Outraged by rap artist Ice-T's controversial song "Cop Killer," Hawthorne Police Officer Roosevelt Matthews Jr. has recorded a rap of his own.
The officer, a former gang member whose conversion to motorcycle cop was dramatized last year on national television, has just cut a debut single called "Role Model." He hopes the slickly produced, four-minute tune will serve as an antidote to Ice-T's song, which he says is sending a poisonous message to youths.
Matthews said he was inspired to write "Role Model" two weeks ago, after he saw Ice-T on television gesturing rudely at a group of police officers. Since then, he has spent nearly all of his off-duty hours in a Hawthorne recording studio working on the single.
The song, which he is now distributing to local radio stations, starts with the sounds of sirens and a dispatcher alerting officers to be on the lookout for a man fitting Ice-T's description. The suspect is wanted for--you guessed it--being a negative role model.
In a recording that features a hip-hop beat and backup vocals by Hawthorne bank teller Janice Chilcoat, Matthews asserts that Ice-T's music comes "from an evil man's mind." He also uses the song to denounce Ice-T's "gangster addiction" and to champion the "5-0 crew"--slang for police officers--for "showing little kids the right way out."
"I'm not personally attacking Ice-T," said Matthews, who for the past year has performed before student audiences using "Blade" as his musical moniker. "I'm attacking the product he puts out. The lyrics in his music are, like, devastating to society."
The Ice-T anthem, released in April--the same month as the L.A. riots--is sung from the point of view of a frustrated inner-city youth who resolves to "dust some cops off."
It has drawn intense criticism from police groups throughout the country and from public figures including President Bush and Tipper Gore, the wife of U.S. Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, the Democratic vice presidential candidate.
Ice-T has defended his lyrics as an expression of the explosive anger felt by victims of police abuse. But through one of his managers, the rapper declined to comment on Matthews' single.
"If he responds, it's only more fuel in this fire," said Steve Stewart of Rhyme Syndicate Management. "We realize that if we were going to comment on something like this, (Matthews) would (get) rich. We just say 'no comment.' We don't want to listen to it. We don't even care."
Matthews is not the only police officer attempting to challenge the controversial rapper on his own turf.
Warner Bros. Records, which released "Cop Killer" as part of Ice-T's rock album "Body Count," has received demonstration tapes in the past two weeks from police officers in Pasadena, as well as Texas and Arkansas.
"Some of them are not too bad," Warner spokesman Bob Merlis said. "Some have come off like public service announcements--they're kind of stodgy. But a few have good musical sense."
Although "Role Model" was in the works a short two weeks, Matthews has been writing rap songs for the past year and a half. He recently put the finishing touches on a pro-police, four-song cassette called "Here for Your Protection, Don't Need Your Rejection," which he also plans to circulate among radio stations in the next few weeks.
Matthews appeared for an interview last week at the Black Hole recording studio in Hawthorne wearing the SWAT-style jumpsuit and pistol that he dons for performances. Clutching a yellow legal pad containing his song lyrics, he took several breaks during his taping session to answer questions.
Though he claims to have little musical background, Matthews said he has honed his ear since he began working with music engineer Kenny McCloud, who owns the Black Hole and gives him a discount on studio time.
"Hey, that sounded good, don't you think?" he asked McCloud at one point in the session. When McCloud told him the last verse was too slow, Matthews momentarily slumped in disappointment before trying it again.
An avid weightlifter and surfer with close-cropped hair, the 34-year-old police officer said he was drawn to rap because it provides him a way to reach young people.
"Rap is something that the kids relate to real well," Matthews said. "I thought if I could channel it and make it positive, this would be like intravenously feeding a positive message into their brains."
Matthews traces his crusade to his own experiences growing up in a menacing South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood where gang membership was a birthright, not a choice.
Although he says he always managed to slip away when "some real bad stuff" was about to happen, as a teen-ager Matthews nevertheless saw his share of beatings and fights--and worse.
"I used to sit out on a porch with my homeboys," Matthews said. "And we weren't discussing politics. They were up there discussing who they were going to do or how they were going to get money."
By the time he reached his 18th birthday, Matthews was looking for a way out of the lifestyle that already had put several of his friends in their graves and had landed one of his cousins on Death Row.
He enrolled in college and decided to become a police officer. In 1980, he was hired by the Hawthorne Police Department, where he worked in the narcotics division. Ten years later, he became the department's first black motorcycle officer.
Matthews' story was told on the CBS network program "Top Cops" in January, 1991, after he won a South Bay medal of valor for capturing a gang member who had sprayed gunfire into a park filled with children.
The episode brought Matthews invitations from dozens of school officials who wanted him to speak to students about his experiences and how to stay out of gangs. Reasoning that he would make more of an impact if he delivered his message in music, he began rapping.
When fellow officers initiated a boycott against Time Warner--the parent company of Warner Bros. Records--for refusing to pull "Body Count" from the shelves, Matthews decided to fight back with lyrics instead.
"I'm challenging him (Ice-T) to put out good messages to these young kids, whether they're white, black, it really doesn't matter," Matthews said.
"I guess you could say I'm an ambassador from the Police Department to the kids and society as a whole," he added. "I'm trying to better the image of the Police Department, and at the same time bring some cohesiveness between society and the police."
Although recording industry gurus declined to make any predictions about Matthews' ability to produce a hit, they nevertheless were enthusiastic, if not relieved, that the protest against Ice-T's lyrics has taken a musical twist.
"I think that's wonderful," said Hilary Rosen, executive vice president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America in Washington. "I think that's exactly the kind of response that music stimulates. . . . That is as much as you can ever ask of art."