On March 31, 1992 the band Body Count released their first album, a self-titled blast of fury from basically two driving forces. Ice-T as the lead singer and lyricist and Ernie C as the driving musical visionary. I don't remember the exact date I bought the album, but it was within the first week.
For the record, I liked the album, it was in my rotation of Metal albums I was listening to back in 1992, but I haven't listened to it lately. Not because I don't like it, or because it hasn't aged well, it's because I own it on cassette tape. In a digital world, how many people are listening to their tapes?
Voodoo by Body Count
How did I hear about Body Count to begin with? I was a huge Anthrax fan and a huge Public Enemy fan. When they released Bring the Noise in 1991, I thought metal and rap was a natural partnership.
Editor's Note: Mostly, it wasn't.
So I bought the album right after it was released based on the premise of Ice-T rapping over metal riffs and wasn't disappointed. My favorite song by Body Count was a quirky piece called Voodoo. What surprised me was what would happen just a few months after my purchase....
Underneath the headlines of the on-going fallout of the Charlottesville situation, Spotify announced that they were going to ban Racist music. "Here we go again," I thought. So I looked up the music in question and I had heard of zero of the bands. Even if I don't actively listen to every new band, I try to stay familiar with what's going on in the musical world. None of the bands on the Spotify list were going anywhere, so the gesture was mostly a hollow PR grab. But again we are talking about a slippery slope. How do you mean, exactly? Well today I read 3 separate articles about the best way to exercise Freedom of Speech is to ban racist music. The logic being, the platforms on which the bands are on, are able to terminate their relationships based on their Freedom of Speech. Let's just assume that the Neo-Nazi bands fall into the hate speech category and they should be banned. I'm not listening to those bands, but in my head, I kept hearing the haunting echoes of Charlton Heston...
Body Count was grinding it out in the Spring of 1992. They were touring, promoting their new album, when some Right-Wing groups started griping about the lyrical content of the song Cop Killer. As the movement to ban the song started to grow, Ice-T stated that the song was a "protest song" and assumed that the controversy over his music would simply blow over. Then Police Union Groups began a movement to boycott Time Warner and its subsidiaries. By the summertime, the heat was on Time Warner and at its yearly Shareholder Meeting in July of 1992, actor Charlton Heston read the lyrics of Cop Killer aloud to an aghast room of suits.
Then it was a straight up media feeding frenzy.
If you take the lyrics from Cop Killer and only use the black and white written word, some people would consider that hate speech, others would consider it free speech. There's the gray area at the end of the free speech spectrum that we're talking about here. In my mind, two things saved Cop Killer.
Cop Killer wasn't the worst song on the Body Count album: If you had to rate the songs from least to most offensive, Cop Killer wouldn't be #1. It probably would have been the song KKK Bitch and a nasty reference about specific underage girls. I thought it strange that the public wasn't reacting to the most offensive song on the album, but to the song the media SAID they should be offended by. That's when I started to notice when things were being dragged into public discourse not on pure content, but by political agendas.
Ernie Cunnigan: I think it was Seth McFarlane that said that animation make offensive jokes more palatable. The same goes for music, dicey lyrics in a musical bed are always more palatable. Guitarist Ernie Cunnigan doesn't get the musical credit he deserves for Body Count.
Ice-T backed down and had Cop Killer removed from the Body Count album and replaced the song with a Spoken Word Performance by Jello Biafra. Cop Killer was starting to disappear, but it didn't matter, I already owned it. If you follow the money trail, Warner Brothers couldn't make money off of the song anymore, but the song still existed. You could argue that Cop Killer was banned from the radio, BUT IT WAS NEVER ON THE RADIO. And the single wasn't debuted on MTV. After the controversy, Body Count gave away the single for free. It was a hollow victory for all parties involved and Body Count came up with a lackluster sophomore effort called Born Dead. Not only did the controversy not kill Body Count, you could see them in concert today if you wanted. Their sixth album Bloodlust was released just this spring...
Now it's 2017 and I wondered if you could find Cop Killer on the internet. You ready? Count out loud. 1....I typed in the words Cop Killer by Body Count in Google...
2,3,4,5...first entry on YouTube, click button, 6,7,8, and the song starts to play.
8 seconds to find the song and listen to it again.
That was really, really easy. Looked to buy Cop Killer on iTunes, but you can't. You can buy almost 50 other songs called Cop Killer (seriously, look it up), but not the one by Body Count. Went over to Pandora and switched to my Anthrax Radio. Clicked on the +Add Variety button, typed in Cop Killer. Song popped right up. Now it's on my Station Created From list.
The point is, what is hate speech and what is free speech? You and I don't always agree where that line is and that line is not necessary set by content. Today the argument for free speech seem less about artistic interpretation and more about the rights of the corporation. That is very dangerous territory to be navigating.
In case you've never heard Cop Killer live, here you go....
Yeah, I know it's Soundgarden. I just wanted an excuse to play some Soundgarden.
Rush Limbaugh, inspired by Heston, tried the same trick a few years later and read the lyrics to "Big Man with a Gun" by Nine Inch Nails on air. That stunt brought ridicule once listeners pointed out that the gun in question was Trent Reznor's penis. And when Limbaugh called Reznor a Gangster Rapper, people quickly realized that Limbaugh did not hold the gravitas that Heston did.
When was the last time I listened to the song Cop Killer? I listened to the whole Body Count debut album again while writing this article.
2 other items caught my eye when I was doing this story this morning:
Even Neil deGrasse Tyson understands Freedom of Speech is under attack in this country:
DeGrasse vs. Moby
And violence against police in America is a real, not manufactured, problem:
Night of Violence Against Law Enforcement
And of course the most obvious irony that you already know, Ice T plays a cop on the TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Dan Harmon also likes Ice-T, I hope they both continue to express their freedoms in America.