Rapping about cop killing
Two essays reprinted by kind permission of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences
The Music of Murder
by Dennis R Martin,
Former President, National Association of Chiefs of Police
In my career in law enforcement I have weathered the rough seas of society, first as a patrol officer, then as a director of police training, shift commander, police chief, and now as the President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. As tumultuous as contemporary society is, it could not exist without the foundation of law. We Americans are fortunate to live under a government of laws, not of men.
The United States Constitution is a remarkable and unique compact between the government and its people. The First Amendment, in particular, states a once revolutionary concept with great power and simplicity: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech". In our three-branched system of government, the will of the people is expressed through duly elected legislators in Congress and enforced by an elected executive; the Constitution finds its voice in the judicial branch. What are the people to do when the laws that are meant to ensure their freedom are abused in a manner that erodes the very foundation of law?
Early First Amendment cases sanctioned restrictions on speech where its free exercise created a clear, existing danger, or where a serious evil would result. In two centuries, First Amendment law has evolved to the point where practically the only prohibited speech involves the mention of God in public assemblies.
The misuse of the First Amendment is graphically illustrated in Time-Wamer's attempt to insert into the mainstream culture the vile and dangerous lyrics of the Ice-T song entitled Cop Killer. The Body Count album containing Cop Killer was shipped throughout the United States in miniature body bags. Only days before distribution of the album was voluntarily suspended, Time-Warner flooded the record market with a half million copies. The Cop Killer song has been implicated in at least two shooting incidents and has inflamed racial tensions in cities across the country. Those who work closely with the families and friends of slain officers, as I do, volunteering for the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum, are outraged by the message of Cop Killer. It is an affront to the officers—144 in 1992 alone—who have been killed in the line of duty while upholding the laws of our society and protecting all its citizens.
Is it fair to blame a musical composition for the increase in racial tensions and the shooting incidents? Music has the power both to "soothe the savage beast" and to stir violent emotions in man. Music can create an ambiance for gentle romance, or unleash brutal sensuality. It can transcend the material world and make our hearts soar to a realm of spiritual beauty. Yet the trend in American rock music for the last decade has been to promote ever more vile, deviant, and sociopathic behaviors. Recognition, leading to fame and fortune far exceeding merit, propels performers and the industry to attack every shared value that has bound our society together for more than two centuries.
The power that music works on the human mind can be seen throughout history; it has existed in every known society. The Bible contains numerous references to music. Music is found in the ancient tales of China, as well as in the traditions of Native Americans. In the beginning of human history, music stood at the center of life, acting as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural. It was both handmaiden to religion and the cornerstone of education. While there may be music without culture, culture without music is unthinkable.
The earliest music consisted of a vocal melody with rhythmic, regular beats kept by the hands and feet. In time, the pattern of beats evolved into more complicated rhythms. Formal music found its roots in China, beginning around 2000 BC. Ritualistic music emerged around 1900 BC among the Israelites during the reign of the Canaanites. By setting stories and teachings to music, preliterate Hebrew leaders were able to memorize and recite long passages, and to entertain and instruct their audience with greater impact than words alone could convey. One generation handed down to the next Hebrew laws, traditions, and important historic events in song, often accompanied by a simple harp.
Folk music is the basis for formal music. The march, for example, dates from the Roman Empire. Its insistent rhythm, powerful major chords, and strong simple melody were designed to ignite courage in the hearts of those preparing for battle (and, possibly, fear in the enemy’s camp).
Led by St Benedict, the early Christian Church developed the art of choral singing. Over the centuries, sacred choral music has provided us with a view of the world to come. A branch of choral music evolved into opera, a form of music more than once credited with inciting riots. In 1830, the Brussels premiere of La Muette de Forties by Daniel Esprit Auber ignited the Belgian independence movement against the Dutch. In 1842, Giuseppe Verdi achieved overnight fame after the debut of his third opera, Nabucca, which inspired rioting in Milan. One of the choruses, Va Pensilero, so touched the Italian soldiers that it was adopted as the Italian anthem.
Perhaps the greatest composition combining choral and symphonic modes is the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. An utterly revolutionary work, both musically and politically, it proclaims that all men will be brothers when the power of joy resides in their hearts, binding together the fabric of society torn asunder by different cultural mores. This was not a popular sentiment to express in Vienna, the seat of power of the reactionary Austrian Empire.
The twentieth century brought new sounds to America: atonal classical music, the big band era, jazz, and country and western, among others. History recorded two world wars in which Germanic leaders preyed upon human society; the American musical response, spearheaded by George M Cohan, was proudly defiant, full of valor and resolve. Across the Atlantic, German composer Paul Hindemith was charged with a war crime because his compositions reflected spiritual ideas and themes of renewal. He was barred from performing music.
The 1950s and '60s ushered in a new era for music in which elements of jazz, bluegrass, and country music combined to create early rock and roll. Bill Haley, of Bill Haley and the Comets, holds the distinction of being the country's first composer of rock and roll, in 1955. With the rise of "the King of Rock and Roll," Elvis Presley, rock and roll forever changed the world. For the first time, contemporary music did not reflect the values of society but glamorized rebelliousness and adolescent sexuality.
"Later, lyrics of the 1960s and '70s espoused drug abuse. Heavy metal bands of the '70s, '80s, and even into the '90s with bands such as Guns 'N' Roses, promote a panopoply of anti-social behaviors and attitudes. The common denominator of their music is that self-gratification and self-expression excuse aggressively violent and sexual behavior inflicted on others.
The new kid on the popular music scene has stretched the fabric of our First Amendment like none before. Rap music is a culmination of the course charted by Elvis Presley. Put his rebellion, swagger, and sexuality into the pressurized cauldron of a black ghetto and the resulting music explodes with rage. It is primitive music - stripped of melodic line and original chord progressions. The beat alone propels the street smart rhyming verse lyrics through topics of deprivation, rebellion, poverty, sex, guns, drug abuse, and AIDS.
Since the Rodney King incident and the subsequent riots in Los Angeles, the media has contributed to a climate wherein police bashing is socially and politically correct. Ignored is the role police play in safeguarding the lives and liberties of all law-abiding citizens. The ingrained hatred of police authority, already prevalent in poor urban "hoods" is easily mobilized by the suggestive lyrics of rap.
The framers of the Constitution lived in a world far different from our own. Could they have imagined a day when music would become a tool to destabilize a democratic society by provoking civil unrest, violence, and murder? Yet, the lyrics of rapper Ice-T's Cop Killer do precisely that by describing steps to kill a cop. Time-Warner's recording company not only defended the "instructional" song, but marketed the album by shipping it in miniature body bags, complete with a three by four foot poster graphically depicting a cop killer. The company flooded the United States market with an additional half-million copies just prior to Ice-T's announcement that distribution would be suspended voluntarily.
While on patrol in July 1992, two Las Vegas police officers were ambushed and shot by four juvenile delinquents who boasted that Ice-T's Cop Killer gave them a sense of duty and purpose, to get even with "a f-king pig". The juveniles continued to sing its lyrics when apprehended.
Notwithstanding the predictability of police being ambushed after such a rousing call-to-arms, Time-Warner continues to defend the song. In a letter addressed to Chief Gerald S Arenberg, Executive Director of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, Time-Warner Vice Chairman Martin D Payson gave his rationale for Warner Bros recording and mass-marketing Cop Killer.
Ice-T is attempting to express the rage and frustration a young black person feels in the face of official brutality and systematic racism.
Though the incidents of brutality may be perpetrated by a small number of police, the impact on the black community is intense and widespread. The anger that exists is neither an invention of Ice-T's nor a figment of the creative imagination. It is real and growing. Our job as a society is to address the causes of this anger, not suppress its articulation.
This last sentence is disingenuous at best. Is Time-Warner addressing the causes of black anger, or is it magnifying isolated instances of anger into a fashionable popular sentiment and reaping handsome profits in the process?
Would Thomas Jefferson have advocated using the First Amendment as a shield to publish a step-by-step guide on how to ambush and murder the police? The Body Count album also contains Smoked Pork, a song describing how Ice-T murders two police officers, with dialogue so graphic the lyrics were not printed with the album. Freedom of speech ought to end short of advocating violent physical harm to fellow members of society. If Ice-T had, instead, produced a song describing how to sexually abuse and torture young children, perhaps there would be an appropriate public outcry. A full measure of consideration ought to be given to the lives and welfare of our nation's police officers and their families.
Safety and order in any community requires a partnership of a type that can exist only in a functioning democracy. Public attitudes toward the police may play a part in the frightening rise in crime rates. Disrespect for the law enforcement officer breeds disrespect for the law. A child who is raised to laugh at cops is not likely to grow up with any great respect for the laws that the police enforce. Youthful experimenters, confused by adolescent anxiety, look up to Ice-T as a powerful role model who supports hatred, racism, sexual abuse, and vile crimes that he depicts through dialogue in his lyrics.
Decades of misrepresentation and abuse of law enforcement in entertainment and education have left their mark. Society is now finding that it cannot ridicule the enforcers of the law on one hand and build respect for the law on the other. You cannot separate the two, any more than you can separate education from teachers, justice from judges, and religion from the ministry.
It is a sad irony that, in our society, scandal breeds financial gain. Sales of Cop Killer, and the Body Count album on which it appears, have soared since law enforcement officers from around the country rallied behind police organizations like the National Association of Chiefs of Police, CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Officers of Texas), and the American Federation of Police.
Ice-T is but one rapper encouraging violent reaction to the presence of law enforcement. Rap group Almighty RSO defiantly sings One in the Chamber, referring to the bullet they would use to kill a cop. Kool G-Rap and DJ Polo's song Live and Let Die describes how G-Rap brutally murders two undercover police officers as he tries to complete a drug deal.
Tragically, this violent message is too often followed by its young audience. On April 11, 1992, Trooper Bill Davidson, formerly with the Texas Department of Public Safety, was killed in cold blood as he approached the driver of a vehicle he had stopped for a defective headlight. The trooper's widow, Linda Davidson, described to me an account of the events surrounding the killing and the impact of this tragedy on the Davidson Family. The teen-age killer, Ronald Howard, explained to law enforcement authorities that he felt hypnotized by the lyrics of six songs by the rap group 2 Pac, from their album 2 Pacalypse Now which urge the killing of police officers. Howard claims that the lyrical instructions devoured him like an animal, taking control over his subconscious mind and compelling him to kill Trooper Davidson as he approached Howard's vehicle. The rap's influence, however, apparently continues to affect Howard's judgment. Two psychiatrists found that the music still affects his psychosocial behavior. In a meeting with Linda Davidson, Howard expressed his desire to completely carry out the rap's instruction by putting away a pig's wife and dusting his family. Howard's reaction has left Linda dumfounded, confused, bewildered, and most of all, angry.
The Davidson's anger is aimed not solely at Howard, but has also expressed itself in a civil lawsuit against Time-Warner, the company that promotes 2 Pac. Again, Time-Warner claims the First Amendment protects its right to promote songs that advocate the killing of police. In preparation for trial, the corporation's lawyers are closely observing the criminal trial of Ron Howard. Given the current state of American law, one can only hope that Time-Warner will tire of the expense of defending state court actions prompted by such lyrics and attacks on police.
With growing lawlessness and violence in our society, every American is at risk of losing his property and his life to criminals. Police officers risk their lives daily to preserve peace and property rights for all Americans. The officers deserve protection from abusive speech when that abuse imperils not only their ability to protect citizens, but also their ability to protect their very lives.
Rap, cops, and crime:
clarifying the 'cop killer' controversy
by Mark S. Hamm and Jeff Ferrell
'Cop killer' in cultural context
As a starting point, Martin offers a truncated and distorted description of rap's gestation that largely misses the music's social and cultural meanings. To suggest, as does Martin, that rap is "a culmination of the course charted by Elvis Presley" is to commit a double fallacy. First, Martin's characterization of Elvis Presley as the founder of rock 'n' roll, and Bill Haley as "the country's first composer of rock and roll," constitutes a racist and revisionist rock history which curiously excludes Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and a host of other black musicians and musical traditions which established the essentials of rock 'n' roll. (This sort of myopic ethnic insensitivity echoes in Martin's subsequent claim that rap is "primitive" (!) music.)
Second, Martin compounds these sorts of mistakes by tracing rap's lineage to rock 'n' roll—or, apparently, white Southern rockabilly. Rap artists have in fact explicitly denied this lineage. Early rappers, for example, sang "no more rock 'n' roll," and rappers Public Enemy have attacked Elvis Presley, and his racist attitudes, specifically. To draw a parallel between white Southern rockabilly of the mid-1950s and today's black urban rap is therefore analogous to comparing Joshua's trumpets at the battle of Jericho with the Wagnerian operas of Nazi storm troopers, or to equating the horn-calls which led Caesar's troops into England with the thrash metal of Slaughter and Megadeth absorbed by U.S. Air Force pilots prior to bombing raids during the Persian Gulf War. Other than to say that militaries have routinely used music to lead soldiers into battle, the analogies have little heuristic value. What Martin's analysis lacks is the crucial historical specificity and sociological contextualization, the framework of conceptual clarity and appreciation necessary to explain the complex relationship between particular forms of music, popular culture dynamics, and incidents of violence.
Most commentators, in fact, locate the beginnings of rap (or, more broadly, hip-hop) in the funkadelic period of the mid-late 1970s, ala George Clinton, Parliament, P-Funk, Kurtis Blow, and Grand-master Flash and the Furious Five. Evolving from this musical base, rap gained its popular appeal in the grim ghettos of New York City—first in the Bronx, and then in Harlem and Brooklyn. Rap caught the sounds of the city, capturing the aggressive boasts and stylized threats of street-tough black males. By the mid-1980s, rap was injected into the American mainstream via Run-D.M.C.'s version of Aerosmith's "Walk this Way" and other crossover hits. MC Hammer, Tone Loc, Public Enemy, Ice-T, NWA (Niggers with Attitude), De La Soul, and a legion of others soon followed, infusing rap with R and B, jazz, and other influences, and introducing rap to world-wide audiences of all ethnicities.
In ignoring this rich history, Martin misunderstands both the aesthetics and the politics of rap. Martin, for example, leaps to the extraordinary conclusion that rap is a "vile and dangerous" form of cultural expression, a "primitive music" that attacks "every shared value that has bound our society together for more than two-hundred years." From within this sort of uncritical, consensus model of contemporary society, Martin then locates this portentous social threat in a wider cultural crisis. The trend in American rock music for the last decade," he argues, "has been to promote ever more vile, deviant, and sociopathic behaviors." And if this trend is not reversed, Martin concludes, "every American is at risk of losing his <sic> property and his life to criminals." A careful analysis of rock's lyrical diversity and social effects would, of course, undermine these sorts of hysterical generalizations. A careful analysis of rap music's lyrical content and cultural context likewise reveals a very different social dynamic.
"Message Rap" (or "Gangster Rap," the focus of the remainder of this essay) deals head-on with universal themes of injustice and oppression—themes which have both bound and divided U S society from its inception. But at the same time, gangster rap is proudly localized as "ghetto music," thematizing its commitment to the black urban experience. (This is also, by the way, part of what constitutes rap's appeal for millions of middle-class white kids who have never been inside a black ghetto.) In fact, rap focuses on aspects of ghetto life that most adult whites, middle class blacks, and self-protective police officers and politicians would rather ignore. Rappers record the everyday experiences of pimping, prostitution, child abandonment, AIDS, and drugs (as in Ice-T's anti-drug song, "I'm Your Pusher"). Other rappers deal with deeper institutionalized problems such as poverty, racial conflict, revisionist history books, the demand for trivial consumer goods, the exploitation of disenfranchised blacks through military service, and black dislocation from Africa. And still other rap songs lay bare the desperate and often violent nature of ghetto life, as played out in individual and collective fear, sadly misogynistic and homophobic fantasies, street killings- and, significantly, oppressive harassment by police patrols.
These themes are packed in the aesthetic of black ghetto life, an aesthetic which features verbal virtuosity as a powerful symbol in the negotiation of social status. Rap is developed from U.S. and Jamaican verbal street games like "signifying," "the dozens," and "toasting." Rap in turn encases this verbal jousting in the funky beat of rhythms reworked through the formal musical devices which give birth to the rap sound: "sampling," "scratch mixing," and "punch phrasing" (hardly the "primitive" or "stripped" music which Martin describes). The result of this complex artistic process is a sensual, bad assed gangster who "won't be happy till 'the dancers are wet, out of control" and wildly "possessed" by the rapper's divine right to rhyme the ironies, ambiguities, and fears of urban ghetto life (Ice-T, "Hit the Deck"). Musically, rap Certainly emerges more from studio funk and street poetry than the blues; but like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and a host of other great postwar U.S. blues men, Ice-T and other rappers twist and shout from within a world of crippling adversity.
'Cop Killer' on trial
Because he misses this cultural context, it is no surprise that Martin attempts to "kill the messenger" by attacking rap music as itself a social problem. His choicest blows are saved for Ice-T, whose album Body Count integrates rap and "metal" styling, and includes a trilogy of protest sirens on police brutality written "for every pig who ever beat a brother down": "Smoked Pork," "Out in the Parking Lot," and "Cop Killer." Martin argues that one of these, "Cop Killer," is a "misuse of the First Amendment" because it has been "implicated in at least two shooting incidents and has inflamed racial tensions in cities across the country."
Here, though, is the available evidence on "Cop Killer": Since its release in early 1992, an unknown number of persons have heard the song. Martin claims that Time-Warner shipped 500,000 copies of Body Count upon its initial release. This number is important because subsequent pressings of Body Count did not contain "Cop Killer." It was pulled by Time-Warner after U S Vice-President Dan Quayle, Parents' Music Resource Center spokeswoman and future Vice-Presidential associate Tipper Gore, and a host of influential media personalities and "moral entrepreneurs" leveled a highly organized and well-publicized campaign of "moral panic" against the song (see Becker, 1963; Cohen, 1972).
But our repeated inquiries to Time-Warner revealed that no such sales figures are available. We were told that Ice-T has since left Time-Warner and is now under contract with Profile records. Yet Profile cannot document sales figures for the first Body Count album either, claiming that these figures are known only to Ice-T himself—who, despite our attempts to reach him, remains unavailable for comment. We simply don't know—and neither does Martin—how many young Americans have heard "Cop Killer."
Setting all this aside, let's assume that the President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police is correct: some 500,000 persons have heard "Cop Killer" via the music recording industry. Because popular music is a highly contagious commodity (especially among the young), we may cautiously estimate that three times that number have listened to this song (each buyer sharing the song with just two others). From this very conservative estimate, then, it is not unreasonable to conclude that at least 1.5 million young Americans have heard "Cop Killer."
According to Martin 144 U.S. police officers were killed in the line of duty during 1992. This is indeed a tragic fact, the seriousness of which we do not wish in anyway to diminish. But the fact also remains that there is no evidence to show that the perpetrators of these 144 homicides were influenced by "Cop Killer." Martin bases his argument on a brief review of four juveniles arrested in Las Vegas (NV) for wounding two police officers with firearms, allegedly behind the emotional impetus of "Cop Killer." Put another way, while some 1.5 million persons may have listened to this song, only four may have acted on its message. Thankfully, none were successful.
In summary, Martin claims that "Ice-T's Cop Killer [sic] gave [the Las Vegas youths] a sense of duty and purpose, to get even with a f-king pig." If so, we should expect this same "sense of duty and purpose" to influence the behavior of some of the other 1.5 million listeners. Martin, in fact, describes popular music as "a tool to destabilize a democratic society by provoking civil unrest, violence, and murder," and argues that "the lyrics of rapper Ice-T's 'Cop Killer' do precisely that ...". He further notes the "predictability of police being ambushed after such a rousing call-to-arms...". But we cannot, in fact, find another "predictable" case. The relationship between listening to "Cop Killer" and committing subsequent acts of violence appears to more closely resemble a statistical accident than a causal equation. (The probability of attacking a police officer with a loaded firearm after listening to "Cop Killer" is, according to Martin's count, less than 1 in 375,000). Treating this relationship as one of cause and effect therefore not only misrepresents the issues; it intentionally engineers self-serving moral panic around rap music, and obstructs solutions to the sorts of problems which rap portrays.
'Cop killer', culture, and crime
Ice-T is not the first artist to embed a "cop killer" theme in United States popular culture. This theme has been the subject of countless cinematic and literary works, and has appeared many times before in popular music. During the Great Depression, for example, musicians celebrated Pretty Boy Floyd and his exploits, which included the murder of law enforcement personnel. Similarly, the highly respected fiddler Tommy Jarrell wrote and sang "Policeman," which begins, "Policeman come and I didn't want to go this morning, so I shot him in the head with my 44." But perhaps the best-known case is Eric Clapton's cover version of Bob Marley and the Wallers' "I Shot the Sheriff," which reached the top of the U S music charts in the mid-1970s (a feat not approached by Ice-T). "I Shot the Sheriff," though, never suffered the sort of moral and political condemnation leveled at "Cop Killer." How do we account for this difference?
First, "I Shot the Sheriff was released by a white artist, and in an era when the availability and allure of firearms and ammunition had not reached the saturation point we see today. Clapton's white bread portrayal of an armed and heroic Jamaican "rude boy" was therefore comfortably abstract and romantic. In contrast, Ice-T's shotgun-toting black U.S. gangster is all too concrete, stripped of romantic pretense and lodged uncomfortably in everyday life. Firearms and ammunition are now prevalent in the black community, and are the leading cause of death among young black males. Within the context of gangster rap, artists like Ice-T portray, with chilling clarity, this tragic obsession with lethal weapons.
Second, the social aesthetic of rap music creates a key cultural and political difference. Because rap constitutes a strident form of cultural combat and critique, it generates in response organized censorship, blacklisting, arrests, and the police-enforced cancellation of concerts. Rap's cultural roots and primary audience are among the impoverished, minority residents of U S inner cities. While many of these citizens are unable or unwilling to speak out—for lack of access to cultural channels, for fear of reprisal—rappers invoke a militant black pride, and portray and confront social injustice in ways that threaten the complacent status quo of mainstream society. And as part of this critique, rappers lay bare the daily reality of police, violence against minority populations, and remind us how many Rodney Kings haven't made it onto videotape.
For these reasons, Dennis Martin and other defenders of the status quo are loath to acknowledge or appreciate rap on any level as innovative music, verbal virtuosity, or cultural critique. In fact, their discomfort with rap's politics intertwines with their displeasure over its style and sound. Gangster rap is frequently raunchy, sometimes violent, and often played loud, with a heavy emphasis on the staccato, thumping back beat. By artistic design, it is meant to be "in your face" and threatening. This, in combination with the evocative power of rap's imagery, generates loud and urgent condemnations of rap from those who benefit, directly and indirectly, from contemporary social arrangements. For them, personal offense becomes a measure of political superiority.
Finally, the remarkable attention given to "Cop Killer" reflects a growing concern, among both criminologists and the general public, over the intersections of popular culture and crime. Our own studies in this area have led us to conclude that contemporary music can in some cases be significantly linked to criminality—but only when particular forms of music take on meaning within the dynamics of specific subcultures like neo-Nazi skinheads (Hamm, 1993) or hip-hop graffiti artists (Ferrell, 1993). And in this regard, we end by commending Martin for an important discovery. The fact that four youths may have in fact used the cultural material of "Cop Killer" as an epistemic and aesthetic framework for attacking two police officers is cause for serious criminological concern. And to demonstrate how this song may have changed the social and political consciousness of these would-be cop killers, within the dynamics of their own sub cultural arrangements, is of paramount importance for understanding the situated social meanings of gangster rap.
But this sort of research requires something more than Martin offers in his essay. It demands an attention to ethnographic particulars, in place of Martin's wide generalizations and blanket condemnations. It calls for a sort of criminological verstehen, a willingness to pay careful attention to the lyrics of gangster rap and to the lives of those who listen to it, in place of Martin's dismissive disregard. Ultimately, it requires that criminologists confront and critique the kinds of social injustices, which rap exposes, rather than participating, as does Martin, in their perpetuation.
Becker, Howard S (1963). Outsiders. New York: Free Press.
Cohen, Stanley (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Macgibbon and Kee.
Ferrell, Jeff (1993). Crimes and Style. New York: Garland.
Hamm, Mark S. (1993). American Skinheads. Westport, CT: Praeger.
© JPR/Institute for Jewish Policy Research 2004