How Ice-T Pulling “Cop Killer” Was Still a Win for Free Speech
By Shad Reed
These are unprecedented times. We are amid a global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 170,000 Americans. Another civil rights movement is underway with Generation Z at the helm. And the upcoming presidential election has made damn near everything a partisan issue, hence dividing this country to a degree unseen since the 1860s. Furthermore, technology has provided us with a 24-7-365 news cycle updated by the second. And, despite making over 20,000 false or misleading claims, the sitting president, Donald Trump, and his current administration insist that any opposition is “fake news.” And while the First Amendment protects his Twitter rants and outbursts towards the press, he still can not punish free speech simply because he doesn’t like it. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying.
After CNN was repeatedly critical of Trump, he went as far as pledging to block the merger between CNN’s parent company (Time Warner) and AT&T. The government denied it was an act of retaliation, but a judge found the government’s reasoning lacked “economic evidence of any kind.” Additionally, one would be remiss to overlook how he threatened to withhold aid to the U.S. Postal Service unless Amazon increased prices. Amazon’s connection to the press is that it and The Washington Post have the same owner, Mr. Jeff Bezos. And like CNN, The Post has not held back in pointing out the president’s shortcomings. It’s another childish act on Trump’s part aimed at those who insist he is held accountable for his actions. Last but not least, President Trump has even withdrawn press credentials from individual reporters for asking specific questions.
President Donald Trump’s attack on the press poses a threat to democracy. And one reason so many people still dare to confront the current leader of the free world, despite all the control he yields, is because others have fought the powers that be before them. One such individual is Ice motherfuckin’ T.
Born Tracey Marrow, Ice-T rose to fame in the late ’80s with raps about the harsh realities of street life before the subgenre of “gangsta rap” officially existed. Ice’s first album, released in 1987, Rhyme Pays, was still gritty enough though to be the first album ever to be stickered with a parental warning about lyrical content. The following year he released his sophomore set, Power, and garnered attention for the album cover, which depicts a woman in a scantily-clad bathing suit holding a shotgun. And while some felt that perpetuated stereotypes of the gangsta lifestyle, it served as the perfect bait-and-switch. The glitz and glamour of the album artwork, along with the video for the album single, “High Rollers,” may have initially seemed appealing, but the message at the end of it all is: play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
And these cautionary tales were not ones coming from a place preachiness, but instead the first-hand experience. After being orphaned at a young age, Ice got sent from New Jersey to California, and after exposure to street life from friends at Crenshaw High, he became a pimp and a jewel thief in the years that followed. However, after getting into a car accident in 1985 and having no visitors at the hospital, he decided to change his ways. Ice once said, “I didn’t have nobody show up at that hospital because not being a nice guy, people weren’t looking for me. They were like, ‘Well, we’re glad he’s not around. Wherever he is, he’s not here.’ And I didn’t want to die like that.”
By 1989, Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.) and their infamous “filthy fifteen” list of rock songs with content they deemed objectionable, and the 2 Live Crew faced obscenity charges, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent N.W.A. a letter. The government’s interference in art was in full effect. And in response to these Orwellian actions, Ice pulled no punches on his third album by calling Mrs. Gore out by name. “Yo, Tip, what’s the matter? You ain’t gettin’ no dick? / You’re bitchin’ about rock’n’roll, that’s censorship, dumb bitch / The Constitution says we all got a right to speak / Say what we want Tip, your argument is weak.”
Ice-T’s raps reflected what he saw in his community, and so in addition to the crime, poverty, and drug use, he also pointed out that police brutality was going unchecked. While initially dismissed by the masses as shock value, Ice’s message failed to initiate the unaware. But by the early 90s, Ice’s claims had more credibility than ever. On March 3, 1991, motorist Rodney King was beaten by L.A.P.D. officers, with the incident captured on film and broadcast television stations across the country for a year. The four officers charged for excessive force and assault were found not guilty. As a result of the bullshit verdict, riots in Los Angeles followed for days, which lasted from April 29 (the day of the acquittals) to May 4, 1992.
By this time, Ice had expanded his musical resume by forming an all-black heavy metal band called Body Count. The group initially consisted of Ice on vocals, Ernie C on lead guitar, D-Roc the executioner on rhythm guitar, Beatmaster V on drums, Mooseman on bass, Sean E Sean on the sampler, and Sean Mac as a hype man. And they made their debut on Ice’s fourth LP, Original Gangster. The spoken intro to Body Count’s eponymous track has Ice responding to criticism of him embracing rock music by saying, “I feel sorry for anybody who only listens to one type of music.” Not unlike his rap records, Ice’s rock songs were aggressive and an uncompromising depiction of life as he saw it. And shortly after the Los Angeles riots, a Dallas police newsletter accused him of encouraging violence against police and called for a boycott because of a Body Count song called “Cop Killer” from their official first album about someone taking revenge on a cop for murder. The news spread like wildfire, and by June, “Cop Killer” was a significant talking point in the presidential election set for that November. Both the then president and vice president, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle respectively, publicly expressed their disdain.
The hypocrisy of this record’s criticism is astonishing. That very same year, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a film where someone kills a crooked sheriff in the end, was released to unanimous acclaim and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 and is currently in the Grammy Hall of Fame. With virtually the same subject as Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” it begs the questions: What’s the difference? Why was one acceptable and the other one not? (Ahem! Race.). Plus, revenge in the name of justice was nothing new, either. The further you think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes.
Nevertheless, the attacks and criticism of “Cop Killer” were unrelenting and Time Warner, the parent company of Body Count’s record label, Sire, under Warner Bros, C.E.O. Gerald Levin even so far as to write a letter to The Wall Street Journal defending the song and an artist’s freedom to make it. “Is it our responsibility to limit the views of artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and filmmakers so that they don’t offend corporate executives or society?” Levin wrote. “Or does the media’s very existence and the democracy they are a part of, depend on a willingness not just to tolerate creative freedom but also to encourage it, even when the viewpoints expressed run counter to the norms of our mainstream culture?”
The opposition was still a force to be reckoned with, though. This strength was undoubtedly evident at a five-hour Time Warner shareholder meeting in July ’92. More than twenty people asked that they pull the record, including actor Charlton Heston and police officers wounded in the line of duty. A group of protestors had gathered outside too. And when Ice happened to drive by, a photographer captured him, flipping the bird to the sight of it all. Eventually, Ice finally decided to take the song off the album when Time Warner was unable to make a decision.
One might think that Ice-T didn’t come out on top. On the contrary, he once stated, ” I don’t want to be a martyr. I don’t want them to destroy my life at the hands of the First Amendment. ‘Okay, he stood up for free speech, he’s through.’ You know what? If we pull the record, I can still say, ‘Fuck the police,’ and we can keep it going.” Lose the battle, win the war. If “Cop Killer” stayed on the Body Count album, Ice-T would have got one over on the P.M.R.C. and all similar watchdog groups. A good feeling, but he still would have been at the mercy of Time Warner and their shareholders. None of whom would be willing to endure another round of controversy after the storm “Cop Killer” created with something new if it were to come up. And to avoid just that, Home Invasion, his next solo rap album got heavily scrutinized by Warner Bros. executives because Ice still had a target on his back from all the feathers he’d just ruffled with Body Count. He offered to leave the company since they were more harmful than helpful to him, as demonstrated by suits going over every one of his rhymes with a fine-toothed comb in fear of what was going to be said next. He has stated in the past that he and Warner Bros. became liabilities to each other.
Ice-T and Warner Bros. did finally split, and Ice has been releasing his music without a major label ever since with the freedom to express himself truly. Because of that, he can still fight the good fight on his terms. And he has never stopped fighting, whether it be for truth, justice, equality, or freedom. I don’t think he ever will. Respect due. So thank God “Cop Killer” didn’t kill his career almost 30 years ago. Because if it did, many might not have had the courage to speak up about controversial issues in the many years that followed. And the world would’ve never gotten to hear socially relevant rock from Body Count like, among many others, “No Lives Matter,” “Bum Rush,” and “Point the Finger.”
Donald Trump epitomizes the worst facets of “the Man,” so voices and music questioning, infiltrating, and challenging the system is more relevant than ever. Hundreds of millions of lives depend on it.
About the author: Shad Reed is a veteran journalist and album reviewer who has written articles for various outlets including Allhiphop.com.