Author Ben Apatoff explains why Body Count still matters in new 33 1/3 series book
In 2021, writer Ben Apatoff released Metallica: The $24.95 Book through Backbeat Books, and almost immediately after its press cycle, began posting on social media about his next project, an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on the the 1992 debut album from metal band Body Count.
Out this week, the book is–as are most in the series–a deep dive into the history and influence of the seminal album.
By delving into the life of both frontman Ice-T and the members of the band, the controversies which surrounded them and the album’s original closing track, “Cop Killer,” and the way in which the band has become iconic over the course of its 30-year history, Apatoff’s 33 1/3 book is, much like his take on Metallica, a read appealing both to longtime metalheads and those who only know the barest of details.
We hopped on Zoom with Apatoff ahead of its release to talk Body Count, writing, metal, and more.
The Pitch: It’s been fun following the progress of this book, but one has to imagine it started before you even announced it.
Ben Apatoff: Yeah. I submitted to the 33 1/3 series–I’ve thought about doing it for a long time. The only other time I submitted to them was for a Metallica book in 2008, and that did not get picked up, but turned into something later. This was the only other time that I was like, “Okay, I need to write a Body Count book. If this doesn’t get accepted, I’m just gonna have to do it with someone else, ’cause this book needs to happen.” So I did that.
What was the, the process of putting together a book for 33 1/3 versus the Metallica book?
I mean, of course it started off first like, “Oh my God, what am I gonna say about these guys?” and then near the end it was like, “What can I take out?” It got full very quickly. Ice-T is very quotable, so that started to fill the book quickly and then I started to realize I couldn’t let him tell the whole story. I had to do other things with that.
It was, without downplaying how awful it’s to write a book, so exciting to have everybody wanna be on board for this and to talk to your punk rock heroes and your metal heroes. That was really exciting. For 33 1/3, it’s different because with Metallica, everybody you talk to has a story there and they’re like, “I love Metallica. My wife loves Metallica.”
Body Count is more usually, “Well, what’s that?” Then that’s kind of fun to see people’s faces. Part of why I wanna write the book is ’cause I love that–that whole, “Wait a minute: it’s Ice-T and it’s a metal band and it got banned” and just watching that story unfold for people.
I guess the last point about that would be that when you’re writing a book, you get pushback. With Metallica, people are like, “They’re posers, they’re sellouts,” and stuff like that but nobody ever says Metallica’s not important. That’s universal. With Body Count, some people are like, “Why are you doing this?” or they’d say, “Look, they’re more controversial than good.” One person said the different thing about them was that they were black. It wasn’t that their music was innovative.
I totally disagree, so I wanted to make the case that this is an important band and they do deserve a book, and they’re a great band that’s more than the controversy. I really had to sell that point in the book.
Reading the book as a PDF was just constantly between the e-reader and Spotify. Every time you talk to an influence or a contemporary or someone that they’ve influenced, that song got thrown in the queue and it just kept growing and it makes for like this really diverse, yet solid playlist that that comes together and which really makes your point for you. You can put Fishbone and Suicidal Tendencies and Ice-T and Ho99o9 all together and it works. Which was the surprising part for you: was it talking to the contemporaries or finding out who Body Count has influenced?
I guess talking to the contemporaries was a surprise. I’m still shocked that any of these people wanted to talk ’cause these are people I worshiped from high school and beyond. Just getting like Henry Rollins in your email is still a shock to me.
One thing that came up often when I was interviewing people, especially with musicians, where people would say, “The great thing about Body Count is they’re better than ever now. They’ve had this incredible comeback and Manslaughter and Bloodlust and Carnivore and all these awesome records.” I can hear that they’re better than ever now, although I don’t have the same sort of emotional attachment to them because that wasn’t the record that changed my life when I was 15.
I think that we’re Body Count’s demographic–metalhead suburban kids from the ’90s–so it was really touching to get accounts from non-white listeners who are like, “This was for me.” A big part of the story in the controversy is, and Ice keeps on saying, “You’re coming after me because I got white kids. If I’d stayed in the street and stayed outta the suburbs, you wouldn’t care. But now, little Johnny and Mary are singing ‘Cop Killer,’ and mom and dad don’t what to do.”
That’s a good point, but that also overlooks the fact that there were non-white fans who listened to this and were like, “This was awesome.” I got Talib Kewlii saying, “I got into Nirvana ’cause I wanted to hear more stuff like Body Count and the Ho99o9 guys being like, “Ice-T shook our hand,” so that was very important for me to get in the book.
Going back to something you said earlier is the idea that you didn’t wanna make this Ice-T’s story exclusively. Despite his eminently quotable nature, this is a story of a band and reading it, you learn so much. What was your learning process as you got into the research of this, discovering these guys had been friends for years before they even put anything to tape?
I didn’t know much about them. I knew they were high school friends and I knew that three of them had died. Hearing the stories about them as individuals was really–in the Metallica book I got to read just so many interviews with all those guys and these guys don’t have the same sort of coverage. Just getting glimpses into their lives and seeing such touching stories about them–I remember Sean E Sean, the hype man told me about Beatmaster V [drums] being told he wasn’t good enough to be in the band by other people, and how he just worked and had this Rocky regimen.
I was getting teary just listening to this, or D-Roc the Executioner [guitars] being hidden in the background with his Jason mask and Mooseman [bass] being this cheerful dude who could get along with anyone. Getting glimpses into their lives is really fun.
Ernie C [lead guitar] too, who’s the Keith Richards of Body Count. He everybody says to you, “Ernie is the nicest guy,” and that’s true. He’s such a sweet guy. He’s so thoughtful and cool and he is great to do interviews and he gets back to you quickly and I would go to war for Ernie. I love Ernie.
When there’s coverage of the “nice guys of rock music,” like Dave Grohl or Bruce Springsteen, there’s often a lot about them being the nice guy and not enough about them being the boss, right? Dave Grohl is clearly the boss and that doesn’t come across. In this story I wanted to show that Ernie definitely has a way of doing the band. He hustles. He works hard.
Ernie is definitely a sweet, thoughtful, caring guy, but I just wanted to show that he also has that side where he definitely hustles. He definitely is business minded and he writes report cards on how the band does and things like that. He’s just a fascinating combination of things and he has a ton of great stories I didn’t get to include in the book because he has met everybody.
That’s a really good point–the idea that Body Count has played with everybody. In addition to their own headlining shows, they are the band that comes out and just sets the bar. It’s just like, “Follow this, motherfuckers. Come on.” You present that really well in the way they took on all of these very different tours and just kicked people’s teeth in right from the start.
One thing about that Body Count record is that, in the early ’90s, there are there are punk bands that metalheads like and there are metal bands that punks like, but I would never consider Slayer a punk band. They cover punk bands. I can hear that hardcore influence. You’ve got Metallica and Anthrax covering Discharge. You can hear that punk influence there, but I would never consider Discharge a metal band.
That Body Count record’s one of the only records I think I would put on a list of both the best metal records or the best punk records. It’s a seamless blend of both. It also has some funk rhythm sections from Mooseman and and Beatmaster V. Ice-T has these James Brown-style shout-outs and instructions with the guys in the group. He’s called it a rock record with the rap mentality.
He has hip hop based lyrics, even if he’s singing like a hardcore frontman. His themes that’re horror-themed of it. It’s this seamless blend of all these different things that sounds very DIY and lo-fi, but it’s really a pretty complicated record.
The point you keep bringing up is the idea that this is a band that is still going 30-plus years on and still making records that people enjoy. Have you been listening to Body Count all the way through, or did you go back and listen to these albums to play catch up?
No, I was a longtime Body Count fan. I heard them in high school and I came to them after they had their initial breakup, so it felt cool. See, there wasn’t a lot about them in magazines or on the internet. It felt very punk rock to me. They were in my Dead Kennedys and Black Flag wave of heroes and I loved it, but I also thought that they were finished, you know?
I remember they had a comeback record in the two thousands that didn’t do very well and they stopped playing again after that. And I was kinda like, they are this cult band that not a lot of people listen to. They were guys I like and even as a fan, I’ve been shocked at how big their comeback. I remember I heard “Talk Shit Get Shot” in 2014. I was like, “Whoa, these guys are back,” and I went to the show and they were incredible. I heard Bloodlust and I was like, “This is even better.” Now they’re winning Grammys and even as a fan who’s had faith in them, I’ve been pretty shook by how big their comeback has been.
Ben Apatoff’s 33 1/3 book, Body Count, is out now from Bloomsbury.