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Ice T born Tracy Marrow nearly 53 years ago has a career arc much like fellow rapper Ice Cube, parlaying name and face recognition into successful careers on screen.
But while Ice Cube has taken the mild-mannered film route, Ice T has played ice-cold-blooded NYPD Detective Odafin Tutuola on NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" since 2000, investigating grisly sexual offenses.
Ice T has recorded only one album since 1999 titled "Gangsta Rap" a nod to his landmark 1991 album "O.G. Original Gangster." That was back when he himself was ripped from the headlines with his band Body Count, infamous for the controversial anthem "Cop Killer."
The not-family-friendly Ice T is making his directorial debut with a documentary about the origins and the continuing importance of hip hop, titled "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap." With extraordinary access to top-shelf artists such as Dr. Dre, Eminem and Kanye West, Ice T wants his film to be the definitive account of where rap has been and where it is going.
In an interview, Ice T talked on the life-changing power of rap, why he turned to TV, and what it means for a first-time director to be invited to Sundance:
How rap saved his life • "It gave me a place where I could explain some of the issues I was feeling in life, versus acting [them] out [with] resentment or anger. It also gave me a job and an income versus what I was doing previously in the streets. And then when I finally found out that what I was saying had value, it gave me a new look on life, a new respect for things. I knew I had a chance to be something more."
Why he believed he could tell the story of rap • "I was one of the early rap pioneers. I knew enough artists out there. I knew the ones that I respected and I felt that somebody had to tell this story. I felt it would be better if somebody from hip hop, a real rapper, to do it, rather than a journalist or outsider coming in, and I knew I could put a fair slant on it. Everybody was very open, easy-going. That's what makes the movie so real. ... Everyone is in front of the camera, but they're also talking to one of their friends and one of their peers. So I get interviews that I don't think anyone else could have got."
On his focus on TV in past years • "You just take other career paths. After "Seventh Deadly Sin" [his 1999 album], I started to lean toward more acting. [You] put out albums and you think, "I've done that, I've accomplished that. I've climbed that mountain." Acting was a new challenge to me. To get good, you have to put 100 percent into it, so I've just been focusing on acting for the last 12, 15 years."
On the genre of hip hop in 2012 • "It got to be very, very pop for a while now radio plays it a certain form of hip hop. And because of the Internet, the underground artists haven't really been able to, as we say, eat. They don't have the ability to sell records as much. Record stores are now gone, so it got to be desperate times for the underground. ... Those artists who have profitability have been able to prosper. But, to me, a lot of the content has suffered. There are no artists like Public Enemy. There are no artists like KRS-One. There are no artists like Ice Cube who dealt with issues. So, it's a different terrain."
On the challenges of film making • "I think the biggest obstacle is production, and our movie had heavy logistical problems getting these people in front of a camera when everyone is working and they're all moving targets. It was definitely labor-intensive to be able to get your crew, get myself, and the artist all in the same place at the same time, and then make this cost-effective. We couldn't travel all the way across the country to shoot each artist. We had to get them together in a certain area to be able to shoot them. It took two years to shoot the film. Fortunately, we had time on our side. We weren't rushed."
Sundance • "I'm definitely coming. I'm overwhelmed. This is a great thing to me. For somebody at my stage in my career who's had a few accolades in his time, this is really exciting for me. A lot of the music [awards shows] that go on [in Los Angeles or New York] I don't even go, because I'm not nominated and I've been to enough of them. This one, I definitely have to go. This is the biggest thing in my personal film career. Being an actor is one thing but as a director, come on, Sundance, is ... until I go to the Oscars, this is the biggest thing yet."
The possibility of film-related hip-hop concerts during Sundance • "Right now, we're looking at it. There will probably be a live performance by Ice T. As far as now, I can't really lock you down with a date and a venue, but I'll be up there and there will probably definitely be some performances because people from the film are talking about showing up. So, the good thing about hip hop is that all you need are some beats and a mic, and we're there."
'Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap'
The documentary about rap music and the creative process was directed by Ice T, a rapper who has also developed a TV acting career as an NYPD detective on NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Saturday, Jan. 21. 2:30 p.m. • MARC, Park City (waitlist only)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 9:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 8, Park City (waitlist only)
Monday, Jan. 23, 9 p.m. • Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City (waitlist only)
Friday, Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m. • Egyptian Theatre, Park City (waitlist only)
Saturday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. • Screening Room, Sundance Resort (waitlist only)