Give the Grammy to Body Count

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I think Body Count’s “Black Hoodie” is one of the most compelling metal songs to be nominated for a Grammy, ever. But more importantly, I think there’s a pretty good chance it will win the Grammy for Best Metal Performance this year. And while the much-discussed political undertones of the lyrics certainly are important,1 the biggest reasons I think the song should win the Grammy are musical.

The most important thing in metal is heaviness. The impression of heaviness can created by a lot of factors, including devastating topics in lyrics, pounding riffs that draw you into headbanging, head-crushing tone in guitars and drums, eerie or violent sound effects representing power and destruction, or even visuals in album art and music videos that associate the sound with danger or transgression. “Black Hoodie” has all of these, but since I’m a music theorist, I have to talk about the musical factors first.

Their latest album shows that Body Count has perfected metal tone. Listen to “Black Hoodie” on some good headphones and you’ll see what I mean. Their drums box the side of your head, their thick rhythm guitar sound tingles the base of your skull. But they’ve achieved this tough tone without sacrificing the melodic tone of the riffs. Also, Ice-T’s relatively toneful shouting style is more accessible than some of the other worthy bands nominated this year.

Let’s face it, melody counts a lot for the Grammy award for Best Metal Performance–just listen to the song that won last year, “Cirice” by the Swedish band Ghost. That’s probably one of the most melodic songs of 2016 that still registered as a whopper on the heavy-scale. Body Count’s sound is more menacing than Ghost’s, but like Ghost their tone is an updated and perfected version of some sounds pioneered in the eighties and nineties, rather than the harsher tone of Meshuggah or Code Orange.

“Black Hoodie” also profits from some tried-and-true metal riff strategies. The opening riff is strikingly similar to the opening riff from Pantera’s groove metal anthem “Cowboys From Hell,” as you can see below in my transcription of the two riffs. Both heavily rely on E and G for the first two beats, both play around with a conflict between A and A# in beat 3, and both use exactly the same lick for beat 4. Body Count’s riff uses what’s called an “overlay rhythm,”2 which moves against the beat in groups of three sixteenth notes. Each of these 3-note groups climbs up chromatically, which puts a twist on this riff that is more like Slayer than Pantera’s bluesy riff in “Cowboys From Hell.” But to me, the figure at the end of the riff doesn’t sound like Slayer at all. In this riff, Body Count has synthesized several classic thrash metal strategies into a new idea that is familiar without quite sounding like anyone else.

The opening of “Black Hoodie” is very similar to Pantera’s “Cowboys From Hell,” but different enough it doesn’t feel like the same riff.

Another great riff is the verse riff that appears first at 1:22. I love the way the rhythm of this riff seems to twist underneath you the first time you hear it. This is because the beginning of the riff uses a three-beat phrase, and it repeats the phrase exactly but then extends it by repeating a variation of the final four notes. This phrasing (shown by the brackets below) initially sounds like a 3/4 riff, but then twists it around to fit ultimately in 4/4. Meshuggah uses asymmetrical meter like this all the time, although they usually use more complicated meters and less tonal melodies. To me the effect of this verse riff from “Black Hoodie” is sort of halfway between Meshuggah’s “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” or “Koloss,” and some of the odd time signature riffing in Metallica’s …And Justice for All or Master of Puppets.

My favorite detail in this song is the turnaround at the end of the verses. This riff hammers the tritone, the most dissonant and disorienting interval in tonal music. The rhythm of this riff is also disorienting: there is a melodic parallelism of three-note groups (marked by the brackets below). A property of human musical cognition called “parallelism” dictates that when two bits of music are melodically parallel, we tend to also hear them as rhythmically and metrically parallel. In the graphic below I’ve shown the rhythm “adjusted” to the parallel rhythm my ear expects and keeps wanting to hear, a 3+3+2 rhythm that is everywhere in metal music. But the actual rhythm that Body Count plays is slightly different, 3+3+3 in the first half and 3+2+2 in the second half. This is just different enough to feel lopsided instead of parallel, and creates a kind of cognitive dissonance.

Turnaround at 2:11 in “Black Hoodie,” and a re-composition.

In a master stroke of songwriting, this unsettling riff is used at 2:11 to set the spoken lyrics, “You motherfuckers, call the fucking paramedics man / My man’s not breathing, man / What the fuck’s the matter with you, man?” The evil tritone and disorienting rhythm of this riff devastatingly match the gut-wrenching cognitive dissonance experienced by the protagonist, who can’t believe that the policemen who just shot his unarmed friend are standing by while the friend bleeds to death on the sidewalk. The result is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever heard in any rap-metal hybrid style, up there with some of Rage Against The Machine’s best songwriting.

Those are some of the musical highlights; but I can’t avoid the lyrics and politics of this song any longer. Is Body Count exploiting3 the popularity of Black Lives Matter? Probably, and not just in “Black Hoodie,” but also in “No Lives Matter,” another track from the latest album. But some of the best metal has always done this. Metallica’s first couple of albums would not have felt anywhere near as vital without lyrics about relevant, scary political issues, including nuclear annihilation and veterans’ mental health. (This is one reason I’m not a fan of Metallica’s new album — they’ve returned to something like an earlier style, but with lyrics that are much less concrete, and it just doesn’t seem as urgent or convincing.) Writing about real issues doesn’t just make a song relevant — it can make the song seem heavier, too.

The biggest criticism of this band is that their rap-metal style isn’t metal enough. Earlier in their career, I would have agreed that Body Count did not always do a great job of engaging the metal genre. But if you look at the rest of their latest album, it’s great — and it participates in metal in much more varied and convincing ways than Body Count’s previous work. For example, take “Here I Go Again,” a great addition to the genre of metal songs about serial homicide. The chilling lyrics convey the horror of a protagonist who struggles to realize he is losing control to an alternate dissociative personality, whose unquenchable blood lust ultimately drives him to commit a bloody, mutilated suicide. These kinds of topics have been explored before by death metal bands, but few songs in that genre have the tight drama of this psychological thriller. The music video makes an eye-popping (get it? ew), disturbingly good short horror film.

And if you still aren’t convinced that Body Count has gotten a lot more metal, they prove it with their cover of the iconic Slayer anthem “Raining Blood.” I actually like Body Count’s version better than Slayer’s original recording, but that’s a pretty subjective opinion that I know lots of my readers may disagree with. What’s not as arguable is that Body Count’s version doesn’t sound like a band trying to imitate Slayer and not quite getting there: their cover sounds independent of the original, showing the strength of Body Count’s individual musical vision. They still sound like Body Count, even when they’re playing Slayer songs.

Another criticism is that Ice-T gets a bit preachy (especially in the repetitive “No Lives Matter”), but his lyrics are from the heart. They don’t just blindly repeat Black Lives Matter talking points, and even make some criticisms. Ice-T points out in his monologue at the beginning of “Black Hoodie”:

All these people out here tripping off police brutality like this shit is something new
Give me a fucking break
I’ve been talking about this shit for over 20 years

Body Count might be trying to score a viral hit by crafting a couple of singles around these current political issues. But they’re just being consistent with the last two decades of their career. That’s not selling out, it’s just a neat coincidence.

What’s not a coincidence is that they’ve turned this issue into a metal song that makes familiar paths of thrash metal sound fresh and heavy, in a masterfully-written song where the riffs and lyrics are tightly integrated. The amazing riffs, devastating songwriting, and urgent topic give this song the relevance and vitality of some of metal’s most treasured and most meaningful songs, like “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, “One” by Metallica, or “Angel of Death” by Slayer. So Body Count should get the Grammy for Best Metal Performance.

  1. See the opinions of writers for Loudwire on the topic of Body Count’s politics: http://loudwire.com/opinion-who-will-win-the-60th-annual-grammys-rock-metal-categories/ []
  2. For more information about overlay, see Jeff Pressing (2002) “Black Atlantic Rhythm[…]” in Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal volume 19, issue 3. []
  3. I have one reservation about using the word “exploiting”: the rest of the album doesn’t touch on current politics. But the music videos from these two songs “Black Hoodie” and “No Lives Matter” have way more views on youtube than the music videos for three less political songs on the album, “The Ski Mask Way,” “Here I Go Again,” and “This Is Why We Ride.” So while they haven’t based the entire album around the Black Lives Matter movement, they are still capitalizing on this moment for exposure they might not have gotten otherwise. []

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