I got nothing to lose, much to gain, on my brain I got a capitalist migraine
I gotta get paid tonight, you motherfuckin right…
…go to school ? I ain’t goin’ for it – kiss my ass, bust the cap on the Moet !
Deep in 1991. I’ve finished shooting Alien 3 in Pinewood. The Gulf War is over. Jenny and I are living in Archway Road, and we’ve holidayed in Positano (My Pop Life #29). The Channel Tunnel is almost completed. Tottenham Hotspur have won the FA Cup and Paul Gasgoigne has ruptured his cruciate ligament. People are going to prison over the Poll Tax, including Labour MPs. To come : Jenny will play Mediyah in Pecong at the Tricycle Theatre, and I will film The Crying Game in Hoxton and meet David Bowie one night (see My Pop Life 54). Musically we were at a crossroads – Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit which blew my head off, Massive Attack released Unfinished Sympathy which put it back on, Jenny was hugging Optimistic by Sounds Of Blackness, and we were both digging Seal, Prince and Lenny Kravitz. Hip hop was at a true crossroads with Gangsta Rap bidding to take over the commercial end of the scene from more ‘conscious’ hip hop acts from the old skool. Huge sales for Tupac, Biggie and others followed OG Ice T and his role in the film New Jack City which came out in England in August 1991.
Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)
The scene I’d witnessed in Washington D.C. whilst working on my hip-hop play Sanctuary in 1989 (see My Pop Life 33) was now writ large on the screen with Wesley Snipes in the lead role, Ice-T playing a cop and providing much of the soundtrack. I’d get to work with Wesley a few hundred years later in Bulgaria on The Shooter – he’s a solid decent-enough guy. By then (2004) he was about to go to prison for non-payment of tax. He still had a loyal and very cool entourage of eleven people. All of whom depended on Wesley continuing to make movies…
New Jack City was written by Thomas Lee Wright and directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also appeared himself. We heard about it months before it came out, one of the most anticipated films of 1991. A hip hop crack gang movie inhabiting the same space as my newest play “The House That Crack Built” which had just been commissioned and then rejected by the BBC (see My Pop Life 61). It concerned a young man whose father was absent and whose family was about to be evicted from their apartment-above-a-diner in Washington DC. He decides to sell crack to help his mum which initially works well, but when she becomes addicted and his ambitions make him enemies who are armed and vicious it all goes horribly wrong. A cliche perhaps, but somewhat inspired by my own adolescence. Of course all the characters in the play were black. This was what I had found in DC. Crack was a new drug, a crystallisation of cocaine and tremendously powerful. One hit will send you into space. Users feel powerful and indestructible. Horrible shit is what it is. Any illegal drug will be the province of gangsters and underground big business. In a way the black community in the USA were having their “mafia moment” like the Italians, Irish, and English had done before them. Their piece of the pie. America being built on slavery and criminal activity, genocide and gang-war, this is all perfectly normal. New Jack City had Ice-T playing a New York cop going undercover into Wesley Snipes crack-dealing gang, who were in their turn facing off with another gang for turf and profits. Pawns in a divide and rule game?
Russell Wong, Mario Van Peebles, Judd Nelson, Ice-T
So familiar, but with black faces, pretty new. Judd Nelson is the only white character, We also meet Bill Nunn, a young Chris Rock, and Allen Payne with Michael Michelle and Russell Wong being stereotypical black woman and asian (techy) man. It’s Hollywood folks. But we were all completely thrilled by this new genre becoming so mainstream so quickly. The result of New Jack Swing – the soul beat of the early 90s – with Blackstreet, Guy and Teddy Riley, singers like Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat – colliding with the new genre of hip-hop and producing stuff like Ice-T’s album OG and Heavy D and The Boyz (see My Pop Life #33) – it was an exciting moment. Jenny and I completely loved – and still love – the track New Jack Hustler. It is right up there with the very best moments in hip-hop culture, a monster song.
New Jack Hustler perfectly encapsulates the paradox of black capitalism (like all capitalism it starts with a hustle) empowering the self while spreading fear through the neighbourhood, being a big man while murdering brothers (niggas – of course). Ice-T’s brilliant rap is both a boast and a warning, his self-awareness of the ghetto contradiction makes this a truly exemplary piece of work. And it isn’t without humour too, the imaginary impressionable kid gazing up at his gold chains and guns asking “how can I be down?” gets this answer :
What’s up? You say you wanna be down?
Ease back, or muthafucka get beat down
Out my face, fool I’m the illest
Bulletproof, I die harder than Bruce Willis
Got my crew in effect, I bought ’em new Jags
So much cash, gotta keep it in Hefty bags
All I think about is keys and Gs
Imagine that, me workin’ at Mickey D’s
One of the highlights of the major hip-hop doc ‘The Art Of Rap‘ is the moment when Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique raps those very lines at Ice-T as they stand on the New York sidewalk, to both of their amusement. My old compadre Andy Baybutt shot and directed that film after making a deal with Ice-T that it would be called “An Ice-T film, directed by Ice-T” but c’mon, Andy made it. Ice chose the characters and conducted the interviews. He would open his address book and say “come to the corner in 15 minutes, we’re shooting a rap movie” and they’d just shoot the result. It’s a superb film about how these guys actually put a rap together, and although Missy Elliott should be there, and two or three others, the cast is everyone who matters (and who’s still alive) in the history of rap.
Ice-T is an interesting dude. Born Tracy Marrow on the East Coast, he moved to LA after both parents died. He got his name from being able to recite chunks of black-pimp-turned novelist Iceberg Slim for his schoolmates in Crenshaw High. Seriously interested in heavy metal he co-founded Body Count a hard rock band in 1991 and their track Cop Killer was hugely controversial. He’s done reality TV, straight acting, married a swimsuit model ‘Coco Marie‘ and put her on his LP covers, appeared as a regular in Law & Order and run a record label. I still think this song is his finest hour. The deceptively smart lyrics contain their own commentary on the ghetto and the way out :
Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?
…Pregnant teens, children’s screams
Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam
You don’t come here much, and ya better not
Wrong move (Bang) Ambulance cot
I gotta get more money than you got
So what, if some muthafucka 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 pit bull, 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
All mixed by genius turntablist and producer D.J. Aladdin who combines samples from the ubiquitous James Brown (Blues & Pants provides the horn rise), Sly & The Family Stone (the magnificently cracked-out drum sample – my heart pumps nitro – with a break from You Can Make It If You Try), while the guitar twang is sampled from Bobbi Humphrey‘s Jasper Country Man. The whole piece is like a gangsta manifesto, but dressed up as a cautionary tale and it was the point where I stopped buying hip-hop. Rappers took the ironies in this song and flattened them out into macho posturing. A whole generation of kids grew up on guns, hoes, cars, gangs and death and were convinced that they were all cool. Capitalism won as it usually seems to.
Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that just as the black community started to get organised and angry, spearheaded by figures like Public Enemy, Ice-T and KRS-One, the ghettos were suddenly flooded with cheap weapons and crack cocaine. The next 15 years were all about black-on-black crime and prison, major labels reaping the big profits.
Ice-T could see it coming.
Ice-T pointing his fingers at you pretending he has a gun