the squarest father, and the next thing you know he's saying "word" or something. They can't help it; it's just a cool culture. I think it's the coolest [stuff] since the hippies.
Q: You came from the old school of hip hop, what's your take on modern day rap music?
A: I think it's just kind of been diluted a lot. It's kind of pop at this point. And it's not the fault of the artist. It's the influx of the ability of people to go on the Internet; it's hard for a rapper to stand out. You know, there's thousands and thousands of rappers, so for them to stand out they have to get on the radio - radio doesn't really want to let you speak on anything - so you kind of get sucked into a pop vortex of what radio wants to play.
But this isn't just unique to hip hop, this is all music that is going down this Clear Channel drain.
Q: The internet has certainly changed a lot of industries. I'm in journalism and have seen the impact first-hand ...
A: It's the same thing with journalism. You're a journalist, but since everyone has a blog, how do you know who's worth talking to? Any idiot can just set a blog up, so it just gets very diluted and in order for you to make a statement now you have to get into a pop scenario. Internet had its pros and cons but ... I'll give you a quick example: I told a girl the other day that I made a lot of money when people went to the record store, she was 21, and she asked me what is a record store?
When you would go to the record store, you'd always walk in for one [record] but leave with five. Because the guy at the store was the man, he's like 'you like that, you ain't hip to this, this cat raps with such and such,' and they would help you build your collection. But it's a different world now. But I don't blame it on anybody. The only thing that I'm really against is people that kind of jump on the bandwagon and want to call themselves hip hop but really haven't applied the skill set necessary to be like, what Raekwon says 'within the perimeter of excellence that hip hop requires.'
There's a certain degree of difficulty that makes hip hop great. To be a great break dancer, to be a great graffiti artist, to be a great DJ, you can't be a model standing there playing somebody else's CD that they mixed and call yourself a DJ.
Just say you're not hip hop. Don't try to be part of the club so to speak. When I came out I wanted to stand next to Raekwon and Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and be as dope as Ice Cube. I didn't say that I don't care as long as I'm making money. That's unacceptable to a real hip hop artist.
Q: Who would you say has done the most for the rap genre? Who has impacted the culture the most?
A: For the rap genre. I don't know. For the world I think Public Enemy had the biggest footprint. Because they really, in one big fatal swoop, got people to wake the hell up. Got white kids to understand the black issues and not hate it, understand it, and make a step forward toward, I guess, what put [President] Obama in the White House.
A new generation of people that don't look at skin color right off the top, they kind of judge the devil by its deed.
Now as far as the person who's done the most for hip hop, I think it's a lot of different things. Someone like Will Smith broke down this wall from being a rapper to being the highest paid film actor. You know, Queen Latifah. I mean, I did some by breaking into film, I'm on NBC. I think people that took it, and took it into other genres really helped expand it.
Clothing lines, even all the moves that Puffy had did to kind of break it and make it huge. Run DMC, you know they took it to the stadium.
That's one of my questions in the film, I say hip hop is a masterpiece, but nobody painted the whole thing. I think everybody has a brush stroke that expanded the culture.
I honestly can't answer that question because I don't think there's any one person that moved it, I think everybody nudged it a little bit.
Q: What would you say is the biggest misconception of rap music?
A: Well I think the misconception is that the kids are stupid. I think that's because you see the rock 'n' roll side of it. You see the parties, you see the wildin', the spending. But that's not unique to hip hop, that comes along with rock 'n' roll, that comes along with being an athlete, that just comes along with not having any money, and then all of a sudden having a large sum of money. People go crazy. It's nothing different.
I think that unfortunately today we live in a gossip-based culture and that's what they're more concerned with - you know, who I'm sleeping with, what car I have - versus what I'm about. And unfortunately you deal with a lot of rappers and you ask them, "What do they want people to learn?" and they'll say, "I just want them to learn that I got money and I'm better than them." It's like limited. But these cats are really intelligent and these cats, if given the chance, will blow your mind and I wanted to show that side of it.
Q: What's Ice T listening to in his car these days?
A: Honestly, I'm classic, so I keep Mobb Deep in my car. I keep a lot of demos. I got a group out of Washington called Certified Outfit that's really hard. I got my own artists that I listen to and then the other side of me is I'm listening to oldies like Delfonics and The Stylistics ... pimp music you know. [laughs]
Q: You've done rapping, acting and now directing. You've done it all. What would you say sort of defines you the most?
A: I think if you really go into it, I'm just a cat out of the hood in Los Angeles, who was a career criminal, who got an opportunity to rap and just taking it for a ride. And I think a lot of people that really look past the glitz will say, "Man Ice is just like us, he's just like us."
You know I'm an orphan, I don't have brothers and sisters, I've been involved in all the stuff, the gun play and all that, and somehow I managed to get myself out of it; and I'm doing the right thing and I'm still that same dude. It's like, I ain't lost my edge, I just refined my edge.
I'm taking advantage of opportunities and I'm trying to show cats you can do it. I look at Russell [Simmons] and I'm like, Russell's a billionaire with his hat turned backwards, you know. It can be done. You don't have to so-called sell out; you just have to take advantage of opportunities as they come to you. Now if somebody gives you an opportunity and you don't take it, you're a sucker, honestly. Especially when you're from the hood complaining "I don't got no chances, I don't have any opportunity."
So I'm just an individual that took the opportunities presented to me.
Q: So what's next for Ice?
A: I've been on "Law and Order," that turned out to be a nice ride for me. It happened right at the right time when the climate of music changed. I was getting a little old for hip hop, not old to do it, but old to stay in that age bracket that buys hip hop. So it was perfect for me. And now I just want to direct movies.
Q: So you see this film as the start of the next phase for you?
A: Yeah. I want to do features, I want to be the black Tarantino. I want to put some other [stuff] on the screen that ... you've listened to my music and I've done audio film, now I want to put it all together. And then when I do movies I'll have the ability to do soundtracks, I'll have the ability to cast people in my films and give somebody the whole vision. That's where I want to go next.
[Ice] Cube is doing the comedies. Tyler Perry has his lane. My lane is wide open. I'm not necessarily saying hood movies, I'm just saying like something that hasn't been seen before. Edgy. Like imagine my film, you'd be crossing everything. You'd be crossing a movie like "Heat" with some kung fu with a horror movie.
Q: Who are your Top 5 rappers?
A: Top 5, in no particular order. Chuck D. Rakim. Ice Cube. KRS-One ... I'll say Scarface ... Biggie and Pac are your cliche answers. I think Scarface and Jay-Z, too. I think Jay-Z is a savant. I think he's incredible.
Q: Eminem is in the movie. Tell me what your thoughts were on Eminem when he first broke onto the scene compared to what you think of him now?
A: I think it's just growth. Em's been through a lot of [stuff]. I met Em during his first tour. I was on the road with him on the Warped Tour, and I got the chance to really meet him and chill with him ... And I remember I asked him close I said, "What do you want to do?" you know what his answer was? "I just want to be around like you and Dre."
So I think that Em's whole thing is his longevity and to stay around, but for him to be so consistent and such a brutal rapper, I think it's just because he really is a one-track minded MC. That's all he ... does. And he's super competitive.
He's still a great guy. You see that in the movie. I gotta believe it's rough being Eminem. And he's been through a lot. He's fought his own personal demons, I mean, he's been through it, but he went through the eye of the storm. I got nothing but respect for Eminem.