The Unkillable Body Count: Inside Ice-T's Relentless "Grindhouse" Metal Band | Revolver

The Unkillable Body Count: Inside Ice-T's Relentless "Grindhouse" Metal Band

Death, controversy and changing times could have crushed them. Instead, 30 years on, they're as strong as ever.
bodycount_credit_jimmyhubbard.jpg, Jimmy Hubbard
Body Count's Ice-T; Grooming: Paige Campbell; Lighting Design: Carlos Jaramillo
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

For those who don't know the whole story, the saga of Body Count is one of rock's great cautionary tales. A Los Angeles reality rapper starts a heavy-metal group with his neighborhood homies. They play a few gigs around town, land a plum spot on Perry Farrell's first Lollapalooza tour and stun tens of thousands with their massive hard-rock power. A self-titled album follows, and everything looks swell — until a police fraternal organization notices a song the group has played live for well over a year, a no-hold-barred protest song against police brutality called "Cop Killer." Widespread and subtly racist criticism reaches a feverish peak when the President and Vice President of the United States single out the rapper for attack during a contentious election season. Rapper eventually withdraws the offending track from circulation and then leaves the record label that put out the album, too.

The Ballad of Ice-T and "Cop Killer" is a fable as familiar as any in the Nineties rock canon, recounted in countless docs, history books, and Biography-style TV specials. The twist is that, 28 years after Ice-T nearly scorched himself on what he calls "the electric fence" in American culture, the band is still going strong. In fact, they're arguably as strong as ever.

Body Count have endured hardships that go deeper than political theater. Much of the initial band — Ice-T, guitarists Ernie "C" Cunnigan and Dennis "D-Roc" Miles, bassist Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts, drummer Victor Ray "Beatmaster V" Wilson and backing vocalists/hypemen Sean E Sean and Sean E. Mack — died from various causes, leaving Ice, Ernie C and Sean as the only original members of the crew left. Their battle scars have embedded the group with a sterling reputation. No longer just a rapper and his friends taking a rock & roll holiday, they're a true metal act that paid dues and survived long enough to reap the benefits.

You can hear that hard work paying off in Carnivore, a new album released nearly 30 years after their self-titled debut that finds Body Count moving from strength to strength. The LP is stacked with standout moments, whether it's an unexpectedly furious cover of Motörhead's "Ace of Spades," or Evanescence's Amy Lee singing backing vocals on "When I'm Gone," a hammering, angry track inspired by rapper Nipsey Hussle's death and the subsequent outpouring of affection for him. "People wait until you die, and then they show all this respect. Why not show it while they're alive?" says Ice. The album is streamlined and propulsive, exhibiting a deftness that far outstrips Body Count's early Nineties thrash. It's the latest in a late-period renaissance.

"It's easy to connect with the rock people now because they know we're official," says Ice-T. "Being on tour, playing with other bands, other bands seeing us out there moving the crowd. Not just being a band that thinks they can make a good record, but actually having some good hits under your belt. I think the word gets around that Body Count is dead serious."

Talking to Ice-T can be a bit overwhelming. The 62-year-old, born Tracy Marrow, enjoys the kind of ubiquitous celebrity that inspires TV commercials (that popular 2016 Geico ad where he spoofs his name with a lemonade stand). He has starred as Detective Odafin Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for the past two decades. His resume includes a true-crime documentary series (In Ice Cold Blood), a pair of memoirs (1994's The Ice Opinion and 2011's Ice), voiceover work for the 2019 computer-animation flick UglyDolls, too many films to name here, a Grammy Award, and NAACP Image Awards.

Certainly, Ice has seen and experienced more life than the average person. He's no longer the firebrand that once scared the political establishment and thrilled suburban kids everywhere with Rhyme Pays, his 1987 debut and one of the first albums in history to get an "Explicit Lyrics" sticker. But in conversation, he sounds hungry, eager to promote his work and share his views. Despite all his past success, he's still likes doing cool new shit.

Most importantly, Ice is a very funny dude. His sharp and often profane sense of humor is the secret sauce that animates his pioneering solo albums and made Body Count such a classic. Just listen to the way he bellows "There Goes the Neighborhood" over Ernie C's grinding guitar rhythm, taking pleasure in humiliating all the accidental racists who hate to see a black man achieve Hollywood success. Or play deep-cut favorite "Evil Dick," where he parodies the male libido.

Ice compares Body Count's formula to the mix of hippie sex, gross-out comedy, slasher horror, violent action and anti-government politics that animated Seventies exploitation cinema. "If you're not laughing, then you're buggin'," he says. "It's so harsh that it's funny. So it's kind of a dark humor. I call it grindhouse like a Tarantino movie. When the guy runs to the trunk, he doesn't pull out a gun, he pulls out a rocket launcher. That's Body Count."

When Ice describes the mid-Seventies cafeteria lunch scene at Crenshaw High School, the place where he met his soon-to-be Body Count friends, the setting sounds more like a Superbad and House Party teen romp than a Straight Outta Compton melodrama. A food fight feels liable to break out at any minute.

bodycount_4_credit_joegiron.jpg, Joe Giron
Body Count, circa early Nineties
photograph by Joe Giron

"[Ernie] was friends with another guy that I was in a dancing group with," says Ice. He casually notes that Ernie C grew up around Van Ness Avenue, a Bloods neighborhood "that I didn't really fuck with," while "most of my friends were Crips." (The Body Count initials also stand for Bloods and Crips.) Ice was part of a pop-locking group that included Sean E Sean. Ernie C's band would accompany the dancers with funk grooves. Meanwhile, says Ernie C, he would play harder rock like Peter Frampton, Aerosmith and the Isley Brothers (whose guitarist Ernie Isley is a huge influence) during school breaks.

"We would dance in high school against other schools and other cliques," says Ice. Performing routines to James Brown, BT Express and Parliament, they modeled themselves after famed street-dance troupe The Lockers. "We were a knockoff group," he laughs.

Then there was Beatmaster V, who Ice describes as a drummer/weed dealer. "He got kicked out of Crenshaw for selling weed. Vic ran across Crenshaw. He had a book with the pages cut out and a whole bunch of joints in it, and the security guard chased him across the quad. He threw [the book] up in the air, and it was joints for everybody," he laughs. "Then they threw his ass out of all L.A. city schools. So Vic was my man."

As Ice journeyed through L.A.'s fledging Eighties hip-hop scene, he stayed in touch with his school homies. (In the 1985 movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, you can see Ernie C dripping in leather and banging a double-neck guitar in the background while Ice raps.) Those connections endured as the underground success of his 1986 12-inch "Dog'n the Wax/6 In the Mornin'" led to a major label deal with Sire Records, and rap hits like 1988's Power and his theme to the Dennis Hopper cops-and-gangsters flick Colors made him increasingly famous.

"As I became Ice-T from rapping, [Ernie C] and Beatmaster V used to want to play on my rap records," he recalls. "And I was like, well, hip-hop is done with samples — even though Beatmaster V plays on Rhyme Pays. There's live drums on the song 'Rhyme Pays' on my first album. But it was complicated to get them involved until I was able to create Body Count." Ernie C also contributed guitar to "The Girl Tried to Kill Me," a track from 1989's The Iceberg /Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say.

Inspiration for Body Count came from multiple sources. As Ice-T toured throughout Europe in the late Eighties, he noticed how audiences would mosh to fast rap cuts like Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" and "Welcome to the Terrordome." Back in the States, he rejoined his South Central L.A. friends.

bodycount_2_credit_steve_eichnerwireimagegetty_images.jpg, Steve Eichner/Wireimage/Getty Images
Body Count, circa early Nineties
photograph by Steve Eichner/Wireimage/Getty Images

"Mooseman was selling weed. D-Roc was kinda like Ernie's student. And I said, 'Look, I've got an idea for a band. We're going to base it off of Black Sabbath. We're going to base it off of Suicidal [Tendencies]. We're going to base it off of Slayer," says Ice. With their unapologetic Latin gangster image, Suicidal Tendencies were a major influence on Body Count's subsequent all-black, stripped-down look. Also key were Red Hot Chili Peppers, Infectious Grooves and the West Coast's then-thriving funk-metal scene, as well as Black Flag's sludgy punk riffs and anti-authoritarian message. Ice says his shouty vocal approach is less inspired by rap music than New York hardcore groups like Agnostic Front.

Ernie C remembers that the band wrote their material through jam sessions, then tested the songs at small club shows, opening for groups like DRI. "We didn't know this whole idea would work," he says. "We did 11 shows in L.A., and next thing we know we were playing at Lollapalooza." Slowly but surely, the group developed what arguably became the first rap-metal album. (Fans of Rage Against the Machine's 1991 demo tape may disagree.) The rest is history.

After the "Cop Killer" controversy and a departure from Sire Records, Body Count tried to recover by signing with Virgin Records. That resulted in two widely derided albums, Born Dead and Violent Demise: The Last Days. (On the intro to Violent Demise, Ice-T even admits that Born Dead sucked — then guns down a music critic who keeps hectoring him about the topic.) It was during a 1996 concert in Belgium that Ice realized that Beatmaster V was sick with leukemia.

"We had a big, sold-out concert. I went backstage, and the doctor checked his blood count. And the doctor told us that he was technically dead, like, the way his blood was. I canceled the concert with a packed arena. We took a lot of shit for that because we didn't tell anybody he had cancer. We just said he was sick," Ice remembers. "I'm not going to do a show and have one of my best friends die." Less than eight months later, Beatmaster V passed away.

Mooseman died the following year. "Mooseman went home to visit his friends in the neighborhood they grew up, which was Rollin' 60s [Crips]," says Ice. "Some guys pulled up and decided to start shooting. Everybody ran down the driveway, and Moose was the only one hit. Got shot in the back.

"When we make these records and people are like, 'Oh, you're glamorizing this shit,' I'm like, 'No, we're telling you how the fuck it is. One of our band members died from that.'"

Rebuilding Body Count has been a painstaking process. D-Roc died in 2004. "He had lymphoma. He had been sick the entire time we were in the band. I guess it just finally caught up with him," says Ice. "Every time one of the band members dies, the band is stopped, sometimes for over a year, just out of mourning. Like, yo, what do we do?" Sean E. Mack left the group sometime around 2001, and a 2006 comeback album, Murder 4 Hire, didn't quite work out.

It wasn't until 2014's Manslaughter that Body Count found the right combination of new blood. Vincent "Price" Dennis, bassist for power-metal combo Steel Prophet, worked at the rehearsal hall Body Count used. Dennis subsequently recruited drummer Will "Ill Will" Dorsey. Guitarist Juan "Juan of the Dead" Garcia connected with the group when they signed with Sumerian Records. He cut his teeth in bands like Agent Steel and Evildead.

body count 2019 PRESS, Dirk Behlau
Body Count, 2020
photograph by Dirk Behlau

The key addition, however, may be producer Will Putney. As a musician himself — he plays guitar for deathcore band Fit for an Autopsy — Putney has been instrumental in modernizing Body Count's sound. "He organizes everything," says Ernie C, noting that Putney often adds his own guitar parts to fill out the sound. "He knows how we play. When people say, 'Did you play that,' I say, 'I might not have played it. I don't know what I played or I didn't play.' But it's always in the framework of what we would play.

"The first records were a little more punk-sounding. It was a little looser, a little more funk," Ernie adds. "This band is more tight, this band is more precise. We're more like a Slayer now. That's the way metal is right now. Metal is real tight and precise."

Ice says it may have been hard to rebuild Body Count and replace the ones who left, but "you have to do it in honor of them. We never disrespect them. Vince knows he's not Mooseman. Will knows he's not Beatmaster V. Juan knows he's not D-Roc. ... But the fans love it, and the fans want the band to continue. It's just life. Life has to go on."

The success of Manslaughter proved that fans still want to see Body Count. "We went to Mayhem Fest, and the fans were there," says Ice. Then came Bloodlust, which features high-wattage guests like Megadeth's Dave Mustaine and Sepultura's founding frontman Max Cavalera. "Black Hoodie," a throttling protest track inspired by the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, surprisingly earned a 2018 Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance before losing out to Mastodon's "Sultan's Curse." "I thought it was a joke," Ice says of hearing the news of the nomination. "But it's one of those things where you don't care about it until you're nominated. Then you're like, I want to win."

In some ways, Body Count will always chase those golden months in 1991 and 1992 when the band forged a seminal moment in rock history amidst a confluence of social and political controversy that can't be repeated. Mostly, though, they're focused on the present. "We didn't even know how good [that first album] was until later, when we tried to do it again," Ice says, laughing heartily. "But I think right now, with Carnivore, we're at full power."

Below, see Ice-T discuss three decades of Body Count with SiriusXM Liquid Metal's Shawn the Butcher: