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My Morning Jacket's Jim James On 'The Waterfall II' & Finding Hope In Music

My Morning Jacket

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My Morning Jacket's Jim James On 'The Waterfall II' & Finding Hope In Music

The songwriter talks to GRAMMY.com about the art-rock greats' long-awaited follow-up to their 2015 LP, the exhilaration of full-band jamming and the art of letting go

GRAMMYs/Aug 7, 2020 - 08:29 pm

"One of the funnest things for me is moving on [from an album]," says My Morning Jacket's Jim James. "Not really worrying about it anymore or looking back." It's ironic timing: The brawny psych-rock band just released The Waterfall II, the long-awaited "sequel" to their 2015 LP. As he's quick to emphasize, these songs aren't leftovers or B-sides—they were recorded during the same sessions as the first Waterfall, and the original goal was to issue the second installment soon after the first, rather than bundle them into a bloated double-record.

Then life happened. James needed a break from touring to center himself, so the quintet focused on side and solo projects over the next several years. (Between the two Jacket packages, James released 2016's Eternally Even, the 2017 covers set Tribute To 2, 2018's Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity and the 2019 orchestral collaboration The Order of Nature.) Finally, after a handful of reinvigorating shows last August, the band's engines revved back up: They carried that camaraderie into sessions for their upcoming ninth full-length, recently tracked in Los Angeles and currently being mixed.

But as James told Rolling Stone in 2014, he's always viewed My Morning Jacket as a "circle of power"—and with the COVID-19 pandemic derailing any potential shows, they decided to table the album until the cultural energy matched their band vibe. Stuck in limbo during the early quarantine era, James discovered the atmospheric Waterfall II cut "Spinning My Wheels" on his phone during a walk. The lyrics felt eerily relevant ("Hypnotized from doing the same old thing," he sings over Bo Koster's glistening keys). And suddenly the stars aligned: Why not free the whole album from its playlist purgatory?

"It's like a time machine," James says of the old yet new LP. "I know the me back then did the best job he could. It's not about the me now. It's about the me I was back then. That always gives me some comfort."

The songwriter spoke to GRAMMY.com about the long hike to The Waterfall II, the thrills of song sequencing, the exhilaration of in-studio jams and finding peace through past pain. 

Did you guys ever have a sit-down and say, "OK, we're taking a long, extended break" between these two albums, or did life just sort of happen?

I just felt like I was getting mowed down by being on the road and touring. I just didn't know how to handle it, and I had to step away for awhile and figure out what was going on. There was kind of an indefinite pause [where] we didn't know when the pause would be over. But then last year we did these four shows at Red Rocks [in Colorado] and in New York at Forest Hills Stadium, and we had such a beautiful time playing together. That got us really fired up and inspired to get back together again.

Did you ever think these songs wouldn't come out? Did it just get to the point where years had past and it felt like you weren't interested in going back there?

No, I always wanted to put it out. These songs definitely weren't B-sides or songs we didn't like. We had too many songs, and we felt that if we released them all it would have been way too much, even for our most diehard fans. It's so much music to sift through that we thought it wouldn't have been a smart thing. I knew we'd release it someday. I always thought in the back of my mind that we'd release it like 20 years from now. There's always so much new music that I'm working on solo. And when we got the Jacket cranked back up, we were so excited that we started working on new music. If this pandemic hadn't happened, who knows when it would have even released. Twenty years from now? But it was cool because it helped us not feel so helpless. No matter what you do, the pandemic has made a lot of us feel helpless. As musicians, we can't tour. It's not in our control. It doesn't matter if you want to or not—we just can't. We felt kind of stalled and sad, but then I stumbled across The Waterfall II again and was like, "Wait, this could be a great time to release this music and help us feel that we can be active in this way with a new record, even though we can't tour." So in terms of that timing, it worked out really cool, I think. 

When you have dozens of songs recorded, it's easy to just pick your 10 favorites at the time. But it's obvious that Waterfall II isn't a leftovers set. It's every bit as strong as the first album. So what guided your decision-making about which to put out the first time?

Sequencing an album is always such an interesting process. So much of it is beyond your control. So much of it is the times shaping the sequence and your personal life shaping the sequence. We had all the songs done from both Waterfalls, and we were trying to decide, "Should we put them all out? Some of them? What do we do?" I don't even remember what was literally happening personally back then. It's funny—it's almost like whittling a block of wood or something. I think every artist, no matter what medium, knows to stop when you get to the right thing. If you don't whittle enough, your sculpture won't be good. But if you whittle too much, you'll ruin it. I just try to listen to the music and watch what the songs say when they're next to each other. That's a fun part of sequencing: putting together a sequence and taking a drive with it. "Oh, man, this song flows so cool into the next song." Or "Man, those two next to each other don't work for some reason." You just do it until it feels right and then move on.

You've talked recently about this project feeling like a time machine and how the Jim of 2015 sounds like a different person. Do you feel still as connected to the Waterfall material? There's definitely a soothing, searching quality to much of the second album, and it feels like the right time for it somehow. Do the songs resonate with you now as much as they did then?

It resonates more! For some reason, I like it even more, which made me really happy when I listened to the songs again. Sometimes it has the opposite reaction when I have to go back to listen to one of our records to learn a song again or whatever. For whatever reason, the 2020 Jim that heard this again during the pandemic, it really meant something to me. I liked it even more than I did back then.

Why do you think that is?

It's hard to put it into words, but there's a certain sadness in it that I was feeling back then. I was dealing with the breakup of a relationship. There's a certain sadness but a comfort too. I think a lot of us feel, when a relationship ends, that our lives are out of control and we don't know what we're going to do next. That idea of "I'll never love again. I'll never find peace again." You feel hopeless and like things are out of your control, and I think a lot of us are feeling that now during this pandemic. "Will I ever love again?" If you're single, "Will I ever meet someone again? Will I ever work again? Will the world ever be the same? Will I ever be able to give my parents a hug again?" We're all feeling trapped. But hopefully through music and friends and stuff, we can find that hope to keep going.

It seems profound that you're listening back to that old Jim with the knowledge that his sadness is temporary. Maybe that's a hopeful message for us now: The struggle we're feeling right now is also temporary.

Yes!

You told Rolling Stone back in 2014 that you originally had two songs scheduled for the first album but you wound up cutting them last-minute. Do you remember which ones?

Gosh, I don't. It's tough because I always want to cram them all on there because I want people to hear them. Then you start realizing, "If I cram two super heavy songs next to each other, they'll diminish the power. If I have too many super sad songs, the whole record starts to feel sad." It's funny how one or two extra songs start to imbalance a record.

The Waterfall bonus track "I Can't Wait" has been lingering around for a decade before you recorded it—you guys played it three times back in 2002 and 2004. Does it often take you years to get a song right in the studio?

That does happen from time to time. It happens a lot in my songwriting where I'll have a song that I love but just cant finish for whatever reason. And then one day later, I find it and be able to finish it. That's happened a lot.

As I was asking you, I thought of "Wonderful" from 2011's Circuital. That song had been kicking around for a long time before you got it down.

Yeah, we tried that one a bunch of times before it ended up where it ended up. We tried it in so many different styles and keys—all sorts of stuff.

The Waterfall II songs have their own unique flow and vibe. But the "part two" connotation could create the impression that these are basically the "other songs" you couldn't fit on the first half—that maybe you didn't think as highly of them. Did you consider just naming it something else to avoid all that?

I didn't want to put a new title on it. We had mentioned so many times before that there was another half of The Waterfall coming. To me it's cool because it feels like a sequel, like The Godfather II or [the second] Star Wars. You hope people [think] it's a good sequel and not a terrible sequel. I think of it like that.

Let's talk about the other new album. When did you guys finish tracking that?

Well, we did a couple different sessions earlier this year. It's kind of like The Waterfall—just tons of songs and tons of ideas, batting things around and enjoying being together again in the studio because it had been five or six years.

Wow, that was good timing!

I know, it's crazy! Literally the guys left to head home right as the pandemic was starting to become this reality that was closing in. The timing of it was crazy.

How much material did you bring into the sessions?

There's always way more than end up on the album because there are so many ideas and you never know what ideas are going to work. It's funny—my favorite idea [never works] and my least favorite, 15-second-long scrap ends up becoming everybody's favorite song. It's funny how you can't control that. I try to entertain every idea at the time, and we just knock them all around. The ideas show you eventually if you want to come to life or not.

Two of my favorite moments on the album are at the instrumental jams at the end of "Still Thinkin" and "Wasted." Were those fairly composed, or did they develop in the studio?

Every song is different. Some songs I have more of a composition or it. "Wasted" is more of a composition I had planned for the jam. But within that, we'll take unlimited time with it and let each player speak their voice. I don't tell Bo or [guitarist Carl Broemel] what to play. I'll have this idea of the architecture of a thing, but within that everyone gets to explore and speak their voice. At the end of "Still Thinkin," that just kinda happened. We were just playing it. That's one of our favorite things to do: Once we're getting close to everyone knowing the song part of it, we'll run it a few times while everyone's still trying to figure out what they're doing on the song, and then I'll go, "This time, in the middle, before we go back, let's just let whatever happens happen" or "Instead of ending at this time, let's just see what happens." That's one of our favorite things to do, leaving that improv open.

Another favorite moment is the abrupt tempo changes on "Climbing the Ladder." How was that coordinated?

It's funny—that's kind of a nod to how much songs change. Originally, when I wrote it, the whole song was kind of slow. It was even a different rhythm. Somehow, I don't even remember how, we ended up pretty fast. We were really digging that and had that for awhile. At some point, I was like, "This thing started off slow, and I've been missing that, so let's slow it down a little bit."

You've talked about the new album being very focused on the spirit of the band playing live. Did you record it with just the five of you? Did you do it all live on the floor?

When I'm doing a solo record, a lot of the fun for me is building a structure by myself or with one or two other people. You're building this thing in more of an architectural or digital way. You're constructing it. With the Jacket, the thing about us, the core about it, is the five of us playing together live in a room. Some songs can be more architectural or constructed, but that's one thing we were really feeling since it had been so long since we were in the studio. We hadn't played shows in so long, and we played those four shows and felt that magic again. We tried to take that feeling into the studio and remember that's why we do what we do as My Morning Jacket—that joy of live performance.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."