The scene was the 11th floor of the Paley Center for Media, roughly an hour or so before last night’s world premiere screening of VH1’s latest Rock Doc, Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation. The green room was filled with some of the larger-than-life personalities that make this powerful movie what it is: Notorious crack kingpin turned socially conscious rapper Azie Faison (pictured above), cultural critic and highly regarded journalist Nelson George, and the O.G. himself, Ice-T (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ice-T’s bombshell wife, Coco, was typing away on her Blackberry while sitting on a couch on the other side of the room). Because Ice was very forthcoming with his thoughts, I’m going to honor his request and put his scathing words for the likes of Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and Kanye West on hold for a bit (but don’t worry, we’ll get to ‘em quick).
Planet Rock is the first documentary film to focus on the undeniable effect that the crack cocaine “epidemic” of the 1980s had on the world of hip-hop, and vice versa. After watching the doc and its strikingly honest interviews with former gangbangers turned music superstars like Snoop Dogg, B-Real of Cypress Hill, and RZA and Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, you really get a vivid picture of not only how these worlds were intertwined from the outset, but also the incredible fallout that resulted when crack was introduced into these neighborhoods (which, some allege, was the direct result of C.I.A. intervention). Even Ice-T, who was out of the game when his single “6 In The Mornin” hit big in 1986, was running with some of the crack game’s biggest players.
“Freeway Rick is my friend, he came to my wedding,” Ice-T tells me when I ask him if he ever crossed paths with Freeway Ricky Ross, who has a starring role in the documentary and was the crack game equivalent of Scarface‘s Tony Montana in mid-eighties era Los Angeles. “I knew all those cats, I grew up with them. People would ask me if Freeway Rick was a drug dealer, and I would tell them that I never saw him deal drugs. How can you say that’s what someone is if you never see it personally?”
Well, the government saw it otherwise and locked Freeway Rick (pictured right) up for thirteen years, but the very fact that Ice-T ran with a very tough group of individuals is what gave him his street cred in the first place, establishing him as the very first of the group of rappers that would soon come to be branded by the media as “gangsta rappers.” I asked him if he ever thought he crossed the line between sharing the harsh realities of the street and glamorizing the criminal lifestyle, and he candidly responded, “I don’t draw a line, I just try to tell the truth. If you tell the truth, it’s gonna have a pro side and a con side. So I try to tell the full story, not just the story of when the hustler’s winning, but the trials and tribulations of the sh*t he goes through. The only line that’s drawn is that you don’t use real names, you don’t wanna dry snitch yourself out. Why would I give authority a shovel to bury me, why am I gonna rap about something that’s really happening?”
Clearly, with that last bit, Ice is referencing rappers out there today like Rick Ross, who becomes a focal point in the last 15 minutes or so of Planet Rock. Despite all of the hard work that the hip hop community did to help to position crack as a demonic drug (think Public Enemy‘s “Night Of The Living Baseheads,” think Too Short‘s “The Ghetto”) and the amount of damage the drug did to the black community, a new breed of rappers have pushed themselves to the top of the game by bragging about their alleged association with the world of organized crime and the drug scene, despite large amounts of evidence that they’re actually poseurs.
“That’s fake,” Ice-T blurts out. “Rick Ross stole a n****’s name. I call him ‘Identity Crisis.’ He thinks he’s [Freeway] Rick Ross, he thinks he’s Larry Hoover, he thinks he’s Big Meech, he thinks he’s MC Hammer, he thinks he’s Tupac. Like, who the f*ck are you really, dude?”
Ice continues, “When we rapped about dope— me, Snoop and everybody—it was like we doin’ it because we GOT to. Now these n***** is actin’ like it’s somethin’ that’s FUN. It’s so easy to fantasize about it. To actively do it? That’s a whole ‘nother f*ckin’ thing.
“You can see that it’s not real,” Azie Faison adds. “You understand, if it was real, you wouldn’t be talkin’ about it. You might be puttin’ money into it, coachin’ someone else to try to get up out of [the drug game], but you wouldn’t be on blast talkin’ like it’s real because these police, they ain’t playin. They’re comin’ for ya.”
To Ice-T, the issue with rap music these days has to do with accountability. “You can tell kids these days any motherf*****’ thing and they’ll believe it,” he laments. “There’s not a code of accountability in hip hop. When I came out, if you said it, you HAD to be about it. N***** would check you really quickly.”
At this point, I press Ice on whether he thinks there’s a famous rapper out there right now who has enough visibility and credibility who can serve as a rap ombudsman, if you will. According to Ice-T, that’s not really the issue, though. It’s more that rap, as a musical artform, has changed.
“Rap is pop right now,” he explains. “Q-Tip said, ‘Rap is not pop. If you call it that, then stop.’ Rap was a counterculture that went against pop. But when you have Rihanna singin’ on your records and you’re doin’ records with Katy Perry, that’s no longer rap. It’s pop music, pop using rap delivery. When you hear Lil Wayne sayin’ ‘I got a chopper in the car,’ you go, ‘Yeah, right you do.‘”
VH1’s latest entry in our award-winning Rock Doc series, Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation debuts this Sunday night, September 18, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
[Photo: Getty Images]