In the fourth installment of our KMD retrospective, we look back at the fallout from Ice-T’s controversial “Cop Killer,” the interviews that Zev offered in the lead up to Black Bastards, and the record label politicking that saw Elektra Records pull the record – and leave Zev out in the cold.
Part I: MF DOOM and the KMD Origin Story
Part II: Positive Kauses and Constipated Monkeys
Part III: Long Live Kingilizwe
Part IV: Ice-T, KMD and Hip-Hop Cops
Part V: Zev Love X-ile & MF, the Supervillain
An Aside: Killing Cops in South Central
In the wake of Subroc’s sudden death, Zev Love X – the sole remaining member of KMD – was set on completing and releasing their sophomore album, Black Bastards. The record was completed and the first single already out, but as Elektra set about cutting promotional copies and soliciting press engagements, trouble was brewing within the music industry. In order to understand that trouble, we need to take things back to two years earlier, when an Ice-T single revitalized a furious culture war – and changed major label hip-hop for years.
Los Angeles, 1992: crossover thrash band Body Count released “Cop Killer,” featuring lyrics from group frontman Ice-T. The track, which specifically mentioned longtime LAPD chief Daryl Gates and police brutality victim Rodney King, arrived a mere month before the Los Angeles Riots. There were plenty of issues that needed addressing, but police departments and government officials across the country honed in on Ice’s bars. “Cop Killer” had, inadvertently, reignited the censorship debate of the mid-’80s.
A moral panic ensued, and it was a real pile on. President Bush and VP Quayle called Warner “irresponsible,” and 60 senators sent a letter to the label condemning the record. California’s Attorney General sent “letters printed on government stationery” to 18 record store CEOs, urging them to refrain from selling it and Charlton Heston misrepresented lyrics from “KKK Bitch” at a Warner stockholders meeting. A gang member-turned-motorcycle officer even recorded a response record, though that hip-hop jam – which opens with Ice-T being called in as a “suspect… wanted for--you guessed it--being a negative role model” – seems lost to time.
In spite of what appeared to be unfaltering label support, Ice decided to pull the record after four months, citing death threats received by Warner and Sire employees. “That’s a real punk move,” he told reporters. “They’re afraid to go after me. This is my fight.” The punks kept on coming: even on the record’s revocation, Ollie North compared Warner’s change of heart to… the Manson murders?
“This wasn’t a free speech issue, as much of the record industry, perched at the barricades of the First Amendment, was loftily claiming,” wrote Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy. “It was a violence-as-entertainment issue.” It’s curious, then, that 1982’s First Blood, in which Sylvester Stallone viciously kills law enforcement officials, didn’t elicit such a response. What of Bob Marley’s 1973 tune “I Shot The Sheriff,” co-opted by a white soft-rock guitarist without as much as a murmur? These were difficult questions to answer and, in the wake of the controversy, few companies dared wade into the minutiae of the matter. Hip hop was instead hit with a wave of label-led censorship.
“When the cops moved on Body Count they issued pressure on the corporate division of Warner Bros.,” said Ice-T in the late ‘90s, discussing the subsequent suppression. “They couldn’t out-fight ’em in the battle, so even when you’re in a business with somebody who might not wanna censor you, economically people can put restraints on ’em and cause ’em to be afraid. I learned that lesson in there, that you’re never really safe as long as you’re connected to any big corporation’s money.” The “Cop Killer” fiasco was a major moment in label-artist relations, one which reverberated across the entire musical landscape and thrust hip hop into the firing line. Major labels, terrified of controversies hitting their bottom line, started policing their own content, and industry spectators – variously appalled and incensed – were on the lookout for the next moral panic.
It didn’t take long for KMD to come into focus.
WEA: Hip-Hop C-Cypher Punks
It’s not all that surprising that KMD, a fiercely outspoken outfit, would fall victim to that kind of grandstanding controversy. The outfit had long been misconstrued by music industry insiders and the greater Elektra brass, and those cracks were showing in early 1994. With the long-awaited Black Bastards mere weeks away, Zev was on a startlingly honest press tour, arriving at interviews 40s in his hand and heart on his sleeve.
“Zev Love seems to be in low spirits,” opened Ronin Ro’s profile, belatedly included in the June 1994 edition of The Source. “Dressed in black like a mourner, he sits in the dimly-lit conference room, waving a blunt and clouding the air. The smoke makes it hard to see him.” Ro masterfully painted a picture of isolation, with Zev and his 40-swigging friend sitting in the “belly of [Elektra’s] corporate hydra,” surrounded by white employees more interested in the fading grunge wave than Zev’s long-gestating project. That juxtaposition spoke to a larger contradiction: the label “both censors hip-hop records” and “pimps it in their ‘upscale’ hip-hop magazine,” gentrifying whatever they see as incendiary enough – but not too incendiary.
“I feel a lot of things changed from our original idea,” Zev said of the dishonest marketing that plagued Mr. Hood, “as opposed to now, where we get to keep all the real shit.” Black Bastards is presented as a pure, unadulterated blast of KMD, and Ronin enthusiastically agreed, writing that “this time, no values were compromised.” The conversation inevitably turned to Sub, but only briefly. “I wasn’t even with him that day, but the shit was shady,” he reluctantly recalled. “I don’t know. I don’t wanna get into details, really.” Ronin, himself having lost a brother, asked how he found out about the incident. “I felt it,” Zev replied, any superstition undercut by his outright certainty. “I felt it definitely.”
Zev’s monotonous stoicism gave Ronin pause, who evocatively recalled the death of his own brother, but if Zev was unwilling to elaborate on his struggles, his concerned posse wasn’t. “Zev used to be able to articulate his thoughts in such a clear way,” said one anonymous insider to Ronin, “but now he’s sullen. Using beer and getting zooted as a crutch instead of facing things and trying to work it out.” Zev confided that in every one of Sub’s lyrics, he sees the moment that his brother enthusiastically debuted them, saying “I remember that shit just like yesterday… it seems like one point in time, stuck there, can’t change.” Ronin’s piece is one of the most brutally beautiful hip-hop profiles I’ve ever read, and no amount of pull quotes could do it justice.
Elliott Wilson, a future XXL editor-in-chief, found himself in a similar conference room at the behest of the Bay Area’s 4080 Magazine. Sitting across from him was Zev – he refers to him as DOOM, a nickname infrequently used in writing – who cradled a 40 and looked “zooted but… alert and in good spirits.” The conversation hits on influences, determination and tour stories, but towards the close, DOOM opens up: “the way shit is now, I rarely get a chance to feel good,” he admits. “I get high to keep my mind off the everyday bullshit.” That everyday bullshit – label hurdles, creative control and the ever-unpredictable “corporate hydra” – would soon come crashing down on Zev, the final insult in an already-tumultuous career.
Black Bastards was, in a way, already out. Advance cassettes were distributed to the press, advertisements were commissioned, press engagements were finessed and music videos were shot. It was the realisation of a truly personal project for Zev, but as KMD became more and more assured in their creative vision, they found themselves pushing up against industry conservatism and half-baked punditry.
The album cover, an illustration by Zev which depicted the group’s sambo mascot being lynched, slid across the desk of Billboard R&B Chart Manager Terri Rossi in early 1994. An outspoken figure in the battle against hip-hop misogyny, Rossi devoted an edition of her “R&B Rhythms” column in Billboard’s Airplay Monitor to attack not only the artwork, but the entire album. She hadn’t heard it, and she clearly wasn’t familiar with the work of KMD, writing “to promote lynching is just plain evil… maybe [Zev] needs a refresher course on the entire civil rights movement.”
“The album got mastered and turned in, and the artwork had gone through the Elektra system,” explained Dante Ross, then A&R Vice President at Elektra, of the supposedly incendiary sketch. “No one had ever questioned it.” That changed one day when, mere weeks from the scheduled release, Elektra caught wind of Rossi’s rage. “‘What A N***a Know’ was out and doing well, and we were at a session,” recalled DOOM of the label ambush. “We got a call from Elektra, they wanted to see us there at the office the next day for a meeting. I didn’t really think much about it, honestly.”
April 8, 1994. DOOM’s memory is as sharp as it is heartbreaking: “we got there and they had the [cover] artwork proofs out on the table… there were a couple of people in the room, including one old dude I had never seen before. He was speaking on behalf of Elektra. It seemed like they had everything planned out already, like they knew how everything was going to end before we said anything. And they said they weren’t going to put the album out. They didn’t even want us to change the cover.” Dante’s telling is more specific. “The day the meeting was supposed to happen, me and DOOM were at Elektra early in the morning. My boss called me in and told me we were not going to be able to put this record out. He said they wanted to work out a deal where DOOM would get his masters back and they’d give him 20k to go away. I was like ‘yo, that’s offensive – we didn’t even get to defend his point of view.’”
That’s what made Dante truly irate. “She never asked DOOM what the album or artwork was about,” he said of Rossi. “[Zev] was never allowed to explain it, or defend himself.” On April 14, just a week after the record was pulled, Billboard hip-hop columnist Havelock Nelson – presumably one of the “several prominent Black people in the industry” that Rossi asked to “vilify the record” – decided to pile on to the already-shelved LP. “It’s inexcusable that executives at Elektra allowed these images to slip through,” he wrote of the “What A N***a Know” sleeve. All the while, in the captioned photo slotted below, Nelson sung the praises of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Jon Shecter, co-founder of The Source, took exception. In a scathing editorial titled “Corporate Hysteria,” Shecter decried not only Rossi’s attack on the album, but also Elektra’s response: according to both him and Dante, though Zev offered to change the art, he was informed that “the decision has already been made.” Dante, who Jon described as “agitated,” also put the eleventh-hour reversal down to fear. Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, responsible for distributing records from Snoop, Pac and Dre, saw reputational risk without equivalent commercial reward and, under the guise of not wanting to “tamper with KMD’s statement by asking them to change it,” they put the album on indefinite hold. The Source held their review, “pending a new deal,” but Shecter wrote that, “the fact that this is a quality record that deserves to be heard makes this story even more relevant.”
Immediately after learning of his leave from the Elektra brass, Zev headed to Dante’s office. “I had a case of wine someone had given me for Christmas,” recalled Dante. “He opened a bottle, started drinking it… he was drinking the wine which said “Sweet Premium Wine” on it – he often came to drink wine from my wine collection.” He was left to offer Zev his materials. “I know he must have been devastated, but he didn’t seem like it,” said Dante of the moment Dumile received his severance cheque. “He looked at it and said, ‘Yo, I should get dropped more often. This is more money than I’ve ever gotten in the music game… he was almost Zen-like.”
That paltry sum marked the end of the road for Black Bastards, an album that had taken on a special importance after Subroc’s death. “We saw how Kris [KRS-One] handled [Scott La Rock’s death],” DOOM told Hua Hsu in 2004, referencing 1988’s By All Means Necessary. “You persevere, you keep going, you strive and you do it.” He’d finished the record himself, fronted the press all alone, and played it by the casket at Sub’s funeral, but for all that effort, Zev netted a $20k payout and a stack of unreleased masters.
“I was absolutely crushed,” admitted Dante to Genius in 2012. “We walked downstairs out of the building, drunk. He walked to the train, and I walked to a cab, and I took a cab home. And that was it. It was a decision that I’ve always thought was an absolute crock of shit. I thought it was total bullshit… I believe in dialogue, and there was no dialogue in this case, and the kid got thrown to the wolves.” Zev headed to The Source offices that same evening, where he spoke with Shecter for the “Corporate Hysteria” piece: “one person, her personal opinion speaks for the whole race and for my future as an artist and all that? That’s nuts!” Jon wrote in that piece that Zev “seemed confident about getting a new deal.” Rossi had called to express regret, but the damage was well and truly done.
“This was all definitely tied in to the Body Count fiasco, and they gave Ice-T his masters back in that case, too,” said Dante of Zev’s unceremonious departure. “Basically, I think Elektra knew that the [KMD] album wasn’t going to be a huge hit, and they didn’t want black people mad at them, in the community and at the company. So they figured they should just cut their losses.” There’s no denying that something had changed: Elektra had been promoting “Peachfuzz” with full-page spreads announcing the trio were “destroying all stereotypes in the nineties,” and their newly willful ignorance was as sudden as it was expeditious.
“It was definitely a direct result of the ‘Cop Killer’ stuff, not anything else,” agreed Pete Nice. “I mean, the record was called Black Bastards, the single was ‘What A N***a Know’… it wasn’t Dante’s fault at all, either, he did everything he could.” Having hit up his boss, Bob Krasnow, who was empathetic but hamstrung by “internal politics,” Dante organized another meeting with the higher-ups and Rossi herself, but that was unceremoniously cancelled. It all pointed towards some kind of concerted effort, not only to evade some apparent controversy, but to disenfranchise Zev and strongarm him out of his contract. Fatigued, morose and now with an effectively blacklisted album in his possession, Zev took off into the great unknown.
“I didn’t see him much after that,” said Dante of the severance meeting. He’d long been one of Zev’s most ardent champions, instrumental in his creative and commercial successes, but Daniel Dumile was all but done with the industry. “I called him around the time his brother passed away,” said Prince Paul, De La collaborator and “Gas Face” producer. “After that, I didn’t know what happened to him. He just kinda disappeared.” Del the Funky Homosapien, who’d seen DOOM at his most inconsolable, saw that loud grief give way to radio silence. “He was going through it, know what I’m saying? Then he just… vanished.”
Zev Love X would never resurface, but Daniel Dumile would be back, his mantle recast like the metal mask through which he’d rhyme again.
This is part four of a five-part series in memoriam to Daniel Dumile, aka Zev Love X, aka King Gheedorah, aka Viktor Vaughn, aka The Villain, aka MF DOOM.
Check back on Wednesday for part five.
Subscribe to our newsletter with the box below to be sure you don’t miss an installment!