Ice-T’s guitar tag-team raps about the cold-steel riffs and slamming grooves on the controversial outfit’s brutal new LP.
It’s been 25 years since rapper Ice-T’s band Body Count released “Cop Killer.” This topical protest song—probably more controversial than any single before it—drew fierce criticism from law-enforcement agencies and politicians, including then-President George H. W. Bush. Things got so intense that, after receiving death threats, the band scrapped the song from its eponymous 1992 debut.
With that song and the album, Ice-T and his crew had arrived at an interesting intersection of hip-hop and rock, combining thrash and metal guitars with spoken and sung lyrics—and more than a little rage. In an ironic twist, in 2000 Ice-T began playing a police officer, Detective Fin Tutuola, on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But through half a dozen albums and the deaths of three of Body Count’s founding members, the band’s formula remains largely intact—anger and all.
The 2016 U.S. general election gave Body Count plenty of fodder for this year’s Bloodlust, the follow-up to 2014’s Manslaughter. Beneath Ice-T’s sharp and profanity-laden musings on the state of things, original guitarist Ernie C (Ernie Cunnigan) and his more recent co-guitarist, Juan Garcia, lay down plenty of gnarly riffs and shredding solos. There are also high-profile cameos by metal masters such as Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, Lamb of God leader Randy Blythe, and Sepultura co-founder and guitarist Max Cavalera.
Just before the album dropped, PG talked with Cunnigan and Garcia about how they came to work with Ice-T, about Body Count’s working methods, and, of course, about their axes.
You’re not exactly typical metal guitarists. What brought you to this music?
Ernie Cunnigan: Well, I’m a progeny of ’60s and ’70s music. My early childhood was in Detroit, and I started out listening to the Isley Brothers and things like that, and then Led Zeppelin and so forth. The first time I ever got exposed to a guitar player was Dennis Coffey. He had the Detroit Guitar Band, and they had a hit called “Scorpio” back in the ’70s. [Editor’s note: Coffey was also a member of the famed Funk Brothers—the Motown record label’s house band.] When I came to L.A. as a teenager, I bought a Teisco Del Rey and I’ve been playing ever since. I ended up playing rock ’n’ roll just by default—R&B did not have enough guitar pyrotechnics in it for me. I wanted to play solos, so I ended up playing rock ’n’ roll.
Juan Garcia: I grew up here in the Los Angeles area, in a town called Alhambra, which is near Pasadena and not too far from Hollywood—where all the clubs were. Back in the day, I used to play at clubs like the Troubadour. One of my first professional bands was called Abattoir. We released an album called Vicious Attack . It came out on a label from Jamaica, New York, called Combat Records. It’s the same label that signed Megadeth, and they also distributed Exodus, Nuclear Assault, and those kinds of thrash bands back in the day. I left Abattoir and launched a band called Agent Steel, also on Combat records. We released two albums, Skeptics Apocalypse  and Unstoppable Force , and then got coined “Iron Maiden on Speed.”
When did you first meet Ice-T?
Cunnigan: In the ’70s, early, when I was just a teenager, and we’ve been friends ever since. The original band … you know, three members have passed over the years, but we all knew each other from high school, so that’s how the band started. I always say I’ve known him so long I don’t remember meeting him. He was part of one clique of people, I was part of one clique of people, and we all just mixed together. I just remember always being around each other. We were just mashed together and we became friends.
Garcia: I was friends with [the late] D-Roc, the guitar player who used to wear the hockey mask in the band, and Ernie as well. I was playing in a band called Evil Dead at the time, and we used to rehearse over in North Hollywood, so I kind of became friends with them before I met Ice. Ice was already busy doing other stuff. I was a fan of the band when the first album dropped, so we kind of became mutual friends, and that was way back in the early ’90s.
Ernie, what’s it like to work with a guy like Ice, who’s so high profile and has had such diverse projects?
Cunnigan: You know, it’s interesting. I write with Ice. I’ve produced other bands and things like that, but he’s my number-one writing partner. I always say he makes my playing digestible. If you get a guitar player writing a record, it might be all over the place—you know, just notes all over the place—but Ice listens to the bigger picture. He breaks it down to terms everyone can relate to, so that’s been good for me. There are songs that we’ve written that I wouldn’t have written by myself, because I’d think I’d need more notes in them, and he’s like, “Just keep it simple.” Sometimes you need someone to slow you down a bit.
Juan, what’s it like to be in a band you were a huge fan of before you joined?
Garcia: I had been playing metal for a while, since 1980, so it wasn’t much of a transition to join the band. It’s a solid group of guys who all get along really well, and that’s something I always wanted—to be a part of a band that had no drama. Sometimes being in a band is difficult because you have all these different personalities. Playing with these guys—seasoned musicians, a very professional band—it’s a relief and it just makes life a lot easier to deal with. It’s been such an awesome experience.
What’s your division of labor when it comes to guitar parts?
Garcia: Ernie is a founding member of the band, so the way I approach it is he usually comes in with some ideas, and I have my ideas, and we kind of just bounce them back and forth. If my stuff fits to what he has going on, then it works. There are a lot of other contributing musicians, too. Ice brings a lot of ideas, and Vincent Price, the bass player, and even our drummer, Will Dorsey. Working with Ernie is real smooth. We just kick around ideas and jam to determine who plays what. Our styles are a little different, but at the same time they’re similar, because it’s all heavy metal in Body Count.
How are your styles different?
Garcia: I’m more influenced by guitar players like Michael Schenker and Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, and the Judas Priest guys, so I usually have things more worked out. Ernie is more freeform—but his stuff is very melodic as well. He has a really cool solo on a song from the new album called “God, Please Believe Me.” I would also say that Ernie shreds more than me. I don’t consider myself a shredding guitar player. I’m more of a rhythm lead player. I’ve always been in a band with two guitar players, and I like it that way.
What was the writing process for Bloodlust like?
Cunnigan: Well, it’s real simple. The band stays together in one house. We rent a rehearsal studio, get there at 10 in the morning, and just riff all day long. We write parts down, record them roughly, and we listen to them at night and go back the next morning to fine-tune things. Then we give everything in the raw to Will Putney. He’s been our producer for the last few records, and he’s done a great job. He’s a guitar player, so he understands the music really well, knows which riffs will work and which riffs won’t. I produce records myself, so I understand the importance of just focusing on playing the guitar and having someone else help shape the album.
Garcia: We also used some outside writers—like Billy Graziadei from Biohazard and Monte Pittman, who’s a guitarist for Madonna and who also used to play with Prong. It was really cool, because people would submit some ideas, and we would work off them and turn them into Body Count ideas. Some of the riffs were perfect the way they were, and we kind of added our own stuff around them. These contributions made the record really special.
Doc Coyle from God Forbid contributed some riffs. Max Cavalera [Sepultura, De La Tierra] co-wrote a song called “All Love Is Lost” with us, and there’s a song called “Walk with Me,” which features Randy Blythe from Lamb of God on two verses.
Juan Garcia (left) and Ernie C bring the 6-string snarl to Body Count’s brass-knuckled sound. Both use Schecter guitars. Ernie’s Jeff Loomis model is modded for left-handed play and has a single active EMG bridge pickup. Juan rips into a Diamond series V-1. Photo by Hristo Shindov
How did the collaborative process work?
Garcia: Max Cavalera, for example, lives in Phoenix, so he just popped in on us while we were rehearsing and writing. He brought a CD with three or four song ideas on it, and we just took one of the riffs that we thought we could work with. Other guys, like Doc and Monte, emailed us MP3 files and we learned what they played. We borrowed the riffs and made them groove more like Body Count.
How was the album recorded?
Cunnigan: In the early days, we used to record with everybody in the room and just go for it, almost like a live record. But now, first Will lays down all the drum parts, and then Vincent goes in and lays down all the bass parts. Then we lay down all those rhythm guitars.
Garcia: While we’re doing that, Ice is also writing lyrics and singing his parts. Sometimes Ice will come in and be like, “That sucks,” and basically we have to rearrange some things to fit the vocals or his vision of how the song should go. It makes for a really interesting way of working, and that makes Body Count Body Count. You have to leave your ego at the door making this kind of record.
You worked with Dave Mustaine on the opening track, “Civil War.” Was he in the studio with you?
Cunnigan: No. We sent him the basic track, and he sent it back to us completed. He did a great job on it. We’ve known Dave for a long time, and we’ve been trying to get together with him in some form. This is what worked best. I played guitar solos on it also, during the choruses, so I finally get to say that I played on a record with Dave Mustaine. [Laughs.]
How did you get such pulverizing guitar tones?
Cunnigan: I used a 5150 amp, the EVH. I’ve been using Schecters for the past seven years or so, and on the record I used a Jeff Loomis model that we modified so that I can play it left-handed. I like the Schecters just because they seem like they’re designed for the kind of metal we play. They’re real simple and they’re durable. They’re nice enough to take out and they look good, but they’re not like taking your ’59 Les Paul on the road—you know what I mean?
Garcia: I’m currently playing a Schecter Diamond Series Flying V and it’s got EMG 81 pickups, which are active. I’ve also been using the EVH 5150 III, the 100-watt head, since 2014. We first used them on a Mayhem festival and loved the amps. They sound really good both live and in the studio.
In addition to Dave Mustaine’s shredding, there are some killer solos on the record. Who plays what?
Cunnigan: I do a big solo on “Raining in Blood,” our Slayer cover. “God, Please Believe Me” is a good one, as is “This Is Why We Ride.” There aren’t all that many solos on the album, though. We tried to make a record that’s more rhythmic this time out. The guitar solos are well placed. I’m not just putting a guitar solo on there just to put on a guitar solo.
Garcia: I play on the title track, “Bloodlust.” Basically, I did this real simple melodic minor scale on the solo section. Will Putney liked it so much that he reused it in some of the verses, which kind of surprised me.
Ernie and I initially traded solos on “Civil War,” but Dave Mustaine hopped on the song later on and just went wild. His soloing replaced mine. I’ve been friends with Dave since the early days, so I was okay with that. It was like, “take my solo out—I’ll save it for another song!” I don’t have an ego about it. It’s all good.
Speaking of solos, what would you say makes a great one?
Cunnigan: Something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It starts off slow and it builds up and gets a little speed in it, and then it ends on something that makes you say, “Wow, that was a great solo.” It has to have a journey. It’s not about staying in the same place.
The record is quite socially conscious, and a bit angry.
Cunnigan: The biggest theme of the record is social injustice. There’s a song about a drive-by [shooting], “This is Why We Ride.” We break it down to what caused the drive-by—what makes these people get into a car and want to go shoot someone else? We break it down, to get people to understand why things happen. There’s also a song called “No Lives Matter.” It obviously started from the Black Lives Matter movement, but we moved it into just the economics of everything that makes people … you know, it’s all about hate and racism and things like that.
Garcia: Way back in the beginning, “Cop Killer” was—of course—about police brutality. Here we are in 2017, and that song is just as relevant as it was then. I think that, with the new president and everything, it seems like things are a little … Nobody knows what direction America’s gonna go in. The album makes a big statement about what’s happening in America right now
Ernie C and Juan Garcia churn up a firestorm as Ice-T turns the crowd into an expletive-singing chorus on the song that launched the controversy.