The L.A. Riots’ Fires Burn on in Hip-Hop

To mark the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, Stereo Williams analyzes hip-hop’s role in both predicting them, and continuing their legacy.

Steve Grayson/Getty

April 29, 1992. A jury acquitted four officers of assault and three of the four of using excessive force against motorist Rodney King. The case had drawn national attention after video footage of the March 1991 beating was made public, and it seemed certain to many Americans that the officers would be found guilty. With news of the acquittal came shock, disbelief and outrage. But if one had been listening to the music that was coming from the streets of Los Angeles, they would’ve already known how bad things were in communities like South Central—where police routinely dehumanized black citizens. Rappers had been calling out “Fuck the Police” for years. Now the world would have to reckon with reality.

Hip-hop’s role as a voice for the voiceless is forged in the culture’s very beginnings. When Bronx block parties gave rise to community organizing and a spirit of youthful DIY freedom, hip-hop was forever connected to the heartbeat of the public; and even as the culture became more infested with commercial interests that led to the commodification of hip-hop as a genre, it’s soul has always remained intact.

In the late 1980s, Los Angeles-based rappers were becoming more and more visible in the mainstream. N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton had blown the hinges off of an already-strong West Coast rap scene. Now, the cultural sway that New York had traditionally held in an iron grip was starting to loosen, and more eyes were turning to places like Compton and Watts, as movies like Boyz N the Hood also began to give voice to the oppressive environment wherein the black community had been targeted by a police department that operated like an occupying military force. Additionally, hostilities between black residents and many Korean shop owners was reaching a boiling point. Stories like the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins, a 16-year-old girl who’d been shot in the head by a Korean cashier who believed she was stealing a bottle of juice, hadn’t made the national headlines. West Coast rappers like Ice Cube and 2Pac would give voice to the anger both before and after the April ‘92 riots in L.A. The perspective of these rappers was rage-filled and frustrated, and rap fans everywhere were exposed to a cultural powder keg that they’d largely missed seeing on the nightly news.

In 1992, hip-hop’s role as a voice for its community was becoming more and more of a hot-button topic for everyone from activists to politicians. The rise of gangsta rap led to condemnation of its misogyny and violent subject matter—and in the wake of N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police,” there was rising concern about rap lyrics. ‘92 was both the year of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and the year that Tupac Shakur first began to emerge as a significant voice in hip-hop. 2Pac had dropped his debut album in November of 1991, and as the new year dawned, his single “Brenda’s Got A Baby” was garnering attention—as was his intense performance in Ernest R. Dickerson’s urban drama Juice, which had been released that January. With his star on the rise, 2Pac was beginning to make a name for himself as both an artist and a firebrand. In late 1991, just after the release of 2Pac’s debut album, he was involved in a violent confrontation with the Oakland police department.

During an appearance on BET’s Video LP that year, 2Pac recounted the incident to host Sherry Carter.

“I was walking down the street, minding my own business and the Oakland police department stopped me for jaywalking,” Pac explained, before adding that he’d questioned why they were stopping him. “They jumped on me—because you’re not supposed to talk back to the police—[they] jumped on me, beat me down, slammed my head down, put the cuffs on me, took me to jail—for $10.”

Shakur filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Oakland P.D. and wound up reportedly getting less than $50,000 in settlement money. But the altercation was the first of several between 2Pac and the cops; and it amplified the anger he’d expressed on his debut album. And when the officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted and L.A. erupted, 2Pac’s words seemed prophetic.

That same year, Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” had become a point of controversy for politicians and pundits in the early months of Election ‘92. Like 2Pac, Ice-T was a West Coast rapper who’d risen to the forefront of gangsta rap and became a more mainstream star via Hollywood. Ice had provided the theme song for Dennis Hopper’s South Central-based cop drama Colors in 1988 and garnered a major star turn as Det. Sonny Appleton in Mario Van Peebles’ crime drama New Jack City in 1991. With both his hip-hop and acting career in full swing, Ice-T unexpectedly released a thrash metal album with his band Body Count in March of 1992, and included was an angry rant at the police.

On “Cop Killer,” Body Count declares war on violent police officers, calling out the LAPD and citing the Rodney King beating. “Fuck the police, for Darryl Gates. Fuck the police, for Rodney King,” Ice declares on the track. “Fuck the police, for my dead homies.”

The song became a cultural lightning rod in the months following the riots in Los Angeles. That July, actor Charlton Heston would denounce the song in front of Time Warner’s shareholders following protests from police officers’ families. When Ice-T was defended as an artist, Heston dismissed the rapper.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” Heston scoffed. “I know as well as you do that an artist’s creative freedom depends primarily on the success of his last work and the demand for his next.”

Stumping on the presidential trail for George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign, Vice President Dan Quayle also called out “Cop Killer” and Time Warner.

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“Here is a very influential corporation, supporting and making money off a record that suggests it’s OK to kill cops. I find that outrageous,” Quayle said while campaigning in San Diego.

“If people want to choose that boycott, that’s fine with me. I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t. But I do find this conduct of this corporation on this particular example quite unbecoming.”

After the L.A. riots, rappers and rap music were under both increased scrutiny and offered a certain validation on behalf of mainstream media that had seen their lyrics become all too real. Everyone from Ice-T to Chuck D was suddenly called upon to give voice to what had happened. In the same way that hip-hop had in many ways predicted the riots, the aftermath of the conflict loomed large in the major West Coast rap releases of late 1992 and early 1993.

Ice Cube’s fiery anthem “Wicked” would be released just months after the riots, evoking the tensions over sirens and a thunderous sample of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Sing A Simple Song.” With skinheads (played by Flea and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) in the video, Cube drew an explicit line between the community tensions and white supremacist ideologies at work in the police force. Cube’s former group mate Dr. Dre would release The Chronic in December 1992, and included “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”: a dancehall-inflected foreboding track that recalls the anger during the looting. Just two months later, 2Pac would release the similarly themed “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the first single from his sophomore album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., which itself was also heavily informed by the anger in the aftermath of the King acquittals and the ‘92 riots.

Today, hip-hop still reflects the community’s anger. Rappers like Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$ and Compton’s Kendrick Lamar have all given voice to the tensions stretching across American culture at the dawn of the Trump era. Twenty-five years after Rodney King, Stacy Coon and Reginald Denny were names regularly flashing across our news screens, there’s still police beating and killing black citizens. Rodney King never was an anomaly, and just as the outrage of 1992 echoed the outrage of 1968, when black people take to social media or the streets in 2017, it’s born of a frustration that’s as old as America itself. We’ve been singing songs about our bloodshed for generations. America still sings along, but we still don’t believe it ever hears us.