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Ice-T swaps rap for poetry and jazz

2015-11-22 13:30:14

Ice TIce-T says a lot of rap music is as intellectual as politically-inspired poetry

It's a long time since Ice-T burst on to the rap scene with his debut album Rhyme Pays. Since then he's become known as an actor as well, playing roles such as Fin Tutuola in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

More recently he was approached to narrate the live jazz-poetry piece Ask Your Mama - a project led by the musician Ron McCurdy - though he admits he'd barely heard of the poet behind it. But now he can confidently say it's still relevant after 54 years.

Ice-T is bringing Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz to London's Barbican arts centre after one previous performance accompanied by a symphony orchestra in Indianapolis.

"The poetry Langston Hughes wrote is completely unique anyway and when I read it in London at the Barbican it's with a jazz quartet. So that's got to be a whole different thing. But it's part of the thrill," says Ice-T, whose real name is Tracy Marrow.

When the rap star was asked to join McCurdy's project, he'd heard of the poet Langston Hughes. "But I can't claim I knew his work in detail - and then I realised Ask Your Mama is such a special piece. It was written decades ago but it still speaks to people now," he says.

'Freestyling' skills

Born in Missouri in 1902, the poet Langston Hughes was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. African-American art, music and writing took on a new and more assertive identity.

Langston HughesLangston Hughes was part of the political and social movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance

Though a prolific and acclaimed author, Hughes's homosexuality and his left-wing politics created problems for him. In 1961 he published Ask Your Mama - a verse sequence about the life of black America, in which jazz was allocated a major part.

In the book, Hughes described the music he imagined accompanying the verse. Hughes later had discussions with jazz maestro Charles Mingus, and possibly others, about supplying a musical backing. Yet by the time Hughes died in 1967 no score existed.

In the early 1990s McCurdy created a new score true to the poet's detailed music cues.

Now 57, Ice-T has had time to consider the links between rap music and jazz.

"They're both great American inventions and there are real similarities. In jazz they have what they call freestyling, where the musicians will say they never do anything the same way twice. With rap we listen to the music and we try to add words and syncopate it in a cool way - it's pretty similar.

"Especially with early rap, it's very much about the flow. So for instance, people like Gang Starr did projects like Jazzmatazz where they worked with jazz musicians. In fact, all kinds of music can interweave within each other: sometimes I see a rock guitarist and I think that's really jazz, the way you're letting it flow. And what Langston described in his book at times headed even beyond jazz: his imagination was free.

"It's hard to know exactly what Langston was trying to do with Ask Your Mama but the original book came out when civil rights were a big deal in America. As a young man he'd been part of the Harlem Renaissance and all those years later some things in America had changed and some had not."

'Intricate but fun'

But doesn't Ice-T see a gulf between the rap culture he grew up in and the America inhabited by a gay, radical poet of the 1920s?

Ron McCurdyIce-T says Ron McCurdy (above) has created a score that fans of all kinds of music should enjoy the Barbican jazz show

"People may not associate rap with intellectuals such as Langston Hughes. But look at stuff from Public Enemy, KRS-One, Nas… it's highly intellectual. Rap is like anything else: there's some high-tech stuff that's going on and there's basic stuff too. Ask Your Mama has serious parts in it but also we make it fun. Actually I try to make everything fun - even when I'm deadly serious."

Ice-T is relaxed about the musical aspects of performing at the Barbican this weekend.

"It's the London Jazz Festival so the real fans are going to love the music. But also I have to say it with my back to a slideshow of artwork: I have to talk to it and make my words hit. It's intricate."

Ice-T rejects the idea that Ask Your Mama is a one-off 1960s curiosity. "What Langston was writing is definitely still relevant - all that stuff about civil rights and poor people. My father grew up in the days Langston was talking about and it was rough. You can go back to the '60s and you see stuff that's still going on in society now.

"But it's not a lecture. It's something new and even at a jazz festival I guess most people will be discovering it for the first time. It should be a good time."

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz is being performed at the Barbican Centre, London on 21 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.


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