It was the Phoenix Festival in 1995. That four-day celebration of music doesn’t exist anymore, but for a while in the mid-1990s, it rivalled Glastonbury as the best music festival in the UK. 1995 was a good year, with the likes of Public Enemy, Faith No More, Bob Dylan, Suede, Biohazard and many more performing. And in amongst it all, Ice-T and Body Count.
By which we mean, Ice-T played a hip-hop set, chatted with the crowd while the backline was changed over, then he played a rock set with his band Body Count. And while he was chatting, he talked about how nonsensical it is to think of rock as “white” music. It’s been 24 years and this writer’s memories are clouded, but to paraphrase he said something like, “If we’re going back to the beginning of rock & roll, it’s definitely not white music.” And of course he was right.
What was interesting about that day though was the fact that Ice-T and Body Count, a band from Los Angeles led by a man with a history of documenting gang activity and social injustices, performed a song called “Cop Killer” in front of several thousand suburban white kids — and they lapped it up.
1992 was a great year for controversial rap-rock records. Rage Against the Machine’s debut album came out, as well as Body Count’s debut. It’s no coincidence that both bands were formed in Los Angeles, and that both of those albums dropped the same year that the city saw mass rioting after the officers who viciously beat Rodney King went unpunished. The racial tension reached fever pitch and Los Angeles burned. Inevitably, it had an effect on art.
For most of the ’80s, rock music in L.A. meant the Hollywood hair metallers on the Sunset Strip. But there was always a cool underground rock and punk scene for those willing to scratch the surface, and of course there was hip-hop. What’s interesting is that, in ’92, when the socio-political tensions seemed to be pulling people apart, music brought them together. Rock met rap and, while that resulted in some awful shit down the line (cofLimpBizkitcof), in ’92 it was very necessary.
So naturally, Ice-T was pissed. Like everyone else he had watched events unfold in his city as a huge injustice took place. Body Count, though, wasn’t a direct reaction to the Rodney King riots. He’d recorded a song as Body Count, called “Body Count”, for his solo OG: Original Gangster album the previous year. He later pointed out that what took place in ’92 — the cops getting off — surprised nobody in the rap world. In fact, the song “Cop Killer” was written in 1990 and was performed regularly by Ice-T in 1991. He did change some lyrics to reflect the Rodney King events but the song was in place, as was the sentiment.
One person who was not a fan of Body Count was Planet of the Apes actor and NRA nut-job Charlton Heston. He objected to the fact that Warner had released the Body Count album, a company with whom he held a large amount of shares. So the gun-loving hypocrite took himself to a Time-Warner shareholder meeting, read out the lyrics to “Cop Killer”, and was very proud when Warner cancelled Ice-T’s contract.
Or in other words, a rich old white man read a black man’s reaction to racial injustice in monotone to a room full of other rich white people and attempted to hurt his career. Or, as Ice-T would likely look at it, business as usual.
“I got my twelve 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
I’m cop killer, it’s better you than me
Cop killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family’s grievin’ (fuck ’em!)
Cop killer, but tonight we get even, haha!”Body Count “Cop Killer”
Now look, nobody here advocates the killing of police officers. Ice-T, who would later play the role of a police officer on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, has said that he was playing a character in Body Count much like he plays a character on TV. Art should never be blamed for the bad behavior of others. And Jesus, let the man vent. There was nothing more ironic, post Rodney King and the release of “Cop Killer”, than the sight of a bunch of cops and their families protesting the song. Ice-T was singing and rapping about the police dying — meanwhile, black people were actually dying.
“It was pretty rough for a while,” Ice-T told Louder Than Sound. “When you’re in the entertainment business they can shut down all of your avenues of revenue for a while. You can’t work, you can’t do concerts — it made things real complicated for a while. But, at the end of the day, I’m on TV playing a cop, so fuck ’em. They’ll never understand what that music is expressing.”
Eventually, after numerous death threats (again, ironic), Ice-T removed the track from the album, though he distributed “Cop Killer” singles at shows. People can find the song today if they want to. And, taken in the context it was intended, it’s a great song. No cops were harmed in the making of that record. But some valid rage was released.
“I don’t hate cops,” Ice-T says now. “I hate brutal cops.” That’s not even controversial.