Body Count was a hardcore band fronted by the rapper Ice-T
. He got the idea for this song after he came into the studio singing "Psycho Killer
" by Talking Heads, and someone in the studio thought there should be a "Cop Killer" to express concerns of people harassed by police.
Ice-T ran with gangs and committed plenty of crimes in his youth, but credits rap music for helping him take "my first step into the legitimate world."
Regarding this song, he told NPR: "I've never been a cop hater. When I was breaking the law, the cops were my opponent - I just thought I could outsmart them. Anybody who speeds thinks they can outsmart the cops. At that time I knew I was breaking the law, so why would I be mad at the police? 'Cop Killer' was a song about brutal police. It was a year before Rodney King, and I was living in the world where cops were snatching people out of their cars and beating their ass. So I thought, What if somebody went on a binge against the brutal cops, how would you feel about that?"
The song is about exactly what the title suggests: going out and trying to kill a cop. When the song was released, a Texas police agency called for a nationwide boycott of the song, which brought up censorship issues and generated lots of controversy. The resulting media attention led to skyrocketing sales of what would have otherwise been a fairly obscure track. In fact, the album had already been out for a few months when the kerfuffle came along and gave it new life.
The Body Count
album was released on March 31, 1992. A group called "The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas" called for a boycott on June 10, which ignited the controversy and sent sales soaring. The album was certified Gold (500,000 copies sold) on August 4, and on August 15, it peaked at #26 on the albums chart. On the August 20 issue of Rolling Stone
, Ice-T appeared on the cover wearing a police uniform
When the song was released, the verdict had yet to be handed down in the Rodney King case, where four white Los Angeles Police Department officers were caught on camera beating King, an unarmed black man. In the song, Ice-T mentions King and also Darryl Gates, head of the LAPD:
F--k the police, for Darryl Gates
F--k the police, for Rodney King
The officers were acquitted on April 29, 1992, and riots ensued. In the wake of these events, "Cop Killer" became a flashpoint, seen by King supporters as an expression of rage over a system that protects racist officers, and by opponents who viewed it as undermining law enforcement. Ice-T became part of the story and proved himself as an articulate voice in the controversy. In a number of interviews, he explained what it was like living as a black man in inner-city Los Angeles, where the police are your enemy. As an Army veteran (he served four years) who stayed away from drugs, he had credibility along with experience, which made him a vital voice in the conversation.
On July 28, 1992, Ice-T asked Time Warner to pull the song from the album, claiming he was not looking to profit from the song. The label complied, replacing it with a song called "Freedom of Speech."
At the press conference when he made the announcement, Ice-T explained that "Cop Killer" was not to be taken literally. "This song is about anger and the community and how people get that way, he said."
Body Count performed this live a number of times before it was released, including at the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991. Making a statement on free speech, Soundgarden performed the song at their 1992 Lollapalooza appearance.
The furor over this song came during an election year, which led to some posturing by President George H. W. Bush, who was campaigning to keep his job against Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Bush never mentioned Ice-T or the song by name, but on June 29, 1992, he said, "I also stand against those who use films or records or television or video games to glorify killing law enforcement officers. It is sick.' I don't care how noble the name of the company, it is wrong for any company to issue records that approve of killing law enforcement officers."
Bush was speaking at the opening of a new Drug Enforcement Administration office in Manhattan, part of the battle in the War on Drugs.
What a lot of people didn't understand about this song, and Ice-T in general, is that it's not to be taken literally. "I'm an entertainer," he told Blues & Soul in 1993. "As long as I keep entertaining people I'll be happy. The reason people don't like me is because they're lookin' at me a little deeper than entertainment."
Starting in 2000, Ice-T performed on the hit NBC drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as a police detective. That means that eight years after writing and performing a famous song about murdering a cop, he was playing one on TV.
It wasn't the first time he played a cop: he did so in the 1991 film New Jack City. He's always made the argument that the character in this song is no more him than the people he portrays on screen.
Ice-T told Q Magazine that controversy is overrated. He said: "There's a lot of people who think controversy sells records. It doesn't. It hurts you. It causes so much unnecessary s--t. With 'Cop Killer,' I've found out firsthand what it's like to have a whole country after you. The president says your name, you got police all over the world hearing this one guy made this record about killing them. You go in the cross hairs. You're that image that Public Enemy made."