Songwriter Interviews

Ice-T and Producer Afrika Islam

by Greg Prato

Share this post

Ice-T and his longtime producer talk "Colors," samples, and the search for talent on their new label.

Hip-hop was birthed in the Bronx, but what Ice-T and his producer, Afrika Islam, cooked up in Los Angeles helped define the West Coast rap identity, influencing the likes of N.W.A and Snoop Dogg. Ice brought the gritty street culture to life in his lyrics; Islam laced the tracks with unexpected samples and daring techno sounds. Islam was at the controls for the first three Ice-T albums and part of his fourth, the seminal OG Original Gangster (1991). In 2018, the pair reunited for The Brutal, an EP credited to Islam's alias, Mr. X. The six tracks focus entirely on EDM sounds, which Islam has been refining on the DJ circuit in Europe.

The Brutal is the first release on EBE Productions (Extraterrestrial Biological Entities), a label co-founded by the duo, who are scoping for new talent. Ice-T, a consummate hustler with a ceaseless work ethic (he served four years in the Army before starting his rap career), is in his element as label boss and executive producer. He sees the Earth as a "test planet," and plans to use EBE as a conduit for musical innovation.

Ice and X spoke with Songfacts shortly after the EP's release to talk about the new project and label, as well as stories behind some early Ice-T classics.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did you first cross paths and begin working together?

Ice-T: I was in LA, and I was trying to be a rapper. I got the hip-hop bug. And Afrika came to play at a club called The Radio. He was always looking for somebody new and different, and I had a different swing on hip-hop - a different angle - and we became friends. I made a song ["The Coldest Rap" - released in 1983] and I told Islam, "I need to get it spun in New York," and he said, "They won't spin it unless you come out here."

I came out there, stayed at his house, and we shopped it around. I met everybody in New York, and eventually, through Islam's friend, Ralph Cooper, I got a record deal, and Islam produced my first three albums - almost every song on all of those albums. We just became friends.

Songfacts: One of your best known early collaborations was "Colors." How did you come to do that song for the movie of the same name?

Ice-T: We had done a song called "Squeeze The Trigger," which actually has techno influences, and they asked if they could put that in a movie. So I knew I could see the movie since they wanted to use my song. We asked for a screening, we saw the screening, and we asked about the title song. They had a record by Rick James called "Colors," and if you listen to the Colors soundtrack, the last song on the B-side is Rick James singing "Colors." It's like, "Look at all these colors..." It was horrible.

Me and Islam were like, "We can make a song. I'm from the LA gang culture." We went into the studio, made a song, and submitted it. They were like, holy shit, and it became the title track.

Ice-T didn't appear in Colors, but in 1991 he starred in New Jack City, his first time playing a cop. A year later, his heavy metal band Body Count released "Cop Killer," which went largely unnoticed until a Texas law enforcement association got wind of it and ginned up a protest effort. The song was released during an election year and before the verdict was handed down (not guilty) in the Rodney King case, so it became a major political flashpoint.

The controversy pushed the album to Gold status, with sales of 500,000 copies. Ice-T didn't back down, explaining in interviews how the song was not about all police officers, but specifically brutal police. In 2000, Ice-T got a gig on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, again playing a cop. He is now in his 19th season on the show.
Ice and his wife, Coco
Songfacts: Which Ice-T track from the early years was the most innovative and why?

Ice-T: We got one called "The Hunted Child" [1989], which is a song we did that used a crazy bass track. It was wild - it had a PE [Public Enemy] feel. It was one of the songs we would chop up and put through our "electronic microwave," and see how that comes out.

But you've got to remember, Islam comes from the Zulu Nation and "Planet Rock" was Kraftwerk. The first labels I was signed to were Techno Hop and Electrobeat. So, all of this music is birthed from the DJ. It's a family thing. Anything can happen at this point, because we're an experimental label. We're trying to do something that has never been done.

Songfacts: "I'm Your Pusher" used a sample of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman." How did you go about finding samples at the time?

Ice-T: We were just vibing off of different things, and at that time, my whole image was the player, the hustler. We went into the Superfly album and we said, "How about we base a lot of my music off of blaxploitation music?" So, you've got "Pusherman," and you've got "You Played Yourself," which was made off of "Paid The Cost To Be The Boss" [by James Brown] from the Black Caesar soundtrack.

That was setting the tone for what Ice-T was. "Pusherman" was as much about a song as an image. You know, here comes a rapper with a perm and tailor-made clothes, and he doesn't look like Run-DMC. This is something different.

Songfacts: A lot of those early songs are still relevant today. Which one is the most prophetic or visionary?

Ice-T: I think "Colors," because before "Colors" came out, people thought the West Coast was David Lee Roth, and no one knew about the gang culture. Now, the gang culture is to the point where the president is talking about MS-13 and things of that nature.

If you listen to "Colors" closely, it breaks down the mentality of the gang member. I still close my rap shows with "Colors." I think that's the biggest, most powerful record I ever did.

Songfacts: How exactly did the songwriting process work on The Brutal EP?

Mr. X: I was living in Berlin and I was trying to write what I saw in the underground techno clubs. I'm part of an alien race that most people call extraterrestrial biological alien, so if you look at the video [of the EP's title track], you see an alien running through the video, because he's being chased. So the idea of "The Brutal," that's what I was trying to emphasize.

The other songs on Brutal were produced in the same mindset: me trying to do electronic music from the mindset of somebody that was immersed in hip-hop and had that influence.

Songfacts: How would you compare working on The Brutal EP to your earlier collaborations?

Mr. X: When I was writing Brutal, I would send Ice the tracks so he could comment on it, because I needed to get his input. I wouldn't get input from anybody else, because I trust him. Either he likes it or he doesn't, or he doesn't give a fuck, or he thinks something should change. And that's how it was, because I was still in Berlin and he was in New York.

Ice-T: Is has been in Europe for the past 15 years playing as "Mr. X" and "Mr. Y," so he's been playing heavy from all the different festivals out there. He's played for millions and millions of people. He told me, "Ice, I'm ready to come back home. I'm ready to get on the scene." And I said, "Well, we should create a label so you can just put out as much music as you want, whenever you want." That's how EBE was born.

As far as the label goes, I'm more of the business side of the label, and he's more of the creative side, because I'm not 110% techno or EDM - I don't know the music as well as he does. So, this is basically his baby, and what I'm going to do as the music progresses is just be another chef in the kitchen. It's going to definitely make a different type of cake.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the EBE label a bit more. What type of artists are you looking to sign?

Ice-T: We're looking for people that are new. Everything that is out there, we're not looking for that. We're looking for something that is new and different. There's always something new on the horizon that hasn't been done, so that's what we're looking for.

We're experimental. We think the Earth is a test planet, and we're going to also test this musical frontier for what's out there. So we're looking for anybody that wants to come in and mess around. Let's do it.

Songfacts: What's the best way for potential artists to get in contact and play their music.

Mr. X: Just send a link of whatever you've got to electronicbeatempire.com.

Ice-T: If it's crazy, if it's different, we want it. People that have gone to other labels and they went, "Nah, it doesn't sound like this," that might be what we're looking for. But if you're just fucking around and you're not serious, if you're just playing on your Casio keyboard and you think you can get in it and get some money, we're the wrong people. We want to hear something that is truly unique, and something that is truly good.

Songfacts: Future plans?

Ice-T: The big move isn't really the record label. The big move is to get Mr. X to come to the United States. He's coming to the United States to play and destroy some of these festivals and stake his claim in the electronic music live arena. Listening to what we do on record and watching him play are two totally different experiences. Is can explain to you some of what he's done in Europe. Breakdown some of the stuff you've done since you've been gone...

Mr. X: Once I got to Europe, I locked in with WestBam [a German DJ]. His personal point was the Love Parade, which was a techno demonstration. So, my learning curve was stepping on stage in front of a million people and learning how to play techno with the best techno DJs and electronic DJs of that time.

We formed XMRide as a four-turntable, two-DJ, continuous scratching, techno, hip-hop and electronic music act. It's what we put out for the Love Parade and all the Mayday Festivals. It took me to Glastonbury, it took me to all the Maydays. There are about 16 different Maydays in every country. This was already 2000, when we were doing a million people, two million people.

When I came back to America, it was like crickets. There was no techno scene. So, I just stayed there and being a student of DJ culture, I learned from the best who I saw: Carl Cox, Jeff Mills, DJ Rush, Paul van Dyk. I studied. And the way I approach it is the same way any hip-hop champion and somebody that spent time with techno would approach it, and that's uniquely me. I average about 60 records in an hour.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on modern-day hip-hop?

Ice-T: Hip-hop has morphed into something else. I'm a lyricist, so I like lyrics. So, I'm going to be a fan of J. Cole, I'm going to be a fan of people like Kendrick Lamar.

You've still got great MCs like Eminem, you've got Tech N9ne - there are a lot of people out there. A lot of the really great lyrical MCs are underground. But what they're playing on the radio now, to me, is dance music. The words aren't important, it's just basically producer-driven.

I used to say, "Make the record so good that I don't have to rap on it." Well, somebody figured out, "These tracks are so good, it doesn't matter what we say!" So, the rappers now are kind of secondary to the tracks. And believe it or not, Islam was the first mumble rapper. Back in the day, when he used to spin, I would watch him go on the mic and go "blbbulbublb."

I don't really comment on music because it's for kids. Young kids are listening to it, so music has a lot to do with perspective and the way you see it. So, it might not be my cup of tea [lemonade!], because I'm more into lyrics.

October 16, 2018
For more Ice-T, visit icet.com
You can find Mr. X on Twitter

Further reading:
George Clinton
Speech of Arrested Development
Chuck Mosley of Faith No More

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments

Be the first to comment...