How Body Count’s “Cop Killer” Became a National Talking Point

Body Count’s “Cop Killer” emerged as more than just a song in 1992. It became a national debate about music, politics, and police brutality, drawing responses from the White House to local law enforcement.

Key Takeaways
  • “Cop Killer” by Body Count, released in 1992, sparked national debate on music and police brutality, drawing criticism from President Bush and other high-profile figures.
  • The song, seen as promoting violence against police, faced backlash from political leaders and organizations like the PMRC, igniting discussions on artistic expression versus public decency.
  • Intense pressure from law enforcement groups and public figures, including Charlton Heston, led Time Warner to eventually remove “Cop Killer” from the album.

The Controversial Song from Body Count’s Debut

“Cop Killer” is a song by Body Count, featured on their self-titled debut album released in 1992. This track, recorded in 1991, falls under the crossover thrash metal genre and was released by Sire and Warner Bros. Records.

The song was penned by Ice-T in 1990, drawing influence from the Talking Heads’ song “Psycho Killer”. Ice-T described “Cop Killer” as a protest song, written from the viewpoint of a character outraged by police brutality. Prior to its studio recording, the song had been performed live several times, including during the 1991 Lollapalooza tour.

In the recorded version of “Cop Killer”, there are direct mentions of then-Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates and Rodney King, whose beating by LAPD officers led to widespread anger and the infamous riots in South Central Los Angeles. The release of “Cop Killer” coincided with this tumultuous period, adding to its impact and relevance.

The song sparked significant controversy, attracting criticism from figures as prominent as then-President George H. W. Bush and various law enforcement agencies. These critics argued that the song promoted anti-police sentiment. In the face of this backlash, Ice-T and supporters of the song defended its lyrical content, emphasizing its role as a form of protest and expression.

The Political Uproar Over “Cop Killer”

“Cop Killer” not only stirred the public but also caught the attention of the highest political offices. President Bush and Vice President Quayle were outspoken in their opposition to the song. Their criticism was part of a broader backlash from various political figures and law enforcement agencies, highlighting the song’s controversial nature.

The song’s explicit lyrics about killing police officers were particularly objectionable to these high-level officials. Seen as inflammatory and irresponsible, “Cop Killer” became a symbol of the tension between artistic expression and perceived public decency.

Joining Bush and Quayle in their criticism was Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore and co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The PMRC, known for its efforts to regulate children’s exposure to music with violent or sexual content, found “Cop Killer” to be a prime example of what they campaigned against. This added another layer to the song’s controversy, linking it to ongoing debates about censorship, parental control, and the impact of music on societal values.

Police and Corporate Pressure

The campaign against “Cop Killer” was initiated by the Dallas Police Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT). They targeted Time Warner to withdraw the album, quickly gaining support from police forces across the United States. Their objections extended beyond “Cop Killer” to other controversial tracks on the album.

In some instances, police departments exerted pressure on local businesses. A notable incident in Greensboro, North Carolina, saw a store ceasing to stock Body Count’s album after police implied they wouldn’t respond to emergency calls from the store if it continued selling the album.

The controversy reached the corporate sphere when Charlton Heston publicly denounced “Cop Killer” at a Time Warner Annual General Meeting (AGM). Heston’s dramatic reading of the lyrics spurred calls for shareholder boycotts of Time Warner. This public outcry contributed to a broader campaign pressuring Time Warner, culminating in President George Bush Sr. condemning any record company that would release such a record. The intensity of the situation was further heightened by Ice-T’s inclusion on the FBI’s National Threat list.

In a clash between art and authority, ‘Cop Killer’ faced immense pressure, leading to its eventual withdrawal from Body Count’s album.

A common misconception was that Body Count was exploiting anti-police sentiment following the Rodney King verdict. However, it’s crucial to note that the album’s release preceded the court ruling by two months, and “Cop Killer” had been written back in 1990.

Ice-T clarified in interviews that the song was aimed at racist police officers, not the police force as a whole. Despite initial support from Time Warner, which defended Ice-T’s right to freedom of expression, the unrelenting controversy and threats eventually led to the withdrawal of “Cop Killer” from the album.

Dropping “Cop Killer” in Response to Threats and Backlash

The controversy surrounding “Cop Killer” didn’t just spark a nationwide debate – it also took a personal toll on Ice-T, the band’s frontman. Ultimately, the song was removed from the album and replaced with a cover of Ice-T’s solo track, “Freedom of Speech”, in future pressings. This significant decision was made by Ice-T himself, who directed Warner Bros., the band’s label, to remove the song.

Ice-T’s choice to drop “Cop Killer” from the Body Count album was largely influenced by the death threats that Warner Bros. Records had received. This action followed prolonged protests from national law-enforcement groups, which called for a boycott of Time-Warner Inc., Warner Bros. Records’ parent company.

Ice-T revealed that Time-Warner and its subsidiaries faced death and bomb threats over the song, attributing this to actions by law enforcement. He mentioned a specific incident where a caller threatened The Arsenio Hall Show during his appearance. A Warner Bros. Records spokesperson confirmed that a police bomb squad had been dispatched to their offices twice because of these threats.

Despite the backlash and threats, Ice-T staunchly defended “Cop Killer”, stressing that it was intended to voice the anger of inner-city communities over police brutality, not to promote violence against police. He clarified that the song’s message centered on the frustration and consequences of police brutality, rather than a literal incitement to harm law enforcement officers.

Reflecting on “Cop Killer”, Ice-T acknowledges the song’s intense impact and his own evolution as an artist and activist.

Reflecting on “Cop Killer” later, Ice-T described it as a violent revenge fantasy. He explained that it represented a character pushed to the brink, not an actual wish to harm law enforcement. Over time, he acknowledged his views and artistic expression have evolved. He noted that when he wrote the song, his perspective was more radical than it is now.