Tracy Lauren Marrow, son of Solomon and Alice Marrow, was born in Newark, New Jersey. Solomon was African-American, and Alice was Creole. For decades, Solomon worked as a conveyor belt mechanic at the Rapistan Conveyor Company. When Marrow was a child, his family moved to upscale Summit, New Jersey. The first time race played a major part in Marrow's life was at the age of seven, when he became aware of the racism leveled by his white friends towards black children, and that he escaped similar treatment because they thought that Marrow was white due to his lighter skin. Relaying this incident to his mother, she told him, "Honey, people are stupid"; her advice and this incident taught Marrow to control the way the negativity of others affected him.
His mother died of a heart attack when he was in third grade. Solomon raised Marrow as a single father for four years, with help from a housekeeper. Marrow's first experience with illicit activity occurred after a bicycle that his father bought him for Christmas was stolen. After Marrow told his father, Solomon shrugged, "Well, then, you ain't got no bike." Marrow stole parts from bicycles and assembled "three or four weird-looking, brightly-painted bikes" from the parts; his father either did not notice or never acknowledged this. When Marrow was twelve years old, Solomon died of a heart attack. For many years, AllMusic.com has stated that his parents "died in an auto accident", but Ice-T has stated that it was actually he who had been in a car accident, and that it was decades later.
Following his father's death, the orphaned Marrow lived with a nearby aunt briefly, then was sent to live with his other aunt and her husband in View Park-Windsor Hills, an upper middle-class Black neighborhood in South Los Angeles. While his cousin Earl was preparing to leave for college, Marrow shared a bedroom with him. Earl was a fan of rock music and listened only to the local rock radio stations; sharing a room with him sparked Marrow's interest in heavy metal music.
High school, early criminal activity, military service
Marrow moved to the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles when he was in the eighth grade. He attended Palms Junior High, which was predominantly made up of white students, and included black students who travelled by bus from South Central to attend. He then attended Crenshaw High School, which was almost entirely made up of black students.
Marrow stood out from most of his friends because he did not drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or use drugs. During Marrow's time in high school, gangs became more prevalent in the Los Angeles school system. Students who belonged to the Crips and Bloods gangs attended Crenshaw, and fought in the school's hallways. Marrow, while never an actual gang member, was affiliated with the former. Marrow began reading the novels of Iceberg Slim, which he memorized and recited to his friends, who enjoyed hearing the excerpts and told him, "Yo, kick some more of that by Ice, T", giving Marrow his famous nickname. Marrow and other Crips wrote and performed "Crip Rhymes".
His music career started with the band of the singing group The Precious Few of Crenshaw High School. Marrow and his group opened the show, dancing to a live band. The singers were Thomas Barnes, Ronald Robinson and Lapekas Mayfield.
In 1975, at the age of seventeen, Marrow began receiving Social Security benefits resulting from the death of his father and used the money to rent an apartment for $90 a month. He sold cannabis and stole car stereos to earn extra cash, but he was not making enough to support his pregnant girlfriend. Once his daughter was born, he joined the United States Army in October 1977. Marrow served a two-year and two month tour in the 25th Infantry Division and was associated with a group of soldiers charged with the theft of a rug. While awaiting trial, he received a $2,500 bonus check and went absent without leave, returning a month later, after the rug had been returned. Marrow received a non-judicial punishment as a consequence of his dereliction of duty.
During his spell in the Army, Marrow became interested in hip hop music. He heard The Sugar Hill Gang's newly released single "Rapper's Delight" (1979), which inspired him to perform his own raps over the instrumentals of this and other early hip-hop records. The music, however, did not fit his lyrics or form of delivery.
When he was stationed in Hawaii (where prostitution was not a heavily prosecuted crime) as a squad leader at Schofield Barracks, Marrow met a pimp named Mac. Mac admired that Marrow could quote Iceberg Slim and he taught Marrow how to be a pimp himself. Marrow was also able to purchase stereo equipment cheaply in Hawaii, including two Technics turntables, a mixer, and large speakers. Once equipped, he then began to learn turntablism and rapping.
Towards the end of his tenure in the Army, Marrow learned from his commanding officer that he could receive an honorable discharge because he was a single father, so he was discharged in December 1979.
During an episode of The Adam Carolla Podcast that aired on June 6, 2012, Marrow claimed that after being discharged from the Army, he began a career as a bank robber. Marrow claimed he and some associates began conducting take-over bank robberies "like [in the film] Heat." Marrow then elaborated, explaining, "Only punks go for the drawer, we gotta go for the safe." Marrow also stated he was glad the United States justice system has statutes of limitations, which had likely expired when Marrow admitted to his involvement in multiple Class 1 Felonies in the early-to-mid 1980s.