First, a note about George Floyd
I have spent most of my life in Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs. Seeing a police officer murder George Floyd on camera absolutely broke my heart.
As a personal favor to me, I would request that Click Track readers donate to rebuilding Lake Street in Minneapolis. If you want to make my day, reply to this email with your donation receipt, or with your donation receipts to another charity.
Furthermore, since this is a music newsletter, I want to highlight that George Floyd was a rapper in Houston before he moved to Minneapolis. Under the name Big Floyd, he collaborated with DJ Screw’s hip-hop collective Screwed Up Click. He also was featured on the Presidential Playas’ 1996 album Block Party. You can listen to a track featuring him below.
Depicted: The freestyle rap “Sittin On Top Of The World Freestyle” produced by DJ Screw and featuring Big Floyd (George Floyd).
Finally, I am launching a new website that offers security tips for activists. You can find at security.nym.vc. Please share with your activist friends.
Now let’s take a look at one of the most pivotal moments in hip-hop history—the song “Cop Killer.”
(I may earn money from links in this post to books on Amazon.com.)
The prelude to “Cop Killer”
The 1980s saw the rise of gangsta rap—and simultaneously a social panic around it. Rap music was a vehicle for anti-authority political messages, with popular tracks like “Fuck tha Police” from the West Coast rap group N.W.A.
Depicted: The song “Fuck tha Police.”
A year after the release of “Fuck tha Police,” Milt Ahlerich—then the Assistant Director of the FBI's Office of Public Affairs—wrote a letter to N.W.A’s record label Priority Records voicing his disapproval for the song without naming it directly.
Depicted: A display of the letter sent from Milt Ahlerich to Priority Records.
Ahlerich wrote his letter as if he spoke on behalf of the entire law enforcement community, but N.W.A’s manager Jerry Heller later wrote that Ahlerich was a “single pissed off bureaucrat” that wrote the letter without the backing from the agency.
US Congressman Don Edwards—then chair for the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights—heavily criticized the letter in 1989 after it became public. Edwards’ committee was tasked with overseeing FBI behavior towards American citizens. About the letter, he said that “the FBI should stay out of the business of censorship.”
The release of “Cop Killer”
The rapper Ice-T is recognized as a pioneer of gangsta rap. His 1986 song “6 in the Mornin’” is recognized as one of the first gangsta rap songs, after which he landed a record deal with Sire Records—then-owned by the entertainment giant Time Warner and distributed by its subsidiary Warner Bros. Records.
However, Ice-T didn’t stay locked within the genre he helped define. In 1990, he cofounded and fronted the heavy metal group Body Count. That year, they wrote the song “Cop Killer” and performed it live several times to no great fanfare before later recording the song in a studio. At the same time, Ice-T played a police detective in the 1991 movie New Jack City.
“Cop Killer” is an anti-police revenge fantasy written in the first person—but it’s Ice-T singing as a fictional character. The song is distinctly heavy metal—not gangsta rap—but inevitably critics associated the song with rap as a political movement.
Ice-T envisioned Body Count’s debut album to be called “Cop Killer” after its title track. Warner Bros. executives anticipated a backlash, and Ice-T ended up renaming the album to Body Count and placing “Cop Killer” as the last track. The group’s self-titled album was released on March 10th, 1992 to not much fanfare.
Depicted: The song “Cop Killer” by the heavy metal band Body Count, fronted by rapper Ice-T.
But a few weeks later, the world changed. On April 29th, 1992, a jury acquitted four police officers charged with assault and excessive use of force against Rodney King the previous year. The acquittal ignited six days of rioting in Los Angeles, ending only when the California Army National Guard, the US Army, and the US Marine Corps gained control of the situation.
Depicted: A frame from the video depicting the four officers beating Rodney King. Photo Credit: PBS/George Holliday. Used under Fair Use.
The backlash begins
Many Americans tried to reason about why the Los Angeles riots happened—often choosing to blame gangsta rap instead of police violence. “Cop Killer” was a newly-released heavy metal song, but it was in the wrong place at the wrong time and became a marker of the influence of gangsta rap instead.
The trouble began when Dallas police officer Glenn White published an article titled “New Rap Song Encourages Killing Police Officers” in the May 29th, 1992 issue of The Shield—the Dallas Police Association’s monthly newsletter. Outraged by the song, White called for a police boycott against Sire Records’ then-owner Time Warner.
In June 1992, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)—the largest police officers’ union in the state—announced a boycott against Sire Records’ then-owner Time Warner. The New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association petitioned their pension fund board to divest its $100 million stake in Time Warner, with other police officer organizations making similar requests to their pension funds.
The “Cop Killer” controversy boosted album sales, but record store chains were dropping the record. Trans World, Superclub, Camelot, and Musicland were among the major chains that dropped the album in response to the controversy.
Politicians weigh in
The conflict was inflamed by 1992 being an election year. Both the Republican and Democratic Presidential tickets positioned themselves against radical music.
On the Republican ticket, Vice President Dan Quayle blasted Time Warner for selling an “obscene record.” President George Bush Sr. criticized “Cop Killer” when speaking to a group of police officers in Michigan.
On the Democratic ticket, then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton didn’t directly criticize “Cop Killer” but spoke out against unrelated comments made by rapper and activist Sister Souljah in response to the LA riots. Clinton’s running mate’s wife—Tipper Gore—was a cofounder of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a committee focused on labeling explicit music with Parental Advisory stickers. While Al Gore’s record as a US Senator was largely favorable to the recorded music industry, his wife’s focus on policing music worried many music industry figures.
The Independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot, running with former Navy Admiral and Vietnam prisoner of war James Stockdale, largely stayed out of the rap music debacle.
The defense of “Cop Killer”
But not all police officers were unified against “Cop Killer.” The National Association of Black Police opposed the boycott, instead offering suggestions aimed at increasing police officers’ accountability to the people. Ronald Hampton—then the Director of the 35,000-strong Association—said: “People are not going to go over and shoot police officers just because Ice-T sings about it […] Where were these police groups at the time of the Rodney King beating?”
Time Warner tried to defend itself on freedom-of-speech grounds, but they had already set a precedent for withdrawing albums in the face of popular criticism. Country singer-songwriter Holly Dunn’s “Maybe I Mean Yes” was withdrawn in the face of activists saying that the song encouraged date rape. At the July 16th, 1992 Time Warner shareholders’ meeting, the actor and minor shareholder Charlton Heston made a speech asking Time Warner if their freedom-of-speech stance would let them release a song titled “Fag Killer” or had the lyrics “Die die die kike die.” Heston’s speech was later followed by dramatic testimony from two police officers who lost their eyesight after being shot in the face.
Ice-T’s surrender and the aftermath at Time Warner
At the end of July, Ice-T folded. On July 28th, 1992, he called a press conference to announce that he was pulling “Cop Killer” off of Body Count. Ice-T stated that he pulled the song on his own accord because Warner Bros. Records was receiving bomb threats and “taking the war” for him. On August 3rd, CLEAT announced that they were ending the boycott.
Depicted: Ice-T’s Rolling Stone cover. Cropped from the original. Photo Credit: Rolling Stone. Used with Fair Use.
Ice-’s next album Home Invasion was originally set for release on November 15th, 1992, but he agreed to postpone the release to February 14th, 1993 to minimize controversy. Warner Bros. then balked at the heavy metal-inspired album cover for Home Invasion, which depicts the clothes being ripped off of a woman and a man being beaten.
Depicted: The album cover for Ice-T’s album Home Invasion. Photo Credit: Sire Records/Warner Bros. Records. Used under Fair Use.
The conflict over the album cover prompted Ice-T to leave Time Warner entirely. He released the album through his own label—Rhyme $yndicate Records—with a distribution deal through Priority Records.
The record labels owned by Time Warner realized that they could no longer release any music they wanted. Mo Ostin—then-Chairman of Warner Bros. Records—pledged to artists that if Warner refused to release a record, that they wouldn’t stand in the way of the record being released elsewhere. The Time Warner labels ended up dropping controversial artists Live Squad, RSO Crew, Kool G Rap, and Juvenile Committee. Other labels began following suit—censoring anti-police themes in their artists’ music.
Time Warner continued to be antagonized by cops, despite the CLEAT boycott officially ending. One police leader threatened to write parking tickets for Time Warner cable trucks in retaliation for “Cop Killer.” Furthermore, Ice-T continued to be frustrated by the police. Local police organizations would often demand to concert promoters to cancel Ice-T’s appearance. Off-duty police officers would often refuse to provide security for Ice-T shows.
Ultimately, the “Cop Killer” controversy continued to burn on for years and had no definitive end. In a 2007 interview, Body Count member Ernie C. mentioned how people still bring up the controversy seventeen years later.
And most ironically, Ice-T ended up playing a cop once more after New Jack City. In 2000, he appeared on the TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an NYPD detective named Odafin "Fin" Tutuola. He was only supposed to appear for four episodes, but ended up becoming a major character that he continues to play twenty years later.
Further reading (and watching)
This book by longtime music journalist Dan Charnas is the definitive text on hip-hop history. The book is long, detailed, and Dan is a first-hand eyewitness for many of the most pivotal moments in the history of the business. The Big Payback is the primary or secondary source for much of the material in this piece.
This book by Peter Blecha is about the long history of censorship in music.
This Pitchfork article by Jes Skolnik describes the “Cop Killer” controversy as well as several other instances of police officers trying to organize boycotts in response to music, including the 2016 boycott of Beyoncé after her Superbowl halftime show.
This is a presentation from Mathieu Deflem, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Sociology. This presentation is a companion to his article “Popular Culture and Social Control: The Moral Panic on Music Labeling.” A YouTube video of the presentation is below.
More Click Track articles
January 11, 2020: Minor formatting changes.