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'Killer' Instinct

Rap-rocker Ice-T pulled the controversial “Cop Killer” song from Body Count’s debut album 10 years ago.

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When Body Count lead singer Ice-T entered the Burbank, Calif., offices of Warner Bros. Records in July 1992, he was there for more than just a powwow. Thanks to a four-minute blast of incendiary thrash called ”Cop Killer,” the rapper-turned-rocker had spent months under attack by everyone from the White House to Moses (or, at least, Charlton Heston), prompting the meeting. And though Ice-T had made his rep with a career full of street-wise verses, his most shocking move would be the announcement that would come during a July 28, 1992, press conference, when he said that the offending song would be yanked from his band’s self-titled debut album.

Ice-T’s heated decision came as a surprise to his supporters, an unlikely collection of rap fans, ACLU bigwigs, and even Gerald Levin, then co-CEO of Time Warner. In fact, the rapper cited threats against the media conglomerate (now AOL Time Warner, of which EW is a subsidiary) as one of the reasons for his decision. ”I don’t want Warner Bros. or Time Warner to have to defend this, because I am the issue,” the 34-year-old said at the time, according to sources.

Indeed, the rapper had become public enemy No.1 in the eyes of many, thanks to the track’s blunt description of murdering a policeman, evidenced in such ”Cop Killer” lines as ”I know your family’s grievin’/but tonight we get even.” Not that Ice-T (a.k.a. Tracy Marrow) was a stranger to controversy, having helped gangster rap low-ride its way to the mainstream with such albums as 1987’s Rhyme Pays and 1991’s O.G. Original Gangster. But Body Count incited an uproar greater than anything Ice-T had seen in his rap career, and during a time when the record industry was under fire, thanks to such explicit material as N.W.A’s ”F — k Tha Police” and 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be a few years prior. Soon enough, public boycotts were organized against Time Warner.

The unintended result? Ice-T became a free-speech role model, and public demand increased for a record that was already slipping off the radar. ”This imbroglio catalyzed sales that weren’t going to be there,” says Bob Merlis, the record label’s then head of corporate communications. The album catapulted up the charts, from No. 73 to 26.

Though Warner Bros. remained supportive of Ice-T during the ordeal, six months later, Body Count parted ways with the label. They soon signed with Virgin and released Born Dead (1994) and Violent Demise: The Last Days (1997) to disappointing sales. ”Cop Killer” may have gained the band notoriety, but it slayed them in the court of public opinion.