A FEW hours after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King trial in April 1992, Ice-T left a Hollywood recording studio and went down to South-central with three friends. South-central, the predominantly black area of Los Angeles where Ice-T spent many lawless years of his youth, was already in flames. Shops were being looted, shopkeepers and cars were being attacked, police were being stoned - but when black kids saw Ice-T they put down their sticks and looted goods and asked him for his autograph. 'Yo Ice]' they shouted. 'It's finally happenin']'

Later he was approached by a television crew who asked him to go on the news to tell the kids to stop. 'Tell them to stop?' Ice-T said. 'I told them that I had warned them this was going to happen, and that if I didn't have all my money I'd probably be down there rioting with them.'

Ice-T is a militant rap star, the most controversial and wealthiest in the world. He has achieved this position by articulating the rage and fear of impoverished and underprivileged America; he wails against injustice and corruption; he rants about revolution and revenge.

And his work hits home. Last summer, the controversy surrounding his song 'Cop Killer' made headlines worldwide ('I got my 12-gauge sawed- off, and I got my headlights turned off, I'm 'bout to bust some shots off, I'm 'bout to dust some cops off').

Time Warner, the parent company of Warner Bros Records, which distributed his million-selling records, lost millions of dollars of advertising revenue and the goodwill of police federations throughout the United States. Lenny Waronker, the president of Warner Bros, received more than 100 death threats; George Bush called his work 'sick'; Mario Cuomo, governor of the state of New York, called it 'ugly, destructive and

disgusting'; Charlton Heston, a Time Warner shareholder, accused Ice-T of corrupting the morals of young America.

Rap is black youth's most expressive tool, and these are sensitive, insecure times. The verdict from the second, federal, Rodney King trial is expected any day. For the past two weeks the policemen involved in the videotaped beating have been defending their use of brute force: 'If it takes 8,000 blows to overcome (one man's) resistance,' explained Sergeant Charles Duke, 'then that's what it takes.'

Ice-T watches reports of the trial every night on television. If the police get off again, as he expects they will, he believes 'the shit is going to hit the fan, national. You're going to see some focused aggression, not the unfocused aggression we saw last year. What we saw last year was a minor tantrum. This year they're going to shoot some cops, burn down some police stations, they're going to move on power structures. I've been telling people to get a bomb shelter.'

Ice-T's rage has made him rich. He is two hours late for our interview, principally because he has been buying a new car, a 1936 Ford Phantom, costing about pounds 100,000. He parks it by his Porsche and Rolls, and explains that this is not any vintage motor: under its hood throbs a Nineties Corvette engine. A real mutha, he says.

His girlfriend and two-year-old son (Ice Junior) are waiting for him in his huge Hollywood Hills home. He's been nestling here for about a year, next to white architects and lawyers, and the view from his porch high above the city assures him how far he has risen from his street roots. But he still has a lot to do to it, normal pop star things: build a recording studio in the basement, design a swimming pool for the garden. This being Ice-T, the pool may be Uzi-shaped.

Ice loves his guns. In a cupboard near his son's playroom he keeps a large collection - handguns, rifles, an Uzi, a 357, a 380, a gun with laser sight. 'They're kind of my toys. I go to the range and shoot. I keep a gun by my bed for home protection. I wouldn't want somebody to break into my house and have to attack them with a butcher's knife.

'The other guns I bought as a way of saying that you never know what might go down. They're a cross between toys and protection. Darlene (his girlfriend and mother of his child) carries a gun - a lady Smith & Wesson. I have a small handgun that sometimes I may carry when I'm going into a hostile environment - riding into the neighbourhood at night. It's illegal, but the gun's legit.

'When I was hustling, I used to carry a stolen gun. At least now all the weapons I have are legit. I get lots of nasty mail, so who knows? I would like the luxury of dying in old age. Then again, I guess the person who's gonna kill you won't sit down and write you a letter.'

His real name is Tracy Marrow. He won't disclose his age, probably because being a rebellious hero in your mid-to-late thirties may not be the coolest thing. He was born in New Jersey, lost both his parents before his teens, and moved to Los Angeles to live with his aunt. He attended school sporadically, but soon decided life held other pleasures. He ran with the Crips, one of the biggest street gangs, took a lot of speed, got a girl from his class pregnant. In his early twenties he pimped, robbed jewellery stores and burgled houses similar to the one in which he now lives.

About 10 years ago he realised he could rap. Rapping is arguably the only new musical art form to have emerged since the late Seventies that doesn't rely on technological innovation. It involves rapid-fire talking and rhyming, predominantly about social issues. The form has diversified, but Ice-T's brand remains as hot-headed, violent and misogynistic as it ever was; despite his wealth, he insists there is no risk of him 'selling out'.

Ice-T also found he could act, and his appearances in the gun-toting action movies New Jack City and Ricochet have been both critical and commercial successes. (His latest film, Trespass, directed by Walter Hill, is scheduled to open in Britain in May.)

He sits on a black leather sofa, one of several in his strange, late-Eighties showroom-style environment. There are huge televisions and banks of electronic hardware. He has a perplexing taste in modern art: along with the film posters and framed gold records and CDs, Ice has collected a vile array of glass, water and crystal sculpture; he also has models of Hannibal Lecter and Samurai warriors.

'None of it fits,' he admits, 'but then, in a strange way, it all kinda fits. I haven't the slightest idea about the art. I like colours. I know enough about decorating to know that if you have a basic house made of black and white you can put almost any colour in the house and it will match. I like tranquil things. I'm the sort of guy who walks into an art gallery and says, 'I'd like something with colour that fills up the wall.' '

There's a problem with this, of course. Can a rich man sing aggressive street rap and still convince? As he says: 'It's a hard trick to come from the ghetto and move to a nice neighbourhood and have people happy for you.'

Ice-T believes you need a bit of money to shake the system. 'There's a million kids out there right now saying the same things as me, only no one's listening. The people who live in South-central, they don't really want to see me down there, they want Ice-T to be safe. And in a way it's better for me to show them what they can achieve - are you telling me they don't want to be up here, too?'

Ice-T has given something back to his old community, to the fans who made him rich. He contributes to local black charities and employs a lot of brothers at his car body shop. He thinks the best policy would be

to turn the Hollywood Hills into a black neighbourhood. 'That would frighten the bloke who lives next door to me. He comes out of his house most days and goes, 'Blacks to the left of me, Jews to the right.' He's the frightening one.'

A baseball cap lies by Ice-T's sofa, but it's not the 'Bomb Factory' one he usually wears; this one comes from Harvard, where he recently gave a lecture. He thought it was important to visit the Ivy League colleges to show them he wasn't the monster he's been portrayed in the media. He says that several of the colleges believed they were 'cutting back on intellectualism' by having him speak.

'We went into everything - racism, religion, relationships, sex. I've been charged with being sexist. I told them I didn't feel I was sexist, but that I was sexual. I deal with sex in its rawest, most blatant form. Men are pretty one-dimensional. You ask 100 straight men what they'd rather see, a woman in a bikini or a woman in overalls, and 50 of them would say the bikini, and the other 50 would be lying. Wome still like to think that men can be sensitive and aren't thinking about sex and fucking when they meet. Let me tell you, that's all men want to do.'

Ice-T swears even a lot of the college professors agreed with that one.

'Cop Killer', the song that made Ice-T a household name, was not a rap record at all. It was hard rock, recorded with his band, Body Count, but as the track was withdrawn soon after the initial protests, you could be forgiven for not having heard it; hardly anyone did, particularly not those who protested the loudest. Similar sentiments are expressed on a hundred records each year - the regular voice of young rebellion - but several factors conspired against Ice- T. He was black; he lived in a Los Angeles still recovering from the riots; and he was signed to Time Warner.

Warner Bros stood by him during the early outrage, defending free speech. Ultimately its hands were tied by its parent company, not least when a Texas law enforcement association threatened to withdraw its pension fund investment, worth dollars 150m; the final straw came when many other police associations picketed Time Warner's annual shareholders' meeting.

Ice-T finally split from Warner two months ago, not over 'Cop Killer', but over the artwork on his new album, Home Invasion; the company objected to its images of rape and other violence. Unprepared to compromise his product further, he wrote to Warner Bros suggesting a release from his contract (he's been with the company for seven years). He is now with Priority Records in the US and Virgin everywhere else. Virgin, which is now owned by EMI, released Home Invasion last week with the artwork intact, and so far there have been no death or bomb threats.

The album contains the same sort of material as the last four. There are songs called 'Race War', 'Addicted to Danger' and 'Pimp Behind the Wheels', and a song called 'It's On', a last-minute addition detailing his problems with Time Warner. One line goes: 'Bring me Charlton Heston and I may cut his head off.'

Does he really mean this stuff? Heightened bravado is fine for the recording studio, where he can 'kill' as many cops and old film stars as he likes, but the reality? The reality is that an arrest, even for a driving offence, may upset the career curve. He says he's generally against personal violence, though institutionalised violence is something else.

In person he's a calm man, mildly irritated rather than wildly raging. He has a slight lisp, incongruous beside his coarse rap-talk (the words 'nigger' and 'bitch' and words involving mothers litter his records and conversations with his buddies).

In many ways he's the still the old street hustler, only now he's shouting his eloquent, incendiary philosophies via Beverly Hills; the higher he gets from South-central, the louder he must shout.

A sleeve note on his new album explains that 'the injection of black rage into the white youth of America is the final stage of preparation for the revolution'. Ice-T explains that this is the meaning of 'home invasion'.

'There'll never be a revolution if black people are just mad. We've been mad for 400 years. But the minute we get our allies on the right side - the Hispanics, the Koreans, the Indians and young white kids who are tired of carrying the burden of the racist garbage your grandparents teach you - then you got a power structure with the exact same enemy. I'm trying to bond people together.

'The worst thing I've done is infiltrating the homes of white kids. My stuff would not be in the headlines if it wasn't for the fact that white suburban kids are not only listening to it, but are embracing black rage. The problem is not me saying, 'Let's kill cops'; the problem is little white suburban kids going home, saying, 'Let's get the cops'. Their mothers go mad.

'But let me tell you mums, it's already too late. Your little Sally is taking down her poster of New Kids on the Block and putting Ice-T or Ice Cube or other hard rap posters up instead, right there over her Little Princess bedroom set. We've been sitting at the dinner table; your kid has been sitting there with a Public Enemy T- shirt on and Walkman headphones, and little Sally or little Johnny is finally being told the truth.'

In one sense, rioting can only help Ice-T's cause. The better things get, the less he has to rage about; boy loses girl isn't really his bag. A recent poll in Los Angeles suggested he will do OK for a while yet: 67 per cent of residents predict more riots in the coming months. Gun sales are at an all- time high; 7,000 Los Angeles police have received 16 hours of special riot training since January. Many people believe there may be only a few skirmishes if the policemen are again acquitted in the Rodney King case, but fear serious disturbances if three black men are found guilty of the beating of Reginald Denny, the truck driver whose assault was seen on television in the early hours of the riots. The Denny trial is due to begin soon.

'All that people want is justice,' Ice-T says. 'Critics say they want to riot at anything. If that's true, why didn't they riot when they saw the Rodney King video? The system has a thing called consequences, checks and balances. If you do wrong, they issue a consequence. If you speed, they give you a ticket. How do we issue a consequence to the system when they screw us up? This is the only way.'

(Photograph omitted)