That Body Count—founded in 1990 by rock guitarist Ernie C. and rapper/actor Ice-T—is still rapping and rocking about the `hood is an achievement of the most basic kind.
Over the last 10 years, three band members have died: drummer Beatmaster V in 1996 (leukemia), bassist Mooseman in 2001 (homicide) and guitarist D-Roc in 2004 (lymphoma). For Ernie C., who went to high school with Ice-T in Los Angeles’ notorious South Central district, success has been in the survival.
“I hear about how we’ve been `cursed’ quite a bit,” says Ernie C. “Since it was me and Ice that started the band and hired everyone to be in it, other people are scared to get in position to fill in those spots. But I don’t believe we’ve been cursed. I just believe we’re black men in America and the ratio for those kinds of things is a little higher for us than it is for everyone else, you know? That’s what happens.”
The group has overcome even more. It was 16 years ago when Body Count first shocked an unsuspecting public with its provocative—and at the time, revolutionary—amalgam of rap and thrash. But their fame was a double-edged sword. The track “Cop Killer” off their self-titled Warner Brothers Records debut inspired a massive boycott of Time Warner in 1992, which ultimately led to Body Count’s defection. The controversy persists after three more albums over 15 years: “Born Dead” (1994), “Violent Demise: The Last Days” (1997) and “Murder 4 Hire” (2006).
“It still lingers for us, even now,” says Ernie C. of the controversy that inspired everyone from Charlton Heston to President George H.W. Bush to then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to turn Body Count into a virtual punching bag. “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.’”
“But it was a funny time in American history. It was an election year, and the president was running for re-election with no platform to stand on. We wrote that song in 1990 and it didn’t get attention till 1992. We played that song every night on Lollapalooza and there were no complaints until a councilman in Texas complained. Then Clear Channel, who was based in Texas, brought it to Bush’s attention, who’s from Texas also, and the rest is history once you connect the dots. It got a lot bigger than the five guys who were just trying to write a song in Los Angeles. It definitely got too big.”
Body Count was the first to make recordings that gave to the plight of the inner cities a soundtrack of loud guitars with hardcore punk attitude. Since that time, hip-hop music went on to dominate the record industry and Body Count’s brash style of rap metal went on to subtly influence artists from Rage Against the Machine to Korn to Slipknot.
“A lot of rappers want to be in a rock band,” says Ernie C., who is planning on writing a song with Bo Diddley, Ice-T and Ludacris, “but it has to be done sincerely. You can’t just get anybody on guitar and expect it to work. Like Puffy got Jimmy Page to work with him—and I respect Puffy, I respect what he was trying to do—but it wasn’t done right. Ice and I, on the other hand, really loved the music we were doing, and it showed. We were just a band that played the songs that we knew how to write. Everybody writes about whatever they learned growing up, and we were no exception. Like the Beach Boys sing about the beach, we sing about the way we grew up.”
Body Count plays very few live dates—partly because of Ice-T’s filming schedule for “Law and Order: SVU” and also because, according to Ernie C., Body Count was supposed to be a DIY band from day one.
“Body Count wasn’t supposed to be a big deal at all. We originally just set out to sell 50,000 records like The Ramones or the Dead Kennedys. We wanted to be a big punk band, because our first record is almost a punk record. But what happened was, we got onto Warner Brothers on the coattails of Ice’s solo career and then we had `Cop Killer’ happening in an election year, so it just got blown out of proportion for what the band was.
“We just wanted to play small clubs for 200 people kinda like we’re doing now. Last year, we played big festivals in Europe for 40,000 to 50,000 people. But right now, we’re just trying to get back to playing clubs again and working with good people that I know.”
He says that the band turned down a House of Blues tour and is resisting offers to book show more frequently. “That’ll burn Ice out because he’s gotta get a plane on Saturday to be home on Sunday and be on the `SVU’ set on Monday.”
Though he admits he would like Body Count to play more often, Ernie C. speculates that the band is still running because it has been a sometimes occupation.
“I don’t know if we’d still like each other if we played four or five years consistently. I have friends like Slash and Tom Morello, and none of their bands are still together. I haven’t seen Ice in a month, but when I do, we’ll go do the show and it’ll be a lot of fun for everybody, including the audience. Because it won’t look like we have to be there.”