It’s not that surprising that Original Gangster Ice-T would form a metal band as a side project. Ice’s love of metal was evident on his first album, which sampled Black Sabbath. What is surprising is that Body Count, Ice-T’s metal band, would be around twenty five years later. And yet last summer saw the release of Body Count’s fifth album, “Manslaughter.”
At face value, hip-hop and metal are very different. One is centered on speaking rhythmically over mechanical drum beats, the other is centered on screaming over guitars. One is a predominantly African-American art form, the other is predominantly white. But there are also a lot of similarities between the two. Both are art forms that represent outcasts and the underclass. Both genres often celebrate nihilism and anti-social behavior, and both genres often use violence as subject matter. Chief Keef and Norwegian black metal band Mayhem may sound totally different, but they both share a certain level of misanthropy and disdain for mainstream society. There’s also a level of boasting and fantasy in both genres. Few gangsta rappers are actual gangsters in the same way that few Satanic metal bands are actual Satanists.
What Body Count do well is combine the aggression and attitude of hip-hop with the musical aggression of metal. Musically the group, led by axeman Ernie C., is as tight as ever. They combine thrash, doom, hardcore, and even a little death metal. There are chugging guitars, wailing solos, and hammering drums. Whatever the novelty of a bunch of black guys from Compton playing metal, they are no joke. Musical high points include the relentless “Manslaughter” and “Bitch in the Pit,” the chugging “Talk Shit, Get Shot,” and the thrashy “Pray For Death.” It’s all loud and heavy.
The challenge Ice-T has had with Body Count is how to translate his rapping to metal. Rap lyrics might be a couple pages long; your average metal song might only be a paragraph. In trying to adapt his lyrics to metal, Ice tends to dumb them down to a ridiculous extent. It doesn’t help that he essentially rap/yells them rather than singing or screaming or screeching or growling. There’s a reason why so few metal bands have “clean” singing: the lyrics sound better when you can’t quite make them out.
Ice-T has always used Body Count to push boundaries and push buttons. He got almost all the cops in the country mad at him for “Cop Killer,” and no less than Charlton Heston read the lyrics to “KKK Bitch” at a Time-Warner shareholder meeting in an effort to get the conglomerate to drop Body Count from Warner Brothers Records. If you are pissing Charlton Heston off, you are doing something right. (The irony being that compared to Cannibal Corpse, who sang about murdering women and raping their dead bodies, Body Count seem pretty tame.) “Manslaughter” tries to be shocking and gleefully offensive, but it comes off more as dumb and sophomoric. For example, the title track isn’t about killing men. It’s about how masculinity is being killed by wimpiness. The remake of “99 Problems” is about the 99 bitches Ice-T has. This from a man with a reality show about how much he loves his wife. The remake of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” would be funny if not for the stale racist jokes. I’m not even going to write about “Bitch in the Pit.”
There are a few songs that get it right lyrically. “Get a Job” and “Wanna Be A Gangsta” show the humor that has always been part of Body Count. “Back To Rehab” vents frustration at addicts who can’t stay straight. The album ends with the intense and thoughtful “I Will Always Love You,” which is dedicated to “the heroes...young men and women who have given their lives and risked their lives for this country!”
“Taught you everything, dropped out of school at 17
Trying to get a job at an early age,
But no diploma means minimum wage.
Bumped into a military recruiter,
Said the same, no game, no first person shooter.
With high-school you missed it,
So that day you’re enlisted.
First day off the truck
Basic training, scared as fuck,
Drill instructors, demons from hell
You never forget what you hear and yell
Six minutes of torture drives you insane
March, run, march, train!
You’re asking yourself why the fuck you came,
Lock them all 30 rounds, watch your lane!”
It’s Ice-T dialing back his metal persona and dropping some lyrics remind you why he matters as a rapper. It’s also a song that manages to pay tribute to soldiers while not glossing over the horrors of war and the ambiguities of the wars we’ve been fighting for the past twelve years.
If only Body Count could have made more songs like that one.