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Origins of hip hop: Ice-T and “Cop Killer”

Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. In this series, we’re exploring the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic. Today, we’ll look at rapper Ice-T, and his influence on the development of hip hop, with this article from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition.

Ice-T (1958–); African American rap singer, music producer, and actor. 

Ice-T was born Tracey Morrow in Newark, New Jersey. Following the death of his parents in a car accident in 1968, Ice-T moved to South Central Los Angeles, California, where he attended high school. During this time he reportedly stole cars and wrote rhyming slogans for local street gangs. Ice-T took his name from Iceberg Slim, a local pimp who wrote novels and poetry and with whom Ice-T was acquainted. After high school, Ice-T joined the army but returned to Los Angeles four years later. He recorded “The Coldest Rap” on a local label to launch his musical career.

A prolific and outspoken Rap artist, Ice-T helped pioneer the “gangsta” musical style, in which the turmoil of urban street life is exposed through blunt, explicit lyrics and a bass-heavy, fluid musical style. In 1984 Ice-T’s first recording on a major label appeared, on the soundtracks for the low-budget Hip-Hop motion pictures Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, in which he also acted. A year later he formed his own record company, Rhyme Syndicate Productions, before signing with Warner Bros. in 1986. His first album, Rhyme Pays (1987), was the first ever to be voluntarily labeled with a warning about potentially offensive lyrics, but neither the warning nor mixed reviews hindered the success of the album, which sold more than 500,000 copies. Ice-T wrote and performed the title song for the film Colors (1987), which increased his popularity.

Image Credit: ‘Montclair Film Festival – Ice T’, Photo by Montclair Film Festival, CC by 2.0, via flickr.

Ice-T’s next album, Power (1988), included themes about death and street life, and thus anticipated the emergence of “gangsta” rap. The following year he released the album The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech … Just Watch What You Say as a political commentary on hip-hop censorship. In 1992 Ice-T released Body Count, recorded with his heavy-metal band of the same name. It featured the song “Cop Killer,” which was cited by President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle as an incendiary threat to law enforcement officials. Although no police were harmed as a result of the song, Ice-T voluntarily pulled “Cop Killer” from the album.

Despite these sporadic “bad boy” episodes, Ice-T has become a major spokesman for rap music. He has worked to change the problems he sings about. In 1988 he released an antigang video, and he later testified before a United States congressional committee about the gang problem in South Central Los Angeles. He has toured the nation’s college campuses giving talks about censorship and promoting antidrug and antiviolence campaigns.

Other highlights from Ice-T’s musical career include his collaboration with composer Quincy Jones on the album Back on the Block (1990), which earned him a Grammy award, and the release of OG: Original Gangster (1991), which is frequently hailed as his finest album. His later efforts, including Return of the Real (1996), have received mixed popular and critical acclaim.

In addition to his music career, Ice-T has appeared in several films, including New Jack City (1991), Ricochet (1991), Trespass (1993), Tank Girl (1995), Players (1997), Judgement Day (1999), The Heist (1999), Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), and 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001). His television appearances include New York Undercover (1994–1998), Players (1997–1998), and Law and Order Special Victims Unit (2000-). He has also written a book, The Ice Opinion (1994), in which he expresses his views on music, love, religion, and politics.


  • Ro, Ronin. Gangsta: Merchandizing the Rhymes of Violence. St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Iceberg, Water, Sea’, Photo by Lurens, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.

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