Fears of the White Unconscious: Music, Race, and Identification in the censorship of "Cop Killer"
By Barry Shank
On 11 June 1992, the Dallas Police Association and the Combined Law Enforcement of Texas called a press conference to announce the beginning of a campaign to force Warner Brothers Records to remove a song entitled "Cop Killer" from one of their current releases by the heavy metal band , Body Count. Within a week, the Texan groups had received the support of police organizations in California and New York. The governor of the state of Alabama, Guy Hunt, asked all record stores in his state to stop selling Body Count's album. The vice president of the country, Dan Quayle, termed the song "obscene." Sixty members if Congress signed a letter addressed to Warner Brothers calling the recording "despicable" and "vile". Within two weeks, the California State Attorney General had sent a letter to record store chains operating in California, requesting that they no longer stock the recording. Over fifteen hundred stores across the country had already pulled the album from the shelves and refused to sell it. Within a month of the initial press conference, President George Bush publicly denounced any record company that would release such a product. At a Time Warner's Shareholder's meeting on 16 July actor Charlton Heston stood up, read the lyrics to two songs from the album, and demanded that the nations largest media corporation took some action. Then, on 28 July Ice-T, the leader of Body Count, called a press conference to announce that he personally was removing the song, "cop killer" from all future copies of the album.
In less then two months, a protest against a pop song begun by a thousand member organization of police officers had forced one of the world's largest and most successful corporations not only to pull one of their still profitable products from the market place, but to go back on several carefully worded public statements supporting artistic freedom and freedom of speech. Finally, on 27 January 1993, Warner Bros. Released both Ice-T (solo) and Body Count from their recording contracts, citing "creative differences".
How did this happen? What mechanisms of American mass mediated popular culture enabled the proponents of the boycott to achieve their goals? And why did this happen? What were the social, historical and, above all, that enabled this one four minute song to appear so threatening? To answer these questions, I will approach an analysis of the musical and lyrical text of "Cop Killer" through the particular yet persuasive contexts of similar mass cultural products, as well as media representations of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.
In the months following the uprising in Los Angeles, as the nation struggled to understand the meaning of the event and explain its causes, "Cop Killer" became the cultural text that most clearly focused the opposing interpretations of the Los Angeles rebellion. Briefly, the two positions lined up as follows: Was the rebellion the result of increasingly harsh social conditions creating the fuel that was ignited by an unjust jury verdict? Or were the rebellion and, indeed, the harsh social conditions themselves, the result of a "pathological" black culture? I will argue that "Cop Killer" (and no other cultural product) became the object of a successful censorship campaign because it produced a structure of identification for white listeners and tapped into some of the deepest fears of the white unconscious. By presenting "gangsta" rap lyrics within the musical context of a guitar driven heavy metal song, "Cop Killer" while encouraging white listeners to identify with black rage. As it blended radically marked subjectivities, this song rendered inadequate the simple explanations of the Los Angeles rebellion that were being put forth by both Democratic and Republican candidates in the months preceding the 1992 presidential elections. If suburban white males could find pleasure and meaning in "Cop Killers" evocation of rage and revenge, then the Los Angeles rebellion could not be simply the result of a "pathological" black culture. By virtue of its musically produced structure of identification, "Cop Killer" suggested that the entire nation could understand inner-city black rage and, further, that the society in general bore responsibilities for the conditions that produced it. It was this articulation of repressed and contradictory elements of suburban white male identity with the equally unspeakable fears aroused by the Los Angeles rebellion that forced the censorship of "Cop Killer".
Los Angeles, 1992
The story of "Cop Killer" and its censorship is inextricably imbricated with the occurrences in Los Angeles during late April and early May of 1992. On 29 April a jury in suburban Simi Valley acquitted the police officers who had beaten Rodney King, and the streets of South Central Los Angeles exploded in fury. President Bush's address to the nation on 1 May stressed the dominant conservative interpretation of the events.
What we saw the last night and the night before in Los Angeles is
not about civil rights. It's not about the great cause of equality that
all Americans must uphold. It's not a message of protest. It's been
the brutality of mob, pure and simple. And let me assure you, I will
use whatever force is necessary to restore order.
In a commencement speech delivered to a small college in the Los Angeles area, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Pat Buchanan asked,
"But where did the mob come from?" Among the responsible origins of this "mob", Buchanan asserted, "It came out of rock concerts where rap music celebrates raw lust and cop killing."
Ice-T himself was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times while the riots were taking place. He said:
I'm not saying I told you so, but rappers have been reporting from the
front for years…black people look at cops as the Gestapo. People
thought it might come to an end [with the Rodney King trial] and they
might get some justice. That was a false hope. People saw that justice is
a myth if your black. Of course people will riot.
From the perspective of Pat Buchanan, rap music had functioned as a cultural agent, producing the illogical violence of the riots. According to Ice-T, rappers had been reporting on the material and ideological conditions that, in fact, did predictably product the rebellion. The publicly mediated battle over "Cop Killer" was precisely the struggle over which of these two interpretations would become the dominant meaning of the events in Los Angeles.
Before the rebellion, Ice-T was enjoying a successful solo music career, having released four rap albums since his debut in 1987. Each of these albums focuses on stories of drug dealing, pimping, and gang warfare, featuring an outlaw or gangsta image that he carefully cultivates. One interviewer recently commented on the nice furnishings in Ice-T's home in the Hollywood Hills and asked him who did his decorating. The singer responded, "I did. I broke into enough houses to know how people decorate."
Ice-T's fourth solo album, released in late May 1991, is entitled O.G. Original Gangsta. This title refers to the ongoing feud (or marketplace competition) with fellow Los Angeles rappers N. W. A. and establishes Ice-T as a veteran of the gangsta rap scene. Ice-T claims to have invented gangsta rap, although N. W. A. and its associated spin-offs have achieved greater commercial success within the genre. His first album Rhyme Pays (1987), contains two of the most powerful early gangsta raps, "6 in the morning" and "squeeze the trigger" and Ice-T codified the conventions of the genre in the "powerful and dangerous" title song to Dennis Hopper's film Colors. But it was N. W .A. who sold over two million copies of their 1988 recording, Straight Out of Compton, certifying the commercial appeal of these representations.
Through the work of N. W. A., Ice-T, and others during the late 1980’s, gangsta rap established itself as one logical extreme of inner-city, African-American male musical expression. Drawing upon a long tradition of celebrating the exploits of tough bad men like Stackolee, gangsta rap is aimed at a hypothetical "street" audience that demands brutal lyrical imagery as a "hard fought badge of urban authenticity." Ice Cube, one of the original members of N. W. A. (who has since gone on to have a successful solo career) has said that:
Most of the rap records at the time [of straight out of Compton]
Avoided cuss words and stuff like that because they wanted to get
On the radio. But we were just trying to appeal to our own crowd…
The homeboys down the street. We needed to talk about stuff that
Other people are scared to talk about. People sometimes act as if we are
Making up the stuff we talk about on our records…that we are trying to be
Controversial and shocking, but its also real…not the kind of stuff you
Usually hear on TV or the radio. We're speaking in the language of
The neighborhood. The homeboys know exactly what we're saying.
Most don't know what goes on in this world. They don't see these streets.
Ice Cube's statement represents both the power and the paradoxical responsibility of gangsta rap. The adoption by these young men of the racist stereotypes of angry and appetitive black males carries a double burden. Within the immediate community of these musicians, the complex and contradictory messages of their music are interpreted by means of the surrounding context: the symbolic assertion of individual street power signifies the difficult maintenance of personal dignity. For their raps to sound fresh to this audience (which is key to maintaining their legitamicy as voices for this audience), gangstas must be continually pushing the edge- both musically and lyrically- of their genre. Outside of this community, however, their exaggeration of exaggeration begins to fascinate with the appeal of a horror movie. Recognized as fantasies (that is as a form of mediated representations equivalent at one level to television programs), the lyrics of gangsta rap provide a symbolic means of real cultural tensions. Yet, when treated as "real", as somehow representing the literal as opposed to the symbolic truth of inner-city life, these lyrics can appear to reinforce the worst racist fears of the white unconscious. Because of its position staked at the edge of acceptability, because of its willingness to dance on the high wire of racist representation, gangster rap and its associated imagery are often used by white middle class cultural commentators-journalists, religious leaders, and politicians-to stand in for all of rap, and sometimes for all of African American popular music.
For example, in a March 1990 cover story called "The Rap Attitude" Newsweek decried rap as "The cultural of attitude…bombastic, self aggrandizing and yet scary as sudden footsteps in the dark." The article quoted isolated lyrics from N.W. A. and Ice-T, illustrating an apparent foreign culture of intense hatred and violence for its middle class readers. Striving to emphasize a relationship of radical otherness between its readers and the participants in the cultural practice, Newsweek declared that:
Attitude is primarily a working-class and underclass phenomenon, a
response to the diminishing expectations of the millions of American
youths who forgot to go to business school in the 1980. If they had ever
listened to something besides the homeboys talking trash, if they had
ever studied something besides the strings of a guitar, they might have
some more interesting justifications to offer…the end of attitude is nihilism,
which by definition leads nowhere. The cultural of attitude is repulsive, but
its mostly empty of political content.
In this article, gangsta rap exemplifies the "repulsive" culture of the "underclass" (a term that signifies urban, working class African Americans), the culture of those who "forgot" to go to business school and who have, therefore, chosen "nihilism." The degree of misunderstanding could not be greater.
There can be no doubt that the Los Angeles rebellion reoriented white America’s response to African-American music in general, and to rap in particular. At that point rappers began to be listened to as the responsible representatives of, and voices for, an otherwise neglected inner-city population, one that apparently possessed the potential to turn into a violent mob. David Mills interviewed an outspoken rap artist, Sister Souljah, for the Washington Post. His pointed questions drew a response that flashed across newspaper headlines for weeks, echoes of which became a soundbite in Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. After grilling Sister Souljah on the responsibility of African-American artists responsibility to their community, and the nation at large, Mills asked, "But the people perpetuated that violence, did they think it was wise? Was that wise reasoned action? Souljah’s response is worth quoting in full, insofar as it reestablishes the context for one particular phrase that resonated in the media with one of the fears of the white unconscious- that there would be shared costs for ongoing racial inequality.
Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people everyday, why
not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying?
in other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well
aware of the fact that black people were dying everyday in Los Angeles
under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally
be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that some-
body thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would
kill their own kind?
The charged statement from the quote was "Why not have a week and kill white people?" The susceptibility of Souljah’s extensive response to such savage editing only highlights the burden media institutions placed on African-American artists, both to explain the rebellion and to take responsibility for its immediate consequences.
On with the Body Count
During the summer of 1991, months before the rebellion, Ice-T’s heavy metal band, Body Count, had toured the nation as part of the Lollapaloza package of touring bands that combined "alternative" rock acts such as Jane’s Addiction, with hardcore industrial music, speed metal bands, and rap musicians. At every stop of that tour they played "Cop Killer," undeniably one of their most powerful songs. Apparently, no police organization felt threatened by the band’s performances on the tour; certainly, no efforts were made to prevent body count from playing this soon-to-be notorious song. The following fall, the band went into the studio to produce their album; the recorded version of "Cop Killer" included direct references to the Rodney King incident. The album was released in late March 1992 and first entered the Billboard "Pop Album" chart at number thirty-two in the issue dated 18 April. In the next week’s charts, it dropped to number thirty-nine and then hovered in the middle forties for the following month. The album was not a smash, but neither was it a flop. Due to Body Count’s willful blurring of genres (was this a metal or a rap record?), Warner Brothers was having trouble marketing the recording. And because of its ubiquitous profanity, the album could not gain the radio exposure necessary to scale the heights of commercial popularity. In the face of these problems, it was performing respectably well. It is important to emphasize that the events in Los Angeles had no immediate noticeable effect on the popularity of the recording. By 6 June, it had sold approximately 211,000 copies. As of the 20 June chart, the Body Count album was resting at number thirty-six.
The Censorship Campaign
On 12 June, the day after the police organizations in Texas called their initial press conference, Los Angeles city council woman Joan Milke Flores introduced a motion calling for Time Warner to "voluntarily" stop selling "Cop Killer". In addition to holding her seat on the council, Flores was running for the House of Representatives from the 36th congressional district. After the strategic decisions of both the Bush and the Clinton campaigns, it had become evident that taking a stand against certain African-American musicians could take the place of a reasoned and careful response to the racial and economic tensions that underlay the Los Angeles rebellion. Flores called all the radio stations in town asking them not to play "Cop Killer," a completely ridiculous request since no stations would play it anyway. But she made certain that the major news organizations in Los Angeles knew that she had taken this step. In the article that reported Flores’s actions the following lyrics from "Cop Killer" were printed: I got my twelve-gauge sawed off/ I got my headlights turned off/ I’m bout to bust some shots off/ I’m bout to dust some cops off." Within less then a week, that four line stanza had become the dominant media representation of "Cop Killer." The very same process that had reduced Sister Souljah’s extensive explanation of street ethics to a one-phrase battle cry reduced "Cop Killer" to this verse. In the newspaper articles that covered the controversy, these four lines were repeated over and over again, where they were allowed to stand in for the meaning of Body Count’s music and by extension, for the threats to civil order represented by gangsta rap, the riots in Los Angeles, along with the nation’s very real racial tensions and economic and social inequality that were simply not being directly addressed.
On 15 June the Los Angeles Police Protective Order and the Fraternal Order of Police joined city council member Flores in calling for Time Warner to stop selling "Cop Killer." Bill Volante, the president of the eight thousand-member Los Angeles Police Union, said, "The publication of such vile trash is unconscionable. This song does nothing but arouse the passions of the criminal element who make the streets of Los Angeles unsafe." Blythely ignoring the musical fact that "Cop Killer" was not a rap song, Paul Taylor, president of the fraternal order of police, said, "People who ride around all night and use crack cocaine and listen to rap music that talks about killing cops –its bound to pump them up. No matter what anybody tells you, this kind of music is dangerous." In these public statements issued by national police organizations, "Cop Killer" stands in for rap music, which stands in for black culture generally, and the "criminal element" equals those "who make the streets of Los Angeles unsafe," in other words, the rioting mob of the previous Spring. Furthermore this criminal element can be recognized by three kinds of behavior: 1.) they ride in cars at night; 2.) they use crack cocaine; 3.) they listen to rap music that pumps them up. Not only does this sound almost "as scary as sudden footsteps in the dark," but these police statements simply affirm the critiques raised by Ice-T and the other gangsta rappers; when police see young blacks listen to rap music in cars at night, the young people are assumed prima facie to be using cocaine and to be part of the criminal element. These statements play off the assumption that certain aspects of black culture are signs of criminality. For "Cop Killer" to fit neatly into this crooked syllogism, it must be referred to as a "rap song;" its musical appeal to white fans of heavy metal must be completely repressed.
Time Warner summed up their position on the controversy with the statement issued on 15 June:
It is vital that we stand behind our commitment to the free expression
of ideas for all our authors, journalists, recording artists, screen writers,
actors and directors. Just banning the song will not make violence and
rage disappear. In fact, only the open discussion and exchange of ideas
and information can lead to the kind of substantive change that [police
groups], Time Warner and all concerned citizens desire.
This call for calm and reasoned debate carried none of the emotional weight of the police statements and had no chance to counteract the racist fears coded in them. It tried to cast the controversy as one of free speech and free markets, when those really weren’t the issues at all.
On 16 June, the day that the governor of Alabama asked stores in his state not to sell the album, the National Black Police Association denounced the censorship effects. Spokesperson Ronald Hampton, said, "This song is not a call for murder. It's a rap of protest. Ice-T isn't just making this stuff up. He's expressing his concerns about police misconduct. He's responding to a very real issue that affects many Americans, especially blacks and Latinos: police brutality."
The next day, house minority whip Newt Gingrich and house minority leader Bob Michel sent a letter to Time Warner that was signed by sixty members of Congress-fifty-seven republicans and three Southern democrats- that roundly criticized the company. "It appears you have chosen potential profit over any reasonable sense of public responsibility. We believe that your decision to disseminate these despicable lyrics advocating the murder of police officers is unconscionable." On 19 June, the same day that Vice President Dan Quayle denounced "Cop Killer" at a conference of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, three major record store chains- Trans World Music, Super Club Music, and Sound Warehouse- with over one thousand stores among them announced that they were pulling the record from their shelves. The following morning, two more major chains, Camelot Music and Hastings Music, followed suit, increasing the number of boycotting stores to over 1500. A vice president for Hastings Music, Walter Miller said, "The concern came when it got so much publicity. That caused all of these elected officials and district attorneys to get concerned…I suspect it would still be in our stores if the media hadn't made such an event out of it."
Ice-T's first public comments on the controversy came on 18 June, during a press conference that preceded his keynote speech at the New Music Seminar, an annual meeting of music personel in New York City. When asked about the proper response to "Cop Killer" he said, "I think cops should feel threatened. I feel threatened. I grew up threatened. They should know that they can't take a life without retaliation." Despite this threatening social context, Ice-T insisted on a crucial if subtle difference between himself as author of the song and the fictional character narrorating the song. "At no point do I go out and say, 'Let's do it,'" he said. "I'm singing in the first person as a character that is fed up with police brutality. I ain't never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it." Without disavowing the songs significance, Ice-T was describing an important gap between the subject of the utterance and the subject of enunciation in the lyrics. While it is Ice-T who is singing the words to "Cop Killer," it is not Ice-T that is "about to dust some cops off."
Cop Killing in Mass Culture
The question that still must be asked is why it was that "Cop Killer," and not any other of a number of musical, cinematic, or television texts that became the object of this censorship campaign. To approach this question it becomes necessary to move beyond the social context of the Los Angeles rebellion and turn instead to the musical construction of subjectivity in "Cop Killer."
In the June 1992 newsletter sent to members of the Dallas Police association that initiated the Time Warner boycott, senior police captain Glen White wrote that "Cop Killer" " glamorizes the ambushing of police officers." If this were the sole transgression of the song, then we might expect that other media products with similar characteristics would have attracted similar responses. For instance during the summer of 1991, the most popular movie of the summer was Terminator 2. In this movie, Arnold Schwarzenneger plays an android who must protect a young man from all of his enemies. In the course of this movie, this android shoots, stabs, runs over, and maims hundreds of police officers. However, the movie caused no uproar. Hundreds of movies each year depict violence against police officers, other representatives of the government, and normal citizens. In fact, there is an entire genre of films that are referred to as "Body Count" movies because of the large number of grisly murders that occur in the film. Although these films occasionally inspire minister or newspaper columnist to rally against Hollywood violence, no "Body Count" film has ever become the target of a nationally organized police boycott.
One might object that Woody Guthrie's albums have never benefited from the mass distribution networks available to Time Warner. A better example, then, might be Eric Clapton's recording of Bob Marley's song, "I shot the sheriff," which reached the number one position in Bilboards charts on 14 September 1974. the main character in this song states, "Sheriff John Brown always hated me, for what I don't know, Everytime I would plant a seed he would kill it before it grow, So I, I shot the sheriff," This recording meets both the lyrical criterion of a song that describes killing a law officer and the distribution criterion of being a successful mass cultural product. But, again, no public uproar accompanied the circulation of the recording. Evidently, even these two qualities are not sufficient for producing governmental outrage and provoking corporate censorship.
A historian might protest the social conditions were radically different in the seventies. A more recent musical advocacy of violence against police can be found on Lou Reed's critically acclaimed album, New York, released in 1989. This album focuses on explicit descriptions of the racial turmoil and social tension that were wracking the city, including direct references to the Howard Beach incident. One song, "Romeo had Juliette," includes the line, " This cop who died in Harlem, You'd think they'd get the warning, I was dancing when his brains ran down the street." No police union tried to force Warner Brothers to recall that celebration of the death of a police officer. Evidently even more then the combination of lyrical transgression, mass distribution, and tense social conditions must be necessary to produce such an action.
My point is that to understand why "Cop Killer" drew such organized outraged resistance, we have to understand how popular music works at the level of the construction of subjectivity. In an attempt to isolate some of the critical musical elements, I want to focus on two versions of the song, "I shot the Sheriff"-Eric Clapton's version, which went to number one, and the original recording by Bob Marley and the Wailers. To me there are several key elements that sonically distinguish these two versions. The most significant, obviously, is the greater rhythmic sophistication and subtlety of the Wailers’ version. While Clapton’s band echoes the stylistic rhythmic qualities by which Anglo-Americans recognize Jamaican reggae, their performance is rather stiff and repetitive when compared to the Wailers’ fluid and supple approach to the same material. In contrast to Clapton’s somewhat plodding rhythm section, the bass line and the drums never echo each other in Marley’s arrangement. Instead they set up an intriguing subtle tension that moves the listener’s body across complexly patterned beats. I want to emphasize here that I am not valorizing the Wailers’ "natural rhythm." There is nothing natural about this; their musical sophistication is wholly cultural.
The second major difference between the two recordings lies in those aspects of musical sound referred to as timbre. While the actual pitches and harmonic structures of the two arrangements are virtually identical, the recordings sound quite different. The tonalities of Clapton’s arrangement derive from a higher yet more narrow frequency range then they do in Marley’s. Clapton’s version is dominated by the clipped strumming of a Fender Stratocaster guitar-that um-chicka sound-and the timbral feel of Clapton’s version is much more tense and anxious. Marley’s version features a wider variety of timbres and arranges these timbres in a widely dispersed fashion that produces a feeling of greater space in the sound. The listener is invited into this open musical space rather then being determinedly directed by the music.
These shapes of musical rhythm are, of course, tightly linked to the rhythms of the physical body. Just as variations in musical timbre stimulate and motivate the body, variations in rhythm impose a layer of social organization upon these movements. Susan McClary has imposed that "music…is a site where we learn how to experience socially mediated patterns of kinetic energy, being in time, emotions, desire, pleasure and much more." These patterns, she suggests, are "already marked with histories"-the different histories of different groups. To a very great extent, then, we belong to those social groups who "dance"-that is, who respond physically-to the same music in the same way that we do. In an oft-quoted passage, Raymond Williams has argued that:
Rhythm is a way of transmitting description of an experience, in
such a way that the experience is re-created in the person receiving
it, not merely as an ‘abstraction’ or an emotion but as a physical effect
on the organism-on the blood, on the breathing, on the physical patterns
of the brain…the dance of the body, the movement of the voice, the
sounds of the instruments are, like colors, forms, patterns, means
of transmitting…experience in so powerful a way that the experience can
be literally lived by others.
These, then, are the two most significant elements of music-there must be musical sound, culturally (not naturally, not universally) distinguished in its timbres from noise, and this sound must be rhythmically organized.
As a signifying practice-that is, as a cultural form that both expresses and constructs identifies-music operates through gestures and form rather then linear meaning, always through the "recognition (implicit or not) of a familiar structure within an aesthetic construction." The recognition is the response of musical pleasure, the bodily acknowledgement that sound is a sound I know, that beat is a beat I understand, that I move to, that moves me. When discussing the musical production of subjectivity, we have to emphasize both the physical and cultural nature of the articulations of timbre and rhythm-the dialectical interactions between bodies and sounds.
In other words, Eric Clapton’s "I shot the sheriff" and Lou Reed’s "Romeo had Juliette" were not perceived to be threats because their specific rhythmic and timbral qualities constructed audiences that were not open to their lyrical significance; while the songs described anti-police violence, these performances failed to articulate an oppositional subject through their signifying processes.
One song by the Los Angeles rap group N.W.A., stands as a direct precedent to the "Cop Killer" controversy. In 1988, N.W.A. released their first album, Straight Outta Compton. Among its descriptions of street life, violence, masculine boasting, and misogyny was a song entitled "Fuck the Police," which includes the line "takin’ out a police will make my day." The groups record company received a letter from the FBI’s public affairs office noting that the song "encourages violence and disrespect for the law enforcement officer." During the band’s tours that Summer and Fall, they were followed by a fax campaign urging local police departments to find an excuse to cancel each show. The FBI was not able to mobilize and organize an effective coalition of national and local government officials. However, and Straight Outta Compton went on to sell over two million copies to the rapidly growing audience for hardcore, or "gangsta" rap. Although this new genre was beginning to make inroads into the suburban market by this point, performers like N.W.A. were still believed to be aiming their music at an inner-city audience that was already considered to be dangerous, already marked off from main stream culture, already under constant police surveillance. As a result, no censorship campaign seemed necessary to purge the marketplace from the threat represented by the song "Fuck tha Police;" its threat was apparently being managed by other, more coercive means. "Cop Killer," while deploying the lyrical strategies of gangsta rap, was perceived to be more threatening because it clearly did speak to a different audience. Musically, it is undeniably heavy metal, a genre that directly addresses suburban white male adolescents.
Identification in Heavy Metal
Of all the genres of popular music disseminated throughout the 1980s and 1990s, heavy metal has received the most attention from communication scholars and social psychologists. Researchers have investigated the schematic information processing of heavy metal lyrics, the effects of aggressive rock songs on tests designed to measure hostility, and the relationship between family background and a preference for what the researchers called "music with lyrics that promote homicide, suicide, or satanic practices." The vast majority of the studies report negative findings. That is, these social scientists discovered no statistically significant relationship between listening to heavy metal music and an increase in destructive behavior. Despite these persistent negative results, however, psychological investigations of the social impact of heavy metal continue to be funded and to produce publishable papers. Clearly, there is the perception of a profound social threat.
Although these studies have been unable to uncover any direct social effects deriving from listening to heavy metal, they have been able to specify some social and cultural characteristics of the fans of the music. Heavy metal fans are "more likely then expected to be male and white," and they reside in suburban neighborhoods. In addition, heavy metal fans identify with the skills of the musicians and are more likely to envision a music career for themselves.
In other words, heavy metal produces a powerful set of suggestive effects within a specific subgroup of the American population. Within heavy metal, the emphasis on musical virtuosity establishes the possibility for a musical identification on the part of the fans, allowing for the dialectical production of imaginary identities. Now, heavy metal has its own specific definition of virtuosity. The guitar playing must utilize a limited range of tonalities and harmonics that can only be generated by loud volumes, dancing along the barrier between music and noise. The attention of the listener is then focused along this culturally determined barrier, where it falls on the sheer speed of the ascending and descending notes. These phrases tend to be organized into rigid rhythmic structures that are reinforced by the drumming. The overall effect produces an identification with individual skill and power that must be displayed within tight disciplinary structures.
The potential for subjective identification with any lyrics is increased when these lyrics are surrounded by a musical structure that reinforces commonly held cultural values. For a specific social group-suburban, white, male adolescents-heavy metal provides such a musical structure.
On his 1991 release, Original Gangster, Ice-T announced the formation of his "all black hardcore band Body Count." Body Count is not another rap act; their music is structured within the conventions of hardcore heavy metal. Ice-T anticipated the possible objection that he had "sold out" by working within the conventions of rock music by means of a set of spoken comments:
You see, a lot of people don't realize that rock' n' roll is truly black
music. It was created by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and black
people that started it off like that back in the day, you know. So
far as I'm concerned, music is music. I don't look at it as rock, R&B,
all that kind of stuff…I do what I like and I happen to like rock' n' roll.
And I feel sorry for anybody that listens to only one form of music.
This somewhat disingenuous speech leads into a preview of the title cut from the Body Count album. It becomes immediately clear from the first few notes and words of this song, however, that the music of Body Count is not just an idle investigation into new musical forms. It is a deliberate attempt on the part of Ice-T to construct a new audience. This song is directly addressed to an assumed suburban listener. The idyllic life shown on popular television programs such as the "Cosby Show," is pointedly contrasted to the violence of gangsta rap. A particularly sharp contrast is shown between the images of the police prominent in the differing cultural forms. In TV sitcoms, police rescue scared kittens; in gangsta rap police shoot kids in the backyard. But it is not solely the lyrical address that makes the song connect with the new audience. Body Count represents Ice-T's most direct and self-conscious effort to speak to a suburban white audience, combining the pile driver rhythms with and blistering runs of heavy metal with with the lyrical themes common to the gangsta aesthetic. This was the ultimate musical transgression of "Cop Killer." Not only does this song "glamorize the ambushing of police officers," it does so within a musical context that encourages identification by white suburban males who admire the performance of individual virtuosity within a highly disciplined order. In other words, "Cop Killer," and no other anti-police mass cultural product, became the object of this censorship campaign because it was so successful at producing a musical structure of identification that could appeal to and could be identified with by members of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (the instigators of the censorship campaign) or, perhaps more frighteningly, their children. The ability of this song to speak across culturally constructed racial barriers inspired the cooperation of numerous other police organizations, the National Rifle Association, sixty members of congress, Oliver North, Vice President Quayle, Charlton Heston, and their allies.
On 28 July, Ice-T announced that he had asked Warner Brothers to withdraw the track from the Body Count album, saying his request was being made out of concern for the safety of Warner Brother employees that had received bomb threats. The record company said that it would immediately stop manufacturing and distributing the original album and would replace it with a new version minus "Cop Killer." They asked every record store in the country to return the old versions of the album for complete credit. The week of this announcement the Body Count album had its most successful sales ever, racing up to number twenty-nine, as thousands of record collectors, journalists, and academics rushed out to buy their copies.
At the New Music Seminar the previous June, Ice-T had said, "What they're really trying to do is shutdown my platform. They do not want to let me be able to speak to the masses. That's what they want to do." Not only were the police organizations able to shut down Ice-T's platform, but they were able to use this platform to make their own statements. Rather then forming an expression of rage over already existing conditions in the nations inner-city neighborhoods, "Cop Killer" was effectively constructed as a cause of violence and disruption, and black culture became the scapegoat for the Los Angeles rebellion, blamed for the events of April of 92. The Battle over the meaning of "Cop Killer" was fought out in the very limited battleground of the national news media. In this terrain, simple statements and simple interpretations that take advantage of unspoken assumptions are much more powerful then complex arguments that attempt to expose these assumptions.
The Los Angeles rebellion brought to the surface long-standing tensions over racially enforced conditions of social inequality that the policies of the Reagan/Bush administrations had only exacerbated. The successful campaign to censor "Cop Killer" and remove it from the cultural marketplace demonstrates the continuing effects of these policies. For the battle over the meaning of "Cop Killer" and the dominant interpretation of the Los Angeles rebellion as the work of the "criminal element" both depend upon the same repressive mechanism. The mainstream American Media and the federal government still cannot confront the radical social inequalities reproduced through our continuing racialism. Therefore, a powerful reaction formation takes place in the white middle-class suburban unconscious that retroactively creates a radical otherness, a wall of essential difference, between those identifying with the "Cosby Show" and those identifying with gangsta rap. "Cop Killer" had to be censored because it demonstrates at the level of shared lived experience that this difference is not essential, rather it is undeniably historical and cultural. By producing a musical structure of identification that suburban, white, middle-class listeners could find pleasurable and meaningful, "Cop Killer" linked together the identities of urban black males with the desires and demands of suburban whites. Rendering explicit the most unspeakable fear of the white unconscious, "Cop Killer" itself had to be repressed.
From: Radical History Review, Fall, 1996.