Is Ice-T's 'Cop Killer' legal?
Caught in a crossfire of outrage and protest, Ice-T pulled "Cop Killer" from his latest album. But the reaction to his gesture has been mixed.
It was just supposed to be what one Warner Bros. Records executive calls a ”set meeting,” a reaction to the extraordinary protest over rap star Ice-T’s ”Cop Killer,” a conference ”to decide where to go from here—sort of a taking stock meeting.”
Assembled were such heavies as Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin, label president Lenny Waronker, and Seymour Stein, president of Warner’s Sire Records, but the Friday, July 24, conclave at Warner’s Burbank, Calif., offices turned out to be more notable for creating shock than taking stock. Ice-T announced to the gathered powers that he was pulling ”Cop Killer” from his new album, Body Count. His decision seemed to promise an end to the firestorm of protest over a song that many saw as open advocacy of the murder of policemen. Ice-T, however, who refused to be interviewed for this article, didn’t think the matter would end there.
”They’re going to find something else to nail me for,” sources say he told the group. ”I don’t want Warner Bros. or Time Warner to have to defend this, because I am the issue. You’ll see. You’ll take (the song) off and they’ll still come after me, because I’ve reached white kids. I’m tired of being the Willie Horton of the moment.”
According to Warner Bros. Records VP/national director of publicity Bob Merlis, no one at the meeting expected Ice-T’s decision, but no one tried to talk him out of it. (Time Warner officials would not comment on what they called ”the artist’s decision.”) There was, in fact, much cause for relief. Although Gerald Levin, president and co-CEO of Warner’s parent company, Time Warner Inc. (also parent of this magazine), had unconditionally backed the album on First Amendment grounds, police groups called for public boycotts of the company and police unions threatened to sell several hundred million dollars of the company’s stock. George Bush and Dan Quayle denounced the record. Time Warner board member Beverly Sills questioned the company’s position, and other board members suggested ”screening” the company’s future records.
At his press conference held four days after the meeting, when he officially announced the song’s withdrawal, Ice-T said death threats had been made against Warner brass. There was not much exaggeration in that charge. At least one bomb threat was made against Warner’s headquarters, and at least one exec received a phoned death threat from an anonymous bigot who called him a ”nigger-loving Jew.” Was the record company worried? It certainly didn’t take chances. When a package arrived with a return address reading ”Bombshell Records,” Warner Bros. called—who else?—the Burbank police, whose bomb squad blew up the suspicious item. The parcel contained, they found, only a demo tape.
And now, with ”Cop Killer” pulled out of the fray, the controversy has taken a whole new twist. As Warner’s Merlis notes, ”We’re going to catch hell because it’s going to look to some people like we promoted it to a higher number (on the charts). I’m predicting there’s going to be a new s—storm.”
While that storm has yet to appear, reaction to Ice-T’s decision has set in. The bigger sales predicted by Merlis boosted Body Count from No. 73 to No. 26 on the Billboard pop-album chart-thanks to consumers who think the LP may now become a collectors’ item (Warner plans to issue a new version of the LP without ”Cop Killer”). And although Warner wants record stores to return approximately 170,000 unsold copies of Body Count, out of half a million already shipped, not all retailers are eager to comply. ”We sold out that night (the announcement was made),” says Judy Wilson, assistant manager of a Tower Records store in Los Angeles.
Reaction is split among police groups. ”I think now we’ve accomplished our mission,” says Ron DeLord, head of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which spearheaded the campaign against the song. DeLord’s group called a ”ceasefire” in its threatened boycott of Time Warner. But Calvin J. Howard, Southern Region chairman of the National Black Police Association, which has stood by Ice-T, feels let down by the rapper’s move. ”We support his decision,” says Howard, ”although we do not support the fact that he is removing the record from the charts. What this is doing is sending out a negative message to other artists.”
The divergent opinions aren’t surprising, given the results of Entertainment Weekly’s poll. Blacks are more likely to support Ice-T, much less likely to think the song will cause violence, and don’t hold a grudge against Ice-T. Nearly 60 percent of nonblacks said they were angry at the rapper, as opposed to 34 percent of blacks; 42 percent of blacks are not angry, as opposed to just 12 percent of nonblacks. Those under 30 were likely to be more tolerant than those over 30.
In the rap community, reaction ranges from support (”Ice-T knows best,” said Public Enemy’s Chuck D) to dismay. ”Nobody had given in until now,” says Raymond ”Ray Dogg” Scott, leader of a group called Almighty RSO. ”Not N.W.A. Not Luke (of 2 Live Crew). Not Sister Souljah.”
And giving in may be more than a theoretical issue, since the rap world is buzzing with stories of rap records suddenly challenged or delayed by record companies. Warner Bros., sources report, even summoned its rap subsidiary Cold Chillin’ Records to an emergency meeting about potential problems with an upcoming album by Kool G Rap. The fallout from Body Count, says an official working at another label, ”is the number one priority around here.” The fear, repeated over and over again, is that any song protesting alleged police brutality will become taboo.
Why, then, would Ice-T have removed ”Cop Killer” from his album? ”He’s equal parts businessman and performer,” says a record company executive familiar with the situation who does not want to be named.
”Look at the different areas that he’s gotten into (acting, for example; in fact, he played a policeman in New Jack City). He looked at his future prospects and long-term relationship with Time Warner and decided that he wants support from them.”
But Jon Cummings, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks Ice-T should have stood firm. ”It’s highly unfortunate that an artist is harassed to the point where he has to self-censor,” Cummings says, noting that even a potentially offensive song like ”Cop Killer” is protected both by legal precedent and the Constitution. But he ruefully adds, ”I’ve been on a couple of radio shows, and I can’t get anybody to agree with me.”