L.A. Riots at 25: N.W.A's DJ Yella Reflects on 'Crazy, Heartbreaking' Scene

"I remember thinking ... How many hits does it take to get a man [down]?" DJ says at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum

DJ Yella, Lil Eazy-E speaking at the Newseum event by Hilton. Credit: Maria Bryk/Newseum

The 1992 Los Angeles riots, one of the most devastating events in American history, occurred 25 years ago. While the city was physically restored, the threads of systematic racism that led to the violence are still embedded in many of our current social and economic systems. No music group portrayed this struggle more fervently than N.W.A.

The pioneering hip-hop group's two incendiary albums preceded the L.A. riots, but their fierce indifference to authority crystallized the racial divide and amplified the anguish of young, poor, black Americans living in South Central Los Angeles. N.W.A created a modern blueprint for people to use hip-hop as a vital, nonviolent agent for change. The effects of that are all over popular music today, in music by Kendrick Lamar to Chance the Rapper to Beyonce.

At the opening of the Newseum's new exhibition Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics in Washington D.C., N.W.A founding member DJ Yella spoke about the importance of First Amendment rights. Here is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee remembering the Los Angeles riots, 25 years later: 

The first time I saw the Rodney King video, I remember thinking, "Wow, these cops just got 100 years in jail." Obviously that didn't happen. How many hits does it take to get a man [down]? I'd never seen a beating like that in my life. And by an officer no less. If that isn't guilty, I don't know what is.

Before the L.A. riots, I'd only heard of the original Watts riots. But I'd also seen violence like that close up, but in smaller scenarios. When the riots happened though, it was just crazy. [Rioters] were tearing down their own city and that was the heartbreaking part. Then, a couple days later, they'd realize they burned everything down. There were no more stores, no more neighborhoods.

But I also understood the pressure that they were facing. Growing up, you always heard of cops beating people up behind buildings and letting them go. Now they just shoot them. But back then, I was put on the ground [and] asked to get out of cars. It happened all the time. Three black guys was automatically a gang. The only big difference today is we're catching them on cameras. It's not all cops today, just like it wasn't all cops back then. It's just a few. But now they're getting caught.

Straight Outta Compton was a direct response to being harassed like that. Back then, everybody knew what to do, but [N.W.A] had the balls to say it. That album was real, so different and so unheard of at the time. And it took nothing to make. Thirty days. It just clicked – the words, the lyrics, the titles – and it stands out today because we said what we wanted to say. The album was raw – but we weren't trying to be. And nowadays, it's still selling – but in places like Malaysia and Korea – and still by young kids. A quarter century later, that album is still a voice for people in the ghetto. 

There aren't any hip-hop powerhouse groups today like we were. There are all these guest appearances and collaborations, but no artists are really coming together in an all-star way like N.W.A, which [I think] helped us make our statement. The other thing is artists today worry more about their careers and media statuses than we did. They're thinking before they do something. I don't think it's out of fear, necessarily, but because they're trying to protect their careers. Or maybe it is just because they don't have the balls.

I don't see the violence stopping, from the L.A. riots 25 years ago to the Baltimore riots from 2015 to today – at least, not until a cop goes to jail. Until someone gets 30 to 50 years – something substantial – I really don't think it'll stop. Right now, all they have to say is: "I thought they had a gun." And even when they have the right to shoot, you don't have to shoot a person 10 times or in the back as he's running away. 

As told to Sarah Grant