Until gangster rap pioneer Ice-T signed with Sire Records in 1987, he was strictly DIY — “recording for small indie labels, mostly selling records out of mom-and-pop stores,” as he wrote in his 2012 memoir Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption, from South Central to Hollywood. By signing Ice-T to Sire, founder Seymour Stein, who died on April 2 at age 80, delivered hip-hop to a label mostly known for pop (Madonna), punk (The Ramones) and new wave (Talking Heads). The rapper produced three classic albums in a row for Sire: Rhyme Pays, Power and The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech … Just Watch What You Say, and went on to induct Stein at the A&R legend’s 2005 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Following a day of filming his longtime role as Sergeant Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in New York City, Ice-T remembered the late Stein in this as-told-to phone interview.
I was introduced to Seymour by a guy named Ralph Cooper, who presented Seymour with a compilation album, and Seymour picked me out of the compilation and said, “I just want to sign Ice-T.”
Me and [DJ-producer] Afrika Islam went up to his office and he was in his socks and dancing around. He told me he wanted to get involved. At that time, hip-hop was so new. First, he told me I sounded like Bob Dylan. I took that as a compliment because I knew Bob Dylan: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” all that. I said, “OK, I get it.” Then he started talking to me about calypso music: “Do you know what they’re singing about in this song?” and “This is from Trinidad.” And I was like, “No.” Then he said one of the most genius things I’ve ever heard: “Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it any less valid. It just means you don’t understand it. I may not understand rap and hip-hop, but it doesn’t take any validity away from it. It just means I don’t understand it. But I know you’re singing to people that will understand it, so I want to give you a record deal.”
I was excited and we took the deal and I was never A&R’ed or anything. It was just like, “Turn the album in.”
They just let us go. There was no one there who was capable of input in what we were doing. They had nobody else who understood hip-hop, so they just had to go with it. The records were selling, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
By the time we got to Body Count, I was working mostly with Howie Klein [president of another Warner-owned label, Reprise Records]. Seymour was always having battles with health. Whenever you got to see Seymour, it was a great moment, but he was kind of off-deck. The whole time I was on Sire, there was never any conflict. People hate record labels, but I had a great experience. I didn’t have any problem — until after “Cop Killer,” when Warner got nervous. And I understand that. They let me go, no problem, no strings attached.
The last time I saw Seymour was at his  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. I always knew he was proud of us — he was proud of me, and what I did and what I stood for. Because that’s his character. He liked to make music that meant something and moved people. Even though they say he understood pop, and how to get involved with pop, he was more punk than pop.
He was as far from a record executive as you could imagine. A lot of record executives want to look like artists. They want to hang out in the studio and dress like the artist and be cool. Seymour looked more like a scientist or some shit! Nothing about him said “record exec.”
I don’t really know if a Seymour Stein can be reproduced, when you look at the catalog he had, from Ramones to Ministry to The Smiths. That’s the hallmark of a real A&R guy. He found them in the raw. Nowadays, you have to get a billion followers and a billion views before a record label would even look at you. All of us were basically nobodies when he picked us up. Big difference. Big difference.
When he signed Talking Heads, they were opening for the Ramones at CBGBs. They were the opening act. He was like, “Fuck that, I want them, too.” I mean, who does that!