Ice-T – Rhyme Pays (1987)

“6 ‘n the mornin’ police at my door. Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor.”

N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” gets a lot of credit for pushing gangsta rap to the mainstream but anyone who followed west coast hip-hop in the late 80s knows that Ice-T’s 1-2 punch of “Rhyme Pays” along with his title song from the film soundtrack, “Colors”, were equally as instrumental in breaking the scene to a wider audience. As far as introducing the rest of the country and eventually the world, to the realities of L.A. gang violence, police brutality, and everyday life in “the hood”, Ice-T’s “6 ‘n the Mornin'” had as much impact as “Fuck tha Police”, or at least, it should have.

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Sire Records promo of Ice-T during Rhyme Pays era.

Born Tracy Marrow in Newark, New Jersey, Ice-T moved to Los Angeles at a young age to live with relatives after the death of his parents. Influenced by the rising gang culture but also the simultaneous rise of hip-hop in the 70s, Ice-T bounced from living a life of petty crime, then to the military, and eventually landed as a DJ. Music seemed to be his true calling and he excelled at it, not just as a DJ, but soon also as a rapper. The moniker Ice-T appears to be derived from a combination between his love of the novels of Iceberg Slim (who is given liner notes credit as a “mentor”) and the first letter of his first name, Tracy. When Ice-T raps that “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy”, he’s likely not only referring to what he read in those seminal 60s and 70s Iceberg Slim novels but also, if the rumors are believed to be true, a brief period of hands on pimping at a young age.

After playing and performing music in the underground L.A. hip-hop scene in the early 80s, including the release of a few electro hip-hop singles (think the sound of Afrika Bambaataa), Ice-T decided to switch up his style and rap more about the gang life that he was persistently surrounded by. This led to his recording of “6 ‘n the Mornin'” in 1986 and subsequent signing to Sire Records to release his first full length LP, “Rhyme Pays” in 1987. By ’87, Ice-T was in his late 20s and had lived a very interesting life, which became perfect lyrical fodder for a hungry, up and coming rapper. Ice-T completed “Rhyme Pays” with the assist from his crew, dubbed “Rhyme Syndicate”, which included among others, his DJ Evil-E & his producer, Afrika Islam, formerly of the legendary Rock Steady Crew. Ice-T’s confidence, maturity (for the most part), and most importantly, clear focus coupled with talent is what make “Rhyme Pays” one of the best hip-hop releases of the 80s.

special_ice_t_dupe1_MF01089_LThe album kicks off with the ominous “Tubular Bells” made famous from their use in the film “The Exorcist” while Ice-T provides listeners a brief background of where he came from, how he came up in the gang environment along with some battle rap lore. Ice-T uses “Intro” to provide a bit of self mythology, something that rappers were keen to provide in an era where mystique and cred were all listeners had to go on.

“The way I rhyme no one will ever slay me and I ain’t lyin’ rhyme do pay me!”

After the short “Intro”, Ice jumps immediately into the hyped up title track, “Rhyme Pays”. The song is aided by a hard drum beat that utilizes guitar riff samples from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” to give it an edge. Ice-T’s rock influences come out loud and clear through the use of this particular song and Ice’s love of rock music would later gain traction in the 90s upon the release of his Bodycount album. At the time, it worked superbly in the context of the braggadocious rhymes Ice spits on this track. In the 80s, rap/rock hybrids were extremely common from New York artists. For example, Run-DMC’s “Rock Box”, Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin'”, and Public Enemy’s “Sophisticated Bitch” all used sampled or original rock based guitar sounds to amazing effect. For Ice-T and Afrika Islam, utilizing this particular sample from a 70s rock classic on top of a TR-808 drum beat was a proven winning formula. In terms of lyrics and delivery, Ice periodically uses a bratty “nah, nah, nah-nah, nah” effect on this track, which sounds odd at first but eventually comes off like a whimsical style choice in an effort to do something different. “Rhyme Pays” lyrics focus more on battle rapping and boasting, and he does an excellent job of delivering memorable lines, showing off his mic skills.

“It sounded like it happened with a Mac-10 blast, but it was 6 ‘n the mornin’, we didn’t wake up to ask. Word.”

The next track is the song that earned him this record deal with Sire, “6 ‘n the Mornin'”. “6 ‘n the Mornin'” employs another heavy 808 drum beat track that is often compared to Schooly D’s “PSK What Does It Mean?” in terms of stark sonics on top of gritty rhymes. Lyrically, “6 ‘n the Mornin'” presents a linear narrative tale about a young hustler on the L.A. streets, as he is sent to prison, gets out, hooks up with a girl and eventually breaks out to NYC with his crew to escape further criminal charges. The song is lengthy, with a run time of over 7 minutes, and is filled with verse after verse where Ice rhymes about the various, usually violent, situations his character finds himself in. The first verse of the song establishes the format Ice uses where each verse ends in some variation of the term “…didn’t have time to ask”. Whether referring to the time of morning that police typically raid drug dens to the speed in which a routine day can turn from peaceful to deadly, the phrase is used repeatedly to tie the lyrics together cohesively and memorably. “6 ‘n the Mornin'” is sonically very sparse, created before hip-hop beat making became more of an artform and not simply boom-bap used to blast out of portable stereos or cars speakers. The skeletal beat may date the song’s sound but the lyrics still remain relevant 30+ years later and therefore “6 ‘n the Mornin'” remains a classic.

“Make it Funky” is the next song on the album and it’s a return to party rhyming with an upbeat music track. “Make it Funky” is standard 80s hip hop filled with rhymes meant to move and hype up a crowd at a block or house party. It doesn’t have a particularly west coast sound to it and Ice even shouts out the New York boroughs, in a clear attempt to appeal to east coast hip-hop heads or at least as a shout out to his east coast roots. It’s an enjoyable track but doesn’t have that special Ice-T approach to storytelling to make it standout.

Side one ends with “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Aint’ Easy!!!)”. After a brief skit where Ice-T and Evil-E dismiss the notion of engaging in an interview with Billboard Magazine until they are told that the interviewer is female, he uses the interview technique to show off and brag about his material possessions but clearly performed with tongue in cheek. “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” highlights Ice-T’s sense of humor adding some levity to the reality raps that make up about half the album. Lines like “my thumbs are tired just from countin’ cash”, “Can’t swim a lap in my pool because it’s just too long” and “Yo Ice, what you doing with that fur coat on the floor? Homeboy that’s a carpet man!”, It’s clear that the song is meant to crack smiles instead of heads.

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Once you flip the tape over to side 2, the first three tracks, “409”, “I Love Ladies”, and “Sex” continue the party and jokey atmosphere from side 1’s finish. “409” is a reference to the all-purpose cleaning solution Ice-T uses to clean off his Adidas, among other items mentioned during the song. Oddly, Ice-T self censors during the course of the track, leaving out words like “dick”, “tits”, and “hoes”, implying that he intended “409” to be played on the radio. It’s a decent song and Afrika Islam switches up the beat several times throughout, adding new sounds but most of them are standard 80s breakbeats that no longer sound fresh after they’ve been heard hundreds of times since.

“I Love Ladies” and “Sex” are back to back tracks wherein “Rhyme Pays” earns its explicit lyrics warning label. “I Love Ladies” has a funky hand-clap beat while Ice-T expresses his respectful love for women. Towards the end of the song, Ice recounts a sexual encounter that borders on explicit but doesn’t get too detailed. I would say that “I Love Ladies” is probably my favorite of the “party” songs on “Rhyme Pays” due mostly to the engaging beat.

“Sex in the morning. Sex at night. Sex in the afternoon’s alright. Ain’t a man on earth that can stay alive, without a…..sex drive!”

“Sex” removes the PG-13 expressions of lust that was utilized for “I Love Ladies” and goes straight for a hard “R-rating”. Predictably based on the song’s title, Ice-T and Evil-E trade lines about how much they want and love sex. Ice gets much more explicit detailing which orifices he intends to use and it all comes off as very juvenile. Evil and Ice scream out the word “sex” in what amounts to the song’s thoughtless chorus. On what is a mature album coming from a mature and thoughtful rapper, “Sex” is the lone low point on the album for me personally. Rap songs about sex can be done very well, “Electric Relaxation” from A Tribe Called Quest comes to mind, but then again, this opinion is coming from a music fan now in his 40s. With that said, I don’t recall thinking that “Sex” was much of a song as a 13 year old listening to it for the first time. I seem to recall thinking this track was weak even back then. Thankfully, “Sex” clocks in at just under three minutes so the embarrassment doesn’t last long.

“It’s always fun in the beginning but it’s pain in the end.”

The album’s penultimate track, “Pain”, takes the listener out of the happy, goofy mood of the previous few songs and thrusts them back into reality when Ice-T drops the acapella line “deuce deuce revolver was my problem solver. Had a def girl, really didn’t wanna involve her”. After that spare intro, a horn blast and pounding drum beat kicks your ass while Ice continues on with lines about being a low level gangster perpetually serving hard time. The song is intended to be a cautionary tale about the consequences of living a life of crime and realities of spending time in prison. Ice-T provides enough details about prison life that leads you to believe he’s either spent time locked up himself or has friends/associates that have done significant time. This same topic would be revisited on “O.G. Original Gangster’s” “The Tower” but this first stab (no pun intended) at telling a story of a character that can’t escape a life behind bars focuses more on the events that lead up to his incarceration. Each bridge between the verses includes chopped up samples from some unknown (to me at least)/uncredited prison drama. “Pain” is one of the album’s highlights and returns “Rhyme Pays” to a more grittier place.

“You made me, now your kids rave me. I rap about the life that the city streets gave me.”

The album finishes with the hard as nails “Squeeze the Trigger” where Ice-T raps like a man possessed by both anger and a sense of hopelessness. The lyrics cover the “reality rap” basics such as portraying a life that most can’t or won’t admit exists, violence in the streets as well as glorification of violence in media and entertainment, police brutality and excessive use of deadly force due to institutional racism. Ice-T takes the “Quit looking away while this shit goes down” approach to storytelling while also ensuring he establishes enough credibility to paint these pictures with a flawless flow and mic presence. Afrika Islam’s spastic “Terminator” beat gives the song a sense of urgency and the use of gun shot sounds, fake news clips of violence and death tolls along with screams enhance the sense that “Squeeze the Trigger” is a nihilist horror show. It’s a terrific album closer that is capped off with the reprise of the “Intro” where Ice-T summarizes the team involved in the creation of the album and introduces the listener to the term “Rhyme Syndicate” as the name of his crew. “Squeeze the Trigger” is filled with memorable and quotable lines and deserves a place on the short list of 80s influential west coast songs.

“Most MCs today ain’t got nothin’ to say. A to the motherfuckin’ K”

Memory Bank Withdrawal

“Rhyme Pays” was not my introduction to Ice-T. That would have been the song “Colors”, whose soundtrack I had copied on cassette from my friend Eric growing up. “Power” was released only a year after “Rhyme Pays” so between the soundtrack song and the “Power” album, I knew I wanted to hear Ice’s first release. I believe my friend Eric bought a poor quality bootleg copy of “Rhyme Pays” at a local arts & crafts/swap meet festival and I copied that bootleg onto cassette for my own listening pleasure. I enjoyed the album enough that the distant sounding copy of a copy wasn’t going to suffice, so I eventually bought my own cassette version of “Rhyme Pays” shortly after. I didn’t consider this to be Ice-T’s masterpiece, which would come a few years later, but the fact that Ice came hard and correct on his debut certainly instilled a respect for the musicianship and underrated skill he possessed as an emcee. For me “Rhyme Pays” remains an enjoyable listen and should be considered a west coast classic. Peace.

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My cassette copy of “Rhyme Pays” featuring Ice-T, Evil-E and the lovely Darlene, Ice’s girlfriend at the time. Darlene became a bit of a celebrity herself thanks to scantily clad cover features on “Rhyme Pays” and “Power”. If Ice wanted to make all the men (and some women) who listened to his music a little envious, he succeeded.

My order of preference of “Rhyme Pays” tracks from most favorite to least favorite with my personal ratings next to them.

  1. Squeeze the Trigger   5/5
  2. Pain  5/5
  3. Intro/Rhyme Pays  5/5
  4. 6 ‘n the Mornin’  5/5
  5. I Love Ladies  4/5
  6. Somebody’s Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy!!!)  3.5/5
  7. Make it Funky  3.5/5
  8. 409  3/5
  9. Sex  2/5

 

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