A quarter-century after rapper-actor Ice-T stirred up controversy with his metal band Body Count’s signature song, “Cop Killer,” police brutality is in the public eye more than ever. Over the past five years, numerous young black men, some of whom were unarmed or seemed to pose no threat, have been killed by policemen. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Keith Scott, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile are just a few of the more publicized cases, but in 2016 alone more than 250 black people were killed by police officers in America, according to the Guardian. And 64 cops have also been killed in the line of duty — 25 of them murdered in “ambush-style shootings,” reports NPR.
“When I wrote ‘Cop Killer,’ people weren’t actually killing cops,” says Ice-T — who is releasing a sixth album with Body Count, Bloodlust, this week on what also happens to be the 25th anniversary of the band’s notorious debut LP. “But I was saying, ‘If you keep going in this direction, then this potentially could happen.’ And I was proven right. Twenty-five years later, we’re still dealing with the same bulls***. Maybe I’ve been vindicated, but I don’t want to be vindicated. I don’t want it to happen. I don’t want cops to be out there trigger-happy.”
Ice-T may have seen the writing on the wall back in ’92, but he admits he didn’t grasp the complexity of the situation. To him, it was all black and white, so to speak. Some cops were cool; others were power-hungry racists. Now he realizes it’s not that simple. (Videos below contain profanity)
“Twenty-five years ago, I wasn’t intelligent enough to really understand why the cops were so quick to shoot,” he explains. “Now I’m older, and I understand that when [police officers] go in a gated community, they don’t have their hands on their trigger because they’re not being threatened. When they’re in the projects, they’re quick on the trigger because they don’t feel safe. These people have to have a way to retaliate, I understand that, but racism has got a lot to do with it too. And we’ve got to make sure that there aren’t any racist cops on the force. And how do you do that? The cops have to do it. If they see one of their fellow officers doing something racist, they’ve gotta report him. That’s the only way we’re gonna get rid of the bad cops.”
Ice-T still enjoys making message-heavy music with Body Count today, and Bloodlust is the band’s hardest-hitting and most cohesive offering since their 1992 debut, featuring songs about bad cops, capitalism run amok, governmental corruption, gang violence, and revenge. But these days Ice-T is a little less combative, even when writing about the Black Lives Matter movement (“No Lives Matter”) or his unwillingness to forgive anyone who crosses him (“All Love Is Lost”).
“After I did ‘Cop Killer,’ I learned that you don’t have to be so obvious with your attack,” he says. “Because what happens is if you get into a big beef about it, that dilutes what the f*** you’re doing. Now it’s controversy. A lot of people want that, but I’ve learned that doesn’t really get the job done. It slows up the message. It slows down what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Going back to the beginnings of Body Count and the context in which their music connected, we have to look to a moment that took place a full year before the band’s debut album release. A frightening era of racial tension in America was triggered on March 3, 1991, after a Los Angeles taxi driver named Rodney King was pulled over by the LAPD following a high-speed chase. When King got out of his car, four police officers beat him with batons, tazed him, and kicked him while he was on the ground. In total, he was struck more 50 times, and severely injured. A civilian in an apartment across the street videotaped the entire incident and gave the tape to KTLA, which aired it. Within days, it was everywhere.
The video ignited a powder keg that happened to dovetail with Ice-T’s new metal project, which he’d founded a year earlier with four high school friends: guitarist Ernie “C” Cunningham, guitarist Dennis “D-Roc the Executioner” Miles, bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts III, and drummer Ray “Beatmaster V” Wilson. Like Ice-T, all had been former gangsters, with the exception of Ernie C, who stayed off the streets and practiced his instrument. Body Count’s music was abrasive and confrontational, fueled by distorted guitar, maniacal vocals, wall-of-sound bass, and machine-gun drums. The lyrics addressed gang violence, promiscuous sex, and police harassment.
Straight out of the gate, the band lit the match and fanned the flames with “Cop Killer,” which was written from the perspective of an angry black man who decides take a stand against police brutality by killing law officers. Six months after they formed, Body Count were playing to crowds of white kids across the country on the touring Lollapalooza festival.
“Body Count wasn’t even booked for that tour,” Ice-T tells Yahoo Music. “It was just ‘Ice-T.’ But I had 50 minutes, so I said, ‘F*** it, let’s try and get the band out there.’ [Lollapalooza organizer] Perry Farrell and his people didn’t know I had a group. They didn’t give a f***. They were like, ‘You got 50 minutes.’ So I decided to do 30 minutes of Ice-T and 20 minutes of Body Count.”
Audiences had never seen a group that looked like gangbangers but played music that sounded like a cross between Suicidal Tendencies, Slayer, and Black Sabbath. Intrigued, Warner Bros. signed Body Count — and almost immediately, the group put together what turned out to be one of the most controversial albums ever released by a major label, filled with crushing, relentless songs that provided the attack of thrash metal, the barking simplicity of hardcore, and plenty of sick humor.
But as loud, ugly, graphic, and twisted as Body Count may have been, Ice-T and his bandmates weren’t out to overthrow the system, or even really fight the power. They were in it for kicks. “It wasn’t all meant to be taken so serious,” Ice-T stresses. “But that’s the way people took it. We were just having fun playing rock ’n’ roll. And since other metal bands tried to be all evil and sing about the devil and serial killers and s***, I figured it would be more real and more scary to sing about real s*** that was happening in my world. But I never glorified violence. In my records I jet you through the fast lane, but always drop you on Death Row. You never hear me say s*** like ‘I got away’ or ‘gangs is a great thing to do.’ But people just lost their s***.”
Largely because the nation was in a state of high alert due to the Rodney King trial, an album that might have otherwise been overlooked by all but a few metalheads fell into the crosshairs of conservative politicians and police groups. As controversial as the skits and songs like “KKK Bitch” and “Evil D***” were, it was “Cop Killer” that raised the temperature of the public watchdogs. Realizing the song was the album’s standout track, the band had originally planned to call the album Cop Killer. But then the record somehow fell into the hands of conservative actor Charlton Heston, who had some influence on Time-Warner’s board of directors, and the turmoil that had been bubbling under suddenly burst open like an infected sore.
At a shareholders’ meeting, Heston read aloud the lyrics to “Cop Killer” and “KKK Bitch,” a song about Ice-T having raunchy sex with the daughter of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard (the rapper insisted the latter was based on a true story). Heston’s disgust was echoed by Time-Warner’s shareholders, so Warner Bros. Records agreed to switch the album title from Cop Killer to Body Count — but stopped short of altering the album, citing the band’s First Amendment right to artistic expression. In the days that followed, Tipper Gore, wife of future Vice President Al Gore and a co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), wrote an article for the Washington Post that denigrated Body Count and stated, “Ice-T’s financial success cannot excuse the vileness of his message.”
“The world was a lot softer back then,” Ice-T says. “We didn’t have the Internet. People weren’t used to confrontation from artists. They thought records really were gonna cause the downfall off the earth, similar to when rock ’n’ roll first came out. What’s funny is when I did that record, people thought I did it as a stunt. They thought I was just stirring up s*** to try to sell albums. But the fear that came from that record happened because white kids started singing ‘Cop Killer,’ and white kids started taking on black anger and bringing it home and telling their parents, ‘F*** the police.’”
Opposition to Body Count and “Cop Killer” grew like dandelions across an untended lawn. The Dallas Police Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas called for Warner Bros. Records to pull Body Count and endorsed a boycott of all Time-Warner products as long as the company stood behind the record. Other police forces across the country soon joined in. Then, on April 16, 1992, all four policemen who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted by a mostly white jury, sparking L.A. riots. Over three days of intense violence and looting, 55 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured. Through no fault of their own, Body Count found themselves in the eye of the storm and were viewed as a dangerous force that encouraged vigilantism against police officers.
“I was scared for a while when ‘Cop Killer’ was really in the zone,” Ice-T admits. “It was just a different thing for me. I had been on the streets and had people threaten me and had people after me, and I lived through that. There are ways to deal with that. In the street, if somebody makes a threatening statement against you, we’re gonna go see them. We’ll get ready and get it on and squash it right there. Most of the time [when] you get to them, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, we didn’t say that.’ But that’s how you deal with it in the streets.”
Of course, Body Count weren’t in the streets. They were in the homes of kids across the country — and parents, teachers, politicians, and policemen were fuming. “When I was dealing with the ‘Cop Killer’ s***, I was afraid of running into a cop lover, somebody who says, ‘My brother’s a cop, d***head!’ and wants to cause some problem for me where I might have had to defend myself and end up in some s***. Also, the government caused a lot of the problems by vilifying me and letting the people take off on me. When the president is yelling your name on TV, it’s crazy.”
Pressured by the public outcry, Ice-T gave Warner Bros. permission to remove “Cop Killer” from Body Count. It didn’t matter. The album reached No. 23 on the Billboard album chart and went gold within in its first five months of release. And the rest was history.
Today Ice-T would love to be still making music with his four high school buddies who worked on Body Count’s debut album, but he and Ernie C. are the only original band members still alive. Beatmaster V died from leukemia in 1996; D-Roc died from cancer in 2004; and Mooseman was killed in front of a hardware store in 2001, when he was revisiting his old neighborhood and got hit by a stray bullet.
“It’s just what sometimes happens in life,” Ice-T says. “People die. It had nothing to do with them being in Body Count. If we didn’t have the band, those three guys would have died anyway. When you get older, mortality becomes real. People are sick, people aren’t taking care of themselves. That’s why I want to do everything I want to do now — just in case I don’t have the chance later.”