A cold, clear look at Ice-T

McDonnell is the author of "Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, and Rock 'n' Roll."

Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption -- From South Central to Hollywood

Ice-T and Douglas Century

One World/Ballantine: 288 pages, $25


In order to maintain his street cred and speak honestly about his past -- i.e., to keep it real -- the erstwhile gangster rapper must own up to his crimes. To keep his crossover celebrity and A-list perks, he must also make clear he's gone legit. The gangster rap memoir (if, based on a handful of books, we can declare this a genre) thus balances boast and reflection. Its bible is "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" -- its guilty pleasure, the Iceberg Slim novels.

In his spare, plainspoken autobiography, Ice-T speaks freely and unapologetically of youthful years spent heisting jewelry and other goods throughout the Southland. Like Jay-Z's "Decoded," "Ice" isn't a confessional; the man born Tracy Marrow doesn't purge his sins. Rather he brags about his tactical skills (learned in the Army) and daredevil stunts. But he's also clearly happy to be living a screen star's life of ease, with his swimsuit-model wife at his side, rather than still banging in South Central or, like many of his friends, moldering in jail. Ice-T understands the incredible irony of having become world famous (or infamous) for co-writing a song called "Cop Killer" then finding a decade of sanctuary by playing a police officer on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." He's laughing all the way to the bank.

For a story about an orphan turned gangster turned idol, "Ice," written with journalist Douglas Century, is determinedly unsentimental. The author recalls little about his parents, who both died of heart attacks when he was young. He has one anecdote of his mother, a light-skinned woman who often was mistaken for Caucasian. When he was a kid in suburban New Jersey, Marrow too could pass as white. "Honey, people are stupid," his mom explained when he wondered at friends' duplicity.

Issues of identity and misunderstanding permeate Ice-T's life story. Shipped to Los Angeles to live with relatives he didn't know or like, the teenage T soon survived on his own, supporting himself mostly with small crimes. His girlfriend's pregnancy compelled him to join the Army. His years of service saved him from becoming ensnared in the explosion of gangs in his old neighborhood. After an honorable discharge, he became an accomplished thief. He also began rapping.

Books helped save Ice-T. Obsessed with Iceberg Slim, he started turning his and his friends' exploits into verse. Signed to Sire records by Seymour Stein, he became one of the first West Coast rappers to gain national fame. He also helped put the gangster rap lifestyle on the screen, with his starring role in the film "New Jack City" (1991).

But it's a song he recorded with his rock band Body Count that propelled him into the spotlight. "Cop Killer" became the subject of a boycott and the 1992 presidential campaign. The controversy over it helped take down Warner Bros. records and permanently altered the landscape of the entertainment industry. As Ice-T says, "I tell people today that you don't know what heat is until you've had the President of the United States say your name in anger."

"Ice" is a good name for this memoir -- its writer is a cool cat. He's not sad about his childhood, angry about his upbringing or bitter about being at the center of one of the greatest censorship battles in recent history. He gets mildly defensive about staking his place in history. "Now everyone claims to have been a shot-caller, bank-robber, gunslinger, murderer. But that's really my blueprint," he writes, making a somewhat dubious claim to fame while using a term associated with Jay-Z. Strangely, he also names a chapter after the Jay-Z song "99 Problems." Ice-T was certainly a pioneer, but his songs haven't had the historic power of some by the artists who followed him, such as Jay-Z, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg.

And those rappers don't have Coco. Ice-T finally veers into sentiment when he writes about Coco, his Jessica Rabbit-esque wife and manager. The man who skips funerals confesses he's softening with age: "But the strange thing is, now that I'm over fifty, I've been getting a lot more open to my feelings."

Few people have known the multiple sides of Los Angeles that Ice-T has. And in case you want to judge him for his sticky-finger past, keep this Ice observation in mind: "One thing I've learned from straddling two worlds: Hollywood is way more gangster than the streets. Hollywood is way colder. Way more vicious."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 24, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction "Ice" review: A review of "Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption -- From South Central to Hollywood" in the April 20 Calendar section said that the chapter "99 Problems" was named after a song by rapper Jay-Z. In fact, the song was originally recorded on Ice-T's 1993 album, "Home Invasion."
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