The self-proclaimed voice of America's black-gang culture is bounding towards a lucrative future despite a bust-up with his record company and the furore over his anarchic song 'Cop Killer', a paean to murdering policemen that revels in the chorus 'die, die, die pig, die'.
After ending a seven-year partnership with Warner Bros, Ice-T is on the verge of a distribution deal with Priority Records, which will establish him as a member of the music industry's super-league, an artist who can command a fee comparable with Madonna's. His contrived cop-baiting has helped him on his way to a bonanza of Las Vegas-style proportions.
Warner Bros and Ice-T finally agreed to separate 10 days ago over 'creative differences', according to a terse statement from Warners. There was no mention of the scandal that erupted last year when 'Cop Killer' surfaced shortly after the Los Angeles riots, prompting claims that he was inciting ghetto youths to violence at a time when racial tensions were as taut as piano wire.
In a first for the rap industry, then president George Bush condemned the record company's giant parent, Time-Warner, as irresponsible. Police forces were furious (especially the Los Angeles Police Department - LAPD) and talked of pulling tens of millions of dollars of pension funds out of Time-Warner stock; Oliver North and his right-wing organisation, the Freedom Alliance, considered trying a criminal prosecution; there were threats of a boycott of Time-Warner's products.
The most theatrical response came when Charlton Heston, a shareholder, stormed into Time- Warner's annual meeting in Beverly Hills and demanded: 'If the song were entitled 'Fag Killer' or if the lyrics went 'die, die, kike, die', would you still sell it? . . . It has often been said that if Adolf Hitler came back with a hot movie synopsis, every studio in town would be after it. Would Warner Bros be among them?'
Throughout the furore Warner Bros portrayed itself as a protector of Ice-T's right to free expression, and in the end it was the rapper himself who asked for the song to be pulled off the album Body Count after alleged death threats to Warner staff. But the relationship was destined to fail thereafter.
The final straw was the cover for Home Invasion, his fifth solo album, due out next month. According to sources, Ice-T wanted a cartoon showing a white kid, surrounded by cassettes of black rappers and literature about Malcolm X, the radical black leader recently lionised by Spike Lee. In the background, black youths were wielding guns. One was holding a white woman. It was too much for Time-Warner's top brass to stomach. They insisted it be substituted with a plain black cover and ordered staff to recall any samples that had been sent out. Since both parties had also disagreed over six numbers on the album, Ice-T felt the time had come to move on.
The move is another milestone in a career characterised as much by a calm capacity to make money, as anything else. Ice-T is the rap world's answer to Madonna, a member of the flash-your-knickers-for-cash school who learned long ago that the shortest way to the bank is by attracting attention, and the quickest way to do that is to shock. He is addicted to hyperbole - 'I never make love records. If I do a ballad, it's let's get butt naked and fuck' - and it has paid rich dividends. In his early thirties, Ice-T (born Tracy Marrow) is a millionaire, with a comfortable home in Hollywood and the knowledge that he, his wife and child will enjoy many more millions to come.
But he is already being challenged on his own territory. The latest edition of the magazine Rap Pages has unearthed a number against which even 'Cop Killer' seems to pale. It is by a group called Success N Effect, on an album titled The Ultimate Drive-By - a reference to the 'drive-by' shootings of anonymous bystanders by Los Angeles gangs. The record sleeve depicts four gun- toting black youths leaning out of a convertible to look at a spreadeagled white corpse.
According to the magazine, the rap lists as targets to be 'wetted' - killed - George Bush, former Ku Klux Klan figure David Duke, and Daryl Gates, ex- chief of the LAPD. This is not reported with any particular note of disapproval - perhaps in recognition that the rap industry runs on hyperbole and its marketing rhetoric is not to be taken seriously.
But of Mr Gates, the magazine writer says: 'We would . . . love to catch your ass walking through our neighbourhood on any given night of the week. I can assure you that we would help you, just like your officers helped Rodney King on that infamous night.'
A sample of Cop Killer lyrics:
I got my black shirt on. I got my black gloves on.
I got my ski mask on. This shit's been too long. I got my 12-gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off. I'm bout to bust some shots off. I'm bout to dust some cops off.
(Chorus) Cop Killer, it's better than me. Cop Killer, fuck police brutality]