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Then And Now: The Rise And Relevance Of Body Count

Tomorrow night, seminal rap metal group Body Count are touching down in Australia for the first time in two decades. The three-date tour will be in support of their sixth studio album Bloodlust released back in March.

If you’ve never heard of Body Count, they’re a heavy metal band fronted by Ice-T – yes, Ice-T, rapper and terrifying celebrity, best known as Detective Tutuola on Law & Order SVU. 

Their story is one for the ages.

Ice-T, real name Tracey Lauren Marrow, grew up in Newark before finding himself an orphan at age 12 and transplanted to live with an aunt in the notorious Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Attending Crenshaw High School, where fights between Crips and Bloods in the halls were commonplace, Marrow left school and joined the army. He was dishonourably discharged, and admitted to using his newfound military training to rob banks.

Disillusioned by the criminal life after his friends were sent to prison and he himself was involved in a serious car accident, Marrow instead decided to pursue a career as a rapper, changing his name to the immortal Ice-T after reading novels by real life pimp Iceberg Slim, and flourishing as a successful solo artist. His debut album Rhyme Pays was released in 1987, followed by Power in ’88, The Iceberg/Freedom Of Speech… Just Watch What You Say in ’89 and O.G. Original Gangster in ’91.

Like his contemporaries in N.W.A., Ice-T wove tales of LA street life into his music, ultimately winning a Grammy for Back On The Block with Quincy Jones – and he was only just getting started.

As much a fan of heavy metal as he was of hip-hop, Ice-T formed Body Count in 1990, with high school friend and guitarist Ernie C, along with other students from their years at Crenshaw High. It’s around then that shit hit the fan.

Asked to explain the difference between Body Count and his solo work at the time, Ice-T described it thus: “An Ice-T album has intelligence, and at times it has ignorance. Sometimes it has anger, sometimes it has questions. But Body Count was intended to reflect straight anger. It was supposed to be the voice of the angry brother, without answers. If you took a kid and you put him in jail with a microphone and asked him how he feels, you’d get Body Count: ‘Fuck that. Fuck school. Fuck the police.’ You wouldn’t get intelligence or compassion. You’d get raw anger.”

Their self-titled debut album, the primordial rap metal ooze along with the equally politically charged Rage Against The Machine, from which far more commercially successful bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit and dozens more would spew forth in the mid-90s, was a revelation.

Not the first time the two hardest genres of music in rap and heavy metal had collided on record (thrash metal overlords Anthrax and the incendiary Public Enemy having collaborated in ’91 on a rework of Bring Tha Noize) but this was one of the first full rap metal albums, and it hit hard.

Dark, brazen lyrical content shouted over punishing riffs and squealing guitar solos, the sound would have intoxicated fans of either genre. Packaged with song titles like KKK Bitch (detailing a sexual encounter with the daughter of the Grand Wizard), Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight (a macabre tale of a son murdering his mother after she reacts negatively to him bringing home a white girl), Bowels Of The Devil and, slipped right in there at the end of the record, a little tune called Cop Killer.

You can probably guess how that went down.

Released barely a year after the beating of Rodney King, Cop Killer was a direct response to the incident, name-dropping then-police chief Daryl Gates (who famously said that drug use was treason) and King in the chorus. Not limited to the King beating, Cop Killer also served as a much broader middle finger to the scourge of corruption and brutality in the police force experienced directly by Ice-T, his bandmates and their legion of fans. Indeed, the song begins with the monologue:

“For every cop that has ever taken advantage of somebody, beat somebody down or hurt ’em because they got long hair, listen to the wrong kinda music, wrong color, whatever they thought was the reason to do it. For every one of those fuckin’ police, I’d like to take a pig out here in this parkin’ lot and shoot ’em in their motherfuckin’ face”

Expectedly, Cop Killer’s message found itself bluntly misconstrued by the mainstream majority. Choosing to focus on the shock value lyrics instead of delving deeper into what would compel a group of black men to use them, President George H. W. Bush no less called for Body Count to be withdrawn from commercial sale. The late gun-toting actor Charlton Heston recited lyrics from the song at a Time-Warner shareholders meeting, many in attendance would receive death threats over the song. Honestly try without laughing to imagine dusty old Charlton Heston uttering lines like “I got my black shirt on, I got my black gloves on, I got my ski mask on, this shit’s been too long” and “I got this long-ass knife and your neck looks just right” or even “I got my stereo bumpin’, I’m bouta kill me somethin’, a pig stopped me for nothin'”.

Tipper Gore, of Parents Music Resource Centre and their crotchety crusade against popular music, deemed the album ‘obscene’. “Cultural economics were a poor excuse for the South’s continuation of slavery,” she said at the time. “Ice-T’s financial success cannot excuse the vileness of his message… Hitler’s anti-Semitism sold in Nazi Germany. That didn’t make it right.”

Ice-T responded in top form, of course. “The Supreme Court says it’s ok for a white man to burn a cross in public but nobody wants a black man to write a record about a cop killer… they’ve done movies about nurse killers and teacher killers and student killers. Arnold Schwarzenegger blew away dozens of cops as the Terminator. But I don’t hear anybody complaining about that.”

Attempting to tour New Zealand in 1992, the police commission there brought Body Count before the Indecent Publications Tribunal in an effort to have their Auckland concert cancelled, the first time in 20 years that a recording artist had been brought before the tribunal. After actually listening to the album (who’d have thought), they threw out the case. Still, this kind of backlash was unheard of and astonishing.

A firestorm of public outcry and being unable to sell your very first album without its most successful song on it would usually mean a death sentence for just about any band. Luckily, though, Ice-T’s success as a solo artist gave him plenty of cushion or perhaps because banning something only explodes its popularity (Body Count had sold over 480 000 copies by 1993), the group would continue releasing albums sporadically for the next two decades, including ’94’s Born Dead, 06’s Murder 4 Hire and 2014’s Manslaughter right up to this year’s Bloodlust.

While founders Ice-T, Ernie C and sampler Sean E. Sean have remained constants, the Body Count of today looks much different from the group who caused a national uproar nearly 30 years ago, unfortunately due to tragic circumstances. Drummer Beatmaster V died of lymphoma in 1996, bassist Mooseman in a drive-by shooting in 2001 and rhythm guitarist D Roc The Executioner from leukaemia in 2004.

Nevertheless, the group have stuck around in various incarnations and, in a world where police brutality against African American people is a daily occurrence, and travesties like the Rodney King beating have been underscored by the senseless killings of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Jocques Clemmons, Korryn Gaines, Paul O’Neal and countless others, Body Count are just as relevant and just as important in 2017, perhaps even more so, than they were at their peak in the ’90s. Sonically they’re absolutely going as hard as ever, their latest record a crushing whirlwind of brutal riffs and furious demands for justice.

You likely won’t see Bloodlust ripped from shelves or raising political ire today, and indeed the themes aren’t delivered quite as bluntly as they were 25 years ago. Still, the message remains loud and clear. “It’s unfortunate that we even have to say “Black Lives Matter”,” he said. “If you go through history, nobody ever gave a fuck. You can kill black people in the street, nobody goes to jail, nobody goes to prison. But when I say “Black Lives Matter” and you say “All Lives Matter”? That’s like if I was to say “Gay Lives Matter” and you were to say “All Lives Matter”. If I was to say “Women’s Lives Matter” and you say “All Lives Matter”. You’re dilutin’ what I’m sayin’, you’re dilutin’ the issue. The issue isn’t about everybody, it’s about black lives at the moment.”

On body Count’s relevance today, Ice-T pointed out that “Music happens in climates. Groups like Rage Against The Machine and Korn were born when the world was in turmoil, then music went into this delusional period where hip-hop became about nothing more than poppin’ bottles. Now we have impending doom again, racism is at an all-time high and it’s our season again.”

Bloodlust is an uprising against racism, hypocrisy, ignorance, police brutality and the mistreatment of minorities at every level, echoing 1992’s Body Count eerily. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and sadly it seems even after three decades that not a thing Body Count railed against on their debut has been resolved. All they can do is keep spreading the message and keep spreading it louder and angrier.

Body Count Australian Tour Dates 2017
Supported by A.B. Original

Thur, Jun 1st: The  Tivoli, Brisbane
Fri, Jun 2nd: Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Sat, June 3rd: The Big Top, Sydney

Bloodlust is out now via Century.