30 years ago, in April 1992, Los Angeles was a powder keg. Tensions between minority communities and law enforcement had reached critical mass as the city, and nation, waited for the verdict of the highly publicized trial of four LAPD officers charged with using excessive force during their arrest of African American motorist Rodney King.
The violent incident – during which police repeatedly beat King with batons after pulling him over for speeding and evading arrest – was, unfortunately, a familiar reality for many citizens within Los Angeles’ Black and minority neighborhoods.
For years, discriminatory drug laws, aggressive policing and a general lack of accountability for those in power had become a way of life.
What made King’s arrest different was that a bystander filmed the shocking scene on a camcorder and sent the tape to local news outlet, KTLA. The widely broadcast footage attracted national media attention and gave a public face to what many community leaders and artists (most notably N.W.A with their 1988 banger Fuck tha Police) had been saying for some time: the police had gone too far.
But any hopes for justice went up in smoke on April 29, when the jury failed to convict the officers. The acquittals lit the spark – and for six days protests erupted into riots, looting and arson throughout the City of Angels.
It was into this combustible landscape that L.A.’s own Body Count released their self-titled debut just a few weeks earlier on March 10. The South Central crew, led by rapper Ice-T and guitarist Ernie C, expected to turn some heads with their hardcore-meets–heavy metal songs that fiercely confronted political and social issues.
But they never could have predicted the firestorm of criticism that Body Count would ignite.
The 18-song album served up vicious cuts addressing drug abuse, racism and more, but it was Ice-T’s seething screed against police brutality, Cop Killer, that became a lightning rod for the negativity.
President George H.W. Bush obliquely labeled their expressions “sick.” Vice President Dan Quayle went all in, calling it an “obscene record,” and law enforcement organizations around the country, and world, boycotted the record.
“We never, ever, ever expected it to get that type of response,” Ice-T tells Guitar World today. “I knew I was writing controversial stuff, like KKK Bitch and Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight. But I thought the cops were a fair target, considering Black Flag had been going at the cops.
“You have rock bands called Millions of Dead Cops… But little did I know it was like we touched an electric fence, and everything just hit us. We were totally unprepared for that backlash.”
At the time, Body Count maintained that they were simply exercising their right to free speech and participating in the long tradition of protest music that used over-the-top poetics to craft gripping tales. The songs were works of fiction, but the issues at their heart were very real and were dire concerns that plagued their community.
“We were trying to make it real, from a Black perspective,” says Ernie C. “White kids were scared of the devil; we were scared of the streets. We brought that mentality into the music. I think that’s why we caught on; we brought the realism of the streets. Almost like what rap was doing, but we put it in metal form. And it was sincere. It wasn’t a novelty like Run-DMC and Aerosmith; it was a real rock band.”
Body Count’s debut was a polarizing statement – one that excited and inspired music fans just as much as it enraged and offended conservative groups.
The record’s thrashing, pit-starting, guitar-driven anthems were praised by music journalists and famous supporters, including members of Soundgarden, Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses and more. Body Count debuted on Billboard’s Top 50 chart and eventually earned gold certification.
The album also cemented the successful partnership between the core team of Ice-T and Ernie C that continues to this day.
Since Body Count’s release, Ice-T & Co. have risen from much-derided antagonists to establishment-endorsed successes. They’ve dropped six more high-octane full-length albums, the most recent of which, 2020’s Carnivore, earned them their first Grammy for the single Bum-Rush.
Outside the band, Ice-T has enjoyed a long career as an actor (his most notable role, ironically, being sergeant “Fin” Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), while Ernie C has produced metal royalty (Black Sabbath’s Forbidden) and booked shows for fledgling acts that would become name brands (Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine).
Body Count’s sound has always been more metal than hip-hop, but their genre-blending mindset was ahead of its time and had a lasting impact on the musical landscape.
Their early '90s efforts paved the way for the popular guitar-slinging rap-rock and nu-metal acts of the new millennium (Korn, Limp Bizkit and more) and helped unite disparate scenes on a grassroots one-show-at-a-time level.
“Music is the most unifying thing in the world,” Ice-T says. “I’ve always pushed anti-racism and unity because I’ve always been able to look at my audience and see every color, every race, every sex, everybody enjoying themselves… If you’re in my audience, we’re all together.”
Body Count’s origin story begins in 1970s South Central Los Angeles. Ernie Cunnigan was a guitar-obsessed, left-handed Strat-wielding kid that dug a wide range of styles: from Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers to what he calls the “organized metal” of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Yes. Ernie C had been pals with drummer Victor Wilson (later known as Beatmaster V) since the young guitarist first moved to L.A. from Detroit.
The guys eventually befriended Ice-T (né Tracy Marrow), bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts III and guitarist Dennis “D-Roc” Miles at Crenshaw High School.
“Ernie was walking around with his guitar, and it wasn’t hard to tell that he knew how to play,” Ice-T recalls. “He was probably one of the most talented people I knew. This was before I even thought of making music.”
After high school the guys went their separate ways. Ice-T headed to the army for a few years, and upon his return started pursuing his rap career. Ernie C never stopped playing guitar, so his chops were tight when they eventually reconnected.
The seed for Body Count was planted when Ice-T tapped Ernie C and their high-school crew to play on some of his rap records, including the song Body Count from Ice’s acclaimed 1991 album O.G. Original Gangster.
Ice, Ernie C and the boys had an undeniable musical chemistry, but they quickly recognized that there was only so much guitar that could fit on a rap record. So, Ice-T came up with a plan to spin off a new band – and they borrowed the name from that Original Gangster collab and set out to define their new sound.
“We kinda based it off of Suicidal [Tendencies]… the punk band in L.A. that had the gangbanger style going,” Ice says. “I was in love with… the impending doom of Black Sabbath, and we were also into how fast and precise Slayer was. So we mixed those three bands together for the musical sound.”
Beyond the social unrest of L.A. circa ’92, Body Count also arrived during a pivotal moment in popular music. Their raw message and diverse musical pedigree – rap and R&B to hardcore, hard rock and shredding metal – were ready-made for the ’90s alternative revolution.
And, thanks to Ice-T’s previous success as a rapper, industry tastemakers were more than willing to give them a shot. Before Body Count even released their debut, Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell invited them to join his inaugural Lollapalooza ’91 summer tour, where they introduced their rousing sound to thousands of kids across the country.
Later that fall, Nirvana’s smash-hit debut, Nevermind, dropped like a bomb on the music industry. The massive success of Kurt Cobain & Co.’s “come as you are” philosophy and aggressive, infectious sounds had major labels scooping up every outsider act they could find in hopes of discovering the Smells Like Teen Spirit unicorn.
Body Count were far from a flannel-wearing Seattle grunge act, but they benefited from the movement, nonetheless. Warner Bros. imprint Sire backed them and released Body Count the following March.
“Nirvana helped Body Count a lot. They weren’t dressed up – they came as they were,” Ernie C says. “If they would have sounded like they sounded but been glam, it would have kept that glam thing going. But they came looking like they just rolled out of the bus. And when we came out, we came out just as we were…”
Body Count was a critical and commercial success, but the band ultimately couldn’t escape the Cop Killer backlash. After increasing pressure from label executives, they agreed to remove the offending song from future pressings of the record.
It was replaced by the perfectly tongue-in-cheek Freedom of Speech, which featured a Jimi Hendrix Foxy Lady sample alongside a biting Ice-T rap and a spoken-word section by punk godfather and activist, Jello Biafra.
“We put that on there… because there was no freedom of speech!” says Ernie C, laughing. It wasn’t long before Warner Bros. ended their partnership and parted ways with the band.
Despite the political flak, label struggles, lineup changes and tragic losses – Beatmaster V and D-Roc died of cancer (in 1996 and 2004, respectively) and Mooseman was killed in a 2001 drive-by shooting – Body Count have carried on.
Three decades into their career, Ice-T and Ernie C remain firmly committed to the band’s boundary-pushing musical vision. They’re currently writing their eighth album, Merciless, which Ice promises will be their “hardest fucking record” yet.
When asked how he defines Body Count’s core values going into their third decade, the singer points to one of his favorite songs from their catalog, No Lives Matter, from 2017’s Bloodlust.
“We know Black lives matter, white lives matter… but as far as the system goes, they don’t give a fuck about any of us, really, if we get between them and their money,” he says. “It’s all about the hook: ‘We all gotta get together’… Us against them. I think that’s the core of us.”
But to truly appreciate where Body Count are heading, you must understand where they’ve been – and that all starts with their notorious 1992 debut. Ahead of Body Count’s 30th birthday, we caught up with Ernie C for a wide-ranging interview about his personal guitar history and the exciting, chaotic times surrounding the creation of Body’s Count’s seminal self-titled record.
What inspired you to pick up a guitar?
“In the late '60s I lived in Detroit. There was a band down the street called Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band. They had this song called Scorpio, everybody knew it. Seeing his band rehearse is what really got me wanting to play…
“When I came to L.A. I still had that vision in my mind, and I picked up the guitar. And I’m an only child, so I needed something to do. I grew up in South Central L.A. in the early '70s. I could be in gangs, but playing music was something to do at home by myself.”
What was your first guitar?
“It was a Teisco Del Rey, which I wish I still had because they’re collectibles now. [Laughs] My first good guitar was a Fender Mustang that I bought from Guitar Center up in Hollywood. And then I bought an ivory white Stratocaster in the '70s.”
You play left-handed. Was it hard finding guitars?
“I always bought left-handed guitars. When we started Body Count, we had another guitar player, D-Roc, who was left-handed. He played guitars upside down. But I always liked the knobs up top; I liked not looking like I was left-handed.”
You went to Crenshaw High School with Ice-T, but you didn’t start playing music together until years later. Tell us about that.
“In high school they didn’t do music. Ice was a dancer… Then when he came back from the army, he was doing this new kind of music… I listened to it, like, 'Ah that’s pretty cool.' So, we did a song for this movie called [Breakin’ 2:] Electric Boogaloo that was built off Rock Box by Run-DMC, and we [appeared] in the movie together.
“We did another movie called Rappin’ [starring] Mario Van Peebles. Then Ice had us – me and my drummer – play on some of his first rap records in the late '80s. We got to a point where we couldn’t put any more [guitar] on the rap to keep it pure… so we started a band.”
Did you and Ice-T share similar inspirations when it came to rock music?
“He’s more punk, like Minor Threat. I was more Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, UFO, Yes… But the first Body Count sounds like a punk album. Everything was kind of loose. Our drummer Vic [Beatmaster V] learned how to play double-bass on the fly! He was a funk, R&B drummer, and our original bass player [Mooseman] was a jazz guy.
“We wanted that record to boom… and I wanted it to sound like Metallica’s records. Initially we wanted Bob Rock to produce it, but we didn’t have money. So we went to One-on-One Recorders where Metallica did [The Black Album] and hired the second engineer they had working on it. He knew all the tricks Bob Rock did. [Laughs]”
You’ve played Schecters for a long time. What’s on the first Body Count album?
“I played a guitar made by Neal Moser [with] one humbucker. I’ve always played with one pickup, maple necks and on/off switches. The Moser had a fancy paint job from Dan Lawrence – the greatest graphic guy for guitars. I played a Les Paul on the first record, too, but I quit playing them because they’re too heavy.”
What was your main amp?
“Mesa/Boogie is on that first Body Count record… I bought a Mesa originally back in ’82 [after] I saw Santana play a modified one. I bought a little small Mesa for like $1,000, which I had for years. I think it was a Mark V.”
The first full song, Body Count’s in the House, has a great big grooving riff…
“That song is loosely based off Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla. We did that for the movie with Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Universal Soldier. That was a good start for the record.”
The title track has a great soft-loud structure and clean-picked intro. Do you recall how that came together?
“That was supposed to be like Stairway to Heaven, that, like that first chord on Stairway to Heaven and I just take it a whole step flatter. That’s Ice’s [main] lick. It’s like an old Chuck Berry lick. But the way he hummed it out sounded new. I think it’s so cool because it comes in so punk-ish.”
The songs hit hard, but there was also a strong melodic sensibility in your approach on stuff like The Winner Loses.
“We tried to make songs that people wanted to listen to. But that was just the band. Moose’s playing was different. He’d add extra notes on the bass that you normally wouldn’t get in rock 'n' roll. A song like The Winner Loses, he’s playing all kinds of harmonics, and the drums were straight R&B.”
The Winner Loses has some nice acoustic moments, too. What were you playing back then?
“I had an Ovation. I got that from listening to Al Di Meola. I saw him, Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin play and I was like, 'I need me one of those things, maybe I’ll play like that!' It didn’t work. [Laughs] But my Ovation sounded nice! Different than a Martin: it was brighter, and you could shred on it.”
That song also has an extended solo section. Can you talk about your approach to leads?
“That was improvised. I just played the way I played. I used a harmonizer on it; it was almost like an [Eventide] H3000. That’s a '90s guitar thing to add in.”
How did your C Note solo composition come together?
“That song was a lot of fun. I was in the studio by myself playing on top of four chords. The lighting was dim, the song sounded good, the guitar almost sounded like it was crying. I like that solo.”
There Goes the Neighborhood is a burner that features a big tapping section – what can you tell us about it?
“I heard Eddie [Van Halen] do something like it, and I made it into a whole segment of the song. I’m playing octaves descending lower and I’m finger-tapping with three fingers. That was a lot of fun. But it was 30 years ago, and I’m still practicing to get it right. [Laughs]”
Cop Killer caused a huge uproar because of its subject matter. What do you remember about that song’s origin?
“We were writing music and my drummer was coming up from South Central and he got pulled over by the cops. So, he comes in with this frustrated energy, 'Man I’m mad at these damn cops.” Ice was like, 'There’s a song here!' We didn’t think it was going to be anything because it was so extreme.
“We compare it to I Shot the Sheriff. Like, Eric Clapton shot the sheriff. What if we shot the sheriff? We were going to run an ad [for the album] on Sunset Boulevard with guns in it and they’re like, 'We can’t run this.' We were like, 'The Terminator has a gun. Why can’t we have guns?'
“We came to the conclusion that it’s because we are really scary. You know what I mean? Black kids with guns are scary. Anybody else can have guns, but Black kids from South Central L.A. who are mad at the cops… not a good idea. Even though our band is kind of a fantasy band, reality set in and they knew what we were saying was real.”
What was the reception like on the ground from fans? You had already been playing Cop Killer during Lollapalooza ’91.
“We played Cop Killer all across the United States for a year before the record came out. That’s why the record did well: because people liked the songs. We had no problems with Cop Killer, everybody was just having a good time bouncing up and down to it: Black kids, white kids…”
Cop Killer wasn’t the only extreme cut, either. Beyond its gnarly verse riff, the lyrics for Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight read like a slasher movie.
“I like the beginning of that song. I like the guitar part. That was Moose playing. The bass is lazy, almost behind the beat. Warner Bros. were like, ‘This song is going to get you guys in a lot of trouble.’ Not Cop Killer. But that song is so wild, and over-the-top. Nobody’s chopping up their mother and all that. [Laughs] KKK Bitch caused flak too, only because Charlton Heston read the lyrics… at an NRA Convention. Come on now!”
Topics that Body Count addressed have gained widespread attention in recent years, namely the nationwide protests calling for police reform. Do you feel vindicated that society is, seemingly, catching up to what you were saying?
“You know, we’ve been writing the same songs for the past 30 years, saying the same things. I don’t get happy from it… It’s what we’ve done, and the issues are still there. Hopefully it gets better; if not, we’ll keep writing these songs.”
Do you have a favorite Body Count track?
“I like Bowels of the Devil. But I also like Cop Killer – that has a good energy to it. It represents the '90s more than any other song on the record. There was so much chaos, riots… things that still happen now. But it’s a little different now because the white kids are getting moved by it.
“I was going to my accountant in Westwood [Los Angeles], and there were some white kids from UCLA out on the street corner protesting. They had their Black Lives Matter signs; there were like a hundred of them. They’re looking at me, and I’m looking at them, like, ‘Okay, ya’ll get it.’”
In terms of Body Count’s musical legacy, the album spoke to many different fan demographics, as well as famous players…
“When we started there was no avenue for us to go on, so we toured with Metallica, Guns N’ Roses… I think everybody gives us respect because we’ve been around long enough… Tom [Morello], Korn…
“I was at this awards show five years ago and a friend says, ‘Dave Grohl wants to meet you.’ So I go, ‘How you doing? I’m Ernie.’ He said, ‘I know who you are. In 1991 me and Kurt [Cobain] came to your show at Irvine Meadows. He loved your band and I just wanted to tell you.’ I thought that was really cool.”
Many young guitarists today seem less concerned with strict genre separation – styles get mashed into new sounds all the time. Do you think Body Count was ahead of the curve in that respect?
“That was the whole idea: mash it all together. The first Body Count record is a mash-together of everything, but it comes out rock… People think they experiment now, but we were really experimenting. We used tape machines; it was a mixture of tape and digital. With the first record we put it all in the music and came out with something different.”
- Carnivore is out now via Century Media.