Down for the Count

After all these years, can Ice-T still piss off America's conservative squares?

Body Count. With Silent Civilian, Seven, Bazooka Proof, Insignia, and the Episodes. 7 p.m. Saturday, January 27, at Peabody's, 2083 East 21st Street, $18, 216-241-5555.
"I'm not as aggressive as people think," says Ice.
"I'm not as aggressive as people think," says Ice.
"When we first started the band, we got ridiculed by President Bush, and we had a war going on," says Body Count guitarist and co-founder Ernie Cunningham. "Once again, we have another President Bush, and another war. It was time, everything's come full circle."

Releasing Murder 4 Hire, the band's first disc of studio material in nine years, as well as just finishing a slew of shows in Europe, where it shared stages with -- believe it or not -- Panic! at the Disco and Coldplay (wtf?), Ice-T sums up his reasons for reviving Body Count with just seven words: "Oh, just for the hell of it."

In fact, Ice-T seems to do a lot of things simply for the hell of it. The man who basically invented gangster rap (see 1987's Rhyme Pays) looks back to 1992, when he and Cunningham formed their thrash metal group (named after a track off his solo album, OG: Original Gangster). "We decided to make the band because when I would make rap albums, I would use these guys as the live musicians," he explains. "Then one day we just decided, 'Why don't we just make our own band?' It was just something to do; we never expected it to be anything big."

Of course, it was big -- or, at least, "Cop Killer" was, that infamous ditty off Body Count's 1992 debut. Of course, you remember all the hubbub. A response to those Los Angeles cops who beat the living shit out of Rodney King, its lyrics ignited a fire under the asses of such squares as Tipper Gore and bad actor/NRA fanatic Charlton Heston, who was so enraged that he once protested each "vicious, vulgar, and instructive" lyric at a Warner Bros. board meeting (he was a shareholder at the time). Eventually the label pulled the tune off the album and dumped the band.

"It definitely caught us off guard. We didn't think there was anything you couldn't sing about up to that point," explains Ice. "I'd been listening to Black Flag and hardcore groups like that, and we just felt that inside of rock and roll, it was open ground to say what you wanted. Then all of a sudden we found ourselves being censored."

The attention may have left a bitter taste in some people's mouth, but Cunningham -- like most popular musicians and celebrities -- believes no press is bad press. "I think it was good for us in getting respect as musicians -- not necessarily for selling records, but we opened up the eyes and ears of a lot of people."

What really tested the band's resilience were all the personal tragedies throughout the years -- and there were many. The first arrived in '96, when original drummer Victor Wilson (a.k.a. Beatmaster V) died from leukemia shortly after recording the band's third record, Violent Demise: The Last Days. Five years later, Body Count lost bassist Lloyd Roberts (a.k.a. Mooseman) to a drive-by shooting while he was working with Iggy Pop. Then, in 2004, lymphoma claimed the life of guitarist Dennis Miles (a.k.a. D-Roc). "It's very difficult," admits Cunningham, ruminating on all the death and misery; pain chokes his voice. "At that time, we thought we were gonna live forever."

Still, Ice and Cunningham are going strong -- a testament to a rock-solid friendship that began years before the pair formed Body Count. The two met at Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles, and both had small roles in such '80s cult flicks as Rappin'.

"It's like working with your best friend," says Cunningham. "He's cool. It's not what people think. He's not Axl Rose." Ice is also quick to point out that he's not what people probably imagine him to be. "I'm not as aggressive as people think. I'm basically a defensive type of aggressive. I protect myself, but I'm not somebody that's just out there trying to hurt people."

(Here's a great example of that defense and protection: Through a spokesperson, Ice agreed to conduct a phone interview only if Scene put his mug on the cover. Told this wasn't going to happen, Ice's camp permitted questions to be sent via e-mail. He then recorded his answers as mp3 files and sent them back.)

Anyway, back to Body Count: Does Cunningham consider the band one of the forefathers of the rap-rock movement?

"I consider our band more like a Megadeth, than more so Limp Bizkit," he answers. "The only reason they consider us a rap-rock band is because Ice is a rapper." And considering he rarely raps in the group, Ice also shrugs off the tag, once again exhibiting that cool attitude. "I have no real problems with it," he says.

But don't think Ice-T, approaching 50, is softening up, turning into a semi-successful television actor, who plays a cop (irony alert) on one of those Law & Order shows. As the songs on Murder 4 Hire prove, he can still pack a punch. This time around, the targets range from organized religion ("The Passion of the Christ") to terrorism ("Dirty Bombs") to another President Bush ("The End Game"). Plus, there's the cover: Uncle Sam holding up a sign saying "WILL KILL FOR MONEY."

But America has changed. Sure, the group still has the balls, but when nothing really shocks people anymore, Body Count just doesn't have the same effect -- which is strange, considering these dudes are sorta to blame. Fifteen years ago, the band busted open the doors to free speech, raising the bar so high that nowadays even its own material sounds tame -- especially after killing some cops in Grand Theft Auto.

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