In the early 90s, it seems that nothing quite lit up the music scene quite like black metal. But while Burzum and his mischievous team cavorted in their Scandinavian skullduggery, another form of black metal was taking shape in the confines of South Central Los Angeles – Body Count. The pioneering African American rap metal collective lead by Tracy Marrow, or as we in the streets refer to him; Ice “motherfuckin” T would not only become one of the architects of the nu metal blueprint, they would also go on to gain as much notoriety and international condemnation as their Norwegian cohorts.
To appreciate the musical and social relevance of Body Count, we must Marty McFly back to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. According to media outlets like LA Weekly, the city was in a state of economic turmoil – with 108,000 local jobs vanishing between April 1991 and April 1992. Black and Latino communities were hardest hit, with a combined 29.7 percent in poverty and more than 13 percent unemployed. Even more troubling was the continued stream of complaints against the Los Angeles police department and its chief, Daryll Gates, alleging a policy of excessive use of force when arresting minority criminal suspects, with most if not all cases dismissed due to lack of sufficient evidence to support criminal charges against officers. While many a tale of police brutality was often neglected by mainstream media, urban subcultures like the hip hop and punk movements often used their medium to express similar views of police corruption and brutality to their (mainly) young and impressionable audiences. This all changed when the footage of Rodney King squirted all over media outlets across the world and this seemingly voiceless underground minority now had the visual proof to complement their seemingly ‘controversial’ social perspective, forcing mainstream American to take notice.
Ice T has never turned a cold shoulder to controversy. Beginning his career as a rapper in the 1980s signing to Sire Records in 1987, he released his debut album Rhyme Pays – the first hip-hop album to carry an explicit content sticker. While his lyrical content throughout his early years was always politically contentious, he never seemed to garner the same respect as East Coast emcees like KRS ONE or Chuck D. Likewise, his 1991 LP OG: Original Gangster has often been heralded as a landmark moment in the development of the Gangsta Rap genre – but again his standing within the field of was never seen to be on the level of 2pac or NWA. But with that said, his Original Gangster LP planted the seed that would help push Ice T opinions to a whole new audience and make him public enemy number 1 amongst white America – it introduced the world to Body Count.
The nucleus of Body Count traces back to the Crenshaw High School in which both Ice T and Ernie Cunnigan, better known by his stage name Ernie C attended. A self taught musician, Cunnigan also produced the demos for fellow rap metal pioneers Rage Against The Machine as well as Stone Temple Pilots – helping both gain recording contracts on major labels. Aside from Ice-T and Ernie C, the original line-up consisted of Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts on bass, Victor Ray ”Beat Master V” Wilsonon drums and Dennis “D Roc” Miles on rhythm guitar. Ice notes “Body Count are the guys who play the live instruments on my albums, like in Girl Tried to Kill Me there was a live guitar, that was Ernie C, a few basslines, once in a while you hear a live drum”. The chemistry between the lads resulted in not only the self titled track on the Original Gangster LP (which also appears on the 1992 debut) but also a spot on Perry Ferral’s hipster driven Lollapalooza festival in 1991 – further growing Body Count’s white audience stocks.
Like the music itself, the name “Body Count” is a dark humor take on how the group view themselves within their environment. In a 1991 interview, Ice remarked “in Los Angeles on a Sunday night the lady comes on the news and says “13 people killed in gang warfare this weekend, now sports.” To me being a black man in Los Angeles make me just a statistic, another one in the body count”. While this may seem like an exaggeration, sadly it was the grim reality of the time. LA weeky notes that the city was in the throes of a vicious era of street violence, driven by armed gangbangers and violent crack and PCP dealers, the mayhem in L.A. produced 1,025 murders in 1991 and 1,092 in 1992 (to reference there were 612 in 2011). In conjunction with the name Body Count, the band was smart enough to understand that the artwork’s relevance cannot be underestimated, with Ice contracting Los Angels artist Dave Halili – who was able to make the album artwork contain the same controversial and politicized fury that was evident in their music.
Musically, Ice notes “what Body Count is supposed to sound like is a cross between Slayer and Motorhead. Motorhead is a groove group, and Slayer is aggressive. What I try to call it is consumable metal”. Although there is also a fair bit of a Bay Area thrash influence on display, Body Count tap into the spirits of vintage Black Sabbath and the hardcore punk intensity of the Dead Kennedys. Whilst that mixture is not always the recipe for originality, Body Count splice it with elements of blues, soul, funk and jazz – creating at times an eclectic and offbeat style that has yet to be repeated -even by the band itself on future releases.
Beatmaster V’s drumming on this release has often come under scone from many within the metal community who view it as over simplistic or lackadaisical. But it could also be argued that his funk driven almost breakbeat steeze was a refreshing change, revolutionising the way the instrument can be played in a metal band and would have a profound influence on the next generation of (nu)metal bands that followed. Another innovative idea was the drum solos in the tracks ‘Body Count’ and ‘There Goes the Neighbourhood’ – again harking back back to their jazz and funk roots – taking the time to let the individuals of the group get their shine on. The second half the rhythm section, bassist Mooseman also gets some time to bring out his inner Cliff Burton – providing the pulse and groove for the whole release and highlighted on tracks like ‘KKK Bitch’ and ‘Body Counts in the House’.
Ernie C to this day remains among the most overlooked guitar players in history. Whilst Ice T usually gets the accolades for being the face of Body Count, it was Ernie who constructed and wrote the music behind every track. He has a schizophrenic style all his own, effortlessly mixing both face grinding thrash riffs (Bowel of the Devil and the self titled track are prime examples) and blusey soul emphasized on the cracked up ‘The Winner Losers’ and his solo track ‘C Note’. D-Roc is strong throughout the LP aswell, but as this is Ernie’s musical baby, he gets little to no shine.
That’s not to say that there are not a couple of flatulent stinkers on the release. ‘Voodoo’ sounds like it was constructed at the last minute and would fit comfortably on the subpar follow up Born Dead and ‘Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight’ is just too long and monotonous. Some might argue that ‘Evil Dick’ is another album weakpoint, but its dripping with the right amount of cheese, it falls into guilty pleasure territory. Overall, musically this is an album devoid of lush soundscapes and overdrawn chasms of noise; it is an aggressive strait forward platform for the releases strong point – Ice T’s point of view.
The vocal direction of the Body Count debut was the much-needed tonic to anyone sickened by the pedestrian pop, L.A fluff hair metal of the late 80’s and posers that sang about partying, good times and scantily clad women. The hip hop delivery on hardcore tracks like ‘Bowel of the Devil’ and ‘Body Count’ was at the time a unique diction, coming off like the thugged out older brother of Zach De La Rocha. Others like ‘Body Count’s in The House’ and ‘KKK Bitch’ have Ice bringing a more traditional Busy Bee Starski emcee flair to the track. Thats not to say that Ice can’t get grimy too; “There goes the neighbourhood’ and the infamous ‘Cop Killer’ sound like a weeded out version of Minor Threat/Damage era Black Flag hardcore and are definite circle pit starters. But as they say; the empty can rattles the most – and vocal delivery means nothing without strong lyrical content.
Ice T wants to leave the listener with the eternal proof that there is more to music than just materialism and money. Music can be also a protest, a rallying call and an artistic expression. “You know what you’d do if a kid got killed on the way to school or a cop shot your kid in the backyard. Shit would hit the fan, muthafucka and it would hit real hard” from the title track is a sobering reflection of the hypocrisy and white bias that surrounds media coverage and public reaction in regards to the high mortality rate among young African-American males. Ice isn’t trying to imitate Malcom X or MLK but he is going to give you the perspective from your regular street cat who is only speaking about the realities he faced in the hood and condemning the hypocritical forces he knew placed him there. It was in many ways the same lyrical aesthetic that helped hip hop artists such as NWA and 2pac break into the mainstream American mindset and Time Warner was ready to line its pockets.
By placing urban and seemingly dangerous tales from the hardside on a medium that can be experienced and enjoyed in comfort by those with a conspicuous income (in other words the white suburban population), for distributer Time Warner, releasing the debut Body Count album was a profitable no brainer. Furthermore with the hard rock/metal platform already a commodified music genre with a large white following, Body Count was always destined to sell well. When Warner Music Group unleashed the beastly Body Count hordes upon the cd stores on March 28th 1992 (26 days after the Rodney King beating), the public ate it up and scraped the plate with 310 000 cds and cassettes being sold in its initial run – generating over 4.6 million dollars in revenue for Time Warner. Whilst small sections of the conservative media flirted with running negative stories in regards to the ‘Cop Killer’ issue upon its release, two growing external factors (the riots and the 1992 presidential campaign) pumped a dangerous concoction of hysteria laced viagra into the situation until it became a big purple veined problem that the constitution’s freedom of speech amendment just couldn’t seem to swallow.
The acquittals of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers on Wednesday, April 29, 1992 resulted in 6 days of rioting within the Los Angeles area with 53 people killed and over 2,000 injured.The rioting was the single most violent episode of social unrest in the US in the twentieth century, far outstripping the urban revolts of the 1960s both in sheer destructiveness and in the fact that the riots were a multiracial revolt of the poor. With the 1992 presidential campaign heating up between George Bush and Bill Clinton during this period, politicians did what they did best in times of national turmoil and tragedy – they rustled up a scapegoat. Eerily similar to the Marylin Manson macabrey of Columbine that followed years later, instead of addressing the issue at hand, the focus was shifted to censorship, moral responsibility and the pushing of political agenda.
Law-enforcement association CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) heralded the crusade against the track, leading a June 10th 1992 press conference calling for a boycott of products by Time Warner Inc., the media conglomerate that distributed the album. Days later In Los Angeles, two police organizations joined Vice President Dan Quayle in the public condemnation of the song. It is interesting to note that there are countless songs containing negative portrayals of police officers that never received the media scone of ‘Cop Killer’, the best-known case being Eric Clapton’s cover version of Bob Marley and the Wallers’ ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, which reached the top of the U S music charts in the mid-1970s.
Initially, the negative press resulted in having had the opposite effect of what CLEAT wanted to achieve, with Soundscan noting sales of Body Count more than doubling in Huston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. With green on their mind, Time Warner leaped in to defend Body Count with spokesman Bob Merlis noting : “the anger and the attitude that is portrayed in the song is an inner-city reality. An artist is expressing himself, and the vice president is not getting it”. Ice T offered a simple but effective rebuttle to critics by stating “if you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut”. But the Republicans were not going to let the issue rest.
The Republican party thought that by forcing the ‘Cop Killer’ issue into political debate, Clinton would have to come forth on address the issue (sneaky wordplay). If Clinton condemned Body Count and Time Warner, he risked alienating his deep-pocketed supporters in the entertainment business and the indispensable black vote. But old slick Willie pulled a curve ball of his own, side stepping the ‘Cop Killer’ issue and instead pursuing his own crusade against Jesse Jackson, accomplished through attacking rapper Sister Souljah, for spouting what Mr. Clinton perceived as “racial hatred” in an interview. This was a political strategy of the democrats designed to embarrass Jackson (a man who was not held in high regard within many white democratic voters) and signal to centrist voters that the politician was not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the democratic party. While it was obvious that Body Count were mere pawns in a political chess game – the negativity from continual press coverage started to take its toll.
By July 1992 over 1000 stores across America had pulled the Body Count album. After initially selling 20,000 and upwards per week, sales slumped to 15,000 units in the 2 and a half months after the first CLEAT press conference. With profits dwindling, so was the record labels support of Body Count’s first amendments rights and on July 28th, Time Warner pulled the album from the shelves, at the apparent “request of Ice T” and was re-released with ‘Cop Killer’ being replaced by ‘Freedom of Speech’, a reworked song from Ice-T’s 1989 solo album The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say. The track has a Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad vibe to the production and uses the famous Jimi Hendrix guitar riff from Foxy Lady as the foundation and give the track a more rock vibe to fit in with the rest of the record. No stranger to controversy himself, Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra chimes in on the songs hook and concludes the track with a small spoken word outro that, not surprisingly, attacks the idea of music censorship.
Ice T and Body Count left Time Warner early the following year with the label citing “creative differences”. In retrospect, Ice T notes “you can’t come out on a record dissing the system and be on a label that’s connected to the system. They can’t allow that. I also learned that you don’t have that many friends in life when shit hits”. Body Count released their sophomore effort Born Dead on Virgin Records in 1994, it was subpar effort that failed to catch any of the same flames that made the self titled effort the fire it was. 1997 saw redemption for the group in the form of the underrated Violent Demise – Last Days, an prophetic name as it was the last group effort with members Beatmaster C, who passed away from leukemia shortly after the release and bassist Mooseman who was killed in a random shooting in front of a hardware store in South Central Los Angeles on 22 February 2001. A reincarnated Body Count turded out Murder 4 Hire in 2006, which being generous, can only be described as an audio hemorrhoid on the arsehole of bad music.
Body Count’s 1991 release remains an important historical document not only because it tested the limitations of the First Amendment, but also because it served as a catalyst, bringing the issue of police brutality to both political and social forefronts. The music also rocks- hard, and holds its place as one of the blueprints that many Nu metal acts would movement would feast upon like ravenous wolves years later.