15 Songs That Predicted 1992 L.A. Riots – Rolling Stone
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15 Songs That Predicted the L.A. Riots

From N.W.A to Body Count’s “Cop Killer,’ we look back at the songs and groups that called for resistance or spelled out bigoted currents in the U.S.

20 Songs That Predicted the L.A. Riots

From Ice Cube to Jane's Addiction, the songs that predicted the 1992 L.A. Riots.

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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.

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.

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