Last year I co-edited a volume of essays on the rapper Ice-T with Dr Will Turner from the University of Manchester (Ashgate, 2015). In a recent conversation with Will, he was telling me about the teaching he is currently doing. “Hip-Hop and Hollywood”, convened by Dr Eithne Quinn, is a third-year American Studies module which charts hip-hop’s evolution from a youth subculture to a dominant popular cultural form. This semester, one of the primary texts used on the course is Ice-T’s 2011 autobiography Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood (co-written with Douglas Century). I asked Will why he had included this text in his workshops on the course, and he said it provides a useful tool for anyone looking to dramatise the key debates that frame hip-hop as a cultural, political and commercial phenomenon. He added that the memoir was a great way to familiarise students with cultural studies approaches more generally. Here he has documented his top five reasons for using Ice-T’s memoir as a teaching text:
- Literary Self-Representation
“I’d taken my name as a tribute to Iceberg [Slim], and then it hit me one day—dude is a writer. I thought he was fly because he was a pimp, but I realised that I really admired him because he was a writer.”
As a written form, the memoir provides Ice-T with the perfect medium in which to illustrate and reflect on the African American literary roots of hip-hop culture. Throughout, he is keen to emphasise the influence of 1970s pulp crime writers Iceberg Slim (from whom he took his moniker) and Donald Goines on his own uncompromising, first-person gangsta rap narratives. This genealogy appears to be a central focus for Ice-T in his later career. In addition to penning his memoir, he has recently published noir crime novels (Kings of Vice , Mirror Image ) and in 2012 produced documentaries that explored the literary nature of rap composition (Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap) and the genre’s debt to earlier African American writers (Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp).
These ventures reflect the recent emergence of best-selling hip-hop memoirists and authors such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent, and the mainstream success of “Street Lit” urban crime fiction—a genre estimated to consist of anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of total sales at black bookstores in the US. Ice-T’s memoir not only exemplifies these shifts, but illuminates the intersection of hip-hop, autobiography, and (African) American literature. In doing so, it allows students to cut across generational boundaries, and locate gangsta rap narratives within broader traditions of African American literary (and “criminal”) self-representation—a lineage encompassing the abolitionist slave narrative, the Black Power-era memoirs of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, and the contemporary gang memoir. Similarly, this approach encourages students to challenge conventional binaries between high/low, literary/oral, canonical/commercial culture. Indeed, the rise of the hip-hop memoir and Street Lit provides a contemporary angle on long-standing debates over canon formation and cultural prestige.
- Masks and Personas
“Mac was constantly telling me I was cut to make a great pimp, but I also understood that this was part of his game: a pimp will tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear. That’s what they do: they’re masters and wizards of charisma.” (41)
From his 1987 track “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy!!!)” to the recent documentary Portrait of a Pimp (2012), Ice-T has long traded on his pimp persona. However, as detailed in his autobiography, Ice-T never actually pimped. The closest he came to pimping was in the mid-1970s, while stationed in Hawaii with the US army. Here, he befriended a pimp called Mac who he credits (along with Iceberg Slim’s autobiography, Pimp) with teaching him the talents that define a successful pimp: style, cunning, enterprise. Rather than verifying Ice-T’s pimp persona, then, the memoir presents it as a calculated act of self-stylisation. Following on from Mac’s advice, Ice-T candidly discusses how pimping (at least as it relates to his own public image) is a matter of word over deed.
In this sense, the memoir offers students a highly irreverent examination of hip-hop authenticity. Since the late 1980s, the pimp has proved a highly marketable hip-hop persona—and one that trades knowingly on stereotypes of pathological black urban sexuality. Ice-T’s autobiography foregrounds the performative politics of this brand, offering an engaging take on Frantz Fanon’s theories of racialised power, looking relations, and racial “masks” or stereotypes. Additionally, it can be placed alongside recent efforts by hip-hop artists to frankly examine the contradictions of the pimp persona. Most notably, Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) offers a deeply ambivalent commentary on both the creative uses and restrictions that such a persona offers the contemporary hip-hop artist. As Lamar raps on “The Blacker the Berry” (a track which directly references Ice-T’s debut 1986 single “6 ‘n the Mornin’”): “You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me.”
- Hip-Hop Synergy
“If there’s any one thing I take pride in—as far as helping this hip-hop game to grow into the empire it is today—it’s the number of firsts.” (215)
Throughout his memoir, Ice-T emphasises his role in hip-hop’s evolution from an inner-city subcultural practice, to a globalised, multi-platform media “empire”. As one of the first gangsta rappers to ascend to mainstream cultural prominence in the late 1980s, Ice-T’s career trajectory not only showcases the growth in popularity of the genre, but its diversification. Among other ventures, Ice-T has lent his gangsta image to rock music (Body Count), network TV drama (Law & Order: SVU), reality TV (Ice Loves Coco) and Hollywood cinema classed as both “urban” (New Jack City) and mainstream (Johnny Mnemonic). In addition, Ice-T has also engaged in more prestigious forms such as literature, documentary film, and jazz poetry—he will perform Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz at London’s Barbican Theatre in November.
As a case study, the many-sided career of Ice-T encourages students to map the ways in which popular cultural texts and icons are rearticulated: over time, across cultural boundaries, and across political divides. How can the Ice-T’s persona encompass both cop killer and TV cop? Reality TV star and jazz poet? These questions can be used to frame the complex political needs of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they illuminate the contradictory appeal of the gangsta icon—as both a marginal and a peculiarly middle-American capitalist icon. In addition, these contradictions present students with a case study in Gramscian theories of cultural hegemony. Ice-T’s journey from dissident criminal to household favourite illustrates the way in which oppositional cultural meanings can be absorbed into the mainstream, and vice versa. In this sense, Ice-T’s memoir opens up the forces of containment and resistance that define hip-hop culture, and popular culture more broadly.
- Marketplace Politics
“I got news for you, dog, the system is a monster. Sooner or later you’re going to have to learn how to work it. There is no overturning or overrunning the system, you need to learn to manipulate it. Even if you’re a gangster, there is still a system.” (172)
In the summer of 1992, Ice-T became the most talked about rapper in the US when the single “Cop Killer” (by his heavy metal band Body Count) was the target of a censorship campaign waged by police groups and senior politicians including President George Bush. Later that summer, Ice-T shocked many of his fans when he agreed to the demands of his record company Warner Bros to withdraw the single. Hip-hop magazine The Source promptly labelled this moment the “death of rap.” How could a hardcore rapper like Ice-T capitulate so visibly to the demands of the white political and corporate establishment? In his memoir, Ice-T’s answer to this question is unapologetic and sobering—the system is a “monster” and there is no pure authorial space outside of it.
Ice-T’s frank analysis of the episode provides students with a clear picture of the precarious position of black cultural producers within conglomerated cultural industries. Recent case studies remind us that the “system” is both legal and global in nature. In the summer of 2015, the rapper Tyler, the Creator was banned by the UK Home Office from entering Britain on the charge of provoking his listeners to “terrorist acts” with his lyrics. These examples can be used to illustrate a broader pattern of the capitalistic co-optation and criminalisation of African American expressive forms. Yet they also encourage students to consider the nuances of contemporary authorship; Ice-T’s enduring success, and the stellar rise of hip-hop “moguls” such as Jay-Z and Dr Dre, point to the determination of black cultural producers to carve out a semi-autonomous commercial and creative space within these industries. In his memoir, Ice-T’s frank discussion of his limited authorial agency provides students with a compelling commentary on this dynamic.
“When I talk to kids, I know damn well that if I was broke they wouldn’t give a fuck what I have to say. But they see the success. They want to know how to be successful. That’s the only reason people follow anybody, from preachers to politicians. It’s in human nature to chase success. He did it—how can I do it?” (241)
Over the course of his career, Ice-T has sought to lend his celebrity to various philanthropic causes including Children United Nations, YOGA for Youth, and LA gang truce initiatives such as Hands Across Watts and South Central Love. However, in his autobiography, Ice-T plays down these organisational or structural approaches to social and political change, endorsing instead a brand of activism centred instead on models of individual “success”. Be it through the writing of his memoir, or his production of the television program The Peacemaker: LA Gang Wars (2010), Ice-T has sought to fashion himself as an inspiring symbol of social mobility, entrepreneurialism, and capitalistic redemption.
This aspect of Ice-T’s career captures a dominant form of “raptivism” that purposefully blurs the line between activism and entrepreneurialism; philanthropy and industrialism. Most visibly, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have lent their public support and commercial acumen to radical movements for social change (Occupy Wall Street) and racial freedom (#BlackLivesMatter). This dynamic has been at once celebrated as evidence of hip-hop rediscovering its sense of political engagement, and criticised as an example of hip-hop entrepreneurs opportunistically looking to develop their brand. These tensions are addressed with characteristic candour by Ice-T in his memoir. It is a text that encourages students to locate raptivism within conflicting traditions of African American protest—Civil Rights, Washingtonian, nationalist. More immediately, it challenges students to consider the limits of (black) political activism in the age of neoliberalism.
Will Turner, October 2015
 Ice-T and Douglas Century, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood (New York: One World, 2011): 52. Subsequent references to this edition cited in the main body of the text.
 Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker The Berry”, To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope, 2015).