Last year, VH1 borrowed the British series Gene Simmons’ Rock School — itself an adaptation of Jack Black’s 2003 film School of Rock — in which rock legend Gene Simmons instructed a class of uptight, privileged kids on the finer points of rock ‘n’ roll. Now, the network is giving the show a hip-hop makeover complete with a new teacher, Ice-T. Here’s what the rap legend had to say about Ice-T’s Rap School, which premieres Oct. 17, immediately following the third annual VH1 Hip Hop Honors, hosted by Ice-T himself.
What made you want to do reality TV?
Ice-T: I really didn’t have any desire to do any reality TV that was going to be based on my life or put me in a house with a bunch of people — that kind of dumb s***. … I had seen Rock School, and when somebody told me, “Hey, you know, they’d like to do you and do rap, hip-hop,” I was like, “Well, I think I’d better take this chance because if I don’t do it they may pick somebody wack to do it, and then these kids will have a bad education.” [Laughs.] So I kind of stepped up to the plate.
What kind of background do these kids come from?
These are Upper West Side, slightly spoiled prep-school kids. And they don’t have the slightest idea about hip-hop. Some of them aren’t too fond of it. A lot of their parents don’t let them listen to it. They had to get taken through a lot of different levels of this in order to really respect and understand it.
Did they have any background in music at all?
Absolutely not. One of the girls could sing. She had sung in a choir, she said, but I’m pretty sure it was kind of a square choir. Another one of the girls — she felt she could sing, and she could carry a note, but none of them had ever been inside any type of a music class.
What was their reaction when you walked into their classroom for the first time?
Well, it wasn’t that raw. I think they knew ahead of time that they were going to deal with somebody like me. And now you’ve got the Internet, so these kids can Google you. So they kind of had an understanding, and they also knew what they were going to be taught because before they got to me, their parents had approved it and stuff. So the only thing they really didn’t know was my personality and how I was going to handle them. So they kind of just sat up straight and looked at me, and we both felt each other out.
Did you have any trouble getting their parents’ approval?
I didn’t do that; VH1 did that. I respected the parents that allowed their kids to be taught by Ice-T, so that’s why I immediately tried to treat each one of these kids with a lot of respect because I know that their parents really took a chance. [Laughs.] So I didn’t want to let down these parents by doing something stupid.
What was it like for you to walk back into a school environment at this point in your life?
It was different for me. You know, when I was in school I wasn’t really too fond of school. I didn’t get the hold of school until I was in the 12th grade, when I realized that I really needed it. I always was relatively smart. I never really had problems passing classes. I’m sure if I had applied myself, I probably could have gotten straight A’s but I was just, I guess, your average teenager who didn’t really care too much for high school. So to walk back in here, in a prep school, it was very odd. It was strange, you know, it was surreal. I had never been in a school like this, where you have a classroom that only has 12 or 15 kids. I’m from public school. … It’s definitely a different vibe.
These are privileged kids — it’s safe to assume they aren’t going to rap about life on the street. What kind of lyrical content came out when they started rapping?
The first thing I did, I told them, “Look, this is who I am and this is what I rap about.” One of our first little exercises was they rapped “Colors,” so I showed them. But I said, “Let’s make this clear: I come from someplace totally opposite you and rap is something that comes from you, so you guys are incapable of rapping about what I rap about — because you definitely aren’t from there. But what I want is your experiences. I want to know what’s going through your head, in your life.” So, you know, we got a 14-year-old girl and she starts rapping about how she’s misunderstood, being her age, and the struggles she’s going through with her identity. Then I had one little girl who was going through a divorce with her family. I got her to rap about that. And then I had another guy who was a really intelligent guy, he started rapping about politics and stuff. So I just made them see rap through their eyes and use it as a vehicle to express themselves.
Was that the most critical lesson, to rap about what you know?
Totally. That’s all hip-hop is. Hip-hop is basically taking an artform or a culture and using it to express yourself. If you get caught in hip-hop talking about stuff that you haven’t been though, you will be exposed and it will be a terrible scenario.
Was there anything that you tried to steer the kids away from, maybe a current aspect of hip-hop that you think is overrated?
Nah, I didn’t steer them away from anything. One of my students, Dodge City, he came out dissing. He had some things he didn’t like about Kanye West and he said some things, and I had to explain to him, I said, “Well, if this is your opinion and this is something you want to say, you also have to be prepared for the other side of hip-hop. What happens when you bump into him at the VMAs?” A lot of this stuff, you have the ability to say in rap — but there is a thing called “rap beef” and that comes from this open expression where people make comments about each other. He thought about it, and he said, “Yeah.” If you’re clever, you could talk about the person without saying their name, but I said, “You’ve got to be prepared, because rappers will walk back up to you if they hear their name in a record.” So he learned a lesson right there.
Were there any standouts in the group — anyone who seemed like a natural?
No. I mean, these kids couldn’t even snap their fingers on beat. I think my biggest shock was to find kids with no rhythm. I just thought every kid had rhythm. When they say white guys can’t dance, I guess it starts off with white kids. But even one of the little black girls was having a problem dancing, so I realized that rhythm is something that if you don’t pick [it] up as a youth, you probably won’t get. … It’s very scary to see. I mean, that’s one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen — to actually see somebody who can’t snap their fingers on beat. I was worried.
It sounds like you had your work cut out for you.
Seeing as how hip-hop is beat-based. The term B-boy means “beat boy.” It’s all about the beat. You can’t DJ if you can’t get on beat, you can’t dance and you definitely can’t rap. So I was like, “Jesus Christ.” But we worked and worked, and I sent them through different channels to try to get them on beat.
You brought up “Rock School.” Having done both rap and rock music in your career, which do you think is easier to teach the kids in this type of setting?
Well, I couldn’t teach Rock School because I don’t really have a musical background where I can play all the instruments. Rock is more part of the musicianship. I could teach a kid to be a rock singer easier than a rapper though. Much easier. Rapping is like they have to become an instrument in themselves, so it’s a little bit more complicated. I think the difference with Gene Simmons is, those kids already had musical backgrounds — so those kids knew they could play instruments, they just couldn’t play rock. I had to teach these kids how to walk. Literally, I had an exercise where I had to teach them how to walk, because they walked goofy.
Their final challenge was to perform live, opening up for Public Enemy. That’s a challenge for some established rappers …
All established rappers. Any rapper who’s going to open in front of PE, are you kidding me?
Exactly. So how did these kids handle that kind of pressure?
They handled it as well as I expected them to. You know, the show is more about taking them on a personal journey through the cultural differences of hip-hop and making them really respect people and lifestyles as a whole vs. saying something is stupid because you don’t understand it. At the end of the day, for them to go out in front of Public Enemy and meet Flavor [Flav] and meet Chuck [D] — they were all overwhelmed, they were all crying and totally excited. As far as them coming out and blowing out a PE show, the audience gave them a little slack, gave them a little static — but that’s hip-hop, you know.
As far as the actual performance that they gave, what were your expectations and were they met?
They had a hard time at the PE show. The record was skipping and everything, but they listened to me and they finished the show and they did not stop and they rocked all the way through. And I was very proud of them. I mean, I knew at the end of the day that I wasn’t going to end up with some new rap star, but [now] they all understand rap and they’ll always respect it for the rest of their lives. They got a chance to meet some of the greats; they met DJ Premier, they met Mellie Mel, they met MC Lyte, they met Kid Capri — they met all these legends, so they totally understand what they were doing.
You were there to teach the kids, but did you learn anything from them throughout this process?
I learned one thing: I totally have respect for schoolteachers. I realize that when I used to give my teachers hell, that I really was giving them hell. Because when I had these kids messing up, they really got on my nerves sometimes. I was thinking, like, “Damn, I thought it was funny back then, but you’re really f***ing the class up.” … And [this experience] reaffirmed my belief that people just don’t have all the information before they make judgments, so with the correct information there’s understanding and people can all change and learn — you just have to have the correct teacher.