Talking 25 Years of “Cop Killer” with Ice-T
“I don’t hate cops, I’ve been playing a cop on TV for 18 years.”
Illustration by Ashley Goodall
This article is part of Noisey Australia's series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' which revisits old greats and goes deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
In March 1992 members of the Austin Fraternal Order of Police became aware of "Cop Killer", a song by Body Count, the Los Angeles metal band fronted by hip-hop MC Ice-T. Concerns were raised about the song's title and subject matter, which portrays a character threatening to "Bust some shots off / Going to dust some cops off". A spoken word introduction calmly explains how he'd like to "take a pig out into the parking lot and shoot them in the motherfucking face".
The Combined Law Association of Texas soon initiated a boycott on Time Warner, the parent company of Sire Records (who released the album), and a wave of protest included police organisations, members of Congress, President George Bush, and even controversial Iran-Contra figure Oliver North who somehow found a way to compare the song to Charles Manson.
Eventually, at the request of Ice-T, Time Warner agreed to stop distributing the song. Though it wasn't a complete surrender from Ice [real name Tracy Marrow], who offered free copies of the song to anyone who wanted it but in a US Presidential election year the song had taken up a lot of media attention and oxygen.
Though the track became associated with the 1992 LA riots, it was written in 1990 and Ice-T had been performing it before it was recorded in 1991, the same year black motorist Rodney King was stopped by four white LAPD officers for a traffic violation before being kicked and beaten more than 50 times with batons. The recorded version of the song, which references the King case, was released in March 1992, just as the cops charged with King's assault were acquitted – that became the catalyst for the riots.
Noisey: When did you realise just how angry the song was making people?
Ice-T: Well first knew people liked it. When we were first performing it were just starting the band out and it was our hit. For some people we were yelling about the cops and kids were digging it. Now if I had made a record called "Fireman Killer" I don't think I would have got the same response but something about going after cops had everyone going. We did Lollapalooza, it was no harm no foul, it was rock n roll and we keep it moving. But then they came after us that's when the shit storm started. The first time I knew was when the President was talking about it. I was home at the house and someone saw Dan Quayle on TV and they called me and said "Yo, The President is talking crazy about you man." And we looked at the news and all our jaws dropped. And we were like "What, over a record!?" We really thought it was an overreaction.
And this was all before the LA riots...
Yeah, everyone thought we made a record as a response to the riots and made it out like we were jumping on the band wagon and trying to get cops killed. In actual face we kind of predicted the riots.
Were they coming at you personally or was it more the label?
They came at the label harder because their attitude was, "Ice is a black kid talking crazy about the cops. We understand that but Warner Brothers why are you giving him this platform?"
Do you think the reaction would have been any different if it was a hip-hop song rather than a black guy fronting a metal/punk band to a mainly white audience?
They lied when they came after the song by calling it a rap song because that was a quick way to get a racial reaction. If they had of said 'rock' a lot of white people are like "Well, I like Fleetwood Mac, maybe I will like this song". But by calling it a rap record you get a racial response. With Body Count we were transferring black rage to white kids and white kids were mad at the same stuff that black kids were mad at.
Do you think it's the same anger in 2017 as there was 1992?
Nah, these kids are soft. Right now there is no rage. We are dealing with a very delusional state of the world and I only thing that woke the world up is Donald Trump's maniac ass. He's pretty much scared the shit out of everyone in the world and we could be on the precipice of a World War Three. I've never watched so much news in my fucking life. It's getting serious but I think the music will reflect that. I've bene calling it a pop bubble of bullshit.
Do we need another angry song like "Cop Killer"?
I don't think a song can do it. I wrote this song during our election primaries and I was thinking what the hell is going on? That's what inspired me.
It's one of the few records in American that has ever been banned. You could do some history to find out how many records have actually been pulled off the shelves. They say you only make history if you make something or break something and I think I've done them both.
You were getting hounded by parents, cops and politicians and still ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone. Or maybe that's the reason why?
Alan Light who had done stuff on me before offered to do a few pages on me to tell my story and break it down. Then we took the picture Mark Seliger had the idea to put me in cop suit to really piss the cops off. I was like, "Fuck it, let's do it!" You can call it antagonistic but I thought it was funny.
Do you have any cop friends now?
Not LAPD but I know a couple of people whose family members are cops. My neighbour is a cop. I live next door to a cop in Arizona.
The song wasn't directed to all cops but dirty and racist cops.
I don't hate all cops, I've been playing a cop on TV for 18 years. When I was younger on the street and breaking the law we didn't hate the cops but considered them our opponents who we had to outsmart. Of course I have a hatred for racist people but I hate them whether they are cops or not. Cops are human beings and when they take that oath they don't become supernatural. There are good ones and bad ones. A cop can save your life and a cop can take your life. But you could say that of anyone.
What do you think of the song's legacy?
"Cop Killer" was a protest record just like a protest record from the 60s. It was meant to say we are done with police brutality and I think it stands today that people are done with it but is also a reminder that power is easily corruptible.
Illustration: Ashley Goodall