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Ice-T Describes His Unique American Journey

From street hustler to rap icon to ‘Law & Order: SVU’ star

Ice-T
Kareem Black/Day Reps

Ice-T’s new memoir, Split Decision: Life Stories, cowritten with his friend Spike and journalist Douglas Century, details some dark periods in the legendary rapper and producer’s life. Before Ice-T found fame, he and Spike grew up in gang-controlled Los Angeles neighborhoods, where they became partners in (literal) crime. While Ice-T, 64, left the criminal world behind as his music career took off, Spike was arrested for a jewel robbery and propelled down a very different path.

We spoke with the musician about his book, music and reinvention.

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You started out as a street hustler, then a hip-hop star. Now you’ve played a cop on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for 20 years. Does that all feel odd to you?

At first, it did. When I was first a cop in [the 1991 film] New Jack City, I thought that was career suicide. I didn’t really know how people would accept it. But it’s acting. If they cast a street cat as a street cat, that’s not real acting. But if you cast me as a cop, you get a cop with a very interesting dynamic.

Are you going to continue with SVU?

SVU has been picked up for the 24th season. That’s been my day job, which has given me a solid career, where I’m home. I’ve got my kid. I’ve got my wife. It’s not like a record, where you put it out and cross your fingers.

“Small decisions change the trajectory of your life.”

—Ice-T

What’s next for your music career?

As far as making music, I’m aware they are never going to play an Ice-T record on the radio. I’m out of the loop. Hip-hop hits between [ages] 15 and 25. That’s the audience. But me and [Big Daddy] Kane and Wu-Tang [Clan] and Nas will be touring forever. I always think of it like Frank Sinatra — people just want to come out and hear our catalog. I just make records because I love it.

How have you been staying healthy?

That’s been me my whole life. I don’t smoke. I don’t even smoke weed. I don’t drink. I’m pretty straight-edge. I’ve got a young wife [model Coco Austin]. That helps too.

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And you are a family man.

I have a 6-year-old daughter, Chanel. When she was born, the very first thing that came to my mind was: You just can’t die. You’ve got to take care of yourself. You just can’t get away with the stuff you got away with in your 20s and 30s. By 50, no mistakes allowed, because it takes longer to recover.

Your new book, Split Decision, is candid about your youthful crimes. What advice would you give that younger self now?

I’d say to myself that there are other options. When people are breaking the law, they don’t really see any other options. You become “street poisoned,” like [writer] Iceberg Slim says. You start to believe that anything legit is for squares and suckers. The only lanes that seemed open to me were hustling. Those were the only people around me I saw getting money. When hip-hop hit [in the 1980s], it opened a lot of lanes for a lot of kids.

And today?

Now there are tons of options. There are all kinds of things you can do, but I was pre-internet. As opportunities open up, there’s less reason for people to go to jail. I’m looking at kids now and thinking there’s no way they need to do some of the [stuff] we were doing.

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So, hip-hop was a way off the street?

I knew what I was doing wasn’t going to last. Cats I admired were getting life sentences and getting shot. I was looking for a way out. First, I went into the Army. That was my first attempt to try to get out of the game. Then, hip-hop was intriguing to me. A lot of my hustler friends said, “Why are you wasting your time? You need to come get this money.” I was just aware that if I went down that path, I was eventually going to die or go to prison.

And once you went straight, that was it?

When I made the decision that I was done, I didn’t jaywalk. I had broken enough laws for everybody we know. Now that I had this chance of getting to the other side, I honestly believe that if I were to do something illegal or cross somebody, I would die. I think that I would suffer instant karma. [Now] I’m square as a pool table and twice as green, man.

Do you miss anything?

Nah, I’m straight. My boys told me, “Ice, you pulled the biggest heist on life. You’re the police now. You pulled the biggest one ever.”

Your new book is cowritten with a friend of yours from your hustling days, Spike, who ended up in prison after he took part in a robbery that ended in murder.

Spike came home after 26 years. He came out and said, “I want to write a book.” I thought about it and said, “Do you know what makes you special? Me. Because you and I were on the same path, and we made different decisions. So I’ll write the book with you.” This book is really a cautionary tale.

What is your message?

That life is based on crossroads that we choose from every day. Small decisions change the trajectory of your life. Coming from two live cats, don’t do it. Don’t test the [criminal justice] system. Kids think that since we are older, they are a little smarter than us and they won’t make the same mistakes. Well, the cops are smart, too. Everything you think that they don’t know — trust me, somebody has gotten caught and told them.

How important to you are old friendships like yours and Spike’s?

To me, one of the true tests of character in a person is solidarity. I’ve got friends from high school and junior high. My only rule is to never cross me.

—Interview by Brett Johnson