Happy 30th Anniversary to Ice-T’s third studio album The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say!, originally released October 10, 1989.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Tracy “Ice-T” Marrow seemed to sense that the landscape was changing. The prominence of artists like N.W.A showed that “Gangsta Rap” was as strong as ever. However, the rise of politically aware groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions demonstrated the importance of social commentary within hip-hop music. Ice-T had established that he was comfortable coming from either angle on his albums, especially with his second LP Power (1988).
Ice-T saw himself as an artist under attack on three separate fronts: the police department, parents, and “activist” organizations were becoming increasingly hell-bent on limiting access to rap music, and his music in particular. In this environment, he released The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say, an album fueled by his overwhelming desire to educate and speak his mind, coupled with his desire to offend his critics’ delicate sensibilities.
The Iceberg was released during a time when both the national prominence of hip-hop music and the efforts to censor it were on the rise. Hip-Hop was slowly gaining more nationwide acceptance, as hip-hop albums were frequently going platinum or gold, rappers were staging nationwide tours, and MTV was broadcasting Yo! MTV Raps.
At the same time, “parents groups” and ultra-right wing religious organizations increasingly had rappers in their sights. We were still about a half a year away from 2 Live Crew’s obscenity trail and subsequent arrest, but things were headed in that direction. Ice-T was beginning to run afoul of Tipper Gore’s Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) and was nearly arrested in Columbus, Georgia for violating their “anti-lewdness” ordinance while performing at a concert, for the “crime” of cursing while on stage.
As a result, Ice-T began positioning himself as a free-speech activist, warning of the consequences of limiting the right to expression. The album-opening “Shut Up, Be Happy” paints a picture of the imagined dystopian hellscape, as he pairs a spoken-word piece by the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra with a sample of Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” An ominous voice informs the population that “All Constitutional rights have been suspended,” and the government representatives will be along shortly to collect urine samples.
Ice-T even more directly attacks these pro-censorship forces on “Freedom of Speech.” He exudes pure, raw anger over spare drums and itchy guitar licks, calling the PMRC a bunch of “stupid, fucking assholes” and declares, “Think I give a fuck about some silly bitch named Gore?” He directs more venom at Columbus, Georgia, announcing, “You can suck my dick! You ain’t nothing but a piece of fucking shit on the damned map!” Between the insults thrown at these opponents, he asserts his overriding right to express his opinion, rapping, “I'm gonna tell and rebel every time I’m on a / Microphone on the stage cold illing / The knowledge I drop will be heard by millions.”
On “Lethal Weapon,” the album’s first single, Ice-T also speaks to the power of his words, likening the potency of his raps to the force of bullets. Over blaring horns and dirge-like keys, he speaks to the power of the mind and ideas, expressing how they can be used to take out sucker emcees, inspire action, and even oppress others. “What's more powerful—the brain or a twelve gauge?” he ponders. “The words I speak have scared many people to this stage.”
An underlying theme in much of Ice-T’s music during this portion of his career was utter disdain for pretending to be what they’re not, as well as those who compromise their principles in pursuit of financial success (or “sell out”). He targets those and others on songs like “You Played Yourself” and “This One’s For Me.” Ice uses the latter to settle personal grievances, as he first lashes out at Los Angeles-based radio station KJLH for refusing to play his music. He later vigorously defends Public Enemy, who were caught up in the midst of the controversy that would nearly tear the group apart at the time, excoriating those who championed their music, but abandoning the group during their time of need.
Iceberg also contains some of Ice-T’s most grim portrayals of street violence that he recorded during his career. Ice-T practically invented the concept of using rap to ultimately deglamorize street life, and he ups his game on this album. The harrowing “Peel Their Caps Back” centers on the cycle of violence created by gang warfare in Los Angeles during the ’80s. Ice describes his and his crew’s mission to avenge the death of a fallen friend, answering violence with more bloodshed.
During the last verse, Ice narrates his own death, after catching a stray bullet to the head during the ensuing firefight. “I drank my blood as I fell like shit into the street,” he intones. “My corpse stunk like a burnt out rotten piece of meat.” The track hammers home the frailty of human life and the pointlessness of the conflict and how Black lives aren’t valued by anyone involved. He raps, “Ten brothers died in this stupid homicidal binge / ’Cause whenever someone dies, nobody wins / But this drama, you’ll never hear a word of / ’Cause all the paper's gonna read is a gang murder.”
“The Hunted Child,” first released as a B-side to his “High Rollers” single, is unrelentingly bleak in its outlook and execution. Ice-T assumes the role of 17 year-old gang member, “slanging and banging for the thrill,” who kills another teen and finds himself on the run from the authorities. The chaotic track and frantic rhymes perfectly capture the panicked mind state, as he considers his loss of innocence and laments, “Your whole life is over, through! / Forget about your girl, your crew! / Nowhere to run, so what you gonna do? / Be glad it’s me, homeboy, and not you.”
Ice then goes the extra step, linking the phenomenon of gang culture and street violence to “the science of Capitalism where you teach to the youth on the streets today where the ‘ends justifying the means.’” He decries a society that drives young Black men to sell drugs by perpetuating systemic poverty and a cycle of violence. “We’re just brothers on the streets killing brothers,” he grieves. “This system has us geared to kill one another.” He ends the track on a tragic note, as he raps, “My life on Earth was hell, you understand? / But when I die I’m going to hell again.”
Amidst all this misery and social commentary, it’s a wonder that a track like “The Iceberg” fits in perfectly. The song is an exercise in brash flair and raunchy humor, as Ice-T portrays himself as a “1989-type rap Dolemite.” It’s one of the most entertaining songs on the album, as Ice-T starts the track by declaring the dominance of his crew, rapping, “Blow up your whole block, you hear the gunshots / Throw you in the Syndicate cellar and let your body rot.” He then adds a trio of extremely crude verses that seem lifted out of the pages of an Iceberg Slim novel, as he raps about his DJ Evil-E “fuck[ing] a bitch with a flashlight” or manager Charlie Jamm having sex on a ski-lift (“10 below, gave her the dick.”).
Ice-T started to experiment with recording rock music tracks on Iceberg with “The Girl Tried To Kill Me.” Ice raps/sings about an alternately arousing and life-threatening encounter with a beautiful woman who turns out to be a dominatrix. He quickly realizes he’s in over his head, but rides it out until her 6’10” husband shows up. Ernie C. plays lead guitar on the track, and he would go on to join Ice-T to form Body Count, a full-on metal band. Years later, controversy with Body Count’s album would become one of the most notable flashpoints in the confluence of rap music and censorship.
“What Ya Wanna Do?” is an extended posse cut with an old school feel that showcases the lyrical talents of eight other members of the Rhyme Syndicate collective. Each of the emcees gets to drop two separate eight-bar verses. The ample amount of lyrics turns the song into one of the longest posse cuts of the time, clocking in at around nine minutes.
The track displays nearly the full breadth and depth of the talent within the Rhyme Syndicate at the time. It features L.A. hip-hop pioneers like Toddy Tee alongside established Syndicate members Donald-D and Hen-G. The song also features some of the first released verses by Everlast, here a blow-dried, conventional rapper rather than the shaved-head hooligan that he’d become with House of Pain. Divine Styler, one of the originators of West Coast abstract hip-hop, shines as well. Other solidly dope emcees, like Nat the Cat and Shaquel Shabazz, weren’t heard much from after this album, but they certainly come correct here.
As alluded to earlier, things would get even more contentious for Ice-T in the future, as a few years later his music would become even more central to the evolving dynamic of censorship in popular culture (oh, to release a song called “Cop Killer” during an election year).
But by the time his music became a talking point during a presidential election, Ice-T was already battle tested and had refined his message with the power of his raps. The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech proved that he was a warrior committed to fighting for free expression, while he remained unflinching in portraying the realities of street life. It’s what makes the album such a vital component of his career.