Ice-T Talks Baltimore Protests, Turning His 'Art of Rap' Doc Into a Music Festival

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Ice-T attends Coco & The Vanity Vixens at Highline Ballroom on May 12, 2014 in New York City.  

Considering he's the man behind "Cop Killer" -- the Body Count song that had politicians and parents foaming at the mouth back in 1992 -- and the actor who portrays NYPD Det. Fin Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU, Ice-T knows a thing or two about America's complicated relationship with its police force.

So when we spoke with the hip-hop legend about The Art of Rap Festival, a cross-generational hip-hop fest inspired by his top-notch 2012 documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, it was only natural that the ongoing protests in Baltimore came up in conversation.

According to Ice-T and Mickey Bentson, a Universal Zulu Nation co-founder who's working with Ice-T on the Art of Rap Festival, Baltimore is far from the last time we'll see a city riot in response to police brutality. "Nobody needs to be burning shit down," Ice-T says, "But people need to come out and make noise and let them know this is not acceptable."

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The duo also talk about their intentions to expand the Art of Rap Festival past its two scheduled dates in northern and southern California (tickets for both are on sale now) into a festival with a national, if not international, scope. The Art of Rap lineup includes Game, Ice-T, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Mack 10, Xzibit, Warren G, Kurtis Blow and many more. Check out the full lineup here.

Here's what Ice-T and Mickey Bentson had to say.

Where did the idea to turn your Art of Rap documentary into a music festival come from?

Ice-T: After we did the movie it got such great results. We always had a plan to do a tour, and maybe even a TV show. Mickey Bentson, my partner, I was like, "Look man, put the tour together and make it happen." We just didn't know how to get it going. Last summer we were out on the Mayhem Fest tour with Body Count and we met a man named John Reese who I met back with Guns N' Roses. He knows how to do these big tours. We told him the idea, he thought it was incredible, and he hasn't let the idea die. Him and Mickey got this tour together. We're just starting in two cities but we got plans to take it cross-country, worldwide. We have LiveNation behind us, but a journey of a million miles stars with one step. It's a lot of money to get these tours going and LiveNation wants to see a success on the west coast, and then they'll be willing to throw in the money to bring it cross-country. We need support on these two shows to keep it alive.

Your documentary touched on how hip-hop has had to strive to get the same respect rock music has. Do you think that's changing?

Ice-T: It will get respect.

Mickey: It's gaining it. They letting hip-hop into Rock Hall of Fame now.

Ice-T: A lot of people didn't get their respect until they died. A lot of artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art weren't valued until they died. When you look back maybe 50 years from now at a movie like Wild Style, people will go, "Wow, that changed the world." People are looking at my music from '92, saying, "You wrote 'Cop Killer,' now look what's happening in Baltimore." It takes a minute for shit to echo through the culture.

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When you hear people talk about the situation in Baltimore, what do you think they're missing?

Ice-T: They're missing that this is going to continue to happen if you don't deal with the problems at the core. You can't take ghettoes and just push them away and close your eyes to problems and not think they're going to explode. Especially with the police -- it happens all over the world when you have disenfranchised people who are put into a corner, and then they explode. You have to deal with it. And that means you have to give everybody a chance at the American Dream. With schools, and programs, and letting people into the game. They're not going to go away -- they're going to find illegal ways to eat. I was thinking about it in '92, but they were singing about in 20 years before me. It's not going to change with a black president or anything until we all realize we are accountable for everybody else. If everybody is not happy, we have a potential problem.

Do you think it might get better in the near future?

Ice-T: We're moving in a bad direction right now. Mark my words. Baltimore will repeat itself with the next senseless act of violence that happens to somebody that didn't deserve it. I'm not taking about the drug dealers that get their houses raided; I'm talking about a senseless act of violence that's caught on a cameraphone. It could potentially happen anywhere in this country. People are just not sitting around letting it happen anymore. And I appreciate that. I'm not with the violence. Nobody needs to be burning shit down, but people need to come out and make noise and let them know this is not acceptable. With a riot... one person can't start a riot. One person running down the street mad is just a mad motherfucker. It takes quite a few people to start a riot.

And once someone gets to that point --

Ice-T: It's a little late to talk. You gotta let that shit run its course. Jon Stewart said it perfectly, and told jokes. That's amazing. He has to be commended because he broke it down so eloquently and then kept it humorous. He is usually on point. And he's needed. He takes the news and tells you what the fuck is really going on. Body Count actually performed on Stewart back in the day.

Speaking of back in the day, the Art of Rap lineup includes a number of old school masters. Just like the documentary, it seems hip-hop history is very important to this fest. 

Ice-T: In the era we're in now, you got kids that are born and to them, Eminem is old school. [The first rappers have] been around long enough that they can get a little history lesson now. We can explain it out to people so they kinda know where it came from. If you're a jazz fan, you want to see some of the greats play. But Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie -- they aren't alive. So while these guys are still here, let's get them together with some new school, east coast-west coast and go out and have a great afternoon with the family and enjoy it.

Mickey: We're trying to give you a slice of different cities and eras of hip-hop at once.

That's interesting you mention jazz. I always feel like jazz fans, they know the masters -- Miles Davis, John Coltrane. But a lot of hip-hop fans today are only listening to stuff that's 10, 15 years old.

Ice-T: That's because of the radio. It's all based around radio and the Internet. With the Internet, it diluted hip-hop and made it so easy for anyone to make records. Then record stores disappeared and it was impossible for kids to find music because there was so much. Now the new generation feels like, "Well, if it's not on the radio, it must not be good." They're conditioned to what the radio is playing them. Whereas with my generation, if it was on the radio, it wasn't good. We were searching. Even in rock music they created the term alternative. Alternative to what? Alternative to radio.

Speaking of some of the old school guys, you have Busy Bee emceeing the fests, and Kool Moe Dee -- who famously took him down during the first rap battle -- is performing. Are they cool now?

Ice-T: Oh hell yeah. They're friends now. Hip-hop has always been competitive. It's never been a blood sport where it's like, "I want to kill you." It's like, "I'm better than you." If you say you're the top rapper, there's always going to be someone who comes along and says "I'm better." That's what makes it good.

Mickey: Battling was expected back then if you said you was good. You gotta be thinking you're better than the next man. Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee are best of friends.

Ice-T: Well, maybe not right after that battle [laughs].

Was it hard to get this lineup together?

Mickey: Me being a Zulu Nation member, we got all their numbers. At no point did we have to call anybody's agent to talk to the artist. We called them all direct.

You mentioning turning Art of Rap into a TV show. What would that look like?

Ice-T: Do you ever see those shows where they talk to songwriters and break down their music in depth? Something like that. Just picking each artist and taking some time with them. Not talking about the cars or the money or the jewelry. But getting into their procedure. Talk to Nas, really figure out how he writes. Look at his books, listen to some of his music in the studio, something like that. Like an Actor's Workshop show. There's an art of DJing, breakdancing, graffiti. We don't just make that shit up. I think when somebody said we freestyle and it comes off the head, that made it cheaper. It made it seem like thought wasn't put into it. But this stuff is serious poetry and serious art.

I almost see it the other way. When someone can freestyle off the top of their head and make it good, I'm shocked. You have to have a great mind to do that.

Ice-T: Some people can do it super natural. They're impressive. I think hip-hop and rap always impress people. That's why it became such a powerful culture where I can get up and talk and rhyme for 20 minutes. Or breakdancing. It's impressive a kid can spin on his head. I can't even walk, you can spin on your head? That's why the culture has been around so long.

You're also working on a talk show with your wife, Coco.

Ice-T: They came up with the idea after the reality show [Ice Loves Coco]. They said, "Let's get it more real. Let's have Ice talk to people in real life, Let's have Coco talk to these girls how she feels." Fox said they'd do it, so they're doing a test run where they shoot maybe 20 shows, air it in three cities and see what the people say. If the people want it, hey, I'll be the new Oprah. The talk show will air in August -- we're shooting in July. Everybody thinks they should have a talk show, but the fact that we're getting a shot at it means a lot. If you listen to the podcast, you got a dose of what we'll do. We won't be that raw, but it will be fun.