In 1988, reality-TV producer John Langley was plotting out his next show. A few years earlier, his first foray into the then-nascent genre, American Vice: The Doping of a Nation, had brought live drug arrests to prime time. He had the basic premise for a follow-up — follow police officers on the job with no narrator or re-enactments — but there were still crucial stylistic details to sort out.
“I was a Bob Marley fan — still am — and I thought it would be very interesting to counterpoint law enforcement with reggae,” Langley told Entertainment Weekly in 2017 about the soundtrack to what would become Cops. “It seemed to announce, this is not your regular cop show.”
While looking for a theme song, a field producer brought Langley One Way, the new album from reggae group Inner Circle that featured a track about Jamaican wayward youth and the perils of growing up in a dangerous environment. “I heard the song and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the song for the show,'” Langley told EW. At that point, the group had been around for two decades, staying together after the untimely 1980 death of their revered lead singer Jacob Miller.
More than 30 years later, “Bad Boys,” which was re-released in 1993 to capitalize on the show’s success, catapulted the veteran reggae group to global fame, with multiple generations still able to reflexively sing, “Bad boys, bad boys/Whatcha gonna do/Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
Earlier this week, amid nationwide protests against police brutality, the Paramount Network canceled the long-running show after 32 seasons. If Inner Circle’s Ian Lewis, the songwriter and bassist behind “Bad Boys,” had his way, the cancellation would bring a renewed analysis of the song past its ubiquitous chorus.
“Thirty years. How many groups in the world can say they have a song that the world knows, but what is not understood is the essence of the song,” Lewis tells Rolling Stone from Miami. “It was used in the context of Cops, but if they listen to the song, everybody just knows the hook. They don’t listen to the words of the song where it’s talking about a person who was coming into crime and adversarial towards their parents. The song is about growing up [as a teenager] who wants to be a man but doesn’t understand that it’s the family that you should springboard from. I think it was slightly misunderstood, but worldwide, we never got a negative connotation.”
When Lewis first saw the show in 1989, he thought it would be “a docudrama; something that would come on one time and that would be the end of it.” The track would eventually peak at Number Eight on the Billboard 200, soundtrack Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s popular film franchise of the same name, serve as sample fodder for Diddy, and become the group’s signature song.
“I hope people take a moment to understand that the song is about teenage life and becoming semi-aggressive as you start growing up,” Lewis says. “We have played in places where everybody sings the song because music is the healer. If you are black; if you are white. If the culture is not shielding children [from trouble], then you’re gonna get problems. That has been the neglect of certain strata of American society that has been forcing kids to take things in their own hands; but if you give them aptitude, attitude and knowledge, they will go to good places.”
But as police practices have come under greater scrutiny, some have questioned the use of a reggae song on a show that glorifies the profession primarily at the expense of minorities. Lewis grappled with this when the show first aired, telling Billboard in 1994, “Some of our black fans have come to us and told us Cops is a negative show. We have heard that some black radio stations didn’t play the song because of the association with Cops. … The song isn’t about telling the police to lock people up or beat them up; it’s about troubled kids who have problems at home.”
“A song don’t have to carry a stigma; listen to the words: ‘Born of a mother with the love of a father,’” Lewis says today. “If people think we’re responsible for making the show popular, all we did was make a song that we think is a reflection of the youth. … The rest of the verses have never been played on television.”
In light of the current wave of protests, the gulf between the song’s original intent and its use on Cops seems even wider. Even as the show itself may highlight divisiveness, abuse of power, and potentially deadly police tactics — a similar show, Live PD, was canceled, in part, because the production crew recorded Javier Ambler’s death while in police custody, and then destroyed the film – “Bad Boys” has become an uniting force at the group’s shows worldwide. “Everybody sings along wherever we play,” Lewis says.
“I don’t know what prompted [the cancellation] in terms of the TV people but I know in the streets, nobody favors injustice. I would love to see a palatable platform where people can speak to one another and have some form of communication and one of the greatest tools for that is music,” Lewis says. “You have to look at the song itself [separate from the show]. What is the song saying? How is it being misconstrued? The protests evolving into what it is because of injustice. … I can’t support injustice because my moral mantra is to believe in truth and right. That’s the power of the people.”
So would Lewis let a future producer who wanted to revive the show use “Bad Boys” as the theme?
“Honestly, this time around, I would ask them, ‘Where are you going to go with it? How is this show going to be depicted?’” he says. “The original lyric I had was, ‘Whatcha gonna do when life comes for you?’ I could change the hook to, ‘Whatcha gonna do when love comes for you?’”