Ice-T – O.G. Original Gangster

2010-06-01 09:05
O.G. Original Gangster

There was a lot of tension and rage in Los Angeles back in 1991. Race relations were at an all-time low, gang culture had taken a seemingly unbreakable hold on both South Central and East Los Angeles, and to put it succinctly, nobody liked the cops. That was BEFORE the notorious Rodney King incident, which happened in March of that year.

Artists had been sounding the social upheaval alarms for several years – notably groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy had hit a nerve with respective releases. But Ice-T’s fourth album really brought rap into a different realm.

While its language is still angry and at a surface level provokes civil disobedience - again, a euphemism – the undertone throughout actually doubles back upon itself, suggesting clarity of thought, education and ultimately self-liberation as its true message. Intersperse this with seemingly crude, undignified humour, wild street stories and clever meta-references not known in hip hop (until then), and you’ve got what Starpulse called “a sprawling masterpiece that stands far and away as Ice-T's finest hour.”

From its outset, the album puts you in a context – "LA, home of the bodybag" is the refrain – with a classic hard, slow beat punctuated by sounds of sirens, helicopters, gunshots, a rock guitar sample (more on this later), and the requisite introduction. What follows is a flurry of outwardly disjointed setpieces that seem to share a “if you’re going to say it, say it hard” ethos.

Artists talk about “blood on the mic” delivery. Ice-T left all six pints of it on OG. As on "New Jack Hustler", which starts out as a familiar-enough statement of hood bravado….

So many hos on my jock, think I'm a movie star.
Nineteen, I got a fifty thousand dollar car.

... and within a few lines ends up selling a completely different view of its motivation...

Here I come, so you better break North,
As I stride, my gold chains glide back and forth.
I care nothing bout you, and that's evident.
All I love's my dope and dead presidents.

Sound crazy? Well it isn't.
The ends justifies the means, that's the system.
I learned that in school then I dropped out,
Hit the streets, checked a grip, and now I got clout.

I had nothing, and I wanted it.
You had everything, and you flaunted it.
Turned the needy into the greedy,
With cocaine, my success came speedy.

Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox.
Every dollar I get, another brother drops.
Maybe that's the plan, and I don't understand,
God damn-you got me sinkin in quicksand.

Similarly, a roundabout approach to the ills of overindulgence disguises the one-minute "Ed" as a spritely, jaunty neighbourhood anecdote which abruptly turns the imminent hero into a literal and metaphorical nothing:

Let me tell ya a little story bout my homeboy Ed
Use to drink every day straight 40's to the head
You try to snap on him he'd ask what you said
You still try to break he'd start givin’ up lead
Loved to gamble on one knee he stayed
Tryin' to hit seven and all night he played
Worked tees and weights so he always got paid
Blew on the hose every dollar he made
Crazy friends, crazy friends he had
Superfly drobe, super dope pad
Cars for your ass and I'm talkin' 'bout class
Benz's and better with his name on the dash
One night he got drunk and started drivin' real fast...

Ed's dead.

Ice-T proves a gift for story-telling, to the point where it’s hard to tell which bits and pieces are fact and which are outrageous fabrication, not that it matters. There’s even a self-referential acknowledgement that the time for fart-arsing around with sex rhymes and chick-stories is over (a short spoken interlude about where the "sex-rhymes" have disappeared to is hilariously offensive).

But there's also a palpable sense of anguish buried within the uptempo grooves and colourful language of O.G.. The title track is one of the more overt examples:

Gang bangers
Don't carry no switch blades
Every kid's got a Tec 9 or a
Hand grenade

Thirty-seven killed
Last week in a crack war
Hostages tied up
And shot in a liquor store
Nobody gives a fuck
"The children have to go to school."
Well, moms, good luck
Cause the shit's fucked up bad
I use my pad and pen
And my lyrics break out mad
I try to write about fun
And the good times
But the pen yanks away and explodes
And destroys the rhyme
Maybe it's just cause of where I'm from
L.A. (bang) that was a shot gun!

If there's a prevalent, overarching theme to be found on O.G., perhaps the album's closer, "The Tower" gives it form. Conspiratorial it may sound – as does a lot of the record, but it’s hard not be sympathetic to a point of view that posits offenders as pawns, victims, even, when you see it like this...

This is my second day
I got a ten year stay
I learned my first lesson
In the pen you don't play
I saw a brother kill another
Cause he said he was gay
But that's the way it is
It been that way for years
and when his body hit the ground
I heard a couple of cheers
It kind of hurt me inside
That they were glad he died
and I ask myself
Just who has the power?
The Whites? The Blacks?
Or just the gun tower!

"The Tower" - actually Original Gangster as a whole - voices a view that directly opposes not only the ultra-conservative Bush-era America, but also a lefty liberal’s vanilla sky take on how to fix the poor, helpless ghetto. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of OG. The working class ghetto is a construct, and perhaps the only way to transcend it is to view it as an oppressive device – “a plan by the man” as it were. Prison yard, township or ghetto street... it’s all the same.

O.G. includes a track by what was then a new rock band “Body Count”. In a preamble, he offers his trademark opinion on people who accused him of “selling out” by making rock music. At the end of the album, he also addresses the police, the F.B.I., the D.E.A., the C.I.A., Tipper Gore, Bush and his -erm... wife.

A year later, Body Count released “Cop Killer”, which was summarily banned and removed from their debut album.

Rappers talk about "blood on the mic" delivery. Ice-T left all six pints of it on OG.

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