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Remembering 1992: The Summer of Body Count

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“If they put a bullet in me then I’m dead. But I can’t live a coward…the problem is I have injected the white kids with the anger of the black kids” –Ice-T

Rodney King was found dead by his fiancé in a swimming pool on June 17. King is best known for what happened on the worst night of his life in 1991. High on PCP, he led Los Angeles police officers on a 100-mile-per-hour car chase and was later beaten on a roadside by officers. Video footage captured the attack; in the following year, it was played repeatedly on televisions nationwide. An all-white jury in Simi Valley, California nonetheless acquitted the officers a year later. Los Angeles erupted. Hundreds of buildings were burned or destroyed. Fifty-three people were killed.

The King saga was one of the many national stories in the 1990s with strong racial undertones: Authorities scoured South Carolina for a black man when Susan Smith’s children went missing only to discover that she had strapped her own children in a car and pushed them into a lake. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas said his contentious nomination hearing and associated sexual harassment charges amounted to a “high-tech lynching.” In rural Virginia, a black man was beheaded and burned in a town named Independence. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson was seen by many as a ‘receipt’ to the Los Angeles Police Department for their record of brutality.

King’s beating and the renewed racial tensions resonated beyond the riots; in politics, art, cinema, pop culture and even in metal. Weeks before the riots, Body Count introduced their eponymous debut, an album originally set to be called Cop Killer. Released 20 years ago, Body Count remains the most controversial metal record ever recorded and released for mass distribution (via Time Warner) and the only record to ever become a national legislative priority. It continues to resonate whenever art and censorship are discussed.

While bands like Mercyful Fate, Judas Priest and Twisted Sister were mentioned during the Parents Music Resource Center witch hunts of the ’80s and Bob Dole went after Cannibal Corpse, Body Count is the only album to ever attract the attention of a sitting president (George H.W. Bush) and the cinematic Moses (Charlton Heston); the only album that imperiled the stock price of a thriving media company (Time Warner) and the only record that led police departments to say they wouldn’t respond to calls at stores where the album was sold. Never mind the fact that Dan Quayle, the 1990s version of Sarah Palin, was a heartbeat from the presidency; America again found a reason to target art instead of scarier realities. Tackling incendiary lyrics and demonizing black musicians in Raiders baseball caps makes for easier talking points than challenging something more substantial.

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Footage of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police

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At the core of the story is American’s long history of racism. Rap was long reviled by politicians and conservatives because it sold an image that terrified the establishment; articulate young African-American men, often armed, with no respect for the police. In my suburban hometown you had to show an ID card to get a copy of the 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be. NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” was an urban anthem that became more menacing when suburban teens started playing it in their parents’ Jeep Cherokees.

Body Count took music most associated with white kids – heavy metal – and combined it with rap’s audacity and rhythm. Politicians had trouble attacking rappers because artists could counter that they wrote about what happened in their neighborhoods and empowered themselves through self-expression. Then Body Count appropriated hallmarks of white rebellion – swapping samplers for electric guitars and power chords. They became an easier target.

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Ice-T – “Rhyme Pays”

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Body Count’s debut was conceived long before any of the events that brought the album international attention. Ice T’s move – combining rap and metal – was just as influential as D.R.I and Corrosion of Conformity’s decision to fuse punk with metal a few years earlier. It’s also been arguably as musically influential; bands like Rage Against The Machine, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and even certain deathcore artists learned something from Body Count.

During high school in Crenshaw, Ice-T befriended Ernie C and the other musicians who would later form Body Count. He was exposed to heavy metal as well as hip-hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa. On his first record, Rhyme Pays, – amid verses about typical subjects like self-bravado and street living – he brilliantly sampled Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and the “Tubular Bells” theme for “The Exorcist”. His sampling of a metal lick came a year before Public Enemy sampled Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on “She Watch Channel Zero.” T’s vocal delivery wasn’t smooth, but aggressive and high-strung; in short, it was perfect for metal.
The ferocity of Body Count is often overlooked because “Cop Killer” received so much attention. It’s perhaps the best rapcore album and a strong statement about urban decay and police misconduct offset by moments of silliness that feel like the awkward pause in a horror movie.

While everyone went nuts about “Cop Killer” I don’t see how they missed the opening section of the album, “Smoked Pork.” The track features Ice-T and Mooseman gunning down a cop and was never cut from later releases. “Body Count’s In the House” has sweet groove and “The Winner Loses” is about the evils of crack cocaine: “Living his life in the dark light / Every dollar he gets goes into the pipe.” Cautionary tales are interwoven with juvenile songs like “Evil Dick” and “KKK Bitch,” about dressing up in Klan robes and having sex with a grand wizard’s daughter. The thought of Charlton Heston reading lyrics like: “We had our hoods on / We were slick / She pushed her butt up hard against my dick” is as funny as Tipper Gore reading the lyrics to The Mentors “Golden Showers” a decade earlier.

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Body Count – “Cop Killer”

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“Cop Killer,” originally the last song on the album, was the logical exclamation point. It’s a statement of frustration about unchecked police brutality. The lyrics don’t catalog the violence but are almost straightforward and staccato: “Cop killer / Better you than me / Cop killer / Fuck police brutality / Cop killer / I know your family’s grieving-fuck em’ / Cop killer / But tonight we get even.” T said in interviews in the ’90s that the album wasn’t about someone angry about the Rodney King incident. The timing is just too coincidental to think otherwise – and King is name checked in the song’s final minute.

The outrage about “Cop Killer” quickly escalated. Death threats were sent to Time Warner executives, and stockholders threatened to pull out of the company. Ice-T received constant death threats and bomb threats during appearances. In July 1992, the New Zealand Police Commissioner tried to stop a Body Count appearance.

Ice-T finally relented and released the album with “Cop Killer” cut and replaced with a spoken word track called “Freedom Of Speech.” His collaborator was former Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra, who had run afoul of the government for including a poster of H.R. Giger’s Penis Landscape inside the Frankenchrist album. It’s interesting to contemplate what might have happened if he chose to stand his ground, but I’ve never had almost every cop in the United States declare me a hostile.

The controversy eventually died down. Body Count went on to be sold for exorbitant prices at record shops for the rest of the ’90s. But the Internet – then in its infancy – assured that “Cop Killer” would live on. Today you can visit YouTube and listen to a song that the government literally tried to snuff into extinction. The Rodney King beating video, now considered the world’s first viral video, also lives on forever via technology; in the days after King’s death the comment sections turned into memorials.

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Ice-T on Arsenio Hall

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Body Count continued in the years after their debut but with little controversy or fanfare. The band released a subpar album called Born Dead, toured and recorded a cover version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Much like Ice Cube, who frightened as a lawless protagonist in NWA songs, Ice-T traded outlaw status for mainstream acceptability and a role as a police officer on “Law And Order: Special Victims Unit”.

The epilogues weren’t uniformly happy. D-Roc and Beatmaster V died of cancer. Mooseman was killed in a drive-by shooting, the victim of the same violence Body Count exposed. Violence still simmers in inner cities and police corruption is all too frequent. The recent shooting in Florida of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a neighborhood watch coordinator stoked racial fires yet again. The important records – the ones we remember – remind us of both the best times and the worst, the divine and the depressing. Body Count is best remembered for the summer of 1992, when one of our greatest cities was nearly toppled and burned. The band and album literally held the government hostage and captivated a nation. It was the ultimate rebuke to authority, an act more brazen than anything by an Occupy protester in a Guy Fawkes mask or a Norwegian with a pack of matches and a gas can. It’s the last time I remember when music seemed like a legitimate threat to social order. If you fancy yourself a musical rebel you can’t take it any further.

— Justin M. Norton

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