Are You Down? Darlene Ortiz Talks Her Years With Ice-T and What Her Family Thought of the 'Power' Cover
The woman who changed rap album art shares that story and more in her new book, 'Definition of Down.'
Darlene Ortiz is hip-hop royalty. As Ice-T’s muse, she sent shockwaves through popular culture and helped to push the boundaries of rap album art when she appeared bikini clad and holding a shotgun on the cover of Ice’s sophomore effort, Power, in 1998. Ice and Ortiz made up one of hip-hop’s first power couples, and she always stood by his side as he tried to make a name for himself. (She was his trap queen before he got a record deal, if you will.) They first met in 1985 at the now legendary L.A. venue Radiotron, where she caught the attention of Ice-T the house MC. Attempting to pick her up, he told her he wanted to put her on his album cover. He proved to be a man of his word and featured her on the cover of his debut album, Rhyme Pays, two years later.
It wasn’t always easy being madly in love with America’s favorite gangster rapper, which is clear from her recently released Definition of Down, but calling her book a tell-all couldn’t be further from the truth. The book works more like a memoir as Ortiz takes us on a journey through her life without taking unnecessary and petty shots at her former lover. And being that they were together for 17 years and have a 24-year-old son together, she likely had some stories.
She stopped by our New York office to talk about a childhood that was filled by love from her dad and hate from her mom, the infamous Power cover and how her family reacted, and falling in and out of love with a man almost 10 years her senior.
Why write a tell-all now?
Some people consider it a tell-all, but it’s not. I’m not sensationalizing or specifically calling certain things out. It’s the story. It happened, and it was beautiful.
Based on the book, it seems like you and Ice-T still have a good relationship.
I would want it to be a better relationship, but there’s no hate there. I’m disappointed highly of how it ended and how we chose to end it. I’m very disappointed, but at the same time, how can I be mad at him? All these exciting things happened because of him. I met him and supported him, and he is still my son’s dad. There’s no way it can ever really get ugly.
The letters he wrote you make it seem like he tried to be up-front about the relationship.
Well, when that happened, the split, sure. Other things, years before that? He was in denial. I don’t blame him. He didn’t want to end the relationship then so he was gonna do whatever it took to hold onto it. I just wanted to know if there were any kind of adjustments we needed to make. That’s all I wanted to know. But, of course, he stuck to his guns, and that’s why I threw that line in there about Shaggy because he kept saying, “It wasn’t me. What? I was taking somebody’s secretary home.” Gotta laugh at it because it ain’t the end of the world. I’m glad it didn’t get really ugly.
Yeah, those things tend to get like that.
Especially nowadays with social media. I don’t know what it’ll take for me to call somebody out on social media. It’s silly.
I was trying to pin down the timeframe between events, from when you met him at Radiotron and he told you he wanted to put you on the cover to when Rhyme Pays came out.
Two years. When we went on our first date he was like, “I don’t really even have an album.” He was up-front. He’s always been like that. He was like, “I don’t even have a deal.” It had nothing to do with, “Oh, I’m gonna pose for some album.” I had never done stuff like that. I was a kid in high school. It was interesting that he said he was gonna do it. Everything he said he was gonna do, he ended up doing.
Talk about your childhood life a little bit and how that played a role in your relationship with Ice.
I didn’t have any guidance. He could’ve told me anything, I was so intrigued with him. He used to pimp when he was in the service for extra cash. That very well could’ve happened to me. I was that open when I met him.
He’s an older guy, too. Was he like a father figure to you?
Yeah, there’s a 10-year age difference. I would say that. Although my father was right there, I really looked up to Ice. My mom, another story.
You were the oldest?
No, I’m the youngest. I was the last one living at home. All my sisters had run away while I was really young. The last one, the one I was close to, she ran away when she was 14. She’s been on her own since then, and I was the one who stayed home the longest. At that point, Rose [her mother] was getting tired. She couldn’t keep up with us, especially after that major incident that happened.
Your life changed after you tried to light her bed on fire.
There’s a great picture I added of my quinceanera with my mom. That was a year or two after that incident. You see in that picture we both look horribly miserable. She wasn’t even supposed to be there. That’s because after that it was like, I have to live with this woman. She was receiving my child support, and she wasn’t gonna let me leave. I had to stay with her ’cause I was underage. My dad’s family are the people that really truly raised me, and they were always so loving and kind. My dad’s family said, “Let Rose come, it’s all right.” They knew she wasn’t gonna mess anything up because of the incident, and she didn’t.
Is your mom still alive?
How about your father?
He passed as well.
I know you were real close with him. Talk about your relationship with your father for those that haven’t read the book.
What an awesome relationship. I don’t know if you follow me on IG or Facebook or anything like that, I’m always talking about him. I’m gonna try not to cry…. He’s just amazing. He always used to say, “Mija, I don’t wanna try and turn you into a boy, but I’m gonna do everything with you.” One moment he’s braiding my hair, the next we’re out digging for worms, fishing, hunting, riding a motorcycle—he bought me my first motorcycle. He’s a biker. He didn’t care how he looked, and he would teach me that too. He really enforced that with me. It shouldn’t matter what anyone thinks about you, become what you want. I can’t even think of anything that was wrong with him, and when I met Ice he reminded me of my dad.
How did your father feel about you dating an older guy?
He didn’t care. My dad was so cool. I remember when I was already with Tracy, I went to go visit my dad. I hadn’t seen him in about a year. I thought, “Oh God, here it comes,” because I always thought one day my dad might flip, maybe he’ll get an attitude, maybe he’ll get upset at something. I go to meet my father, he just straight up said, “I hear you’re with this dude. How is he?” I said, “He’s awesome.” He said, “He’s good to you?” I said, “He’s great.” He said, “You hungry? Let’s go.” We just got something to eat, and that was it.
What did he say about the album covers, though?
He didn’t mind it. My dad was so cool, you have no idea. Now my grandmother was the one. Her eyes lit up. I said. “I have something to show you.” She looked at it, her eyes went so wide I thought, “Oh god, what’s gonna come out of her mouth?” and she said, “You look so pretty, you’re so strong.” Then I flipped the album over and she goes, “Yeah, mija, I don’t care for the butt thing.” We never showed my grandpa by the way. He has since passed and has never seen it.
You’re lucky the Internet wasn’t a thing back then.
Even though I dressed and acted the way I wanted to, I could dress one way outside and in my home, but I would never go into my grandparents’ or my dad’s house looking a certain way. I would change myself up. I remember showing up to a PTA meeting in a non-fitted dress buttoned to the top and my son being confused. He said I looked like I was going to church. That was not me at all.
Does he still live with you?
He’s 24, and he moved out when he was like 20. He’s a little entrepreneur. He’s been out, he’s selling business names and things like that. He’s doing his own thing.
He’s like his father then.
Pretty much. I couldn’t even think of anybody that can top his dad, but he is so much more than his dad. Ice would take up anything and master it. But this one? His little seed, this kid. It’s been so entertaining. He does everything: flies planes, plays poker, golf, already got a hole in one—who does that even in their life?
How old were you when you got pregnant?
24. I gave birth to him when I was 25. I always wanted children.
It had something to do with your childhood, right? You wanted to have a kid and be better than your mom.
You are so right about that. I always hear people saying, well, I was abused and I did this, and they use it as an excuse most of the time. It was hard for me to feel bad for them because they would use it as an excuse as to why they’re doing that act. I was a child and knew. I used to look at my mom and say, “Man, I can’t wait to not be at all like her.” I’m gonna be the polar opposite.
Were you in love with hip-hop before you met Ice-T?
I was in love with hip-hop before I even knew what it was. I didn’t even know there were that many elements to it. For some reason it just got me. I loved graffiti. I had somebody tag my whole room up as a girl. Instead of having little posters, I had them come in. I didn’t even wanna see the walls. I love this stuff.
Explain the L.A. scene compared to the New York scene during those times.
The rap thing in L.A. at the time wasn’t like it was in New York. We were trying to bust open the doors for L.A. It took a long time for them to gravitate towards certain things like the fashion, music, and everything. So when I came to New York I was like, “This is it, This is it, man, I’m done. This is amazing.”
Was Rhyme Pays out by that time?
No, that was when we came here to get the deal. It wasn’t out yet. He came to New York to get the deal. He put it out later that year. It was already done.
Ice had already made friends in New York because of Afrika Islam.
Yep. They had already pre-recorded when they were in Hollywood, so Islam came and he stayed with us and lived with us. Matter of fact, that’s interesting because I don’t know the details of how he knew Islam, because Islam was literally living with us. When I went to move with Ice, he came to stay with us and we didn’t have room.
Was this the garage or the one after that?
The converted garage was the first one. When I moved in he wasn’t there with us yet, but then Ice was like, “Look, I’m about to make this music, and I’m bringing this guy in.” It didn’t make it in the book, but there’s a picture of Islam lying on our floor with the drum machine. You see him stretched out on our floor with a little TV, bed, and a couch. I would go to work and leave them and be so annoyed because I never thought that it was going to happen, but I still supported him. He really did it.
Do you regret anything?
Are you kidding me? I definitely would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’d make subtle changes, especially on how it ended or maybe even when, but it’s all good. We’ve got our health and everything. I put my heart and soul in it.
Explain the definition of down.
Being as loyal as you can be no matter what. It had nothing to do with money. Even after we broke up, I still stayed down. Because even though I wanted to express myself, I thought that it didn’t feel right. I don’t wanna do that to him. He’s got a career. I’m not the only one that is benefitting from some of the stuff still. He’s got employees. There are kids involved. Couldn’t do that, so that’s what being down is. No matter what, even after the fact.
Is he still making good on the promise that he’ll take care of you guys forever?
Not to the degree that I think we deserved when he initially left. I knew I was gonna be OK, but for our kid it could’ve been much better. But whatever, he chose to do that and sometimes I let higher powers take over and handle some things.