Cop Killer (song)
"Cop Killer" is a song composed by Ernie C with lyrics by Ice-T for American heavy metal band Body Count, of which they were both members. Released on Body Count's 1992 self-titled debut album, the song was written two years earlier, and was partially influenced by "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads.
|Single by Body Count|
|from the album Body Count|
|Body Count singles chronology|
The song's lyrics about "cop killing" provoked much controversy and negative reactions from political figures of the time, such as President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle, as well as Tipper Gore, co-founder of Parents Music Resource Center. Others defended the song on the basis of the band's First Amendment rights. Ice-T has referred to it as a "protest record". Ice-T eventually recalled the album and re-released it without the inclusion of the song, which was given away as a free single.
Ice-T referred to "Cop Killer" as a "protest record", stating that the song is "[sung] in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality". Ice-T has also credited the Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer" with partially inspiring the song. "Cop Killer" was written in 1990, and had been performed live several times, including at the 1991 Lollapalooza tour, before it had been recorded in a studio.
The recorded version mentions then-Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, and Rodney King, a black motorist whose beating by LAPD officers had been caught on videotape. Shortly after the release of Body Count, a jury acquitted the officers and riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles. Soon after the riots, the Dallas Police Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) launched a campaign to force Warner Bros. Records to withdraw the album.
Following its release, the song was met with strong opposition, with critics ranging from President George H. W. Bush to various law enforcement agencies, with strong demand for the song's withdrawal from commercial availability, citing concerns of promoting anti-police sentiment. Conversely, Ice-T defended the lyrical content of the song as did various other proponents who did not believe that the song posed any risk and remained in support of the song continuing to be released and sold.
Criticism and controversyEdit
CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) called for a boycott of all products by Time Warner in order to secure the removal of the song and album from stores. Within a week, they were joined by police organizations across the United States.
In an article for The Washington Post, Tipper Gore condemned Ice-T for songs such as "Cop Killer", writing that "Cultural economics were a poor excuse for the South's continuation of slavery. 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." Some critics argued that the song could cause crime and violence. Dennis R. Martin (Former President, National Association of Chiefs of Police) argued that:
The misuse of the First Amendment is graphically illustrated in Time Warner's attempt to insert into the mainstream culture the vile and dangerous lyrics of the Ice-T song entitled 'Cop Killer'. The Body Count album containing 'Cop Killer' was shipped throughout the United States in miniature body bags. Only days before distribution of the album was voluntarily suspended, Time Warner flooded the record market with a half million copies. The 'Cop Killer' song has been implicated in at least two shooting incidents and has inflamed racial tensions in cities across the country. Those who work closely with the families and friends of slain officers volunteering for the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum, are outraged by the message of 'Cop Killer'. It is an affront to the officers—144 in 1992 alone—who have been killed in the line of duty while the police was upholding the laws of our society and protecting all its citizens.
Defense of the songEdit
Others defended the album on the basis of the group's right to freedom of speech, and cited the fact that Ice-T had portrayed a police officer in the 1991 film, New Jack City. Many people from the music world and other fields were supportive of the song. For example, in direct response to the criticism made by Dennis Martin above, Mark S. Hamm and Jeff Ferrell argued the following:
Ice-T is not the first artist to put a 'cop killer' theme in United States popular culture. This theme has been the subject of countless cinematic and literary works, and has appeared many times before in popular music. During the Great Depression, for example, people celebrated Pretty Boy Floyd and his exploits, which included murdering law enforcement personnel. Similarly, the highly respected fiddler Tommy Jarrell wrote and sang 'Policeman', which begins, 'Policeman come and I didn't want to go this morning, so I shot him in the head with my 44.' But perhaps the best-known case is Eric Clapton's cover version of Bob Marley and the Wailers' 'I Shot the Sheriff', which reached the top of the U.S. music charts in the mid-1970s (a feat not approached by Ice-T). 'I Shot the Sheriff', though, never suffered the sort of moral and political attacks that 'Cop Killer' did. How do we account for this difference?
Ice-T stated of the song, "I'm singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain't never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I'm a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut", in reference to Bowie's song "Space Oddity".
In a July 1992 editorial in The Wall Street Journal defending his company's involvement with the song, Time Warner co-CEO Gerald M. Levin repeated this defense, writing that rather than "finding ways to silence the messenger", critics and listeners should be "heeding the anguished cry contained in his message".
The National Black Police Association opposed the boycott of Time Warner and the attacks on "Cop Killer", identifying police brutality as the cause of much anti-police sentiment, and proposing the creation of independent civilian review boards "to scrutinize the actions of our law enforcement officers" as a way of ending the provocations that caused artists such as Body Count "to respond to actions of police brutality and abuse through their music. ... Many individuals of the law enforcement profession do not want anyone to scrutinize their actions, but want to scrutinize the actions of others."
Further controversy and decision to withdraw songEdit
Over the next month, controversy against the band grew. Vice President Quayle branded "Cop Killer" "obscene", and President Bush publicly denounced any record company that would release such a product. Body Count was removed from the shelves of a retail store in Greensboro, North Carolina, after local police had told the management that they would no longer respond to any emergency calls at the store if they continued to sell the album.
In July 1992, the New Zealand Police Commissioner unsuccessfully attempted to prevent an Ice-T concert in Auckland, arguing that "Anyone who comes to this country preaching in obscene terms the killing of police, should not be welcome here", before taking Body Count and Warner Bros. Records to the Indecent Publications Tribunal, in an effort to get it banned under New Zealand's Indecent Publications Act 1963. This was the first time in twenty years that a sound recording had come before the censorship body, and the first ever case involving popular music. After reviewing the various submissions, and listening carefully to the album, the Tribunal found the song "Cop Killer" to be "not exhortatory", saw the album as displaying "an honest purpose", and found Body Count not indecent.
At the July 1992 annual shareholders' meeting for Time Warner, actor Charlton Heston, who was a minor Time Warner shareholder, was given the opportunity to address the crowd, and, in a well publicized speech, recited lyrics from both "Cop Killer" and another song from Body Count, "KKK Bitch" – which namechecked Tipper Gore herself – in an attempt to embarrass company executives into dropping the album.
Some death threats were sent to Warner Bros. Records executives, and some stockholders threatened to pull out of the company. According to his 1994 book The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a Fuck?, Ice-T decided to remove the song from the album of his own volition. Eventually, the album was re-issued with "Cop Killer" removed. Alongside the album's reissue, Warner Bros. issued "Cop Killer" as a free single. Ice-T left the label in 1993, following additional disputes over his solo album Home Invasion. The performer stated of the controversy that "When I started out, [Warner] never censored us. Everything we did, we had full control over. But what happened was when the cops moved on Body Count they issued pressure on the corporate division of Warner Bros., and that made the music division, they couldn't out-fight 'em in the battle, so even when you're in a business with somebody who might not wanna censor you, economically people can put restraints on 'em and cause 'em to be afraid. I learned that lesson in there, that you're never really safe as long as you're connected to any big corporation's money." Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin said in a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times, "(Time Warner) got so thin-skinned after the incident at the shareholders' meeting. In the end, Ice-T decided to leave because he could not allow tampering with his work. And I can't blame him—considering the climate." Expressing regret at the circumstances leading to Ice-T's departure, Ostin praised him as "a terrific artist who spoke the truth".
The studio version of "Cop Killer" has not been re-released, although a live version of the song appears on the 2005 release Body Count: Live in LA. According to Ernie C, the controversy over the song "still lingers for us, even now. I'll try to book clubs and the guy I'm talking to will mention it and I'll think to myself, 'Man, that was 17 years ago', but I meet a lot of bands who ask me about it too and I'm real respected by other artists for it. But it's a love/hate thing. Ice gets it too, even though he plays a cop on TV now on Law & Order SVU."
- Australian comedy show The Late Show featured a sketch in 1992 with vocal quartet The Kinsmen doing a smooth jazz parody of "Cop Killer".
- Soundgarden covered "Cop Killer" at a few live shows, including Lollapalooza '92 at which it was introduced as a "politically incorrect song".
- Argentinean alternative metal band A.N.I.M.A.L. recorded a Spanish version of the song included in their 1998 album, Poder Latino.
- Boston-based hardcore band Our Lives featuring members of the band Vanna covered "Cop Killer" on a split EP with New York City band Kills and Thrills.
- Sludge metal band The Body released a cover of "Cop Killer" as a single in 2005.
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