Ice-T hustled in his early days and performed with Body Count, known for their song "Cop Killer." But in 1991 he got his big break playing a cop in New Jack City. And he's still carrying a badge — on TV — for Law & Order: SVU.
In his memoir, Ice, he shares his story, from gangbanging to making it in Hollywood. He was born Tracy Marrow — some people still call him Tracy. "They're trying to let me know that they know me, you know, personally," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. But most of his real friends call him Trey or Berg, short for Iceberg.
It wasn't easing growing up as a boy named Tracy. "Johnny Cash had a record called "Boy Named Sue," so if you give a boy any name that could be considered a girl's name, he's going to grow up tough," Ice-T says. So he went by Trey until he picked up some books by pimp turned author Iceberg Slim. People would say to him, "Say some more of that Iceberg stuff, T," which turned into Ice-T — cool T, for Tracy.
Ice-T says he idolized Slim in high school — and even tried his own luck at pimping. But then, he says, it dawned on him that the author he admired so much was an author first. "I'm like, if I really want to be like him, instead of worrying about really living it out, let me document the game. That's why I respect [Slim]."
That's when Ice-T started to turn things around. "My life was kind of crazy at the time; I was out there breaking the law," he remembers. But then he started making music instead. "I made music about that lifestyle, in an attempt to kind of mimic Iceberg Slim, through music," he explains.
He took some license as a lyricist. "I couldn't possibly have lived all the things that Ice-T on the records lived," he says. "I did what I called 'faction.' It was like factual situations — not always from me — put into fictional settings. That way I could create these great adventures and these great stories." The event had to come from a true story — like a brush with the law — and then he'd combine all the details with his own material to write songs. If everything in his songs were 100 percent true, "I wouldn't be standing here today," he says. "Ice-T in the music has done some outrageous things."
Ice-T lost both of his parents as a child — his mother when he was in the third grade, his father when he was in the seventh, both to heart failure. After his father died, he moved to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. Though she lived in a middle-class neighborhood, he chose to attend Crenshaw High School, "the roughest high school, probably, in the country." And that's where he ran into L.A.'s well-populated gangs.
He and a few kids from his neighborhood started their own gang of three — they knew they were far outnumbered by other gangs, but "[we] convinced the school that we had a gang," Ice-T says, "that there were more of us; you just don't know us." Their improvisation worked, and other gangs kept out of their way.
He admits that he still got in plenty of trouble, hustling and stealing. "There's no sense in me trying to come out as a musician and just act like I never did it," he says. "Somebody's going to say, 'Hey, this guy's no angel.' " But as he got more opportunities, he tried to make the right decisions. He knew he could never escape his past, so he might as well come out with it early.
"It's stuff that you never get rid of," he says, "when you come from that environment, that violent background." At nice parties, he says he still looks for the escape routes. "You can see me at a nice party in the Hamptons someplace and I'll have my back up against the wall. It's stuff that just gets stuck in you for life."
But he's made it work. "Who would ever have thought a kid from South Central who was in serious trouble would end up on television playing a cop?" he asks. "I had to start making some right decisions, sooner or later."