The music industry has a tendency to dehumanize the consumer and devalue our relationship to the very product they create. Human beings have feelings, "units sold" do not. A record that may change someone's life is just another barcode for SoundScan to tally up. The larger the corporation, the more twisted the scenario becomes. A record with the ability to uplift your soul or change your worldview can be deemed "not commercial enough" or "unmarketable" and never make it from test press to your stereo deck. Sometimes even a test press is a rarity. Entire albums get shelved unheard, lost to the annals of time due to the myopic view that their release would not be profitable, even in a digital age where it would almost be impossible NOT to profit selling songs over the internet sans all the usual manufacturing costs. If you heard an album growing up that changed your life, you can chalk it up to one of two things: (1.) dumb luck - so many albums are thrown at the consumer at least one was bound to stick or (2.) even in a shitty system cream still rises to the top.
As I get older I realize the debt I owe to the breaks I got, from getting into breakdancing at an early age (even though I SUCKED at it), to having a local Fox affiliate that would show "Pump it Up" really late at night on weekends, to having a subscripton to The Source and so on. Each of these things could individually be called dumb luck, but collectively they formed an intimate awareness of hip-hop. Those first fifty or so albums I bought (with #50 being Eric B. & Rakim's "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em") were therefore anything BUT dumb luck in almost every case. I bought the albums I was led to believe would be dope and was rarely ever let down. Then again it may have been dumb luck that I came of age in the golden age of hip-hop when everyone from Public Enemy to N.W.A. to De La Soul to the Geto Boys to GangStarr were dropping classics. When every purchase had to count on limited funds, every one seemed to excede my expectations. Enter into that era Ice-T's "O.G. Original Gangster." I had a limited awareness of Tracy Marrow's music at the time, but what I knew I liked. In particular I had been awed by the slick talk of "High Rollers," the cautionary tale "You Played Yourself" and the metaphor of the high-powered brain in "Lethal Weapon" where knowledge had more power than any firearm ever would. Therefore without the benefit of any of his prior records in my catalogue, when I heard "New Jack Hustler" from the soundtrack of "New Jack City" I made an informed decision that may in retrospect have been dumb luck. Either way it worked out far better than I ever could have imagined.
"I find Ice-T to be, the dopest, flyest, O.G. pimp hustler, gangster player hardcore motherfucker, living today. To be honest I'm totally and irrevocably on, his, dick."
The erudite British woman speaking on "First Impression" was undoubtedly playing the role of comic relief when compared to the "hardcore motherfucker" known as Ice-T, but she was also 100% dead on the money. Sixteen years later I'm still on Ice-T's dick and "O.G. Original Gangster" is the reason. The scope of this 24 track, 72+ minute long album is almost inconceivable by today's mediocre hip-hop standards. There is no way to limit this album with classification. It's not political rap, gangster rap, West coast rap, East coast rap, intentionally provocative or a real life narrative. "O.G. Original Gangster" is all of these things and far more than its worth the time to list. To be perfectly honest there's something magical about this record having come out of the corporate folds of Warner Brothers, especially given how quickly everyone there would shun Ice-T as a musician when the "Cop Killer" controversy erupted. They may have talked a good game about the first amendment, but when their stock price was threatened Ice quickly saw the writing on the wall. Every time I listen to this album I treasure the fact it exists. Seemingly unfiltered and unabridged in any way, the album still manages to be thoughtfully organized and thoroughly well-written. Even though the album could be enjoyed by skipping through the tracks entirely at random, listening from start to finish is in many ways a story all its own with a somber and almost eerie conclusion. Ice pulls no punches with the musical opener, which reminds us that Los Angeles is the "Home of the Bodybag." He further illuminates this point 45 seconds later on the short but intense Afrika Islam and Ice-T co-produced "Ziplock":
"Now when I roll, I roll stupid deep!
Benzes, Beemers, and boomin Jeeps
I'm always strapped cause my money I keep
You move on the Ice and you're goin to sleep
So when you see me walkin down the street
You say, "What's up Ice?" I say, "Peace!"
Give me a dap, I give you one back
Cause I ain't souped so forget about that
We might take a picture, sign a autograph
Kick a little flavor have some fun and laugh
But step to me wrong - you might get SHOT!
And wind up lookin out a ziplock"
Ice sounds as cold and hard as his name, but like a well tempered blade he heats things up on "Mic Contract" and makes an even sharper point with the pen:
"Brainstorm, microphone napalm
This is it, words from a time bomb
Attack speed, as fast as an F15
Raise the heat, light the gasoline
Overload it might cause a blackout
Dead end there's no chance to back out
Hit the tripwire, duck from the gunfire
Broken glass, screechin car tires
Bodies hit the deck as I commence to wreck
Eject another clip and drip sweat
Face of danger, increase in anger
Point blank I smoke another stranger
Grip the mic tight, I see the break light
Hit the back door I lay down 'cross the floor
E's on the wheels, he makes the rubber squeal
Blood's on my gear from caps I've peeled
About a block away I sit up and look back
It wasn't nuttin but a microphone contract"
The rhetorhic in Ice-T's lyrics may at times be violent, but like a true lyrical magician he knows when to play it true and when to pull away the curtain to reveal the illusion. It's only later that you realize the sleight of hand was another illusion in itself, taking your ears off the dope beats provided by DJ Aladdin, Afrika Islam and SLJ. Saying their craftsmanship on the boards is "up to par" would be like saying Tiger Woods is "pretty good" at golf - an analogy so understated it's nearly vulgar. I couldn't have told you at that young age that DJ Aladdin and Ice-T blended "I Bet You" by Funkadelic with "Mind Power" by James Brown to create the empowering rap "Mind Over Matter," but I could have told you that the slow subtle and smooth backdrop complimented Ice-T's thoughtful rap perfectly:
"Sometimes I write my rhymes at night and fall asleep...
Wake up with new techniques
Grab the pen and place it on some looseleaf
Nothin soft, always the tough meat
The white paper and blue lines excite my mind
Not allowin me to stop the rhyme
Until the whole motherfuckin book's complete
Then I write on the back of the sheets
I made a promise to my brothers in street crime
We'd get paid with the use of a sweet rhyme
We put our minds together, made the tracks clever
Now we're checkin more bank than ever
Mind over matter"
While not a pattern per se a trend does start to emerge on the album of Ice alternating between the more introspective and mind-expanding tracks and the coarser rougher edged reality rhymes. Even the most testosterone fueled among them do tend to have subtle hints of the narrator's world-weary wisdom, such as the closing lyrics to "New Jack Hustler" that remind us how the cycle of poverty and crime go hand in hand:
"I gotta get more money than you got
So what if some motherfucker gets shot?
That's how the game is played, another brother slayed
The wound is deep BUT they're givin us a Band-Aid
My education's low but I got long dough
Raised like a pitbull, my heart pumps nitro
Sleep on silk, lie like a politician
My uzi's my best friend, cold as a mortician
Lock me up, it's genocidal catastrophe...
There'll be another one after me - a hustler"
If the whole record was serious as cancer this might get wearying but like a consummate pro Ice shifts up gears and doesn't burn out his album or the listener too quickly. The horns and piano keys in "Bitches 2" seem to be laughing along with Ice-T as he regails the listener with tales of why the word isn't solely applied to women. Speaking of redifining words, Ice-T owns the word "nigga" in a way no entertainer has since Richard Pryor on "Straight Up Nigga":
"Damn right I'm a nigga - and I don't care what you are
Cause I'm a Capital N-I double-G-E-R
Black people might get mad cause they don't see
That they're looked upon as a nigga just like me
I'm a nigga, not a coloured man
Or a black, or a negro or afro-american, I'm all that
Yes I was born in America true
Does South Central look like America to you?
I'm a nigga, a straight up nigga from a hard school
Whatever you are I don't care, that is you fool
I'm loud and proud, well endowed with the big beef
Out on the corner, I hang out like a horse thief
So you can call me dumb or crazy
Ignorant, stupid, inferior or lazy
Silly or foolish but I'm badder and bigger
And most of all I'm a straight up nigga!"
As the album crosses the halfway point with the comical "What About Sex?" interlude the world Ice-T's persona inhabits can still find the good in his negative surroundings but seems increasingly drawn to the nihilistic urges that plagued Tupac Shakur. "Midnight" plays as a dark ode to "6 in the Mornin'," layered over a surprisingly effective combination of beats and breaks from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, all set off with a chorus where a KRS sample proclaims "listen to my nine millimeter go BANG" and Ice promises to "take us on a walk through hell." The mood lightens up a little on the funky break "Fried Chicken" and Ice-T's hip-hop shoutout track "M.V.P.'s" but even on the amusingly insane travails of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous" Mr. Marrow reminds us that we can "try and try but [we'll] never understand this" whirlwind he's caught up in:
"Now it's show time, time to flow time
Evil lost the records but we still gotta go time
The house is packed, everybody's on their feet
So I say, "Throw on Rakim's beat"
E hits the fader and the crowd is lit
I start bustin off some new shit
The stage is so smokey that I almost fall off
I start inhalin it, I'm tryin not to cough
I'm catchin problems from every angle
The mic cords are tangled
I try to flow smooth but my words are mangled
Damn near slipped and broke my ankle
If that ain't enough the police are hawkin
Listenin real close to the words I'm talkin
They wanna put a brother like me in the back seat
Just because I curse the beat
They wanna tap my phone, wanna keep my crib bugged
Call all my homies felonist street thugs
You might say I think this lifestyle SUCKS!
I wouldn't trade it for a million bucks"
Therein is the yin and yang of Ice-T, the completeness of his lyrical and personal identity. He accepts that he is judged by the stereotypes of hardcore rap (particularly in 1991) yet will not capitulate or give up the rewards his talent has earned him. It's not unlike the cover of "O.G. Original Gangster" - a large picture on the left showing Ice chilling Tony Montana style in a suit, and a smaller inset on the right with him stripped down to a muscle shirt with his hands chained and cuffed. This is where the album takes its darkest turn, introducing on "Body Count" to his hard rock band of the same name, following it with a short freestyle where he states he's "Prepared to Die" for his freedom. At this point Ice sounds like a man trapped, desperate on the harrowed and Bomb Squad-like "Escape From the Killing Fields" to give up the G life and find serenity expediently:
"I'm the one that's got ya in constant fear
I'm the nigga you shoulda killed last year
But you played yourself, you let me gain wealth
Now I can change the way the cards are dealt
I've schooled my homeboys, made 'em all understand
The tricks and twists inflicted on the black man
How you make me think to be down
I gotta stay around, down in the motherfuckin battleground...
There'll never be any good schools in the hood
There'll never be any cops that are any good
The hospital is a great place to go to die
Real estate's cheap let me tell you why
The man's got a sure-fire system;
An economic prison!"
The economic prison leads to a real one in "The Tower," the best track to ever sample John Carpenter's "Halloween Theme" and singlehandedly the only hip-hop song that ever should. Long before "Oz" Ice-T had the brutal reality inside razor-tipped walls down to a science:
"A fool tried to sweat me actin like he was hard
I stuck him twice in the neck and left him dead on the yard
It was smooth how I did it cause nobody could see
With my jacket on my arm and my knife on the side of me
Bam bam, it was over, another fool bites the dust
I went crazy in the pen with nobody to trust
I'm benchin ten quarters so I'm hard to sweat
Used a tat gun, and engrved my set
They call me a lifer cause I'm good as dead
I live in the hole, so the floor's my bed
And I ask myself again who has the power
The whites, the blacks, or just the gun tower"
The closing speech by Ice-T on "Ya Shoulda Killed Me Last Year" applies so perfectly to today that we all ought to be scared by it - after all young men and women were called up to serve in Iraq in each case and both were sent there by a President named Bush. Perhaps "scared" isn't even the right word - "scarred" is more apt since we didn't learn the lessons the last time. It's fair to say this album left that permanent of an impression upon me as a teenager but not in any way that was painful. More than anything Ice-T struck me as a brutally honest pull no punches MC who could be as verbose or funny as he wanted to but made no apologies for any words that would upset or offend the politically correct or overly sensitive. Obviously as a Midwesterner I never would know what Tracy Marrow's lifestyle was like, rich OR infamous, but Ice could still use his powerful vocal tones and strong beats to illustrate the good, bad and ugly sides of Los Angeles. The album goes beyond good into brillant on the strength of his performance - Ice doesn't mumble, stutter, slur his words or mash them together incomprehensibly. This is a man speaking with supreme confidence in himself, his abilities, and those of his peers helping put the album together. Every word is said AND produced clearly. The perfect storm of function and form meld flawlessly into "O.G. Original Gangster," an album some of my peers have referred to as an album "you SHOULD listen to before you die." Even that seems inadequate - listen to this album a HUNDRED times before then. In the last sixteen years this record has not gotten old once and I suspect when I'm (hopefully) old and gray I'll still feel the same way. Even a cold and calculating record label can screw up once in a while and accidentally release a masterpiece - this is such an album.
Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 10 of 10
Originally posted: October 23, 2007