Ice-T, born Tracy Marrow, became famous in the 1980s and ’90s as an influential West Coast rapper (notably for “Colors” and the controversial “Cop Killer”). His career evolved into acting after landing a major role in “New Jack City,” and he’s now well-known for his role as a tough detective on “Law & Order: SVU.” In his new book, “Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption — From South Central to Hollywood,” he shares stories about his upbringing, hustling, his friends, such as Chris Rock and Dick Wolf, his music and more. Read an excerpt about his early life and his losing both of his parents at a young age.
“It’s hell to be an orphan at an early age
This impressionable stage
No love breeds rage.”
— “I Must Stand”
1. Because I first made my name as a rapper claiming South Central L.A., people often assume I’m strictly a West Coast cat. But my family was actually from back East. I was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in Summit, an upscale town in north Jersey. There was this tiny area of Summit where most of the black families lived. My parents and I lived in a duplex house on Williams Street. And on the street right behind us — backyard to backyard — was my aunt, my father’s sister.
For my first few years, it was just a real middle-American life.
I don’t remember taking any trips or anything exciting. One thing I do remember, when my dad would take me places, he would get White Castle burgers and throw me in the backseat, and he expected me to eat my White Castles and be quiet. My dad and I spent a lot of time together not saying anything. I went to the YMCA, where I learned how to swim and do gymnastics. It was kind of a big deal to have a membership to the Y, because it meant your Pops had money to spend on you. I remember going from Pollywog to Dolphin, then graduating to Shark and Lifesaver, and I’m pretty proud of the fact that I learned to be a good swimmer.
There wasn’t any violence or trauma. It was quiet, simple, and suburban. An almost perfect childhood — except, for me, every couple years, losing a parent....
My father’s family came from Virginia and Philadelphia. He wasn’t a brother who talked a lot. He was a working man, a quiet, blue-collar dude. For years — decades — he worked at the same job. He was a skilled mechanic at the Rapistan Conveyer Company in Mountainside, fixing conveyer belts. Despite the fact that Summit is predominantly white, I can’t say there was overt prejudice in the town, at least not within the adult world as I observed it. All my father’s friends, all the guys he worked with, were white working-class dudes. Lunch-bucket dudes. Black and white, they were all cool with one another.
My father was a dark-skinned brother, but my mother was a very fair-skinned lady. From what I understand she was Creole; we think her people originally came from New Orleans. She looked almost like a white woman, which meant she could pass — as folks used to say back then. Her hair was jet-black. She was slim and very attractive. I recall people telling her she looked like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge.
The fact that my mother could pass intrigued me, even as a little kid. I understood that it was a big f---ing deal. In my household, it was often a topic of quiet discussion between my parents. When you can pass, you get to hear the way white people speak freely with one another when black folks aren’t around. You get that kind of undercover look at the way white folks really think. So my mother understood racism intimately, from both sides of the fence, and there was never any tolerance for it in the house.
As hazy as a lot of my childhood is to me, I do have a very clear memory of the day when I first learned I was black. Before that, I guess, I never really knew I was black. Everybody figures out there’s something called “race” at some point in their life, and for me it happened when I was about seven years old.
At the time, I was going to Brayton Elementary School in Summit, and I used to have a white friend named Alex. He was one of my closest friends in school. Alex and me were walking over to his house one day after school and we bumped into this other kid from our class named Kenneth — he was one of the few other black kids who went to Brayton with me. Soon as we ran into Kenneth, Alex told him, “Kenneth, you can’t come over.” Kenneth looked pretty bummed out but he just walked on, head down, kicking the curb the way little kids do. Then we ran into some more kids from our class and Alex had no problem inviting them to his house to play. We walked along the sidewalk in silence and the question just popped into my head.
“I thought you told Kenneth you couldn’t have any more friends over?” I asked.
“Kenneth?” Alex laughed. “Oh, Kenneth — he’s a darkie.”
He said that sh-t so matter-of-fact. I didn’t understand it. My mind was trippin’ the rest of the afternoon.
Damn, I thought, Alex must think I’m white. I guess I’m passing, too.
Now, I had this other white friend named Mark, and the rules at his place were a little different than at Alex’s. All the kids could come over to Mark’s place to play in the yard, but when it got dark outside, as soon as the twilight made it hard to see, the white kids were allowed to come inside the house and keep playing but the black kids were sent home. Nobody asked any questions. Nobody said sh-t. It was just accepted as the way things were. And I was still considered “white enough” — or maybe they were just confused about what exactly I was — that I could stay and play with the white kids while the handful of black kids just split.
It was confusing as hell. When I got home, I told my mother about it. She looked at me with this half smile.
“Honey, people are stupid.”
That was her line. It’s one of the things I recall her saying to me a lot. People are stupid. She didn’t break that down for me, but I understood her to mean: You can’t necessarily change the ignorant way people think — but you can damn sure control the way it affects you personally. And then you keep it moving.
I guess my mom was preparing me in her own way, simply by downplaying it, telling me that this was some bullsh-t — racism — that I was going to be dealing with in some way or another for the rest of my life. Even today, I find myself constantly saying those same words under my breath: Yo, don’t even sweat it. People are stupid.
My mother died of a sudden heart attack when I was in the third grade. I’ve read some craziness online that my parents were killed in a fiery car crash. No, they both died of heart attacks, four years apart. It was me that nearly died in a car wreck, but that was decades later, when I was already hustling out in Cali.
When my mother passed I didn’t cry. To this day, I don’t fully understand why. I didn’t shed any tears. I didn’t go to the funeral, either. I didn’t have much say in the matter. In those days, that’s how grown folks handled kids when someone died. Someone — must have been my father — decided to keep me at the house, away from the church or the funeral home. All the younger kids — me and some cousins on my dad’s side — were upstairs in our house playing the whole day. We were kind of oblivious. We never went downstairs with the mourners. I don’t think it’s quite the same today, but back then there was a conscious effort to shelter kids more. You’d be sent upstairs, you might even be sent away to someone else’s house, during the funeral arrangements.
The first time I ever cried in my life — the first time really letting out tears of grief — was at the funeral of my homey Vic. Victor Wilson — Beatmaster V, the drummer from my band Body Count. And that was in 1996, when I was a grown-ass man, after watching Vic’s body get devastated by leukemia.
Even today, I don’t dig the whole scene of a funeral. Funerals are ugly. I never go to them. I’d much rather remember the person alive. I don’t want to see anybody lying in a box.
My mother didn’t have any family around us. In fact, I never knew anybody from my mother’s side of the family; even today I don’t. My father, though, had two sisters and a lot of cousins. My aunt in the neighborhood had two daughters. There was a lot of family showing up at the house who I’d never seen before my mother’s funeral.
All these folks — distant relations and friends — kept coming by to pay their respects. Also, I later found out: to steal stuff. That’s the one thing I recall vividly after my mother’s funeral. My father was pissed because a bunch of sh-t was missing from the house after it was all over.
My mother was a very supportive and smart woman, and I know she cared about me, although she wasn’t very affectionate toward me. I only have a few specific memories of her, vague and distant, like some grainy home movie, someplace in the back of my mind. ...
I’m sitting on the couch watching Batman on TV; she’s calling out, “Tracy!” telling me to come to dinner. ...
I remember her sitting on the sofa a lot, with balls of yarn and knitting needles. That was my mother’s only hobby; she loved to knit and crochet. I’d watch her making these intricate squares and then connecting them together in quilts. We had her quilts, neatly folded, on the beds and sofas in the house.
This may sound strange, but I don’t know that much about my mother’s personal story. I’m not a very backward-looking person. I realize that a lot of people like to dig into their past, research it, log in to genealogical websites to find out about their roots. I have no interest whatsoever in that sh-t. I’ve never been a guy to spend too long looking in the rearview mirror. To me it’s like John Lennon once said: “I never went to high school reunions. ... Out of sight, out of mind. ... I’m only interested in what I am doing now.” That’s my attitude, too.
My father, who was a church-going, nine-to-five guy — did his best to raise me on his own after my mother died. My aunt who lived right behind us helped to raise me, too. My father also had a housekeeper named Miss Sanoni — she was from the Deep South — and she would come over every day and cook these Southern dishes for dinner. So they all chipped in to raise me.
Well, raise me? That’s kind of a stretch. Wasn’t too much raising going on. Just like my mother, my father wasn’t much of a talker. He was more of a supporter. The bills were paid. I ate. Nurturing? Naw. That wasn’t my pops’ style. Nobody in my immediate circle talked to me much. Nobody asked about how I was feeling. That’s the main reason that, these days, I talk to my kids a lot. I talk to my wife a lot. But in my house as a kid, there was just not a lot of conversation. My parents and my aunts weren’t made in that let’s-talk-it-out mold.
You’d expect a boy who lost his mother to start wilding out, turn into a real menace. But I never got into too much mischief, except for this one situation with my bike. The year after my mother passed, my father got me a bicycle for Christmas. So I rode it to show one of my friends and I put it on its kickstand in front of his house. I went inside to play with his racing cars. When I came back outside — f--k me — my bike was stolen.
At first I was scared to tell my father that my bike, my brand-new Christmas present, was stolen. And finally when I told him, he didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t raise his hand. He just shrugged.
“Well, then, you ain’t got no bike.”
And he went back to putting away the groceries. That was how matter-of-fact he was. Eventually I got this sneaky game going, learned how to boost pieces of bikes, a couple wheels here, a frame there, a seat, some handlebars. I never had the heart to steal a whole bike, so I just put the bits and pieces together. While my dad was still at work, I had a little chop shop going in my garage. And I put parts together of all these different bikes I’d stolen, learned to assemble them like a pro. It was kind of a Frankenbike, but I hooked it up nice with some spray paint and model paint. Then after I did one, it kind of got good to me. By the sixth grade, I got a pair of bolt-cutters and went out stealing parts of other bikes. I must have thought I was a real little criminal mastermind. I would sneak out of the house while my father was asleep, go out on the prowl at night, walk over to another neighborhood, and steal the parts I needed, hooking up my own bicycles.
My father never noticed that I went from having no Christmas bike to having three or four weird-looking, brightly painted bikes all around the yard and in the garage. Or if he did notice, he just never said sh-t to me about it.
As far as parenting styles go, my dad was a real old-school dude. One evening stands out in my mind. My father, Miss Sanoni, and I were at the kitchen table, finishing up dinner. My pops said something to me, and for some unknown reason, I decided I wanted to mumble something back. This was the first time in my life I tried to talk back to him and say something fly. I said it so quiet, I thought I got away with it. But when I stood up, my father stood up, too. I can still remember the way the legs of his chair screeched on the linoleum. He took one step toward me and he hit me square in the solar plexus. Boom. My knees buckled, and in slow motion I fell to the kitchen floor. Knocked all the breath out of me. Then he stood over me.
“Boy, you talk sh-t to me when you can whoop me.”
That’s the way it was done. He didn’t give me a spanking or a slap in the face. He hit me like a grown man. He was putting me in check, trying to show me what happens to men in the real world when they talk sh-t.
You see a lot of people on the Internet talking mad sh-t, because if they did the same thing in a room full of people there would be repercussions. If that was a face-to-face conversation, somebody would step to them, hit them in the solar plexus, and have them doubled-up on the ground.
When you come from an environment where people have no problem putting you in check physically, you learn you better measure your words. Be careful what the f--k you say. My dad was teaching me a real valuable lesson, one I never forgot: Never mumble some sarcastic sh-t to somebody who obviously can f--k you up.
I wasn’t lonely. But I felt pretty alone after my mother died. Then, when I was in the seventh grade, I found myself truly alone.
For me it was just a regular day at Summit Junior High. I was twelve years old, and I’ll never forget that spring morning, getting pulled out of class and taken down to the principal’s office. The principal’s face was pale, and he kept mumbling something about how sorry he was, how sorry. I stood there in silence. Sorry about what? And there was this look on both the principal’s and the secretary’s faces. I now understand that look. It’s the look of a person trying to tell you — but they can’t find the words — that somebody died. Man, that’s an ill look.
The principal told me, “Tracy, you need to go home now. Something terrible has happened.”
That word hung in the silence of the office. I mean when you’re twelve years old, that word terrible does nothing but amplify the fear and anxiety about whatever’s coming at you.
I left the office. I don’t remember getting into a car, but somebody must’ve driven me to my aunt’s house. My aunt, whose eyes looked swollen, told me what happened.
“Tracy, your dad just passed.”
Both of my parents died really young — still in their thirties — of massive heart failure, four years apart. I was still so young that the experiences of both of my parents’ deaths are kind of blurred together in my mind. And being an only child, I was going through all of it in my own little bubble.
The first thing that happens is you get shuttled off into this place where everyone is trying to protect you. The wake and funeral is happening, and you can see all the adults getting dressed in black, and preparing the flowers. But they keep you away, sheltering you from the reality of death. All these grown folks are wailing and sniffling, but they try to hide it from you, since you’re a kid. All day long, these older people are coming at you, saying, “Tracy, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m all right.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Here’s what’s real strange. Everybody — all the adults around me, I mean — expected me to be losing my sh-t. Just trippin’. And not only was I not trippin’, I was not even engaged in it. It was almost like I had the ability to will myself into this zone where it really didn’t seem to be happening to me. I was emotionally about a million miles away from all the adults, all the crying and the handkerchiefs, and I just had one thought in my mind:
So what’s next? What’s the next move?
Yeah, I was detached. But looking back on my childhood, I don’t think there was an attachment. In other words, even when I was a little kid and I’d fall off my bike, skin my knees and want to cry, there was nobody to really cry to. So I learned to suck it up really quick. I’d hit the ground, dust my ass off and not show anybody that I was f--ked up. I wasn’t one of these kids who was always coming home with hurt feelings, running to hug my mother. None of that clingy, emotional sh-t was my reality. I grew up in a nonaffectionate household. I think kids are trained to know what they’re going to get, and once they get a taste of it, they’ll always want more. It’s like that sh-t with Pavlov’s dog. If you cuddle a kid a lot, he’ll want more cuddling. If you don’t, he’ll just accept that as his reality. He doesn’t look for the added affection.
Everybody in the family was bugging out that I didn’t cry when my father died. They remembered how I hadn’t shed a tear for my mother, either. But I just wasn’t built like that. Wasn’t wired like that. I didn’t have an ounce of self-pity in my bones. It didn’t hit me, Damn, I’m an orphan. Even as a twelve-year-old kid, I knew I was going to have to make it on my own, and my survival instincts were kicking in.
From “ICE: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption — from South Central to Hollywood” by Ice-T and Douglas Century. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books/One World.