When Ice-T's third album hit the streets in 1989, most people took the title -- "Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say" -- for sarcasm. But lately, it has begun to seem an awful lot like prophecy.
Over the past couple months, the rapper has become the focus of a massive protest, as police groups and conservative politicians demanded the withdrawal of "Cop Killer," a song on his heavy metal album "Body Count."
In no time at all, Ice-T had become America's Most Unwanted. Dan Quayle denounced him, as did President Bush and actor Charlton Heston. There were pickets outside the Time/Warner shareholders meeting in Beverly Hills, and considerable economic pressure from within.
On Tuesday, he finally gave in. "Body Count," he announced, would be recalled, and "Cop Killer" would be deleted. Ice-T had decided to watch what he said.
For some police, that was enough, but others remain unsatisfied. Ron DeLord, of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, groused that his group wouldn't be happy until Time/Warner "admits that they made a mistake." Oliver North called the move "too little, too late," and announced that his Freedom Alliance would continue with efforts to prosecute Ice-T for sedition. And, locally, members of the Fraternal Order of Police have said they will continue their boycott of Time/Warner until profits from the album were earmarked for victims rights groups.
To call this a low moment for artistic freedom would understate the case considerably. It's one thing for police groups to object to what Ice-T sang about, quite another for them to insist that no one else be allowed to hear it. And the fact that they were able to bully Ice-T into pulling the song will doubtless encourage other self-appointed censors to redouble their efforts.
Ice-T wasn't being harassed for anything he did, remember, but for something he sang. He killed no cops, nor did he go onstage anywhere and urge his audience to "Off the pigs!" In fact, his protagonist never even pulls the trigger in the song -- he just goes on about how much he wants to.
And for that he has blood on his hands?
But the "Cop Killer" case isn't about artistic expression, really. Cop-killing is hardly the taboo topic these pressure groups suggest. Just look at TV or the movies, where gunning down law officers has become so common that it's almost a cliche. (It's worth noting, by the way, that while Republican role model Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughtered an entire station full of police in "Terminator," Ice-T has so far specialized in good cops in his movies.)
Nor is "Cop Killer" the first song which seemingly glorified the murder of law officers. Folk music is full of 'em, from rip-snorters like "The Wild Colonial Boy," a 19th century Australian ditty about the trooper-killing bandit, Jack Doolan, to Woody Guthrie's classic "Pretty Boy Floyd." Rock and rap have produced many more, most notably the chart-topping 1974 hit "I Shot the Sheriff."
So how come "Cop Killer" was the first to take the heat?
Perhaps because what matters here has less to do with what is being said than with who is doing the talking. Before his press conference Tuesday, Ice-T reportedly complained to Warner Records staffers that he was tired of being treated like "this year's Willie Horton," and there's a certain amount of truth in what he says.
Rap -- particularly the work of angry and articulate stars such as Ice-T -- has become an easy and obvious target for politicians eager to play off of middle class America's anxieties over urban violence. And just as Horton was used by the Bush campaign in 1988 as a way of playing off suburban fears of African American lawlessness, this attack on Ice-T and "Cop Killer" is an easy means for politicians to profit from fears unleashed by riots in L.A. and escalating murder rates elsewhere.
Ridding the world of songs like "Cop Killer" isn't going to solve either problem, of course. But then, if these leaders were really interested in solving problems, it's doubtful they'd spend so much time moonlighting as music critics.