15 Songs That Predicted the L.A. Riots
On April 29th, 1992, four police officers – Stacey Koon, Theodore J. Briseno, Timothy Wind and Lawrence Powell – were found not guilty for using excessive force in the March 3, 1991 arrest of Rodney King, a beating that had been surreptitiously videotaped and then broadcasted around the world. Hours after the conclusion of the trial, rioting began in South Central Los Angeles, and then spread to other parts of the city, until then-President George H.W. Bush called in the California National Guard. The five-day uprising resulted in a reported 55 lives lost as well as billions of dollars in damage.
Popular music reflected much of the anger that would boil over during that week. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate – released a mere five months before – now seems like an eerily accurate document of the frustrations, intra-racial strife, and socio-economic breakdown that fueled the riots. But his angry, racially fraught masterwork is just the tipping point for years of songs that told of a Los Angeles more complex than the one portrayed in Hollywood films, or even exploitation action flicks like Dennis Hopper’s gangbang tale Colors. This list gathers a few that foretold of a coming storm.
The Watts Prophets, “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing” (1971)
The work of the Watts Prophets points to an earlier but no less incendiary time in Los Angeles’ tortured racial history. After the 1965 Watts riots, numerous groups launched civic programs in the area to alleviate tensions, including screenwriter Budd Schulberg (famed for muckraking classics like A Face in the Crowd) and his Watts Writers Workshop. There, the late Richard Dedeaux, Anthony “Amde” Hamilton, and Otis O’Solomon formed the Watts Prophets, and went on to record two albums of spoken word poetry that anticipated hip-hop and rap music. Their Rappin’ Black in a White World includes “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing,” where they celebrate the revolutionary fervor taking over black America. “Look at them flames lighting up the sky/Ain’t never seen fires shooting up so high,” chants McNeil in reference to the fires that consumed Watts and other cities during that era. “It sure looks to me like dem niggers ain’t playing.”
Toddy Tee, “Batterram” (1985)
In the early 1980s, the Los Angeles police department employed the B-100 armored vehicle, popularly known as the “batterram,” to bash their way into suspected drug houses. The technique was akin to swatting a fly with a machine gun, and countless residents – many of them innocent – saw their homes demolished as a result, further heightening tensions between law enforcement and the black community. In response, Compton rapper Toddy Tee recorded “Batterram,” a fresh electro-tinged message rap in the style of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.” It’s widely considered a protean moment in the development of West Coast gangsta rap, but contemporary listeners will note that Toddy Tee shows equal disdain for the “dope dealers” and “fiends,” as well as the civic leaders who allow the LAPD to terrorize his community. “I know to you we all look the same,” he raps when an undercover cop shows up on his doorstep and coerces him to sell drugs. “I work 9-to-5, and ain’t a damn thang changed/And I don’t have time for the hustler’s game.”
Guns N’ Roses, “One in a Million” (1988)
“Police and niggers – that’s right! – get out of my way!/Don’t need to buy your gold chains today,” sings Axl Rose on “One in a Million,” his bigoted account of moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Despite the many justifications, explanations, and subsequent half-apologies from the band that followed, “One in a Million” still stands as an example of the two-faced racial exceptionalism that haunts Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis where “good” blacks (such as legendary GN’R guitarist Slash, who reluctantly played on the track) are allowed some opportunity for upward mobility, while the majority of people are color are confined to permanent substandard conditions.
N.W.A, “Fuck The Police” (1988)
No list of songs that predicted the L.A. riots would be complete without N.W.A’s seminal call for resistance. Structured as a mock trial with Dr. Dre as judge and an unnamed cop as defendant, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E air their grievances: police that target minorities, assume that every young black male is a “selling narcotics,” and black police who brutalize with as much maliciousness as their white counterparts. “I’m tired of the muthafuckin’ jackin’,” raps Eazy. Their boasts of beating down and shooting back are clearly fantasy, but their frustration at a law enforcement that targets them with impunity are very real.
Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)
Public Enemy has made a career out of celebrating informed and strategic protest. At their peak, they were also canny enough to boil down their political critiques to a memorable slogan that could resonate with an audience. The historical brilliance of “Fight the Power,” which was originally recorded as the main theme for Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing, lies in that simplicity: “The power” could be anybody, and who knows what “game” is being played, anyway? The answer, says Chuck D, is, “mental self-defensive fitness.” In short, he advocates being prepared for anything that happens, whether it’s the fictional riot that breaks out near the end of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, or the real-life conflagrations that erupted when the police officers that assaulted Rodney King were exonerated.
Skid Row, “Youth Gone Wild” (1989)
On May 19th, 1991, a concert of local bands at famed rock club the Roxy in Los Angeles ended with a violent melee. Two metalheads duked it out in the parking lot; a motorist plowed through the crowd surrounding the fighters; then the crowd tracked down the driver and pummeled him and the car. When it was all said and done, seven people suffered injuries, one critically. But it was just another day in clubland for local media. “TV news focused instead on the [March 10] riot in Westwood, which hurt fewer people but damaged more property,” read a subsequent story in Jim Goad’s controversial pop culture zine Answer Me! “The tube showed rioting blacks and Hispanics, not the spoiled Valley kids who flock to the Strip.” That exhilarating freedom to fuck shit up without repercussions – and without the demonization that greets similarly rowdy people of color – permeates Skid Row’s “Youth Gone Wild” and its vision of small-town misfits rebelling without a cause. “I never played by the rules,” sings Sebastian Bach, “and I never really cared.”
Geto Boys, “City Under Siege” (1990)
The conditions that led to the 1992 riots
weren’t unique to Los Angeles. On Geto Boys’ “City Under Siege,” Bushwick Bill
pays tribute to Ida Delaney, a
black woman who was shot to death by a drunken off-duty police officer in
1989. (Unlike the four cops who received not-guilty verdicts for assaulting
Rodney King, Alex Gonzales was initially convicted of manslaughter, but the
decision was overtuned on appeal.) Meanwhile, Scarface and Willie D mock
then-President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 invasion of Panama to capture former CIA
stooge Manuel Noriega and corrupt government officials who hypocritically
enable drug pushers while publicly lambasting them. Their final analysis?
Everything’s corrupt. “Fuck school, fuck curfew, fuck homework/And muthafuck a
damn cop,” rails Bushwick Bill with the kind of nihilism fervor that
occasionally sets cities in flames
Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing” (1990)
The widespread looting during the Los Angeles uprising was not only a protest against the city’s punitive treatment of citizens of color. It was also about opportunism and gleefully meaningless anarchy. The video for Jane’s Addiction mischievously jaunty “Been Caught Stealing” was accompanied by a video of men dressing in women’s clothes and ridiculous leggings masks, and stuffing grocery items down their dresses. The good-natured fun unintentionally predicted the violent consumerist frenzy that would later occur. Afterwards, ever-provocative front man Perry Farrell bragged to several magazines that he went looting during the riots, too. Adding insult to hipster racist injury, Farrell’s subsequent band Porno for Pyros released “Black Girlfriend,” an inexplicable blues-rock number where he crooned, “Ever since the riots, all I really want is a black girlfriend.”
X-Clan, “A Day of Outrage, Operation Snatchback” (1990)
While unrelated to the Los Angeles riots, X-Clan’s protest track is an important example of the racial volatility that marked the turn of the 1990s. It’s inspired by the death of black teen Yusuf Hawkins by a mob of white Bensonhurst youth in 1989. (Public Enemy also paid tribute to Hawkins on “Welcome to the Terrordome.”) In response, the late activist Sonny Carson – along with his son and X-Clan co-founder, the late Lumumba Carson – led a September 1 “Day of Outrage” march of thousands across the Brooklyn Bridge, where they subsequently clashed with police. On the subsequent “Operation Snatchback,” Brother J raps with audible anger. “It’s time to make a step, it’s time to make a move,” he charges. Brother J also levels a subtle dig at the white rap group 3rd Bass (“3rd Bass? I’m at home/Waiting for the pitch so I can chrome your dome”), revealing the racial tensions that swirled around the nascent hip-hop industry as well as the world at large.
Cypress Hill, “Real Estate” (1991)
On its face, this jewel from Cypress Hill’s classic self-titled debut is B-Real battle rap, performed in that twangy, nasally voice that made him one of the best MCs of the early Nineties. But it’s also a challenge for any interlopers who dare enter South Gate, an area with a majority-Latino community and a history of political corruption and gang activity. South Gate reportedly escaped much of the property damage and violence that enveloped Los Angeles during the riots. However, B-Real and Sen Dog’s assertion of place is still relevant, especially in light of how South Central communities tried to hold onto their property during that era, and how they’re now facing widespread gentrification. “Don’t come on the hill,” growls Sen Dog.
Brand Nubian, “Wake Up (Reprise in the Sunshine)” (1991)
On its face, Brand Nubian is the most famous musical explication of the Five Percent Nation’s core philosophy. Whether you agree with the group’s contention that the black man is God, and that 10 percent of society consists of white “bloodsuckers” that control 85 percent of the proletariat mass, or you find those views noxious, it’s a compelling rap song. Grand Puba’s deft and reasoned flow, and DJ Alamo’s smooth, soulful blend of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and Ray, Goodman and Brown’s “Another Day” may make it more listenable than it deserves to be. “Wake Up” arrived as the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent sect enjoyed renewed popularity, and it reflects how a generation of youth sought new ways to learn about their history, and find new solutions to the systemic problems of racism and institutionalized violence that afflict their communities.
Fishbone, “So Many Millions” (1991)
This track from Fishbone’s best-known album describes the kind of economic despair that afflicts communities of color. Some of the sentiments are thankfully outdated, like when Angelo Moore sings that as a black man, “I cannot grow up to be the president.” But his sense of hopelessness still resonates, as does his belief that “education can do no good in my neighborhood,” and a myth that drug dealing is the only viable option. “So many millions feel this strong/All these people can’t be wrong,” declaims the L.A. band in a Funkadelic-styled chant over a rollicking funk-rock groove. Then Moore warns, as if anticipating the unrest to come, “You should surely know this was a long time coming.”
Ice Cube, “Alive on Arrival” (1991)
Ice Cube’s Death Certificate is a hilariously unnerving document of South Central Los Angeles on the eve of the riots, so nearly any of its tracks could fit here. But “Alive on Arrival” may arguably be Cube’s finest piece of storytelling. He imagines himself as the victim of a drive-by shooting, and he’s transported to Martin Luther King Community Hospital, “where niggas die over a little scratch.” He piles up little details, from lying on a “nappy-ass carpet” as he waits for an open hospital bed, to being questioned by a police officer that thinks he might have a gang affiliation, that accumulate into a satirical and ultimately tragic depiction of black life nullified by societal inaction.
Ice Cube, “Black Korea”
Today, Ice Cube’s ugly stereotypes of Korean-American shopkeepers and threats of retributive violence on this key track from his inflammatory masterwork Death Certificate are hard to stomach. But it’s worth noting the conditions that led to its making. Jeff Chang notes in his brilliant hip-hop history Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop that South Central Los Angeles had few grocery stores after the Watts riots, and that liquor stores opened by immigrants proved a poor substitute. Then there was the murder of Latasha Harlin by a Korean-American shopkeeper, and the increasing population of Latino and Asian-Americans, which eroded black political power. “Underneath it all was the acute fear of being overwhelmed by change, a deep-seated fear of erasure,” writes Chang. “For Ice Cube, these fears took the form of older Asian-American immigrant entrepreneurs.” After the song’s release, Ice Cube reached a détente of sorts when he met with the Korean American Grocers’ Association in February 1992 and subsequently released a conciliatory letter. “I respect Korean Americans. It was directed at a few stores where my friends and I have had actual problems,” wrote Cube. “Working together we can help solve these problems and build a bridge between our communities.”
Body Count, “Cop Killer” (1992)
For anyone who watched Ice-T’s hardcore punk/metal band perform at the first edition of Lollapalooza in the summer of 1991, “Cop Killer” must have sounded like a great joke and a theatrical middle finger. But when Body Count – an underrated, semi-serious parody of machismo, racial conflict, and gentrification – dropped in the spring of the following year, “Cop Killer” quickly became an underground anthem, and a flash point during a tense, racially freighted presidential contest. Warner Bros. Records faced a shareholder revolt, led by future NRA president Charlton Heston, for putting out the album, even after the company and Ice-T agreed to remove the track from future pressings. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, supporters of law enforcement pined for a way to shift blame back to a pop culture that demonized them, so Body Count proved an easy target. They didn’t bother reflecting on how widespread frustration and despair among people of color made “Cop Killer” so necessary in the first place.