Ice-T Shares With Us The Secret History Of 'New Jack City'
With his Kangol hat, black sunglasses, long dreadlocks, and inimitable swagger, Ice T was immortalized as maverick Detective Scotty Appleton in the 1991 cult classic film, New Jack City.
The story revolves around the megalomaniacal Cash Money Brothers—Nicholas “Nino” Brown (Wesley Snipes) and Gerald “G-Money” Wells (Allen Payne)—and their fleeting reign as crack dealing New York City crime lords. Detective Appleton and partner Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson) vow to take down their ring of drugs and violence with the help of crack addict Benny “Pookie” Robinson (Chris Rock), who tries to get straight to become a police informant.
Featuring a cameo from Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav and an explosive soundtrack with songs by Queen Latifah, Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew, Color Me Badd and Ice T, the film encapsulates an era when classic hip-hop, R&B and gangsta rap intersected.
Considering Ice T was a pioneering gangsta rapper, a founding member of the rock-n-rap group Body Count, and the man responsible for tracks like “Original Gangster” and “Cop Killer,” his role as a New York City detective seemed counterintuitive to his natural way of being. In fact, in his autobiography, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—From South Central to Hollywood, he writes, “I started to survey all the people around me, people whose opinions I trusted the most. ‘Yo, I got offered this movie role,' I said over and over. 'But here's the thing: they want me to be The Man.’ I thought my old crime partners might start laughing. Or snap my head off.”
Director Mario Van Peebles wasn’t deterred. He saw something exceptional in the Los Angeles transplant and plucked him out of a nightclub bathroom to star in his directorial debut.
“I was doing my Ice T thing, talking shit in the bathroom,” Ice explains. “I said something like, ‘If you could take a microscope and find one molecule in my body that gave a fuck, then they’d have a chance.’ Someone said, ‘Whoever said that needs to be in my movie,’ and Mario stepped out of the stall and here’s Ice T talking shit to people.”
Van Peebles approached him in the club later that night and told Ice he wanted him to be in his movie, but Ice was skeptical. He thought the aspiring filmmaker was trying to show off in front of the girls Ice was hanging around.
“That’s that Hollywood bullshit,” he says. “People see you and say, ‘We should work.’ He could have found me. Just because he saw me at this party didn’t mean he had to say that. He could have just said hello and kept it moving. At the time, I was talking to some females, so I figured that was him trying to say he was making a movie in front of the girls. I know how guys operate. I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever Mario.’ I introduced him to the females and he took my number.”
To Ice’s surprise, he got a call from Warner Bros. the next day and was asked to come to the studio, where producers George Jackson and Doug McHenry were waiting to talk to him about the impending role of Detective Appleton. Even as he drove to the studio, he was still in disbelief. Thoughts of trepidation ruled his mind, as he questioned taking the leap into film at a time when his rap career was booming.
“I was still kind of shocked,” he recalls. “I got down there and they basically offered me the part to play Scotty in the movie, and you know, it was a cop. 'Original Gangster' was just about to come out because 'New Jack Hustler' ended up being on that album. I was in that mode and was like, ‘Damn man, do you really want to take a risk and be in a movie? It could ruin your career and right now it’s hot.’ I was on fire at that time, so I was nervous. Nobody had pulled off the acting shit correctly to me. Run [DMC] and them did Tougher Than Leather and they had Beat Street, Breakin’—stuff like that, but nobody was really a standout actor.”
[Wesley] Snipes had only done one major movie, Major League, and no other rappers had ever even attempted to do a serious crime thriller. Adding to the pressure was the fact that it was the first time Ice had ever taken a stab at being a serious thespian.
“Back then, it was more about comedy rap movies and it wasn’t [about] serious acting,” he says. “I was nervous ‘cuz I’m not an actor by trade and I didn’t know if I could pull it off.”
Van Peebles was convinced he could. At this time, Ice had sold millions of records, beginning with 1987’s Rhyme Pays, 1988’s Power and 1989’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say. He was one of the most prominent rappers out there and all the attention was on him. Serious acting, however, was something he had never really considered.
“There weren’t a lot of young black actors that could carry a film then,” he explains. There were just not a lot. The producer says, ‘Well, Ice and these guys are selling millions of records, maybe this will translate to ticket sales.’ That’s the reason they got me. They could have gotten Chuck D. They could have gotten anybody, but they got somebody they felt had a little gangster in them. They got Chris, who was the hippest young street comedian at the time and they got Wesley, who was a really trained actor and Judd, and they made a movie. It turned out to be a classic.”
On the set, a blossoming sense of excitement permeated the air; it was an inaugural experience for nearly everyone involved. It was Van Peebles first time directing, Ice’s first dramatic acting role and Chris Rock wasn’t anywhere near the illustrious comedian he is today. It provided ample opportunities to bond during production.
“There was a lot of camaraderie,” he recalls. “There were a lot of people—like literal huddles of people—on the set trying to come up with the best way to make this movie hit. Mario set out to make an epic film for $5 million. He had no money, but he wanted crane shots— big cinematic shots. He was able to pull it off, but I think we went over budget. I think he had to have someone come in with a couple million dollars to finish the film, but it worked out.”
There was a little uneasiness, as well. Early in the production of the film, Oran “Juice” Jones was supposed to play G-Money, but all of a sudden Allen Payne replaced him and nobody really knew why.
“Me and Chris, we were just happy to be there,” he says. “We were concerned about being replaced. Oran “Juice” Jones had came on there and was dealing with it, then all of a sudden Allen replaced him. Chris and I saw that, and we were like, ‘Holy shit!’ I’m like, ‘Shit, they probably have Chuck D downstairs trying on a set wig. I better get my shit together.’ We were just keeping our heads down, doing our best. Chris was like, ‘Ice, you’re the biggest star in the movie.’ All of us are nobodies at this time. He said, ‘You already have the cars, money and are selling big records. You ain’t gotta be worried.’ But I was, because I was a fish out of water. I kind of was like most famous person at the time when the movie came out.”
The formula worked. New Jack City was a commercial and critical success, earning over $7 million opening weekend. Consequently, the New Jack City soundtrack catapulted to number one on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart and number two on the Billboard Top 200. It included the New Jack City theme song, Ice T’s “New Jack Hustler,” which would wind up on Ice’s 1991 release, O.G.: Original Gangster. Beyond its legacy, the film brought together an unlikely crew, which cemented friendships for years to come.
“It’s a bond forever,” Ice says. “It’s a New Jack bond. It’s always a bond with people and you start out. You remember they were there. I always say, ‘We go back to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.’ When you know people when you were broke, they really can’t front on you. They can’t play that came like they’re a star or something.
“Wesley and I have always been cool,” he continues. “Chris is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s just a cool mother fucker. We just have that tie. I haven’t seen Judd in years. He was very helpful to me early in the game. He was always teaching me how to relax, like, ‘Hey everybody’s going to fuck up. You can’t worry about fucking up. Just do it.’ All these people in the movie are dear to me.”
The chemistry between Ice, Snipes, Rock, Payne, and Van Peebles is almost palpable on screen. Despite Ice’s novice acting abilities, he carried the role in a way that was believable and authentic. The skills he learned while making New Jack City set in motion Ice’s longstanding acting career.
“The key to acting is you have to understand what’s going on in that scene,” he explains. “If you understand the theory of what’s going on in that scene, the conversation will flow. As long as I know that’s the basis of the scene, you can act it out. It’s not as hard as people make it. You’re not just saying words; you kind of have to know what the scene is about. If you know that, the lines will fall in place. Sometimes people can’t write and they write shit and you’re thinking, This is not how people talk. It’s conversation, and if it’s written well, it will flow like conversation.”
From television shows like Law & Order: SVU and New York Undercover to other films like Ricochet and Johnny Mnemonic, he has New Jack City to thank for all of it.
“I had done 47 or 48 movies by the time I did Law & Order,” he said to us in an exclusive chat. “Most of them sucked. If you look at my IMDB, you’ll be like, ‘What the fuck?’ Most of them suck. I only claim like 10 of them. I claim New Jack City, of course, Surviving the Game, Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves, Ricochet with Denzel Washington, Trespass with Ice Cube—those are some of the better films that I’ve done. But then I’ve done Leprechaun in the Hood and all kinds of wild shit [laughs].”
Over the years, he’s become a seasoned actor and no longer the wide-eyed newbie he was while filming New Jack City. That film also taught him a valuable lesson about contracts.
“I got paid scale, so for New Jack City I made about $25,000 for the whole movie,” he admits. “The movie made like $67 million, but by now, it’s probably closer to $80 million bucks. That was my first lesson in Hollywood. How could I negotiate? I was never in a film.”
New Jack Citycelebrates its 25th anniversary this year, but Ice isn’t too concerned about dates. “I’ve got so many records out, I’m having an anniversary every year for some shit,” he says. “Someone told me the other day, ‘Oh it’s the Return of the Real’s anniversary.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ It’s like having so many kids and like, ‘Oh, it’s their birthday.’ Big deal [laughs].”
As he embarks on the Art of Rap Festival tour this summer with artists like Public Enemy, EPMD and MC Lyte, he will wind up in New York City again on July 30. Produced and co-directed by Ice T, Art of Rap is a 2012 documentary featuring exclusive interviews with Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def), B-Real, Common and a slew of other pioneering hip-hop artists relevant to the culture. He couldn’t let the success of Art of Rap dwindle away, so a tour was the best way to continue celebrating the film.
“The Art of Rap tour is big,” he says. “It was birthed by the film. Of course, after you’re in films long enough, you’re going to want to make one or two. I went off and did a documentary about what hip-hop meant to us, and the craft versus the beef, cars, money and all the bullshit. We won a lot of awards at Sundance and people dug it. We couldn’t let that die, so we thought we should take it out on the road and show some of the—like LL [Cool J] says, ‘Some of the Golden Age artists’ and give them a platform to perform. There is an adult hip-hop audience.”
Although Ice T has spent the majority of his life in Los Angeles, he doesn’t really “claim” a particular city. He was born in New Jersey, where he lived until losing both of his parents at a young age. After filming New Jack City in the Big Apple, he was away In California for many years, but his life eventually came full circle.
“I love New York,” he expressed to us during our chat. “I was born in Newark, New Jersey, then I kicked up all my dust and made my name in Los Angeles. What brought me back out east was Law & Order, but I’m a different breed of cat. Like the true players say, ‘We play the whole bubble,’ meaning the whole earth. From the pineapple to 'The Big Apple', the snowflakes to the earthquakes, you dig?! I never really locked myself into being a West Coast cat. When I got money and I was able to travel, I was representing the United States.”
In every sense of the word, Ice T is a rock star. Whether acting, rapping or doing talk shows, he carries a genuine air of confidence that could never be faked. New Jack City helped the then 33-year-old carve his own path and secure his spot amongst the upper echelon of reputable stars, something he’s wanted all along.
“I don’t care what you are, rap or whatever, the epitome of life is the rock star,” he says. “When Obama is winning, you know they go, ‘He’s a rock star.’ There’s something about just standing on the stage in front of thousands of screaming people doing whatever the fuck you want to do. Rappers want to be rockstars. We’re all rockstars.”
Kyle Eustice is a Colorado-based writer + editor, part-time vegan and outdoor enthusiast. You can find her work at The Source, Thrasher and Wax Poetics. Follow her on Twitter @KyleEustice.