Hip-hop's greatest innovators are also, not coincidentally, some of the genre's most interesting people. Case in point: Ice-T, the rapper-turned-actor who released his debut Rhyme Pays in the summer of 1987, helping lay the groundwork for the gangsta rap style.
A striking figure in Los Angeles' Crenshaw neighborhood, Tracy Morrow was kind of a walking contradiction: he had close ties to Crips but was never a gang member, and abstained from drugs and alcohol. His main vice was reading, particularly the works of former pimp Iceberg Slim; his tendency to memorize and recite Slim's works gave him his nickname. After a few years in the Army and a few more as a criminal, Ice finally decided to go straight when he realized how many people enjoyed his rhymes.
Rhyme Pays served as Ice's breakthrough after Seymour Stein, founder of Sire Records, was taken by his lyrical style and the hard-knock life he rhymed about. (Stein compared his lyrics to Bob Dylan - high praise indeed!) Indeed, even before NWA broke out on the West Coast, Ice was using the mic to offer streetwise truths on crime, sex and bad behavior. Lead single "6 'N Da Morning," inspired by Schoolly D's landmark "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" was, for some, the first experience of what became known as gangsta rap.
Ice has claimed that Rhyme Pays was one of the first albums to receive a sticker warning of its suggestive lyrics. (The official Parental Advisory label would not become an industry standard until 1990.) He'd of course court even greater controversy later in his career - but here, he was breaking new ground not only for himself, but for the culture.