Sometimes, it's easy to forget that Ice-T was a true hip hop innovator. That's not to discredit his incredible influence: it's just that the rapper-turned-actor has played a detective on Law And Order: SVU for the better part of two decades now, a role far removed from his anti-establishment art of the '80s and '90s.
Tracy Morrow developed an interest in hip hop during his four-year military career. He was stationed in Hawaii when he first heard The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," and was honourably discharged the following year. In an attempt to curb his own criminal recidivism, T focused on honing his emceeing skills on his return to L.A. It didn't work, and Morrow spent years riding the line between hip hop and criminality.
His 1987 debut, Rhyme Pays, served as a blueprint for the future of West Coast hip hop. Tracks such as "6 'N The Mornin'" typified gangsta rap, a niche he helped carve alongside fellow West Coast innovator Schoolly D. The well-received record debuted at #92 on the Billboard 200, owing to the underground success of T's early singles. Power, however, was a different ballgame: not only did T have a fanbase fostered by his popular debut, but N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, released just a month earlier, made gangsta rap an international sensation. Coincidentally, Power was released alongside Eazy-E's debut, Eazy-Duz-It, on September 13, 1988.
Power remains one of T's most revered albums. In celebration of its thirtieth anniversary, we're breaking down all the samples on the Afrika Islam-produced LP!
Like Rhyme Pays before it, Power opens with an interpolation of a prog rock masterpiece. Whilst his debut was bookended by that sample, T chooses instead to cap his album with a skit revolving around two young men listening to this very LP. After accidentally shooting his friend in the scramble for the album, the kid lets him bleed whilst he listens to Power.
Ice-T's second album opens as his first closes: with an interpolation of Mike Oldfield's classic prog-rock track, "Tubular Bells."
The ominous tune, which featured in The Exorcist, appeared on both the opening and closing tracks of 1987's Rhyme Pays, and whilst it doesn't bookend his sophomore record, T uses his own interpolation of the tune to underpin the skit that opens Power.
The title track is a lyrical onslaught from T, featuring five verses expounding on the nature of power itself. T brags about the size of his ever-growing posse, decries gold diggers and threatens those who get in his way, specifically the "cops, critics and punks" that want to keep him from power.
The drums that barrel throughout the title track are taken from Isaac Hayes' 1973 title track, "Joy." Though they're already pretty relentless, Afrika Islam speeds them up even more for T's joint.
The slightly abrasive horn hit that debuts at 0:17 is taken from The Jimmy Castor Bunch's classic disco trailblazer, "It's Just Begun." Released in 1972, the track was amongst the first in the genre, which came to dominate the next decade of popular dance music.
The quiet ad-libs and subtle crowd reactions that emerge at both 1:09 and 3:33 are courtesy of the funk master himself, James Brown.
Perhaps the patron saint of sampling, Brown's music is the basis of many hip hop tracks: "Give it Up or Turnit A Loose (Remix)" itself has been sampled more than 200 times, appearing on tracks by Public Enemy and Jeru the Damaja.
The horn riff that closes out the track is also the work of Brown and his band. The track, "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I'll Get It Myself)," was included on the two-disc Foundations of Funk compilation released in '96.
The mid-to-late '60s found Brown hitting his stride, turning out some of his most memorable (and sampled) funk jams.
The first sample-free track on the record, "Drama" finds Ice telling a story about getting picked up by the police and going down for murder. Though he's able to escape their grasp once, T's picked up again and ultimately sentenced to death row. The fourth verse, rapped from the penitentiary, finds T decrying the strength of street knowledge, instead yearning for the knowledge that school books afford. It's pretty on the nose, though that's hardly surprising: he'd released "Colors," an anti-gang track, earlier in '88.
"Heartbeat" boasts an interesting mix of interpolation and direct sampling. Whilst producer Afrika Islam replays War's distinctive bassline throughout the track, he also makes use of directly sampled ad-libs.
The bridge at 2:02 is also sourced from War's "Heartbeat" - that sample can be found at 4:03 in the original track.
The Rhyme Syndicate were Ice-T's hip hop offsiders, many of whom signed to T's own Rhyme $yndicate Records in '87. They released a compilation album, Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through, in '88, though none of the featured artists went on to mainstream success. Famous East Coast artist and D.I.T.C. founder Lord Finesse was a member, contributing to a 1991 compilation. An early exhibit of the collective's talents, "The Syndicate" features verses from Rhyme Syndicate members Donald-D and Hen-Gee.
The brief bass trill and strong synth hit that loops from 0:11 onward is the work of George Clinton's Parliament.
The funk innovators included "Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)" on their 1978 LP, Motor Booty Affair, and it subsequently became one of their most popular tracks. The track has since been sampled in many songs, most notably on early '90s West Coast joints.
At 1:13, T himself interpolates the titular phrase from James Brown's 1972 jount, "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing." Whilst Ice uses the phrase to diss a poser, Brown intended it as a criticism of chronically ineffective politicians.
The early Harlem hip hop trio formed prior to recorded hip hop, eventually appearing in seminal hip hop film Wild Style and releasing an influential new school album in '84. Member Kool Moe Dee would later achieve success as a solo act.
The scratched-and-chopped sample that takes over at 2:16 - "Evil E's in the place" - is lifted from Ice T's own 1986 single, "Dog'n The Wax."
The b-side to this single, "6 In The Mornin'," is one of the earliest examples - and perhaps the early exemplar - of gangsta rap, a niche which would come to dominate West Coast hip hop in the late '80s.
Echoing the complaints made by East Coast emcee Chuck D, Ice T bemoans the radio jockey gatekeepers that refuse to play his music. Whilst Doug E. Fresh's explicit "La Di Da Di" got radio play with significant censoring, T's music is seemingly deemed "uncensorable" and totally passed over. T met Chuck through photographer Glen Friedman, a countercultural artist who shot the birth of modern skating as well as covers for Run-DMC, Slick Rick, PE and Ice.
The horn hit that punctuates the first four bars of the track is courtesy of John Davis and the Monster Orchestra, a late-'70s disco outfit.
"I Can't Stop" was their third 7" single, and whilst it only proved slightly popular, it's since become a popular hip hop sample. The track has appeared in over 80 songs, including tracks by old school legends DJ Grand Wizard Theodore and Kurtis Blow, and Ice-T contemporaries Jungle Brothers and Slick Rick.
The ambience and accompanying bass notes that appear from 0:17 onward are the work of soul-funk outfit The Bar-Kays. It's taken from their 1972 track, "Do You See What I See?"
The group served as Stax Records' session musicians during their early years, pivoting in '73 and becoming a noted funk ensemble in their own right. Rapper Master Gee shouts out the group on the 1979 hip hop standard, "Rappers Delight."
The track takes its title from a sampled Chuck D bar. "Rebel Without A Pause," the first single from Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation, was released in July '87.
The sampled bar - "radio suckers never play me" - reflects Chuck's frustrations with commercial radio tastes and the mainstream censoring of politically-minded black music in the late '80s. Ice-T has this same issue, because his "words are too real."
"I'm Your Pusher"
The crack epidemic of the '80s was catastrophic: it led to a nigh-twofold increase in homicide rates for African American teens, a huge uptick in cocaine-related hospitalisations and disproportionate sentencing guidelines that discriminated against African Americans. On "I'm Your Pusher," Ice decries the work of the pusher by flipping a classic anti-drug soul joint and suggesting that his music is an alternative to crack cocaine.
The track takes its title, its theme and its underlying sample from Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman."
"Pusherman" was included on Mayfield's Super Fly, his third studio LP and the soundtrack to the pivotal blaxploitation film of the same name. The OST famously outgrossed the film during its initial run, and has since been deemed a classic of the soul genre.
Whilst he simply signposts the others, T makes reference to Markie's work by interpolating the melody and lyrics from "Make The Music With Your Mouth, Biz" at 4:03.
On "Personal," T brags about his criminality and intimidates standoffish emcees for the best part of four verses. What's more, the track features a great acknowledgement of a fellow West Coast, gangsta rap, sub-zero themed emcee with the bar "Ice, cooler than the coldest cube..."
The electric guitar bursts that underpin T's verse are lifted from Heart's "Magic Man," the opening track to their 1975 debut, Dreamboat Annie.
The track was one of three hits from the album, which made the sister duo instant stars. It's only been sampled in five tracks: Ice was first, followed by MC Lyte in 1989. It'd be 19 years before it was sampled again, this time by Yelawolf.
The drums that enter at 0:17 are taken from a break in Dyke and the Blazers' "Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man." The NY funk band were active for just six years before the shooting death of lead singer Arlester 'Dyke' Christian.
A slower track that features shoutouts to both DJ Evil E and producer Afrika Islam, "Girls L.G.B.N.A.F." is one of the lewdest tracks on the record. It's unsurprising, seeing as the abbreviated title stands for "Girls Let's Get Butt Naked And Fuck." In Brian Coleman's Check The Technique, Ice recalls the track as an indirect diss towards LL Cool J's love ballads, and says the song was based off Audio Two's now-classic "Top Billin'," a hit at the time.
The spoken word opening and the instrumental underpinning it is taken from the title track to Rufus Thomas' 1977 album, I Ain't Gettin' Older, I'm Gettin' Better.
Thomas was a Stax-signed novelty act throughout the early '70s, at which time he released classic tracks such as "Walking The Dog" and "Do The Funky Chicken." His ageless sense of humour led to him being called "The World's Oldest Teenager."
The second single from Power, "High Rollers" reflects on the incredible excesses of a criminal lifestyle. T himself was no stranger to this - when his career started out, he used it as "a way of covering [his illegal] game."
The sole instrumental sample on "High Rollers" is courtesy of soul singer Edwin Starr.
"Easin In" was the second track on Starr's Hell Up In Harlem, the soundtrack to the 1974 Fred Williamson blaxploitation feature of the same name. The film was a sequel to '73's Black Caesar, which featured the debut soundtrack work of James Brown and Fred Wesley. Starr remains best known for his Vietnam protest standard, "War."
Grand Larceny is a significant theft: in much of the US, the threshold for grand larceny is $400. As he'd previously done in "I'm Your Pusher," T subverts the title of the track with a less outright criminal behaviour - whilst "Grand Larceny" portrays a stick up, T's looking to steal "the show" over gold chains.
The looping "this is a hold up!" soundbite at 0:09 is the handiwork of English electronica duo, Coldcut. "That Greedy Beat" itself contains 12 samples, incorporating work from artists such as James Brown, Kurtis Blow, Kool & The Gang and The Cold Crush Brothers.
The track was included as a b-side to the group's 1987 single, "Beats + Pieces," the first single to their 1989 debut LP, What's That Noise?.
The very governmental vocal sample at 1:27 is taken from the "Gang Busters Theme."
Gang Busters was a popular American radio drama that aired continuously from '36 to '57. The show was conceived under the strict guidance of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, as it doubled as a soft power exercise. The same track has been sampled on MadGibbs' Pinata and N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton.
The final sample appears one minute later, when T launches into another break. This time, Afrika Islam loops a drum break from Dynamic Corvettes' "Funky Music is The Thing, Pt. 1."
The two part single was originally released in 1975, and was the band's third and final 7" release. Despite their fleeting career, "Funky Music" has become a staple of sampling, appearing on joints by Just-Ice, Public Enemy and The D.O.C..
"Soul on Ice"
In Coleman's Check The Technique, Ice T claims to have taken his stage name from renowned pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim. This track was a dedication to Slim's work, though the pair never met in person prior to Slim's death in 1992. 20 years later, an Ice-produced documentary on the famed author premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The outro doesn't feature Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," but it does revisit the two friends from the opening. Having listened to the entire 48-minute record, the now-avowed Ice-T fan agrees to take his friend to the hospital, but not before he's given it a second spin.
Though it goes without saying, Power wasn't the end for Ice-T. His fourth album, 1991's O.G. Original Gangster, was considered by critics to be his defining effort. It included his New Jack City single, "New Jack Hustler (Nino's Theme)," as well as a score of guest features from Rhyme Syndicate associates such as Evil E, Donald D and DJ Aladdin.
T's first album with his trash outfit, Body Count, was released the following year. It included perhaps the decade's most controversial single, "Cop Killer," which brought forth two lawsuits from police departments and kickstarted national controversy. Though many ardently defended T's right to freedom of speech, figures such as then-president George H.W. Bush, then-VP Dan Quayle and activist Tipper Gore vehemently decried the track and its message. Though he ultimately pulled the track from all future pressings of the record, T found the controversy trite, saying "if you believe that I'm a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut."
Even as his profile waned throughout the mid-'90s, T continued to find new ways to break ground, releasing both Body Count and solo projects through the end of the decade. Though he continued to produce records into the new millennium, his 2000 gig as a cast member on Law And Order: SVU would come to define his image. Eighteen years later, and he's still on the beat.
Try as they may, it seems that the powers that be couldn't keep Ice-T from wielding some of his own. The emcee-turned-crossover thrash vocalist-turned-network TV staple remains an enduring piece of popular culture, outlasting almost all of his mid-'80s hip hop peers. It seems fitting that, 30 years later, Ice-T stands as one of the most powerful emcees of all time.