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Hip-hop on ‘ice’

This week the Oxford English Dictionary published their final quarterly update for 2012. Among the recently revised entries is the noun ice, which has got me thinking about the lyrics of “Thrift Shop”, a song by the hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Check it out:

I’m just pumped, I bought some sh*t from a thrift shop.
Ice on the fringe, it’s so damn frosty,
the people like, “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honky

Macklemore’s describing a piece of clothing purchased from a thrift shop. The clothing’s ornamented with fringe, on which there’s “ice”. The “ice” makes the clothing “frosty” (relying on his theme, I read this as “cool”, but it could mean “covered with diamonds”­–more on that in a sec), and when he wears it, he looks “cold-ass” (extremely cool). While his deployment of ice is interesting (usually, when a hip-hop MC uses the term in his/her lyrics, it’s slang referring to diamonds, but Macklemore’s thrift shop ice is probably rhinestones), perhaps the most intriguing part of those lyrics is the string of wintry metaphors, which seem to rely on ice for their meaning.

Breaking the ice

Using ice to mean diamonds is not unique to hip-hop. In fact, this slang antedates the genre by some 80 years. The OED‘s earliest record dates from 1896, back when ice was part of a burgeoning criminal argot in Chicago. Over the twentieth century, the term increased its currency, cropping up in detective novels and occasional articles about the underworld, but it never quite escaped those outlaw roots. Ice in this sense is widely-known and understood today, but still markedly informal; you probably won’t find it in the Tiffany & Co. catalogue.

Within the genre of hip-hop music, however, ice has enjoyed more freedom and shown some productive lexical potential. For example, there’s a long tradition of rappers weaving the core sense, “frozen water”, into their lyrics about diamonds. In G-Unit’s “Stunt 101″, Young Buck raps, “the ice in my teeth keep the Cristal cold”, a reference to how the diamonds in his grill chill champagne as he drinks it (grill is either a reference to his ivories or a type of jewellery worn over them). Of course the intent isn’t literal, but rather a creative way of showcasing his mouth-bling.

MCs have extended this sense of ice to related parts of speech. In 1997′s “Going Back to Cali”, Notorious B.I.G. claimed he was “iced out” (rocking lots of diamonds). Gucci Mane practically built a career on “I’m so icy” (clad in diamonds, also). AZ drops a verb version into “Quiet Money” with “I iced the finger, the neck, and the wrist up” (I put diamonds on the. . .). The list goes on.

Frostbit, minus two degrees

Some of the more innovative rappers have brought this sense to other words with similar meanings, like frost, which can be used almost interchangeably with ice in hip-hop contexts. One curious spin-off of this trend is frostbit, which I first heard in Notorious B.I.G.’s verse on Jay-Z‘s “Brooklyn’s Finest” (1996):

Rolex and bracelets is frostbit, rings too,
N***as ’round the way call me Igloo.

A few years later it crops up again on another Jay-Z track “Money Ain’t a Thang” (1998), in which Jermaine Dupri spits, “The big dog with the big chain, frostbit bracelet to match”. In these we’re meant to understand that the wrist-wear’s “frozen”, i.e. bedecked with ice, diamonds. This usage doesn’t just allow for better variety, it also bears some lexical significance. Refer to the OED entry, and you’ll see that the adjective frostbit is altogether rare. Standard English prefers the participle frostbitten, so it’s unsurprising that there’s no evidence in the quotation paragraph more recent than 1823. Hip hop seems to be fostering something of a frostbit resurrection. Who knows, if the term takes off, we might end up seeing some of these rhymes supporting a new sense in future editions.

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