Body Count’s Ice-T and Ernie C: “Once you’ve performed in front of a mosh pit, there’s nothing like it”

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Turbulent seems like a pretty apt word to describe the career of Body Count.

By the early ‘90s Ice-T was already a megastar thanks to his pioneering gangster rap records. When he dropped 1991’s classic Original Gangster album, his every move was being watched. Few expected him to choose the album to introduce the world to his metal band, Body Count. But, that’s what he did, and he then took the band on the road, performing to stunned audiences at the iconic Lollapalooza festival.

Body Count released their debut album in 1992, but trouble was brewing. Controversy over the band’s song Cop Killer meant that the whole world really was now watching, and unfortunately for Ice, guitarists Ernie C and D-Roc, bassist Mooseman and drummer Beatmaster V, some of those watching were mightily pissed off. 

The release of the record came at a time when the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the police officers charged with the beating, was fresh in the minds of millions in the States. In fact, the riots that followed the acquittal came just a month after the release of Body Count’s debut, and politicians and law enforcement alike were eager to place somebody as public enemy number one. Ice was thrust into that position as everyone from then President George Bush to actor Charlton Heston called for the band to be dropped from their record deal.

Certainly not ones to run scared, the band battled on, releasing a follow-up record in 1994 and another in ’97, but the turbulence continued through the passing of founder members Beatmaster V (in 1996), Mooseman (in 2001) and D-Roc (in 2004). After 2006’s Murder 4 High, Body Count stepped away…until the typically forthright Manslaughter announced their triumphant return in 2014. Three years later they topped Manslaughter with the incredible Bloodlust. 

They were still touring that record as we entered the summer, and that’s when MusicRadar sat down with Ice and Ernie C after the band put in a brutally incendiary 40-minute show at Download Festival.

Ice, when you got into the rap scene, guys were rapping about girls and parties and you came out with 6 ‘N The Mornin’ – a song full of experiences from your gangster past. How important was that realness in connecting you with your audience? 

Ice: “I used to make rhymes about the criminal lifestyle to try and entertain my friends. Then, I would try to rap like the rappers and one time my buddy said, ‘You gotta say that shit that you’ve been saying when we’re alone.’

“I tell that story on the record Original Gangster where I say, ‘10 years ago I used to listen to rappers flow, Talkin' bout the way they rocked the mic at the disco, I liked how that shit was goin' down, Dreamt about ripping the mic with my own sound, So I tried to write rhymes something like them, My boys said, "That ain't you, Ice! That shit sounds like them.

“So I sat back, thought up a new track, didn't fantasise, kicked the pure facts, motherfuckers got scared cause they was unprepared, Who would tell it how it really was? Who dared?, A brother from the West Coast, L.A, South Central, fool, where the Crips and the Bloods play. When I wrote about parties, it didn't fit. 6 'N The Mornin', that was the real s***.

“I always compare my music to making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You eat it every day and then someone comes up and goes, ‘My god, this is the best sandwich ever, you should sell it.’ And I’m like, ‘That?!’ That was what it was like for me with my music. I was like, ‘You want to hear that?! I can do that shit forever.’ So it kind of fell in my lap. I didn’t know that what I was doing was valuable.”

You mentioned the Original Gangster record and that was the world’s introduction to Body Count. How did the band come about?

Ernie: “I remember us having a band meeting and trying to put it together. Ice was recording the record and it all happened so fast. D-Roc wasn’t even in the band at this point, that was me playing all of the guitars, it was just me, Vic [drummer Beatmaster V] and Moose.”

Ice: “I had made a decision that I knew what kind of music we needed to play. I had been touring with Public Enemy and I saw these mosh pits. Once you’ve performed in front of a mosh pit, there’s nothing like it. I’m like, ‘We’ve got to play more aggressive, speed metal.’

“Ernie’s more of a Led Zeppelin guy. But those guys took the bait. We listened to Slayer, Sabbath and we made the first song, On With The Body Count. It was all experimental. People liked it and we just went with it. We had no limits. I could write the lyrics and they understood the music.”

We had songs we would play and they sucked and then we thought, ‘We’ll never play that again.’

Was it a development on what you had previously done, Ice? I’m thinking of sampling Sabbath on early rap tracks and songs like The Girl Tried To Kill Me, which is a rock-heavy hip hop.

Ice: “Totally different. Sampling Sabbath was one thing, but creating a band was something people didn’t expect. Ernie was always a talented guitar player. He was one of my friends out of my hundreds of friends that actually had talent [laughs]. Everybody wanted to get in on the act but I was like, ‘What the fuck can you do?!’

“I knew Ernie could play. Body Count was created to let Ernie play. I was already a star so let him be a star. Originally we didn’t even know if I was going to be able to be in the band. It just morphed from an idea to playing in a pizza spot to playing Lollapalooza.”

How did the writing progress on that first record?

Ernie: “We wrote a lot of stuff for that first record and we played a lot of it live before releasing it. We experimented the songs live. We figured out what works by playing live in LA clubs.”

Ice: “When we first started we were playing lots of Jimi Hendrix covers.”

Ernie: “We were just jamming. It was like a loose funk jam band.”

Ice: “Yeah, and then it started to get tighter and when we went out on Lollapalooza we needed a set so we were playing Cop Killer, KKK Bitch, basically everything off the first album. It worked. We had songs we would play and they sucked and then we thought, ‘We’ll never play that again.’ We were able to test everything before recording.”

Ernie: “We didn’t know what would work. Now we know what would work for our audience, back then we had no idea.”

What as the reaction like on Lollapalooza?

Ice: “[Jane’s Addiction frontman and Lollapalooza founder] Perry [Farrell] didn’t even know about Body Count. He wanted me to help with a song on [1993 film] The Gift. That became an in and he wanted a rapper on Lollapalooza and he asked if I’d play. I said, ‘Sure, how long do I have?’ I had an hour and he didn’t mind what I did so I split the set and we debuted Body Count to a cold audience who had never heard of us. We killed.

“I would do my rap set and then say, ‘Now I’m about to prove to you that rock ‘n’ roll has nothing to do with colour, it’s a state of mind.’ We would turn the amps on and the audience lit the fuck up. They were amazed that I was able to transform. It was a moment. That album went platinum.”

I would do my rap set and then say, ‘Now I’m about to prove to you that rock ‘n’ roll has nothing to do with colour, it’s a state of mind.’ We would turn the amps on and the audience lit the f**k up.

Ernie: “And then a bunch of shit hit the fan!”

Ice: “A whole bunch of shit hit the fan. But we had been playing Cop Killer for a year before all of that happened. It was unexpected when that happened.”

Ice, was that one in a long line of people missing the message in your songs? Because you can go back to a track like Peel Their Caps Back where critics said you were glamourising gang violence, despite that song making gang violence seem anything but glamorous…

Ice: “In that song, I die! I came into metal thinking metal was harder than hip-hop. I also thought cops were fair game. You’ve got a band called Millions of Dead Cops, Black Flag have t-shirts with guns in a cop’s mouth. This is metal. Cops are the authority. Punks go against them.

“I didn’t know I was going to touch a red hot iron. ‘Oh, you want to kill them?’ You can fuck them, hate them, there can be millions of dead ones…but it was because we were black. We were a black band singing Cop Killer. White kids might have been okay, but black guys, they might really want to kill the police. Then you have all these white kids with their fists in the air. You’re transferring black rage to white kids.

“That makes you realise that we’re all on the same side – hence the song No Lives Matter. That’s when they can’t fuck with us, when they come at me and you’re a white man saying, ‘Hey, he has the right to say that.’ That’s when they can’t fuck with us. When we join forces we’re unstoppable.”

It wasn’t just that you had a song called Cop Killer that touched a nerve; it was that you were saying it and white middle-class teenagers were listening and their parents were scared - something you wrote about on the Home Invasion record.

Ice: “You’ve been following the narrative. Home Invasion, that album cover is about the white father saying, ‘Those n*****s are rioting in LA.’ And the daughter is saying, ‘They’re not n*****s, dad.’ The police had been abusing these people for years and this guy was looking at his kid like, ‘What the fuck?’ Not knowing she’s got a Public Enemy t-shirt on and she’s been reading up on shit, she’s like you, she’s knowledgeable. His home has been invaded right under his fucking nose.”

Jumping back to Body Count; you released your second album in 1994, but then you had a turbulent time with the passing of several founding members - but you returned with your first album in 12 years with Manslaughter in 2014.

Ice: “Every time somebody dies in a band it takes the air out of the tyres. Is it sacrilegious to carry on the band or to not carry on? You need to find people that add to the sound. You can find people that can play but you need people who are in the right mind and who understand what the band sounds like.”

Ernie: “[Rhythm guitarist] Jaun was the last piece of the puzzle, something we had been missing for years.” 

Ice: “I told Ernie that I didn’t want to make another album unless we had someone to invest in it. We needed a record deal and a certain amount of money. We couldn’t just put together a mix tape. I’m not going to do that, fuck that. 

"So [record label] Sumerian stepped up. We didn’t need a million dollars, we just needed enough to make a great record. That record was Manslaughter and it had great production. Then we moved over to Century Records because that’s more international, that’s Sony. Same thing and the album just got better. All we need now is for something to give us a million dollars [laughs] and then we can make that mega album that everybody wants!”

We couldn’t just put together a mix tape. I’m not going to do that, f**k that

And where are you at with writing a new record?

Ernie: “It’s not just me writing the music, we accept songs from other people as well…”

Ice: “Sometimes someone might write something and think it doesn’t fit for them but it would be great for Body Count and they send it over and we might use the first part of it or something. And then sometimes we finish a song and go, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t we make this exact same song two days ago?!’ or, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t that an Iron Maiden riff?’”

Ernie: “I’ve written Stairway to Heaven many times over the years!”

Ice: “We did a song on this album where there were two riffs in two different songs and the riffs were the same. I was listening to one of them and said, ‘Wait a minute!’ We had to throw one of them out. We write the music before the lyrics. Those guys have to make 15 instrumentals that they could play without me and the crowd would still react. Then I add the words on top.”

Does it surprise you that all these years on from Cop Killer, the same themes are still relevant, hence a song like No Lives Matter?

Ice: “The themes come long before a song. So when the Trayvon Martin sshit happened that became the song Black Hoodie because that’s what the guy said was the reason [for the shooting]. I mean, what the fuck? I thought about how to approach that song and I told a story about one of my friends who got killed but nobody marched, it never made the news. That was me saying that this shit happens.

“I didn’t want it to be about Trayvon. Trayvon was another motherfucker that this happened to. No Lives Matter, that was just people not understanding what Black Lives Matter meant. They would say that all lives matter. Come on, can I have a minute?! That would be like if dogs came out saying that dogs’ lives matter and the cats went, ‘Hey, all lives matter!’ Of course all lives matter. People saying black lives matters aren’t saying that only black lives matter. A motherfucker can spin shit any way they want.

“They could say that today Ice-T brought his daughter out on stage during Talk Shit, Get Shot so he is approving high school shootings. If that’s how people want to spin it they will find a way. I know what I mean and I know what my agenda is and what I’m trying to say. I can’t get mad if you try to twist my shit; fuck you!”

What’s next for Body Count? You’ve had two albums in three years and there’s surely plenty to write about in the States at the moment…

Ice: “We just want to top Bloodlust. I think Manslaughter was great, Bloodlust is better and that’s all we have to do, we just need to outdo ourselves. I’m 60 years old now. But then Mick Jagger is the bar, he’s 72. I want to make another record and I want to strike while the iron is hot.”