The Ice man cometh

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"WHEN THEY call you articulate," Ice-T once observed, silencing a room full of German radio journalists, "That's another way of saying ,`He talks good for a black guy'."

This press-conference tour de force is just one of several powerful performances I've seen the renaissance rapper give over the past five years: on film, as an undercover cop (no less) in Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City; on stage in Brixton with his speed-metal band Body Count, singing a song about his sexual adventures with the daughter of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard; as a rapper, whipping up an audience of well-behaved East Anglian teenagers into an anti-authoritarian frenzy.

Ice-T never gives less than his all, and those who choose to be outraged by him haven't needed to put words into his mouth. All they have to do is take him at face value and not get the joke. "I'm taking your kids' brains, you ain't getting 'em back," Ice proclaimed on his 1993 album Home Invasion. The cover art - a white teenager's head filling with lurid images of black rap - was too much for Time Warner, the record company which had striven to stand by Ice throughout the furore over his 1991 song "Cop Killer". Ice's planned US TV show got lost in the ensuing label shuffle, but ever-enterprising Channel 4 has given him a second bite at the cherry.

Ice was born in Newark, New Jersey. His parents died when he was young and he moved to LA to live with an aunt. As well as gang member and jewel thief (his criminal horizons were limited by "not having it in himself to go out and hurt anybody"), Ice's pre-showbiz CV also features four years in the Army. The same charisma and verbal dexterity which has sustained a rap career of almost unparalleled longevity now carries him on lecture tours to Yale and Harvard.

In a Channel 4 dressing room, Ice-T is dressing up as a black revolutionary. He is powerfully built and his boxer shorts are light in colour, with a subtle stripe. He carps good-naturedly that the trousers procured for him by the producers of Baadasss TV - the six-week Friday-night series of which he is the co-presenter - are a little on the tight side, but what else would he expect from the makers of Eurotrash?

On the evidence of its Christmas pilot, Ice's TV show will incline towards the more salacious end of the entertainment spectrum. Ice-T describes Baadasss TV as "a variety show which goes out onto the street and tries to find the indiosyncracies of black culture". Amid the exploitation films and porn stars, there will also be the odd vital discovery, like the episode of The Partridge Family in which David Cassidy hangs out with a gang of Black Panthers led by Richard Pryor.

Why would a major recording artist in worldwide demand want to present such a show? "My music is pretty hard and raw," Ice explains. "But there's also a lot of bullshit in it. This is a chance to kick back and let people see another side of me." He is unperturbed by the effect his presence on our screens has on Tory MPs. "Any time you're black and you're opinionated, you're gonna worry some people," he says cheerfully. "When you come from my background, if you don't make somebody uncomfortable, something's going wrong."

Despite its author's talent for provocation, the Ice-T theory of showbusiness - "The main thing with entertainment is you give people what they came for" - is in fact innately conservative. It's his ability to juggle different roles for different audiences, to play off reactionary fears and liberal hopes, and vice versa, that is subversive. Ice-T, defender of free speech and hardcore player from the streets, dons an absurd afro wig and moves from costume to make-up.

There, in the benignly sceptical presence of his ebullient co-presenter, Andrea Oliver, he outlines his understanding of what it means to be truly hardcore, which is not to need to act tough. "That's why I can go on the Big Breakfast and do needlepoint," he says with pride, "because I really don't care what people think about me."

As anyone who has read his book, The Ice Opinion (Pan, £9.99) will know, Ice is not at his most progressive when discussing relations between the sexes. He caps off an enticing round-up of forthcoming film roles - half- man, half-kangaroo in the blockbuster movie version of the British cartoon strip Tank Girl; gatekeeper of heaven, opposite Keanu Reeves in the forthcoming cyberpunk epic Johnny Mnemonic - with the juvenile assertion that he is also "trying to get into some porno flicks". Andrea Oliver rolls her eyes.

Ice-T's film career is not the diversionary folly of rock-star tradition. He got his first real break, and his all-important Screen Actors Guild card, playing a rapper in a terrible mid-Eighties hip-hop exploitation flick called Breakin', a cinematic misdemeanour about which he is characteristically unrepentant. "People say to me, `Oh Ice, how come you're wearing all that leather gear?' I'm like, `Well, let me see a picture of what you were wearing the night you went to see that movie - I bet you looked pretty goofy'."

The criminal-minded lifestyle of LA's gangland might have been Ice-T's undoing - had he not realised that he could make a living as its showbusiness embodiment. "It's like if you made eggs every morning, and one day someone said, `Hey you should sell these eggs'." His stage-name came from one of his heroes - ghetto author Iceberg Slim - and the initial letter of his own first name, Tracy, which in its girlish entirety was profoundly unsuitable for the inventor of gangster rap.

Warming to his now complete Black Panther identity, Ice moves into the studio. He accepts an offer of a doughnut with humourful bad grace: "The man wants me to eat the doughnut - he knows that the vanilla extract is going to bring about heart failure in the black male." Under the harsh lights of the set, his leather coat creaking amid a sea of fun-fur, Ice's mind becomes a microwave. The raw facts the producer gives him are thrown back, instantly cooked. Ice fillets, kneads and seasons in seconds - "That's why I'm here," he says, "because you don't know nothing." There is no need for an autocue.

Ben Thompson

! `Baadasss TV' is at 11.05pm Friday on Channel 4.