Cold as Ice
“It’s hell to be an orphan at an early age This impressionable stage No love breeds rage.”
—“I Must Stand”
because I first made my name as a rapper claiming South Central L.A., people often assume I’m strictly a West Coast cat. But my family was actually from back East. I was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in Summit, an upscale town in north Jersey. There was this tiny area of Summit where most of the black families lived. My parents and I lived in a duplex house on Williams Street. And on the street right behind us—backyard to backyard—was my aunt, my father’s sister.
For my first few years, it was just a real middle-American life.
I don’t remember taking any trips or anything exciting. One thing I do remember, when my dad would take me places, he would get White Castle burgers and throw me in the backseat, and he expected me to eat my White Castles and be quiet. My dad and I spent a lot of time together not saying anything. I went to the YMCA, where I learned how to swim and do gymnastics. It was kind of a big deal to have a membership to the Y, because it meant your Pops had money to spend on you. I remember going from Pollywog to Dolphin, then graduating to Shark and Lifesaver, and I’m pretty proud of the fact that I learned to be a good swimmer.
There wasn’t any violence or trauma. It was quiet, simple, and suburban. An almost perfect childhood—except, for me, every couple years, losing a parent . . .
My father’s family came from Virginia and Philadelphia. He wasn’t a brother who talked a lot. He was a workingman, a quiet, blue-collar dude. For years—decades—he worked at the same job. He was a skilled mechanic at the Rapistan Conveyer Company in Mountainside, fixing conveyer belts. Despite the fact that Summit is predominantly white, I can’t say there was overt prejudice in the town, at least not within the adult world as I observed it. All my father’s friends, all the guys he worked with, were white working-class dudes. Lunch-bucket dudes. Black and white, they were all cool with one another.
My father was a dark-skinned brother, but my mother was a very fair-skinned lady. From what I understand she was Creole; we think her people originally came from New Orleans. She looked almost like a white woman, which meant she could pass—as folks used to say back then. Her hair was jet-black. She was slim and very attractive. I recall people telling her she looked like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge.
The fact that my mother could pass intrigued me, even as a little kid. I understood that it was a big fucking deal. In my household, it was often a topic of quiet discussion between my parents. When you can pass, you get to hear the way white people speak freely with one another when black folks aren’t around. You get that kind of undercover look at the way white folks really think. So my mother understood racism intimately, from both sides of the fence, and there was never any tolerance for it in the house.
As hazy as a lot of my childhood is to me, I do have a very clear memory of the day when I first learned I was black. Before that, I guess, I never really knew I was black. Everybody figures out there’s something called “race” at some point in their life, and for me it happened when I was about seven years old.
At the time, I was going to Brayton Elementary School in Summit, and I used to have a white friend named Alex. He was one of my closest friends in school. Alex and me were walking over to his house one day after school and we bumped into this other kid from our class named Kenneth—he was one of the few other black kids who went to Brayton with me. Soon as we ran into Kenneth, Alex told him, “Kenneth, you can’t come over.” Kenneth looked pretty bummed out but he just walked on, head down, kicking the curb the way little kids do. Then we ran into some more kids from our class and Alex had no problem inviting them to his house to play. We walked along the sidewalk in silence and the question just popped into my head.
“I thought you told Kenneth you couldn’t have any more friends over?” I asked.
“Kenneth?” Alex laughed. “Oh, Kenneth—he’s a darkie.”
He said that shit so matter-of-fact. I didn’t understand it. My mind was trippin’ the rest of the afternoon.
Damn, I thought, Alex must think I’m white. I guess I’m passing, too.
Now, I had this other white friend named Mark, and the rules at his place were a little different than at Alex’s. All the kids could come over to Mark’s place to play in the yard, but when it got dark outside, as soon as the twilight made it hard to see, the white kids were allowed to come inside the house and keep playing but the black kids were sent home. Nobody asked any questions. Nobody said shit. It was just accepted as the way things were. And I was still considered “white enough”—or maybe they were just confused about what exactly I was—that I could stay and play with the white kids while the handful of black kids just split.
It was confusing as hell. When I got home, I told my mother about it. She looked at me with this half smile.
“Honey, people are stupid.”
That was her line. It’s one of the things I recall her saying to me a lot. People are stupid. She didn’t break that down for me, but I understood her to mean: You can’t necessarily change the ignorant way people think—but you can damn sure control the way it affects you personally. And then you keep it moving.
I guess my mom was preparing me in her own way, simply by downplaying it, telling me that this was some bullshit—racism—that I was going to be dealing with in some way or another for the rest of my life. Even today, I find myself constantly saying those same words under my breath: Yo, don’t even sweat it. People are stupid.
my mother died of a sudden heart attack when I was in the third grade. I’ve read some craziness online that my parents were killed in a fiery car crash. No, they both died of heart attacks, four years apart. It was me that nearly died in a car wreck, but that was decades later, when I was already hustling out in Cali.
When my mother passed I didn’t cry. To this day, I don’t fully understand why. I didn’t shed any tears. I didn’t go to the funeral, either. I didn’t have much say in the matter. In those days, that’s how grown folks handled kids when someone died. Someone—must have been my father—decided to keep me at the house, away from the church or the funeral home. All the younger kids—me and some cousins on my dad’s side—were upstairs in our house playing the whole day. We were kind of oblivious. We never went downstairs with the mourners. I don’t think it’s quite the same today, but back then there was a conscious effort to shelter kids more. You’d be sent upstairs, you might even be sent away to someone else’s house, during the funeral arrangements.
The first time I ever cried in my life—the first time really letting out tears of grief—was at the funeral of my homey Vic. Victor Wilson—Beatmaster V, the drummer from my band Body Count. And that was in 1996, when I was a grown-ass man, after watching Vic’s body get devastated by leukemia.
Even today, I don’t dig the whole scene of a funeral. Funerals are ugly. I never go to them. I’d much rather remember the person alive. I don’t want to see anybody lying in a box.
My mother didn’t have any family around us. In fact, I never knew anybody from my mother’s side of the family; even today I don’t. My father, though, had two sisters and a lot of cousins. My aunt in the neighborhood had two daughters. There was a lot of family showing up at the house who I’d never seen before my mother’s funeral.
All these folks—distant relations and friends—kept coming by to pay their respects. Also, I later found out: to steal stuff. That’s the one thing I recall vividly after my mother’s funeral. My father was pissed because a bunch of shit was missing from the house after it was all over.
My mother was a very supportive and smart woman, and I know she cared about me, although she wasn’t very affectionate toward me. I only have a few specific memories of her, vague and distant, like some grainy home movie, someplace in the back of my mind. . . .
I’m sitting on the couch watching Batman on TV; she’s calling out, “Tracy!” telling me to come to dinner . . .
I remember her sitting on the sofa a lot, with balls of yarn and knitting needles. That was my mother’s only hobby; she loved to knit and crochet. I’d watch her making these intricate squares and then connecting them together in quilts. We had her quilts, neatly folded, on the beds and sofas in the house.
This may sound strange, but I don’t know that much about my mother’s personal story. I’m not a very backward-looking person. I realize that a lot of people like to dig into their past, research it, log in to genealogical websites to find out about their roots. I have no interest whatsoever in that shit. I’ve never been a guy to spend too long looking in the rearview mirror. To me it’s like John Lennon once said: “I never went to high school reunions. . . . Out of sight, out of mind. . . . I’m only interested in what I am doing now.” That’s my attitude, too.
My father, who was a church-going, nine-to-five guy—did his best to raise me on his own after my mother died. My aunt who lived right b...