If you've been listening to the new Body Count album Manslaughter and wondering why the punk metal band included not one, but two versions of the Jay-Z hit "99 Problems," well, frontman Ice-T feels bad for you, son.
"That's my record!" exclaimed the nearly six-foot-tall, muscle-rippled vocalist, who included "99 Problems" on his 1992 rap album Home Invasion 11 years before Jay-Z changed most of the lyrics and revamped it into a worldwide hit. "I wrote that with Brother Marquis. Then Chris Rock, who's a big fan of mine, took it to Rick Rubin and said, 'I think Jay-Z should remake this record.'"
While Jay-Z secured the necessary publishing rights from Warner Bros. to legally rework the song, he included Ice's shout-out "hit me!" and the main hook, "I got 99 problems but a b---- ain't one." Even so, he didn't give Ice-T props for writing the original. "I can't say he stole it," Ice-T told Yahoo Music. "He just did it and nobody said anything, so I didn't really take it as a dis. It's just one of those things."
During Body Count rehearsals, Ice-T's bandmates – lead guitarist Ernie C, guitarist Juan of the Dead, bassist Vincent Price, and drummer Ill Will – started breaking out "99 Problems" as a joke. At first, it was only a few riffs, then the song developed a new life. "I would f--k around and sing the original words, and suddenly everyone who knows Jay's version went, 'Yo, now the song makes sense because you're singing about a bunch of women. We never understood what Jay-Z was singing about.' When it came time to do the new album we said, 'Let's just throw it on there because it's cool.'"
It was also an experiment of sorts to see how many fans and jounalists were familiar with Ice-T's old rap catalog. "We definitely did it as a booby trap to catch people who don't know that it's not Jay-Z's song," said Ice. "So when they ask, 'Why'd Ice-T put Jay's song on there?' Somebody can slap the s--t out of them."
Ice-T laughed at the thought. Simulated violence entertains him, as does writing gross-out songs about dismemberment, street violence, and the kinds of crazy characters that inhabit horror movies. His is a multidimensional world. He retains the tough-guy tone he learned on the street in his youth, the twisted sense of humor he had when he released "Smoked Pork" – a skit about shooting policemen that appeared on the first Body Count album – and he's still motivated to write about the disturbing things he sees around him, as well as his violent fantasies.
However, having achieved wealth and success in music, television, and film, he's no longer mad at the same people or about the same subjects. And yes, the man who captured worldwide notoriety in 1992 for the song "Cop Killer" now plays sex crimes detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on the hit TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." So is it strange that the infamous cop killer now plays an officer for his day job?
"Hey, I never killed no cops. I love playing a cop, and back then I really didn't think 'Cop Killer' was that controversial," Ice-T explained. "I'm a fan of punk rock. Cops was always a fair target in punk. There was a hardcore group called Millions of Dead Cops. And when we did 'Cop Killer,' I didn't even know anyone would have a problem with it."
The firestorm erupted after a group of parents who wanted to keep albums with violent lyrics out of the hands of children boycotted Ice-T's label Warner Bros. The Body Count frontman eventually agreed to pull "Cop Killer" from the band's self-titled 1992 debut. However, the album was out for months before the complaints sprang up. The fuse burned slowly, and when the powder keg ignited, no one was more surprised by the fallout than the band.
"I toured all the way with Lollapalooza. No problems," Ice-T said. "'Cop Killer' was a protest record about someone who snapped and went on a binge. The thing I didn't realize was mainstream America goes crazy when you expose black anger to white kids. We let kids know 'we're not mad at you. We're mad at things.' White kids were like, 'We get it. We're mad at things, too.' And I was able to get 20,000 kids at Lollapalooza to shout 'f—k the police' all over America. That was the problem. When Sally at Stanford starts singing 'f—k the police,' parents freak the f—k out. But I never hated cops. I hated what some cops were doing. There's a big difference."
Whether Ice-T is hunting down bad guys onscreen or screaming about a "B---- in the Pit" onstage, he retains an integrity and credibility that many extreme musicians lose when they dabble in more commercial fare such as television. To his credit, Ice-T is honest, likeable, and he's been in the game long enough to know how to play for both sides.
"Everything has its compartment," he explained. "Body Count is intentionally over the top. When I sing about bloggers on 'Talk S--t, Get Shot,' I'm saying the blogging world is out of control. Stupid people can say anything about you and other people believe it even if it's not true. Everyone knows if you talk enough s--t you're gonna get hit. So, of course, I take it to the next level and say if you talk talk s--t about me I'm gonna kill you."
Ice-T doesn't need to compromise or hold back because he has nothing to lose. He didn't strive to write trendy or radio-friendly songs for his fifth album Manslaughter, and he didn't load the record with celebrity vocalists to boost his appeal (though Hatebreed singer Jamey Jasta does guest on "Pop Bubble"). In addition, Ice-T didn't book a full year of tour dates for Body Count – because music is his passion, not his livelihood.
"People are like, 'Well, Ice, you're making money off 'Law & Order,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, and that's why I'm able to make a good record – because I don't need the money,'" he said. "I don't have to sacrifice the art in order to have a hit record. If this record sells 5,000 records or 300,000, it ain't gonna change my life. TV is paying the bills and I'm not ashamed of that. I went on "Law & Order" to do four episodes. And it's been 15 years. I'm thrilled about that, and it lets me continue doing the things I love like Body Count."
That genuine love for music – especially the sound of early Black Sabbath, mid '80s crossover punk, and thrash metal – makes Manslaughter far more enjoyable than Body Count's last two albums, 1997's Violent Demise: the Last Days and 2006's Murder For Hire. "I wasn't especially happy with those," he admitted. "I kind of mailed them in. I did my parts at home and sent them to the other guys, so I really wasn't involved in the process. This time we went to Vegas and wrote the album together so it was a beautiful, really enjoyable, experience."
In addition to his Body Count catalog, Ice-T has released eight rap records; the last of which, Gangsta Rap, came out in 2006. In the past he has sometimes alternated between metal and rap albums, but right now he has no desire to drop a new Ice-T disc.
"It's not like I have to do one or the other," he said. "I can do them both simultaneously, because hip-hop is cooler and laid back whereas Body Count is more aggressive. I'm just not inspired to do hip-hop right now because hip-hop has gone totally pop. It's all about money."
While Ice-T still likes Eminem, Lupe Fiasco, and Kendrick Lamar he's turned off by all the rappers who sing about babes and bling – especially when they don't have enough cash to buy a used Honda Civic.
"A lot of these guys are lying about their wealth, and I know they're lying because they're calling me to borrow money," Ice-T laughed. "Rap has lost its balls. I miss Public Enemy, KRS-One, Ice Cube, N.W.A. Hip-hop is so one-dimensional and poppy now and it's making me physically sick. Obama did eight years, cous', and you're singing about bottles and clubs. S--t don't make no sense, most of your fans can't pay their rent. Hip-hop has gone into this very delusional place and once these people start talking about money and how rich they are, they lose me. It sounds foolish."
One of the standout songs on Manslaughter is a cover of Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized." In the original, vocalist Mike Muir is sent away to a mental hospital for freaking out because his mom wouldn't let him have a Pepsi. On the Body Count version, Ice-T gives it a different twist: He rages about going insane because his wife wouldn't let him play X-Box.
"To me a lot of punk rock is meant to be fun," he said. "It doesn't always have to be dark and demonic. That gets boring after a while. I wanted to do 'Institutionalized' because that Suicidal record was genius. I wanted to update it and use rants about things I deal with, and have some fun with it. But when you listen to that record, at the end you hear me say, 'Suicidal!' because I'm the kind of person who likes to pay homage. I'm not gonna try to take a record and make it seem like it's mine."
While Ice-T never specifically said it, a ghost phrase hung in the air after that last sentence. And the words were: "Unlike Jay-Z."