The “Cop Killer” controversy was the silly summer story of 1992, a classic battle pitting a provocative rapper against a vast array of pressure groups in a debate over free speech, moral decency, police brutality, racism, and any number of other issues you could toss on the heap. Americans love to get riled up over such things, and the fact that Los Angeles was still smoldering from the “Rodney King riots” that past April as a presidential election campaign was in full swing added a few layers of stupidity to the whole unseemly mess.
“Cop Killer,” a song about a deranged man’s quest for bloody vengeance, appeared on the self-titled debut album of Body Count, a hard-rock side project formed by Ice-T, a one-time army ranger and jewel thief who decided that rap was a more lucrative venture. One of the stanzas in “Cop Killer” went:
I got my 12-gauge sawed off
I got my headlights turned off
I’m ’bout to bust some shots off
I’m ’bout to dust some cops off.
The record came out in March 1992, almost a year after Body Count premiered the song to zero outrage during the inaugural Lollapalooza festival. But by June, it became big news after an official with the Dallas Police Association complained about the song in a column for the union’s newsletter. Local police associations across America, long untroubled by “I Shot the Sheriff” and untold violent Hollywood movies, expressed their outrage. But not all did. In fact, the debate offered an insight into the racially charged law enforcement situation in Texas. The Dallas Police Association’s membership was mostly white. The National Black Police Association, also based in Dallas, defended Ice-T’s right to free speech and backed up his insights into police brutality
Soon the imbroglio went all the way to the top. The first President Bush said the song was “sick,” and 60-something cultural icons Charlton Heston and opera singer Beverly Sills emerged from their crypts to protest the song at the annual stockholders’ meeting of Time Warner Inc., the parent company of Ice-T’s Warner Bros. label.
Ice-T made the cover of Rolling Stone in August, dressed as a baton-wielding cop. But by the time the issue hit newsstands, he had decided to remove the song from the album, citing death threats against Warner Bros. staff. No one was very happy. His fans, fellow rappers, and free-speech advocates said he had sold out; the white Texas cops said the death threat allegations were false.
The reissued album featured a newly recorded version of his old rap song “Free Speech.” Left intact were such tunes as “Smoked Pork,” a spoken-word skit in which Ice-T and bandmate Mooseman mow down some doughnut-chomping cops, and “KKK Bitch,” in which Ice-T’s character ravages the horny daughter of a white supremacist.
Ice-T parted ways with Warner Bros. the following year amid a dispute over the artwork for his new rap album Home Invasion, which he put out on an indie label. Body Count released its second album, Born Dead, through Virgin Records in the fall of 1994. That’s when I interviewed him, with lead guitarist and “Cop Killer” co-writer Ernie-C sitting in, at Virgin’s old office in Beverly Hills.
Here’s a sample. You can see the rest in the Ice-T chapter of my memoir, Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles. You can also buy Body Count’s new album, Manslaughter on June 10.
In 20 or 30 years’ time, how do you think the whole “Cop Killer” thing will be perceived?
I think it is rock ‘n’ roll history. I mean, just simply because under the illusion of free speech we could be took through the wringer to the point where the president yells. Something happened. I don’t know what happened. The people at Warner Bros. said we struck a nerve: You can’t fuck with the queen’s guards. You hit this threshold of free speech where they go, “Ah! Ah! Ah! It’s free speech, but just watch what you say.” I think people will look back and laugh about it. “Wow! That shit happened over that?” … I think people will look back and say, “Wow! They got mad at Little Richard over that? Now they got mad at Ice-T over that?” It’ll seem stupid.
The more the cops are violent, the more it makes you seem prescient.
But I’m not that greedy that I would want them to be violent to make me seem right. They’re violent enough. I wish they would start treating people like human beings. That song was a wake-up call. It preceded the riots. It was like, “Listen up! People are complaining that they’re ready to go after you. You don’t hear me?” This is one guy, the Cop Killer. I’m talking about a neighborhood that is at this point. Nobody listened up. April 29 [the day the L.A. riots started]: It went down. What I said was real at that point. Whether people understand it or not. My neighborhood understood it at that point!
Since then we’ve had a change in presidents. Does the more liberal climate make things easier for you?
It’s a weird climate. It can seem like it’s cool, and then all of a sudden you can be picked out and hung in the town square. I believe when they moved on us, it was definitely a political move. It was like a Willie Horton–type thing. “We have an election. This record was made a year ago, let’s pull it out. Warner Bros. has it, let’s attack them, let’s act like we are outraged. The cops are under siege. Let’s act like the people . . .” It had nothing to do with the record.
Most of us live our lives and don’t make a difference. In your case, while the whirlwind of attention might have been difficult for you on some levels, at least you made a difference.
Or go through the whirlwind and be killed. That would be a grand way to die, right? When you go that route you always have that little possibility. When I speak, I wanna shock people. I wanna bring people’s attention to issues. But it’s not a total blatant attempt to be in the news and all that kinda shit. That’s way over what I’m tryin’ to do. Some cheesy artists might have to do that. Like, this album [Born Dead] came out without looking for it [i.e., cheap publicity]. Now if they pick one of my songs out and make something out of it, then certain people think Ice wants that. That ain’t what I want. I wanna make a record. I want it to touch you, feel it and move on, and maybe act on it. But I don’t want to be on the fuckin’ television and all that old bullshit. If I want to do that, I’ll do a blatant publicity stunt. That’s not a problem.
How would you compare and contrast both Body Count records?
To me, I’m happy with both records because what I equate success with is much different than what a lot of other people equate success. The groups we admired when we put out the Body Count album were groups like D.R.I. and Cannibal Corpse and Slayer, the real hard stuff, Autopsy and Crowbar. That genre may sell maybe 50 or 80,000 records and they blew up, like indie groups. When we came out with the first Body Count record, it sold half a million records; we were like, “What in the fuck? Anthrax didn’t sell half a million records for five years.” We were aware there was a lot of curiosity. We had sold a half a million before the “Cop Killer” incident and that just took us to another level.
How much did you sell after the “Cop Killer” incident?
About another 450,000. Almost the same amount. We almost sold a total of a million records.
Almost platinum, wow!
No, it’s not platinum, because they’re two different records. So you gotta go gold twice. Believe it or not, that first year was incredible—from playing in Raji’s [a dingy Hollywood club] to [opening for] Guns N’ Roses. Fuck, it was like a whirlwind. I can’t imagine being on nothing like that, and doing the form of rock we were doing—cursing on every record, being aggressive. This new album, I mean we didn’t get the commercial success in the States but in Europe we blew up.
What is your core audience? Typically white?
Of course it’s white. But this year we’ve been getting more black fans showing up at the shows. White suburban kids usually probably ride skateboards, and then older metal people who have seen a lot of their groups kinda commercialize and are reaching back for what they feel is real. We’ve got real fans. They’re not into the glamour of it. They’re not into the bullshit. To me, I wouldn’t trade a core fan for anything in the world, man. They’re just down with the fuckin’ mood. They know what time it is. They don’t believe the hype, they’re just with it.
NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 1994, 2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING.