Latest release: Bloodlust (Century Media)Website: www.icet.com
It’s 2017 and one of the world’s most notorious bands is still in the house. On the anniversary of the release date of the first Body Count album, guitarist, producer and songwriter Ernie C – the C stands for Cunnigan – is on the line, and he sounds excited.
“It’s 25 years since the first record came out,” he says in a tone that suggests a mixture of pride and disbelief. “I was thinking today, 25 years, and then a friend came up to me and said, ‘That’s a quarter of a century,’ and I was like, That sounds like a looong time! 25 years sounds a little better! When you put things in years, it’s better than saying quarter of a century or two and a half decades, you know?”
He laughs, something he does a lot over the next sixteen minutes as we discuss the legacy and the future of Body Count. Formed in LA in 1990 with his high school friends Ice-T, Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts, Victor “Beatmaster V” Wilson and Denis “D-Roc” Miles, Body Count was a hitherto unprecedented excursion into thrash metal for black Americans. The band’s opening salvo, “Cop Killer”, quickly became one of the most controversial songs in history, coming under fire from both sides of US politics and police organisations for the rapper/actor-cum-metal frontman’s violent first-person revenge-fantasy lyrics. The self-titled album, rife with Ice-T’s gutter poetry and sardonic socio-political commentary, was pulled from shelves and even New Zealand’s top cop tried to have the group banned from touring there. The entire Time-Warner company was condemned and threatened with boycotts. Eric Clapton could release a song about shooting a sheriff in 1974 and it had been okay for films like The Godfather to show gangsters murdering police, but in the wake of the LA riots, a metal band made up of black dudes singing about the same thing seemed to be just about the worst thing that could happen in 1992. “Cop Killer” was eventually left off the album, but the shadow of the dark cloud it raised over the band continues to linger over everything Body Count does to this day. Yet despite all the controversy, the key word for Ernie C seems to be fun.
“This [current version of the] band is the closest to that [original] band as far as everything goes. As far as having fun. That band had fun,” he asserts of the original line-up. “Then over the past two records, from Manslaughter to now, the band is having fun. That’s what I can say. Ice is having a great time doing it, I’m having fun again, it’s fun to get up and play the songs, and you know the old songs are fun to play, the Manslaughter songs are fun to play… we’re getting a whole new catalogue to songs to play. It’s a lot of fun. Ice don’t have to go on the road. He can just sit back in New York. But it’s fun again. We like to hang out with each other. I still get to hang out with four of my high school friends. I get to hang out with Ice, Sean [E. Sean] is with the band – he plays samples now, and then we have our road manager, we’ve known him since high school and now Ice’s son. We’ve got him singing background now. He’s 22, so he’s got a different perspective. He keeps us on our toes. ”
The guitarist admits that moving on with the band was difficult in the aftermath of three deaths. Beatmaster V was the first to go, passing from leukaemia in 1996 following the recording of Violent Demise: The Last Days. Mooseman was murdered five years later, cut down on the street in an incident like those the band wrote songs about; rhythm guitarist D-Roc died from lymphoma during the recording of Murder 4 Hire in 2004, devastating Ernie and Ice so deeply the album took another two years to finally release.
“It was extremely difficult,” Ernie says. “When we did Murder 4 Hire and we lost D-Roc, we took eight years off before we did another record.”
With a lucrative full-time gig on Law & Order: SVU that has now lasted 17 years, no one could have blamed Ice-T for chucking in the metal music game and just sticking to TV. But Body Count was never going to lay down easy. 2014’s Manslaughter proved there was plenty of life left in the beast.
“Then we decided to do Manslaughter, and it was fun!” Ernie C continues, using that word again. “We added the last piece, who was Juan Garcia, the guitar player. He had played with Agent Steel and Evildead and all of those bands. He came into the band and he was easy to work with, and everyone else in the band is cool and we got a new drummer, and everything was just right. When we came back with Manslaughter and we went on tour, we were happy that people still liked us! It was amazing.”
Having long been seen as a band of exclusively black musicians, the introduction of Garcia to Body Count’s ranks probably came as a surprise. C admits that for years he felt it was necessary for the band’s members to all be black but over time he realised that the main reason for that was because it had started out as a group of guys who all happened to be black. Colour, in the end, really wasn’t that important.
“Body Count when it started off,” he explains, “people would always say to me that it was a black band. The only reason it was a black band is because we had our friends in the band, and our friends were black. We did a video off Manslaughter for the song ‘Talk Shit, Get Shot’ and someone said, ‘How come you’re only shooting white people in this video?’ and I said, ‘Because the director brought all his white friends! If he’d brought black people, we would have shot them too!’”
He laughs again, before going on: “That’s how the band was. We just had our friends. Later on, when members passed, I felt obligated to replace them with black members. I did that for a while, and then I got to a point where I thought, I don’t have to do this. This band is a band, it’s not a band of black or white.”
Indeed, as he goes on to point out, in the early days Body Count got very little support from fellow black musicians, some of whom evidently felt that they were too extreme.
“When I started this band, the Black Rock Coalition wasn’t supporting me,” C says. “I had support from Duff McKagan, I had support from Dave Mustaine, and from DRI and those kind of bands. Those are the bands that supported us when we first started. The black bands didn’t support us. Bands like Living Colour, when we first started, they didn’t support us. They didn’t like us using the word ‘nigger’.” He laughs. “They didn’t like it, they were all, ‘Y’all shouldn’t do it’. Back off! They didn’t support us. Duff McKagan was at our show. Axl Rose was at our show.”
The point Ernie makes is that Body Count wasn’t a black band: it was a band made up of black musicians, musicians like him who were fans of music that prevailing cultural norms on both sides of the race divide had determined wasn’t supposed to be the type of music black people liked or performed. Body Count played up that presumption in the track “There Goes the Neighborhood” from the debut. Even with the injection of Juan Garcia into the line-up, however, Body Count’s songs still come from the same street-level, ghetto perspective.
“When we started the band, we were playing rock n roll, but we couldn’t write what the Beach Boys write because we didn’t know about that life. We write about what we know. It was just time for us to write these kind of songs,” C says, bringing the subject around to Body Count’s latest album, the violent and politically-charged Bloodlust. “It’s the right record at the right time. It’s times like this that music should vent your frustrations about things that are going on. You shouldn’t be singing about your new car when things are going haywire! That’s not the record we need to be writing. I kinda hope that other bands will start talking about social issues and political issues, just because it’s needed. Prophets of Rage are playing, but we’ve been doing it for the past twenty years – it’s time for some younger bands to step up and join the fight.”
When “Cop Killer” first dropped, Ice-T called it a protest song. This album’s potently political “No Lives Matter” is a track in the vein of Born Dead’s title cut. Ostensibly a song about racism against blacks, it is essentially an attack on the elite, the privileged of all colours who pay lip-service to the plight of the downtrodden and play into the debate for their own interests. As crude and crass as they may be, Body Count are nevertheless upholding the proud tradition of rock as rebellion, as protest music. Whatever may become of them, Ernie C hopes they can inspire others to do the same.
“I hope it turns on a light or a switch or something like that,” he says. “Hendrix was social, Bob Dylan did it, it needs to be done. It’s what musicians do. You have to be the voice of the people. We just hear what the people are saying and put it into words, and put it out to the masses.”