Nearly 25 years after his first record, Just-Ice is still everything a die-hard Rap fan wants him to be. From his Bronx home, the emcee, record collector and original Rap tough-guy is less than a month past self-releasing his latest album, 32 Degrees on iTunes. As Just speaks with HipHopDX, he bridges the earliest days of Hip Hop and its place today, with his hands on the shoulders of both of those eras.
The man who released the gold record, "Latoya," and a lineage of classic albums starting with Back To The Old School and Kool & Deadly asserts his place as a Gangsta Rap pioneer above others. Justice also explains why his reputation for skullduggery back in the day still restrains his career today, why he's never been battled, and why he loves adopted cats.
This is one of my heroes. Just-Ice reminds me of a time when our rappers weren't scared - to use freedom of speech, to throw a punch, or to kick knowledge with a gangsta's fervor. This emcee gave us our history on "Going Way Back," but you DX readers don't have to go anywhere else to brush-up.
HipHopDX: Talk to me about 32 Degrees, and the significance of this album in your career...
Just-Ice: The title track is produced by Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian. He came to me, 'cause this is his track, and wanted me to spit some rugged, historical, down-to-earth lyrics instead of all this what-I'm-drivin', what-kind-of-watch-I-got, how-much-money's-in-my-bank-account shit. That's why I named the album [32 Degrees], 'cause that track is one of the realest tracks on there. All of them are real - some are flashier than others, but "32 Degrees" is a very raw track. It reminds me a lot of "Goin' Way Back."To me, this album is a very important album. The last album I put out, VIII, to me, it seemed like that shit didn't [sell] that good. But when I got the residuals back, that shit did real good! People actually know about that album. To me, I figured it was a bullshit album because I recorded it in 2003. I just released it in 2006 or 2007. It had to be tweaked to just be more up to the times. That's what I did: I tweaked it, and it got a very good response. Hopefully, [32 Degrees] will get a good response [too]. One thing I've learned is that I don't expect a lot from these albums. I always expect the worst. That way, when something good comes out of it, it's 100% turnaround.
DX: You felt that way always?
Just-Ice: Always. I never considered my albums to be #1. These are just my thoughts, on record, with a fuckin' beat put behind 'em. That's how I look at it. I don't look at these records with great expectations, like they're gonna go gold or anything. When "Latoya" went gold, that was the pinnacle for me. I never expected that shit to happen. I always think an album could have been better. A million people can be like, "That album is hot." To me, I hear the mistakes in it, 'cause I know where the mistakes are at. I'm like the person that makes a movie, but can't stand watching it. I can't stand listening to [myself]. So like I said, I hope [32 Degrees] does good. But if it doesn't, hey, I'll always make another one.
DX: When you compare the history you're giving us on "32 Degrees" to "Going Way Back," is it a more recent version of the history lesson you originally provided?
Just-Ice: See, "Going Way Back" is more of a history of Hip Hop itself. "32 Degrees" is a history of me and what I've come through in this business. There's another tune on [the album] called "Wickedness." Those two tunes are...that's Just-Ice. That's Just-Ice personified: "32 Degrees."
DX: And you are releasing this yourself?
Just-Ice: Yup. Also, if you go on iTunes, you'll see Kool & Deadly (Justicizms), with my face on it. That's the original one. I just learned about these websites where I can put up all my music and all the money comes to me. So I'm like, fuck these record companies who got my music out there, tryin' to jerk me. I'm just gonna re-put shit out there with my own cover on there and let people know what it is. Don't buy the other ones, buy this one, 'cause there's always an extra track on there that's not on the other ones. Then, the money comes right to me instead of some fuckin' record company that's stealing my publishing.
DX: As I look at the tracklisting, tell me about "Final Ride..."
Just-Ice: [Stands up] Hold on! Hold on! Hold on! I gotta kill this centipede! [In background] WHACK! [Sighs]. Sorry about that.
DX: [Laughs] We were talking about "Final Ride."
Just-Ice: "Final Ride" is a tune that's an original Punanny track by me and Papa Michigan, the guy who did the original track "Diseases." Papa Michigan & General Smiley, they're very big in Jamaica and all over the world. Me and him got together and did "Final Ride." We were gonna name the tune "Ride The Riddim," but that sounded kind of wack. It's a scorcher.
DX: As I talk to you today, the energy you had when you entered the scene seems like it hasn't lost a step. Talk to me about the live shows you're doing these days...
Just-Ice: I have had a lot of success with my shows. To be honest though, I got booed on Father's Day. That's the first time I ever got booed. Because, I was out in some fuckin' lil' Spic town in Trenton, New Jersey, and it was an old school show. I go up there and I hit 'em with a bunch of old school R&B, old school Reggae, and everything is fine; they love it! Then, when I try to do something new, they didn't want to hear it. They didn't want to hear anything new, so I had to stop doin' the new shit and when I started doing the old shit, that's when the boo's had [died] down. It was strange to me. I had never got booed before. The following week, I went out to Newark, New Jersey. I performed one fuckin' track, and the whole place went crazy. And I'm like, you know what? Fuck Trenton.
DX: [Laughs] On Father's Day.
Just-Ice: On Father's Day. When I walked in, I saw that it was a huge auditorium with a bunch of seats. As soon as I saw that, I said, "Oh, this is bad. These people are gonna be sitting down, looking at us." I don't like performing like that. When I perform, I want mothafuckas to be standin' up, movin' around, dancin'. Don't just be sittin' down like it's a fuckin' movie. This is a fuckin' Hip Hop show! Hip Hop was never designed to be sat there and looked at! It is what it is. I made up for it the week after in Newark though. I had a show on October 25 in this place Irving Plaza. It was me, KRS-One, Grand Daddy I.U. and The Treacherous Three. These people, they were crazy when I was doin' my shit. So I know I don't suck when it comes to performin'. That shit just threw me off a lil' bit. Very strange. My energy is always...when I come on the stage, I always let people know this is not no mothafuckin' movie. Do not stand there and look at me. Enjoy the music. Enjoy the songs. If you know the words, sing along. By the time I'm finished doin' "Going Way Back," the whole place is in a frenzy.
DX: I interviewed Janette Beckman last year for her book The Breaks: Stylin' & Profilin'...
Just-Ice: Janette Beckman! Wow! That's a name from the past.
DX: She told me this crazy story during shooting your cover for Kool & Deadly, of you bringing a cat with you named Money Grip. At the time she said she had heard all these crazy stories about you, and didn't know what to expect...
Just-Ice: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Oh shit! [Laughs] Money Grip! Hold on a sec... [Just-Ice walks across the room, followed by three loud WHACKS] Sorry about that; this centipede will not die! Hold on! [Just-Ice walks across the room, and throws something] "Die, you mothafucka!" [Just-Ice returns]. Yeah, the name of the cat was Money Grip. He was the older brother of my cat called Justice. When did I get those two cats from? I think I had adopted them. Matter of fact, yeah, those were kittens then. I had already had two cats that I had gotten from The Bowery Home. I love cats.
DX: Interesting. That just proves my point. One of my mentors in Rap has been Freddie Foxxx. I think people misconstrue him too. So I'm curious to know, do you think that's cost you anything?
Just-Ice: Yeah. I have problems getting booked today because promoters are still scared of me. I'm like, this is not the '80s or the '90s anymore. I got kids now. I'm not out there trying to hurt anybody, I'm not doing anything stupid; I'm trying to get this money to pay these bills because [cable Internet service providers] don't give a fuck; they want their money every month. That's one thing I think that's hurting my career right now, the way people perceive me. I am just as big now as I was before, 'cause I'm constantly in the fuckin' gym. I have that going against me - my size. I look like a fuckin' super-hero. When people see me, they get scared. I'm like, I don't mean for you to get scared, but I'm just like anybody else: you be nice to me, I'll be nice to you. You fuck with me, I'll break your fuckin' back. Simple as that.
The older people who was in this game since I was young, they seriously have a problem booking me. Because they think that if something don't go right, I'ma start flippin', and throwin' tables and chairs and shit like that. They need to grow up.
DX: I know that Schoolly D and Ice-T get a lot of credit, but you are also a pioneer in Gangsta Rap.
Just-Ice: Let me tell you, I'ma straighten that out right now: As far as that gangsta shit goes, on the mic, I can honestly say Ice-T was doing it before me. I remember before I started even makin' records, the first time I saw Ice-T was in a movie called Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. He was at the very end of it. Ice-T was out in L.A. with [DJ] Evil-E. Even though they wasn't makin' gangsta records, he was doin' what he called his version of Gangsta Hip Hop, out in L.A. He was recording it. I'm not saying he did it before me, rapping or emceeing-wise, but the first person on record to put that gangsta shit out, I would say is Ice-T. Because he was in the [recording] game before me. Now maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he didn't put a record out. But honestly, I never saw a record from Ice-T until after I saw him in the movies first. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. But one thing I can definitely assure you of, it was not Schoolly-D.
Schoolly-D came out way the fuck after me. He came out after me, but he came out before Dr. Dre and them N.W.A. niggas. I was out here doin' my gangsta shit on the mic. Dre and them niggas [as World Class Wreckin' Cru] was out there with Atlantic Starr doing some "Computer Love" bullshit. That's the history, as far as I know, and as accurate as I can get it. Ice-T, even in Breakin' 2, he was spittin' a little bit of that gangsta shit. He was off-beat like a mothafucka, but he was doin' it. I don't know if he was making record at that time or not. I do know that the first person to put out a gangsta record and got notice for it, before me, it was Ice-T. I think. I'm not 100% sure. I think it was Ice-T, 'cause I don't know Power came out before "Latoya" or not. The reason I say Power, is [I think] that's what had "Colors" on there. It had "Colors" on there, "Girls L.G.B.N.A.F." was on there, and some other shit on there. That's the one with Darlene on the cover. I don't know what year that came out, that's just it.
DX: I pulled my Power LP out as you were talking from the wall...1988, Sire Records.
Just-Ice: Ah, I did it first then! My shit came out in '86. It was me! I was the first one. Then, Ice-T! Then Schoolly-D. Then Dr. Dre, N.W.A. and them niggas. I am the original pioneer for that gangsta shit! Before me, wasn't nobody spittin' like that on a record!
DX: Let's talk about that for that for a second. As a pioneer, what was the reaction like to that style? Where were they really feeling it? Where was there resistance?
Just-Ice: I got embraced all over all the world. That shit went as far as Amsterdam. And I got disliked all over the fuckin' world. One day I was up at [Fresh Records], and some lady, some woman calls up, talkin' 'bout she gonna ban my record from her daughter or the record store because of my lyrics on there. I got on the phone, I said, "Listen, Miss. Before your daughter bought the record, there was a stick on there that said very expilcit, dirty lyrics." It was a caution. I said, "If you don't want your daughter to have that record, that's between you and your daughter, but I guarantee somebody in your family gonna buy that record." I left it like that. One thing I learned in this business: I cannot make a record that every-fuckin'-body is gonna like. I can't do that, and I'm not even fuckin' tryin'. If you like the record, you like the record. If you don't like the record, you don't like the record. If you a deejay on the radio, and you like the radio, play the record. If you don't like the record and the only way you gonna play it is if I pay you, you can kiss my ass 'cause I ain't payin' you nothin'.
DX: Look, you're one of my Top 10 emcees ever in this, and a true emcee hero. Because your style was so pioneering, who were your heroes on the come-up?
Just-Ice: Aw man, it had to be [Afrika] Bambaataa for one. Even though [DJ Kool] Herc started [Hip Hop], Bam was the one who made it possible for us to have some kind of connection to the music. Like I said, even though Herc started this fuckin' thing, Herc was like the original, first hater. He was the first fuckin' hater. He wanted every-fuckin'-body to pay to get into his parties, but he didn't want to pay to get into anybody else's. If Herc came to a Bambaataa party, it's a problem at the door, 'cause he's tryin' to get in for free. But last week, when Bam came to his party, he charged the whole fuckin' [Universal] Zulu Nation. See, that's what it was about Herc. Herc may have started this shit, but Bam was the one who made it accessible to us. 'Cause we used to actually hang out with Bam. We had a crew up in Castle Hill called the Soundmasters Crew, which was like a little faction or a portion of the Zulu Nation. We was playin' the Hip Hop up in Castle Hill. Thanks to Afrika Bambaattaa & The Zulu Nation, thanks to Baron and The Brothers & Sisters Disco, thanks to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 4 MC's, thanks to Grand Wizard Theodore & The L Brothers, thanks to DJ Mario The Disco King, and the Chuck City Crew, the Mayberry Crew and the Big Mac Crew, thanks to Kenny Ken & The Mark 5 MC's. Those are the people that I looked up to, who made me do what I want to do. Like I said, even though Herc was the hater and he wanted to charge everybody, he was the master of records. Bambaataa was the master of the beats. See, one thing about Herc and Bam, when you were at their parties, you knew you were gonna hear records that you ain't never heard before, and you ain't never gonna hear 'em again, until you hear them played. Those are the heroes as far as Hip Hop goes.
As far as rhyming goes, my fuckin' hero, the microphone god to me, at one time, was none other than the golden voice of [Grandmaster] Melle Mel. I still remember rhymes Melle Mel made that I know Melle Mel forgot! I still remember them.
DX: From live shows and tapes?
Just-Ice: From the tapes, but also from the live shows. You knew back in the days that when Melle Mel got on the mic, it was gonna be exciting. It was only one or two people that could... not "fuck with Mel," 'cause nobody could fuck wit' him, but could come close to him, and that would be Grandmaster Caz or Raheim from The Funky 4. Besides that, everybody else was below them. They was nice, but they couldn't fuck with Mel and Caz and them niggas. Busy Bee Starkski, he tried. I remember the night that Caz had a battle with Busy Bee Starski after Kool Moe Dee bust his ass up in Harlem World, with that, "Hold on Busy Bee, I don't mean to be bold / But that bah-witty-bah shit back on hold." After Kool Moe Dee killed him with that, about a month later, he had the nerve to challenge Grandmaster Caz at the T-Connection, thinkin' Caz was an was an easy fuckin' mark. I'm sayin' to myself, Busy Bee must be stupid. Busy Bee did his usual [routine]. Caz got on his fuckin' turntables and put the instrumental version of "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" by McFadden & Whitehead, and just with rhymin'-singin' shit, made Busy Bee look so fuckin' stupid! Busy Bee didn't even want to get the fuck back on the mic after Caz finished. That's what made me want to get into it.
DX: As you talk about the aesthetic of battling, I've got to ask: people know the Blaq Poet/Screwball story, or the myth of it, but outside of that, did Just-Ice ever battle anybody?
Just-Ice: Why would I need to battle somebody? I already know I'm better than they ass. I ain't tryin' to battle you. I ain't tryin' to give you points for almost winning. I'm not tryin' to do that shit. I'll say this here too: I never ran away from a battle; nobody ever challenged me! I never said no to nothin'! I had one battle, okay:
New Music Seminal, 1987 or 1988, alright? We at the New Music Seminar at the Marriot Marquis Hotel. It's me against this guy MC Breeze, from Philadelphia. The panel for the judges are a mix between New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. And Lady B is from Philadelphia, which is where MC Breeze is from. This is what this bitch went and did: Before the battle of me and MC Breeze, there was like three battles before. It was like New York versus Philly. New York was bustin' they ass. So here comes me and Breeze. She waits for all the New York judges to tally they scores, and she puts in hers late, one score above so Philly could win. She got booed out the fuckin' auditorium.
I told everybody on the mic, in the auditorium, and I told Breeze, I said, "Yo dogs, come to the Latin Quarter tonight. That's where the real battle is at. I'll dust ya ass off. There won't be no judges either." This mothafucka thought I was playin'. That night we went to the Latin Quarter. I didn't expect to see [MC Breeze] there at all. Red Alert was on the turntables, and Red Alert was like, "Yo Just-Ice, you in the house? MC Breeze is on stage." And I had no idea this kid was even in the building; I ran to the fuckin' stage. I just looked at this nigga, and said, "Lady B ain't here. This is some real Hip Hop shit. You broke mothafucka!" At the time, I had my gold teeth. I said, "Nigga, I got my cash in my mouth than you got in your pocket." I had the whole Latin Quarter just laughin' at this nigga. Red Alert played, I think it was "Impeach The President" [by The Honeydrippers] and I fucked this nigga up so bad, he didn't even want to say nothin'.
I think people knew that it's not the fact that I won't battle you. It's just, if you call me out, you better know what the fuck you're doing, 'cause I've been doing this for a long time. I know when you call somebody out to battle, you better have your shit straight. That's why I don't call nobody out to battle. Anybody can win a battle on any given day. Anybody is susceptible to defeat when it comes to rhymin'. Everybody is. You can catch a new mothafucka right now and put him against KRS-One. If KRS-One don't say the right shit at the right time and that new mothafucka do, he just made a name off of KRS-One. That's why you gotta be careful with that battlin' shit. No one is undefeatable.
DX: When you talk about stories and vibes like that, I'm curious to know if you see it living in Hip Hop anywhere today? What gets you juiced?
Just-Ice: Music, man. Apparently I'm not doin' it for the fuckin' money, 'cause I ain't makin' none. I'm doin' it for the love of the music. I still rhyme. I still play my original Hip Hop breaks here in the house, so this is all about the music.
DX: Maybe it's on 32 Degrees, maybe it's on another album, but we've never heard it, but what's your proudest verse?
Just-Ice: I don't have one. I'm gonna be very honest with you: I ain't got no proudest verse, ain't got no favorite record. Yo! To be honest, I do have a favorite record. I doubt [it's anybody else's]. The name of the record is "Turbo Charged." It was on [Back To The Old School], but the way it was fuckin' mixed, you can't hear what I'm sayin'. Mantronix was on some, "I want people to hear my music more than I want them to hear your voice," for that record. The track was hot as a mothafucka. The lyrics, I wrote those lyrics when I was doin' a bid for a murder charge, back in '86, when I was in [Washington] D.C. If you listen to the lyrics on there, there's a lot of legal termanology. I messed up with one word: "Cystic Fibrosis" - thought it was "Bi-cystic Fibrosis." No one picked that up and shit. You're probably the only one I've ever told that shit to. Everything else is a bunch of legal termanology. My lawyer at the time, listened to the record and said, "How the fuck did you put all that together?" I said, "I sat in the court room all the time and listened to your ass talk. I listen to you talk. You interrogate the cop for three fuckin' hours, you think I'ma pick up nothin'?"
DX: Were you reading too?
Just-Ice: Nope. I'm just listening to my lawyer like, "Hey, that sounded good. I'm usin' that in a record." To me, that's my favorite record: "Turbo Charged." I don't have a favorite verse or anything like that. I don't know. Everybody likes "Latoya." To me, it's a stupid record. I made that shit up in one hour, on my lunchbreak.
DX: What's funny to me, I love "Rhymin' With Kane" with Big Daddy Kane, and you probably don't hear that much. That and "Gangstas Don't Cry," that was as good to me as the '80s stuff...
Just-Ice: Well, "Gangstas Don't Cry," that was goin' at Ja Rule, 'cause he made that record, "I Cry," and I'm like, if you're a gangsta-mothafucka, gangstas don't cry. I told [DJ] Premier that, he was like, "Jus', you gotta make a record behind that." That's why we did that. But that shit with me and [Big Daddy] Kane? I can't stand that fuckin' record!
Just-Ice: We was so drunk that night, I lost my breath. We was drinkin' Remy [Martin cognac]; I don't even drink Remy. Kane bought this big fuckin' bottle of Remy that night. We all in the studio drinkin'. The last thing on my mind is rhymin', 'cause when I drink, I do not rhyme. I cannot rhyme. My breath is fucked up. We smokin', drinkin', havin' a good time. Here goes Premier, "I got a track, y'all wanna spit on it? Jus, lay something down. Kane, do somethin' with Jus." Kane's like, "Fuck it, let's go." I'm like, "Man, are you fuckin' serious?" Like I said, when I listen to a record, I listen for the mistakes. To me, that whole record was a big ass mistake. And a lot of people like that stupid record! I can't listen to me. I can't stand it.
Honestly, you know who I liked for the last year-and-a-half, two years? You know who my favorite, fuckin' Hip Hop artist is?
Just-Ice: Fuckin' Tech N9ne.
DX: Everybody feels that way lately.
Just-Ice: Whenever he comes to New York, he calls my house and invites me and my girl to his show. The last time he was here, I told Tech I was havin' some financial problems. He was like, "Justice, bring me a copy of Kool & Deadly and Back 2 The Old School, and I got somethin' for you." I'm thinkin' like $25, $30, cool, I can use that. He gave me $500. He said, "Jus', this is not for the CDs. This is just from one brother to another. Drinks is on me. Take this shit." We was cool before then, but [afterwards, our relationship grew].
DX: How did y'all meet?
Just-Ice: Through DJ Eclipse. Eclipse and me are mad cool. Eclipse helped me get my first deal on Fat Beats. We've been cool ever sense. The first time, Eclipse was like, "This guy wants to meet you, his name is Tech N9ne." I see this guy with paint on his face, and I had really come that night to see Ill Bill. Me and Bill go back to the Fat Beats days; he used to work at Fat Beats. So after Ill Bill performed, I went to leave. Eclipse was like, "Don't leave until you see Tech N9ne." I'm like, "Fuck a Tech N9ne." He was like, "Justice, you have to stay for Tech." Good-fucking-thing I did. That mothafucka's whole show had me like whoa. Yo the way he be spittin' and movin' on stage, KRS-One can't fuck with this kid. And I told somebody that. Tech gets the whole fuckin' crowd jumpin'. That's my dude. My whole iPod is nothing but Tech N9ne on that shit.
Very quickly, I want to give you a very brief history of the title on 32 Degrees. 32 degree is just ice. I just didn't want to [self-title] an album again. Anything that reaches 32 degrees faranheit or below, is frozen - just ice. There's another reason I did that also: I'm a 32nd Degree Master Mason. That's why I put 32 degrees there. In masonry, that's a very high number. If you fail to understand the wisdom, you're just ice. I'm a Five Percenter. Three is understanding, Two is wisdom. If you fail to understand the wisdom, if you fail to understand what I'm understanding on the record, you are just ice. And that is not a very good thing. That's why when somebody comes at me and says, "Yo, Just-Ice," I can tell that they don't know me. Anybody that knows me, knows don't call me "Just-Ice." My name is Justice.
Photo by Janette Beckman.