Melody Maker | Sidelines | 20 May 1989
THE SOPHISTICATED THUG
"Forget it, man. I ain't gonna talk about those things. Don't ask nothing about that. You won't get no answers. Those things are very personal, y'understand."
Just-Ice is annoyed. The look in his eyes ensures that I understand. It's a look that says, clearer than any words, if I attempt to rephrase the question, this interview will be abruptly terminated. One way or another.
The matter in question is the fact that Just-Ice has seen the inside of a prison cell more times than his record company, Sleeping Bag, cares to recall. The New York hip hop label has put up a fortune in bail money and Ice has apparently now been provided with a special bank account so that a cashpoint card can be used to secure his immediate release the next time his liberty is threatened.
In the last couple of years, among other incidents, Just-Ice has allegedly brandished an airgun at a hotel receptionist and kidnapped his infant daughter. The most serious charge against him came in 1986, when he was arrested in connection with the murder of a man whose body had been found in a Washington alley the previous November. Ice was freed after a lengthy legal wrangle, throughout which he denied any involvement. As it goes, he has only ever been found guilty of one of the charges levelled at him by the police. Then, he spent several days in jail following a domestic row with his girlfriend.
All of which is as important to Just-Ice's reputation as Sir Vicious, the Gangster of Hip Hop, the roughest and toughest purveyor of hardcore rap music, as his uncompromisingly irascible phraseology. The sticker on the sleeve of his new LP, "The Desolate One", warns of "Explicit and downright dirty lyrics".
There are less than four hours to go before he is due to perform at the UK launch party for the LP and Just-Ice is not in the best of health. He has a stomach upset and the interview, which takes place in the lobby of a swish London hotel, is punctuated with belches, each accompanied by an apology and a complaint about English food. At one point, he shifts in his seat, flashes his gold teeth, and announces he's feeling a bit better. He says he's farted by way of explanation.
According to the Sleeping Bag press officer, he's been lured to Europe with a promise of a guided tour of the infamous red light district of Amsterdam. But right now, Ice's mind is preoccupied with thoughts of the Rottweiler puppy he intends to buy while he's here in Britain. Our Rottweilers apparently have better pedigrees than their American cousins.
"The only thing I'm concerned about is my dog," he says. "Fuck everything else. I've always wanted a dog and now I'm gonna get one. I'd better get one or I'll get angry. If I don't perform tonight, you'll know I didn't get my dog.”
That Just-Ice is primarily motivated by anger is immediately obvious from "The Desolate One". Recorded in the space of a month, there's a spontaneous belligerence to each of the rhymes.
"With this album, I come across better and stronger than I've ever done before. Maybe I was more angry than when I recorded my other records but, damn, who wouldn't be feeling that way locked up in a studio for eight, nine hours a day?"
"The Desolate One" has already proved to be Ice's most commercially successful record to date, selling in excess of 150,000 copies within the first two weeks of its release in America a month or so ago.
"Yeah, that's real good. It's making me a lot of money."
Is that your main objective?
"Hell, no. The most important thing is to get my messages across. All of the tracks contain different messages, but I ain't gonna sit here explaining them. All you have to do is listen. It's like a puzzle. Listen and you'll learn."
With "Welfare Recipients", Just-Ice's wrath is directed at beggars and borrowers, particularly with regard to what he sees as their lack of self esteem. With "Hardhead", his attention focuses on the dissing of other artists, a habit he puts down to pure laziness. "It's Time I Release" is meanwhile a rant against ignorance, with a specific warning of the dangers of taking drugs. Each track, however, is part of a central, underlying message. The album is a testament to the power of what he calls PEACE – "Positive Electrons Activates Constructive Energy".
There is also a strange, sometimes quirky, musical variety, with hints of soul, r&b and jazz, and some tracks more easily identifiable as ragamuffin toasts. Ice may note the similarities between rap music and reggae, but he's not to be moved from his belief that his work remains in a strictly hip hop style.
"I hate dance music. House, acid, bullshit disco, all club music sucks. When I walk into a room and they're playing that kinda shit, I come out feeling dizzy."
Perhaps ironically, given his numerous brushes with the law, in recent months Just-Ice has joined the growing number of artists to pledge support for the Stop The Violence coalition of rappers.
"I don't agree with that shit about hip hop and violence going together. I could take you to a Motley Crue concert and there'll be a riot going on, but the press won't say a damn thing. The actual type of music is irrelevant. They wanna associate violence with hip hop? Well, in New York, I associate violence with just plain living. But the media say that if you're into hip hop, you're a thug."
"I'm a sophisticated thug," he laughs. "Hell, I like that answer."