Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ice-T Blinks

One of the many dire consequences of Ice-T's capitulation to the forces of repression is Ice-T's own damaged rep--even if the pressure he caved to was applied by his record company as well as rogue cops. Though Ice-T and Warners may be telling the truth when they deny any label strong-arming, The Wall Street Journal ran a disturbing story on July 23, the day before the meeting with Warners that Ice-T says determined his decision to take "Cop Killer" off Body Count. The Journal reported that the Time Warner board, home to much bigger cheeses than the guys who run the record company, was ready to institute a code of standards designed to sandbag the next "Cop Killer"--standards like those that had already led Time-Warner's Atlantic to reject Vio-Lence's "Torture Tactics" and Time-Warner's Elektra to turn down a Luther Campbell-Motley Crue collaboration. Such talk must have made the mood of that meeting tense at best and threatening at worst. But repwise it doesn't much matter what Warners did. Ice-T's not supposed to back down to anybody--not the cops, not the company, not your mama. And it isn't only his claim to courage that's at risk.

When Ice-T denies charges of incitement to porcicide by referring to the "character" who sings "Cop Killer," he usually neglects to mention that the character is based on himself--the part of himself who told a spy with a portacam during the Rodney King riots that he was hoping police stations would burn. Ignoring the fact that the provocation at hand made police stations a more poetic target than mom-and-pop stores, snickering newscasters eagerly cited this cry of rage as proof of Ice-T's hypocrisy, and we wonder whether nervous progressives will prove much smarter in the end. Because what outsiders are really questioning now is Ice-T's idealism--his commitment to the First Amendment crusade he joined with 1989's The Iceberg: Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say.

This would make sense if Ice-T had ever pretended to be an idealist. If anything, though, he's pretended to be a pragmatist, reducing issues to cash terms so he'd look (even) tougher than he was. It's typical that the only hardcore rapper to dis homophobia says of his own rejected antigay prejudices, "That shit wasn't doing me no good," an insight more likely to impress the sexists in the hood than any humanist guilt-tripping ever could. His line on censors has always been that controversy was free publicity. He hated them, but they couldn't touch him. As he may have figured out, however, the belief that capitalism runs solely on balance sheets is the naivete of the hardheaded. Ice-T was defeated by a moral panic that bulldozed the market, powering boycotts and stock selloffs that made no economic sense in themselves, not to mention death threats, not to mention less sensational psychological pressures. Retailers want to be liked, and big-time capitalists almost certainly find that rap is not the kind of commodity that greases wheels on the boardroom circuit.

We like Ice-T because he isn't an idealist. He's a realist whose political smarts and growth potential are--or were--unmatched in mainstream rap. It would be nice to see him emerge on the other side of this disheartening but no doubt educational spectacle with a program--a more explicit way of telling his portion of the oppressed what's going down and what to do about it. The cops-as-redcoats comparisons in his Rolling Stone interview point in that direction: "We just celebrated the 4th of July, which is really just national Fuck the Police Day. . . . I bet that during the Revolutionary War, there were songs similar to mine." But since he blinked and he knows it, a more realistic hope might simply be that he live it down.

Smelling blood, a specialty of theirs, police groups have declared that Time-Warner won't get off the hook by withdrawing "Cop Killer." They want corporate apologies, a code of standards, anything they can get. Next in line, we're betting, is Tommy Boy, the former dance indie now wholly owned by Time Warner, though it remains independently distributed. The label's New Music Seminar sampler tape, So . . . Boom!, included not one but three songs in which cops are killed--Live Squad's dumb-gangsta "Murderahh!," Paris's politically explicit "Coffee, Donuts & Death," and the Almighty RSO's emotionally taut revenge fantasy "One in the Chamba." Tommy Boy dropped the Almighty RSO after their song stiffed as a single, and also after Boston police fingered the crew as gang-linked (hey, who isn't?). The other two tracks are described as "from the forthcoming album." We shall see.

Village Voice, Aug. 11, 1992