Ice-T is such a hustler. At this moment, he is in the studio where his new NBC drama, "Players," is being shot. Wearing a magenta shirt, with leopard print vest and shoes, he looks like an MTV pimp. His trademark fedora, with an upturned brim, is pulled down to within an inch of his thick brows and hazel eyes. Hustler is his clothes, which just happen to be his on-camera wardrobe. Hustler is his sly expression and hair slicked back into a ponytail. Hustler is his nonstop-motion body language. To be honest, this rapper-rocker-actor-author-peep show host is more of a hustler than anything else. Right?

"For life. Full blown. When I got up from the rap game, I had three pagers," he says in a low whisper, as the taping goes on in the next room. "I was in the streets. I was making money. I would hook up with these rappers and they were like, We're going into the studio, we're going to get blunted and kick back.' And I was like, I don't get high.'

"Let's go get drunk. "

"I don't drink.'

"I said: Let's go get this MONEY, man.' "

"And I always counted my money, who had my money," he says. "I always checked my people. Doublechecked. Made five phone calls about a hundred dollars:


"A lot of rappers got caught out there -- oh, he's making the money. he's cool -- but people are ripping them off hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now they're broke. My thing is, I got my {expletive} on so many different levels, you can't count my money. You can't comprehend it -- he made a rap record, then he made a rock record, he made a couple of movies, then he got a TV show, he's got {stuff} he's doing in Brazil, he's got a book. . . . I'm not here because I particularly love acting.

"It's a hustle."

It may indeed be a hustle but it's not the illegal type -- robberies, break-ins, credit card schemes and prostitution -- that Ice and his homeys back in south-central Los Angeles would scheme.

He means he's getting paid.

He's getting action.

He's also getting a role -- that of Isaac "Ice" Gregory -- that fits him just fine, fits him to a T. The TV Ice is one in a trio of prison felons, along with Alphonse Royo (Costas Mandylor) and Charlie OBannon (Frank John Hughes), who have been paroled in the service of crime fighting. In the pilot episode, Ice wears his goateed I-don't-play-that face. He takes the menacing fringe types he's played in films like "New Jack City" and "Trespass," loses some bleakness and adds a little felon humor. ("You don't miss watching Soul Train' with two hundred inmates?" he asks one of his partners.) This is Ice-T Lite.

The lightening of Ice's usual heavy brooding is not what he envisioned when he developed the idea. In his original version, which he thought would be a perfect HBO movie, the trio of felons were not connected to the police at all. They took the law into their own hands, stalking down and sometimes offing fiends selling children, selling drugs.

"They would take them out by any means necessary," Ice says in his trailer on the set. "They kept money {they confiscated} to operate on. They themselves were being chased by the cops and they had a parole officer that kept them one step ahead of the police.

"Too hard for television," he sighs.

But the stars of "Players" are still felons. Though they do good, they come from the other side of the law. The heroes aren't straight-up cops.

After all, this is a world envisioned by a rapper-rocker who turned the establishment upside down a few years ago with the track "Cop Killer," which encouraged the killing of brutal police.

His sentiment against bad cops hasn't changed much since that episode of his career, during which he drew the wrath of police forces and the likes of Dan Quayle and Charlton Heston. As he wrote in his book "The Ice Opinion," published last year: "Cops don't walk up to people in the ghetto, especially members of the Los Angeles Police Department, and say, Hi, how are you doing?' "

So it only figures that Ice-T has developed his own ideas about law enforcement, the enforcement of justice and the definition of justice.

"I had this idea for Players' for a few years," he says. "I had it ever since New Jack City' because they told me then that the only way you can fight bad guys is to be a cop. And I'm, like, what if a criminal wanted to stop something bad? He'd probably be better at it than a cop. And that's when my brain started working.

"I'm not a cop and I don't necessarily feel you have to be a policeman to right wrong," he says. "I think there are a lot of human beings out there in the world who have problems with crime and would like to stop it.

"I just like playing bad guys," he says. "I think with playing good guys, the tendency is to be corny. I haven't really met any straight-square people that I found extremely interesting."

But really, now. Playing a straight-up cop -- not like the edgy cop he played in "New Jack City" -- really wouldn't fit him. Wouldn't fit his hustle of being an authentic thug-gone-Hollywood. Would it? Adhering to the street credo those who say don't know, and those who know don't say, he doesn't get too specific about his criminal past. "Let's put it this way," he says. "I did the whole scope of crimes, from armed robbery to kidnapping for ransom. Hard-core {expletive}." But he says he never killed anyone. He says he doesn't want to sound as though he's glorifying criminal behavior or waving it like a flag of true ghettoness. But his past, including some gang connections, is stamped on him. Just as a good breast job is the branding mark of the latest would-be starlet, his street allure is a brand that markets him in this industry searching for what translates as real on the screen.

"He's extremely charismatic on screen," says Dick Wolf, executive producer of "Players" and the creator and executive producer behind the hit shows "Law & Order" and "New York Undercover.""It's charisma. It's something that is larger than life and instantly accessible."

This certain something is what Ice's friends recognized when they told him to take a chance at a legit hustle. "Go with it, man," Ice says they told him. "White people like you."

This was back in the early '80s, when Ice got the chance to appear in the film "Breakin'."Ten years later, he was one of the first rapstars -- after Will Smith, the "Fresh Prince" -- to parlay his name recognition and aura of street authenticity to the screen. Since then, artists like Ice Cube and Queen Latifah have made the same leap. They've proved that while it is next to impossible for established screen personalities -- Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, John Tesh -- to be taken seriously as musicians, African American rappers and singers like Whitney Houston or Janet Jackson have been able to move in the opposite direction to the big screen. This is partly due to how cheesily black films and TV shows are treated, marketed to an audience assumed to be more concerned with big names than big art. And maybe it's because each big-name rapper is accepted first of all as a distinct charismatic personality, a symbol, made up of a particular face, voice and aura. And that persona, as long as it keeps its charisma, can translate through film, TV, popular books, fashion runways -- all the way stations of modern celebrity.

It was actually through guest appearances as a hardened criminal on "New York Undercover" that Ice first caught Wolf's eye. After viewing dailies from the first day of shooting, Wolf was so taken with Ice's screen presence that he decided Ice's character would not be killed off as soon as planned. So months later, when Ice wanted to pitch his idea, Wolf, who is a big honcho out here, actually took a meeting with him.

Like rap lyrics, the images that African Americans sell can prove controversial. Ice-T caught flak from a largely white pro-police faction for "Cop Killer," which included the chorus, "Die pigs, die." But he has also incurred the wrath of blacks objecting to his misogynist depiction of black women, his glorification of a small criminal class and his claim to be an angry spokesman of the people. The contrarian pundit Stanley Crouch has compared Ice-T and other gangsta rappers to Zip Coon, a crazy, razor-toting urban character in old minstrels.

Maybe old Zippy was a hustler in his own way too -- sticking up old ladies and threatening white people. Hustlers are about the money. On the one hand they present an appealing picture of success. Ice lives in an expansive house in the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend of several years, Darlene Ortiz, and their son, Ice Jr. He says they live a married life but that he doesn't believe in the contractual institution of marriage. (But probably not many married men would parade their wives near-naked on an album cover as he has.)

As a naked rags-to-riches tale, Ice-T's story works. There is an up-and-coming rap group called the Comrades who say:

I'm out to make unsurmountable amounts of cheese {money}.

I won't stop 'til I get a house next to Ice-T's.

"Once I drove a Benz, I never wanted no low-rider anymore," Ice says. "White people come over my crib and say this is nice, like I'm not supposed to know how to even decorate my {expletive}. They're like, Why you do live here?' I say, do you think black people want to live in the ghetto? I mean, the ghetto is not a black neighborhood, it's a poor neighborhood. If I lived in the 'hood and I had some money, niggas would rob me and they would move out of the hood." Money rules the hustler and the hustler will cross a lot of lines to get it.

Take, for example, "Ice-T's Extreme Babes," a national cable show he hosts featuring naked women. As photos and videos of the women are shown, he comments. "This is Tasha, she's from Chicago." Men phone in and vote for the most extreme babe. Winners move on to the finals.

"It's cool," he explains. "It's kind of like a -- um -- beauty contest. You call from your house. It's a free call, though. It's something to do. Luke {Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew infamy} does Luke's Peep Show.' My thing is classier. It's cool. It's something to do. It's pay-per-view and I make money."

Hustlers stay on top of their game and they can change quick as lightning. Ice enjoys watching the grips on the set, how quickly they change lights, move a desk, whatever. They are the real hustlers here, he thinks. After Ice-T peaked as a rapper (his last year's album, "VI: Return of the Real," sold only 84,000, according to SoundScan), he moved into rock with his group Body Count. It was a bit much for his remaining rap fans. He would be at shows rapping with his black stocking cap on, then whip it off for the rock segment and start swinging his straight hair around like Axl Rose.

"I've been doing rap for 14 years and this is my sixth album," he says. "So when people compare me to, say, Biggie Smalls, I say, yo, that's Biggie's second record. Twelve years from now, I don't know if you'll want to hear it. I feel like John McEnroe, who's won Wimbledon. I've been on the cover of every rap magazine 10 times. I've done tours around the world so I can step off and let Nas and the new guys come in. I gracefully exit. I'm not mentally bent on still being the best rapper. But I always make rap records because I enjoy it.

"And who knows?" he adds wistfully. "I could put out a hit record next year. And it could blow up. Music could go through a cycle like, We're ready to hear some new Ice {expletive}.'

"Blam. I could be the {expletive}. You never can tell."

Hustlers also know the rules of the hustle. He may not be able to do the part he'd originally conceived in "Players." But that's okay. The number one rule out here is that if someone else is paying for it, you do what they say. Just as he is starting his own rap label, he wants to maybedo an independent film that he will control.

He is playing the game. Every year, he tries to tighten his hustle -- return all phone calls, get up early, make the moves, run. He gives his age as 38. He never thought he'd be on the Universal Studios tour. Trams filled with gawking tourists slow down near his trailer. He hears the guide say something like: "In this trailer is Ice-T shooting the new drama . . ." He's hustling what he has: Charisma? Charm? Talent? Flava? Viewers will get a chance to judge at 8 p.m., Oct. 17 on NBC.

"You know what it is?" he says. "I don't think it's even the flavor. It just made money. Don't even reach for art. This is not an artistic game. It's money. If I walked on there {on the set}, they might ask, What did he do?' You and I might call it flavor. But they're like, Damn, people like it. Let's get more of it.' " CAPTION: A gift for grift: Ice-T in scenes from "Players," above and left, and with his posing posse, below, played by, from left, Mia Korf, Costas Mandylor and Frank John Hughes.