“Fuck tha Police” in Historical Context
Rappers have clashed with cops for more than 30 years. Where is the hip-hop response to Ferguson and Staten Island?
With a few notable exceptions, rappers have been conspicuously absent in the response to the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island. The Internets want to know why.
Back in 1970, CSNY’s protest anthem “Ohio” was on the radio within a few weeks of the massacre at Kent State—and that was in 1970. Those records had to be pressed up on vinyl and delivered to radio stations by actual human beings.
Theoretically, a rapper could have issued a response to #Ferguson, say, the same afternoon Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown dead in the street, or the same evening a grand jury decided he shouldn’t be charged with a crime. We have the technology.
Chuck D, who once called hip-hop the black CNN, in what’s since become one of the most shopworn cliches in the history of hip-hop journalism, often touted the Internets’ potential in this regard.
J. Cole, to his credit, actually visited Ferguson and also released an ostensibly-touching tribute that may have been the first Mike Brown song to hit the Internets, a little over a week after the shooting. “Be Free” finds the rapper, who’s often verbose to the point where people on Twitter joke about his bars putting people to sleep, singing rather than rapping—and not very well, I might add.
Two weeks after the Mike Brown shooting, The Game released “Don’t Shoot,” featuring himself, Diddy, Rick Ross and maybe 8 or 10 other people. In it, Diddy plugs Ciroc vodka and Rick Ross refers to himself as the Bawse. The song is front-loaded with the most-famous rappers, and I’m hardly familiar with the last few guys. The one time I listened to it, I cut it off after Rawse’s verse. Proceeds will be donated to Mike Brown’s family, if anyone actually buys a copy.
This indifference hasn’t always been the case. It used to be, a rapper wouldn’t just wait until an unarmed black kid was shot dead in the street, or choked out on a sidewalk, to write a song about it. He’d write a song about it before it even happened, and then he’d write another song praising himself for having such foresight. Rap music wasn’t just the black CNN: it was the black Psychic Friends Network. In fact, the history of rap music could be viewed as a litany of complaints about the police that seems to have predicted this current state of unrest.
A list of rappers who have some sort of grievance with the police could double as a list of rappers whose names aren’t Iggy Azalea and would be entirely too long, so I just picked 10. With all due respect, past and present, and without further… to do.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five were one of the first rap groups ever and the first rap group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their song “Superrappin’” was one of the first rap records other than “Rappers Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.
The very last verse of “Superrappin’” forms the basis of “The Message,” one of the all-time great rap protest songs. It’s precisely the kind of song the Internets have been crying out for in the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions.
Written by Melle Mel and Sugarhill Records session musician Ed Fletcher, aka Duke Bootee, “The Message” doesn’t feature anyone in the group other than Melle Mel. Fletcher brought the song to Sugarhill Records founder Sylvia Robinson, who brought the song to the group.
The group found the song difficult to rhyme to and thought it had limited commercial appeal. Even back then, rappers realized: commercial rap don’t sell! Eventually, Melle Mel realized that his verse from “Superrappin’” (“A child is born with no state of mind…”) might fit and wrote a few other verses in a similar vein.
All six members of the group appear in the video. Rahiem from The Furious Five lip syncs the verse performed on the record by Duke Bootee. Stark images of the early-80s South Bronx bring to life lyrics about broken glass everywhere and people pissing on stairs as if they just don’t care. Melle Mel, presumably, stands on that exact same staircase.
At the very end of the video, the group stand on a street corner and discuss, among other things, their plans for the evening and news that an old lady had been robbed and badly hurt. A cop car pulls up and out jumps a couple of New York’s finest. The cops hustle the group into the back of the car without so much as explaining what they did wrong.
They don’t place anyone in handcuffs or use much force either, prompting one to wonder why the group doesn’t take off running or punch the cops in the face, as Mike Brown is alleged to have done. A few guys even run towards the car from somewhere out of the frame and seemingly hop in the back seat of their own volition.
Of course, this is just a silly music video, and sadly, rappers would have plenty more opportunities to demonstrate just how bad police brutality can be.
There’s some truth to the assertion, in LL Cool J’s song “To da Break of Dawn,” that Ice-T was once a downtown car thief. In his book Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood, Ice breaks down how he spent the early 80s stealing a lot more than just cars.
How ironic is it that, 20+ years after the fact, they both play lovable middle-aged cops on TV: Ice-T on NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and LL on CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles.
In 1986, Ice-T was still about that life. The song “6 ‘n the Morning” is a first-person narrative in which he barely escapes from the cops at his front door, having to climb out of a back window. He didn’t even get a chance to grab his old school tape! On the run from Johnny Law, he of course proceeds to commit even more crime.
“6 ‘n the Morning” was one of the first examples of what came to be known as gangster rap. In interviews, Ice has explained that “6 ‘n the Morning” is simply a more-explicit knockoff version of the relatively cryptic “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” by Schoolly D. The song “Boyz-n-the-Hood” by Eazy-E, in turn, is an even more explicit knockoff version of “6 ‘n the Morning.”
A few years later, Ice-T became a pioneer of both rap rock and rappers being targeted by the police, with the song “Cop Killer” by his rock group Body Count.
An eerie foreshadowing of the Chris Dorner rampage a few years ago, “Cop Killer” is the story of a black man who got fed up with police brutality and decided to go out and kill cops. Or as Large Professor put it on Main Source’s “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball,” instead of cops shooting us, he went out and shot them.
Sister Souljah made a somewhat similar suggestion in a 1992 interview with the Washington Post. Instead of killing other black people, she said, black people should take a week to kill white people. As an overture to white swing voters, Bill Clinton promptly threw her under a bus, along with Jesse Jackson. This became known as the Sister Souljah Moment.
Similarly, both George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle addressed the “Cop Killer” controversy during the ‘92 election. Bush appeared to be even more upset than he was when Saddam Hussein tried to have him assassinated. Law enforcement groups across the country threatened to boycott Time Warner, and Time Warner shareholders threatened to dump their stock.
To hear Ice-T tell it, he decided of his own volition to have the Body Count album pulled from stores, at that point, and replaced with a version without “Cop Killer.” Later, Ice was dropped from Warner Bros. Records in a dispute over the cover of his next album, Home Invasion.
After what Time Warner went through with “Cop Killer,” they weren’t about to let Ice-T put them at any more risk—even if it meant contradicting lofty statements they’d made about the importance of free speech. Could this be why some of the most prominent major label rappers have been so quiet these past few weeks?
Perhaps the quintessential Slick Rick song, and one of the all-time great rap songs period, “Children’s Story” is a sort of sendup of the first-person crime narratives pioneered by Schoolly D and Ice-T. It takes the form of a bedtime story Rick tells to his nieces, played in the video by a couple of grown-ass women in door knocker earrings, and also a white midget: A little boy, misled by another little boy, start robbing people, and before long they’re on the run from the police.
Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.
As is the case with many of these songs, the lyrics aren’t as amusing as they once seemed, in light of current events.
“Sirens sounded, he seemed astounded
Before long the lil’ boy got surrounded
He dropped the gun, so went the glory
And this is the way I have to end this story
He was only seventeen, in a madman’s dream
The cops shot the kid, I still hear him scream…”
Ironically, Slick Rick himself later ended up on the run from the police, after an incident in which he shot both his cousin, who’d threatened to kill him, and an innocent bystander, then fled the scene in a car, eventually crashing into a tree and breaking both of his pregnant girlfriend’s legs.
He was arrested and ended up spending the better half of the 1990s behind bars. It could have been worse though. The cops could have killed him when they finally caught up with him. They almost certainly would have gotten away with it. He had a gun.
While the song’s lyrics decry police brutality against young black men, legend has it that the impetus for N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” was an incident in which members of the group were detained by the LAPD for shooting at random people with a paintball gun, for shits and giggles.
The cops forced them to lie face down in the street and pointed guns at them, but like Slick Rick, they’re lucky they didn’t get executed right there on the spot. They had a paintball gun, which is perfectly legal, provided you’re not using it to shoot at random people at bus stops, but how were the cops supposed to know?
Two of the so-far-less-publicized police killings of more-or-less-unarmed black men involved guys with guns that weren’t really guns. A guy named John Crawford, probably my long-lost cousin, was shot for walking through Walmart with an air rifle he’d pulled from a shelf, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot for playing with a pellet gun in a park.
The FBI eventually caught wind of “Fuck tha Police,” and needless to say, they were none too pleased. They fired off an angry letter to N.W.A’s label, Ruthless Records, which Ruthless then used to generate publicity for the album. Straight Outta Compton went on to sell over two million copies, with little or no airplay for its singles.
The album’s content was at least somewhat vindicated a few years later, when video emerged of the LAPD beating the brakes off of black motorist Rodney King. The cops eventually got away with it, causing the city to erupt in rioting that made what just happened in Ferguson look like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. Artists like N.W.A were then greeted by a once-skeptical media like the black Psychic Friends Network.
If you live in a sketchy area and you have a medical emergency, your best bet is to either try to drive yourself to the hospital, or drink some Robitussin and hope for the best. There’s no point in trying to call an ambulance.
In the early 90s, when Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” was released, the media was filled with stories about how long it took for ambulances to arrive in poor black neighborhoods. An old man would have a heart attack, and by the time paramedics arrived, two hours later, he’d be dead as MFN doornails.
While the song’s lyrics specifically refer to the response time for ambulances, they’ve since become just as true for the police in some places. In hard up cities like Camden, NJ, police are being replaced by high-tech surveillance equipment, including microphones that can detect the trajectory of bullets.
It was announced a while back that cops in Kansas City, MO, will no longer respond to domestic violence calls. This is something Flavor Flav might want to consider, having been arrested for domestic violence on multiple occasions. He once owned a fried chicken restaurant in Iowa, which is the next state over. He’s familiar with the area, is what I’m saying.
“911 Is a Joke” appears on Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet. That album’s lead single was “Fight the Power,” which also appears in the film Do the Right Thing. It would be almost too “on the nose,” as they say in Hollywood, to point out the similarities between Do the Right Thing and what happened to Eric Garner, but fuck it. I’m on the clock.
The NYPD choked out Eric Garner the same way they choked out Radio Raheem. Whereas Radio Raheem was guilty of refusing to turn down “Fight the Power” on his ghetto blaster, which led to a fight in a pizzeria, Eric Garner was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes. Video of Eric Garner’s death was spliced together with Do the Right Thing to create a “remix” that was later posted to director Spike Lee’s Instagram.
The film itself was “ripped from the headlines,” as they say. Radio Raheem was based on a guy named Michael Stewart, a graffiti writer who died after being choked out by NYPD. The cops involved were indicted, then the indictment was thrown out on some ol’ bullshit. Then they were indicted again and eventually acquitted by an all-white jury. Plus ça change.
KRS-One is considered one of the top stoners in all of hip-hop by no less an authority than High Times editor Danny Danko, and if there’s one thing we know about stoners, it’s that they can’t stand the police.
Hence, presumably, KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police,” which appears on 1993's Return of the Boom Bap along with “I Can’t Wake Up,” a song in which he rhymes from the perspective of a blunt being rolled and smoked by the likes of Redman, Naughty by Nature, Cypress Hill and even Bill Clinton, and “Black Cop,” another iconic rap about the police.
You gotta be on weed to write a song from the perspective of a blunt, right?
If you are, I’m sure the last sound you want to hear is the distinctive sound of a cop car’s siren, as mimicked by KRS-One in “Sound of da Police.” Talk about a buzzkill!
Possession of small amounts of marijuana was made quasi-legal in New York way back in the 1970s, but it’s illegal to have it out in the open, and the NYPD tricks people into breaking the law by asking them to empty their pockets during a stop and frisk.
It was recently announced that the NYPD was getting rid of both stop and frisk and arrests for small amounts of marijuana (now you’ll just get a desk ticket). Of course, that was before they choked out Eric Garner for having regular-ass cigarettes. And I’ve heard that the end of stop and frisk is a damn lie.
Your best bet is to keep your stash in your sock, or as High Times editor Danko recommends, make sure there’s already weed wherever you’re headed.
“Black Cop,” meanwhile, accuses black cops of being worse than their white counterparts. Ice Cube alleges the same thing on the aforementioned “Fuck tha Police,” and if both KRS-One and Ice Cube said it, it must be true, right?
A scene in the film Boyz n the Hood illustrates this dynamic. In it, two cops, one white and one black, pull over a car with two black kids in it. The black cop roughs the kids up worse than the white cop, presumably to impress his partner. I wonder if this scene was inspired by “Fuck tha Police.” [Editor’s note: yes, it was.] The film’s title of course comes from the Eazy-E song, written by Ice Cube.
One of the main criticisms of the Ferguson, MO, police department is that it’s mostly white, while the city itself is mostly black. Many of the cops, like Darren Wilson, live in white areas 20+ miles away. The solution is obviously more black cops, but who would want to be the black guy riding shotgun with Darren Wilson? Shit, he might shoot you and claim it was an accident!
In yet another example of rappers being able to predict the future, rap duo dead prez somehow knew that members of the LAPD (probably) assassinated The Notorious B.I.G., at least a year before a famous article in the since-disgraced Rolling Stone said as much.
The song “Hip-Hop” was released as a single in 1999 and was later included on the album Let’s Get Free, which was released in early 2000. One of its most famous lines is, “Who shot Biggie Smalls? If we don’t get them they gon’ get us all. I’m down for running up on them crackas in their city hall.”
The sentiment seems to echo Body Count’s “Cop Killer” and the line in Main Source’s “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” about going out shooting cops instead of them shooting us. It seems like we’ve heard relatively little of that sort of thing in the social media response to these recent acts of police brutality, but that could just be because it’s a known fact that 5–0 monitors the Internets.
In fact, the cops linked to the assassination of The Notorious B.I.G. were black and Hispanic. According to the article in Rolling Stone, Suge Knight paid off-duty cops, who were also members of the Bloods, to work security for Death Row Records. A couple of them were alleged to have been outside the Petersen Automotive Museum the night Biggie was killed.
Months later, one of them was arrested for robbing a bank. In his garage, they found a car that matched the description of the car used to pull a drive-by on Biggie, and a shrine to 2Pac. In his house, they found pictures of him hanging out with other members of the Bloods. He’d called in sick to his job with the LAPD the night of the shooting.
No one was ever arrested for the deaths of either Biggie or 2Pac. At the time, it was suggested that this was because black people won’t talk to the police. Meanwhile, most detective work these days consists of offering an incentive to someone who’s already been arrested to accuse someone else of a crime.
The lead detective in the Biggie Smalls case claims that the investigation was purposely suppressed by LAPD Chief Bernard Parks because it would have implicated LAPD officers.
On the basis of sheer number of arrests alone, T.I. is one of the realest rappers in the game. A former drug dealer in his native Atlanta, he had a lengthy record before he had a record out. He is the opposite of 2Pac in that regard.
In 2006, a gunman opened fire on a van carrying T.I. and his entourage, on a highway in Cincinnati, OH. T.I.’s weed carrier Philant Johnson was killed in the attack. It’s alleged that Johnson threw a wad of money in someone’s face at a nightclub, but DJ Drama, who was there, insists that wasn’t the case.
At any rate, T.I. grew increasingly paranoid and began stockpiling weapons at his house in Atlanta. T.I. isn’t allowed to own weapons, because he’s a convicted felon.
In 2007, T.I. was set up by his own bodyguard, who himself had been arrested by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives a few days before, this despite the fact that black people don’t talk to the police and that’s why the LAPD can’t figure out who shot Biggie Smalls. T.I. was arrested trying to buy machine guns from the trunk of a car in a parking lot near the BET Awards.
Because T.I. had been arrested so many times before, he was facing up to 10 years in prison. He somehow ended up with one year. This led to rumors that T.I. had cooperated with the police the same way his bodyguard had. In interviews, he’s pointed out that it doesn’t say anywhere in his plea deal, which you can find on the Internets, that he’s an informant.
In reality, they probably didn’t keep him for very long because they can’t afford to incarcerate dumbass rappers for keeping guns in their houses—not actually shooting people with them, mind you—any more than they can afford to investigate domestic violence in places like Kansas City.
People who committed actual crimes get let out of prison on the reg because they don’t have the space. We’ve officially locked up as many people as we possibly can. 2013 was the first year since the beginning of the drug war in the early 70s that the prison population didn’t go up. It leveled off some.
Arguably, it’s unfair to not allow convicted felons to own guns, at a time when you can’t call the police in an emergency and definitely expect them to show up. That’s the thought process behind Stand Your Ground laws, but as we learned during the Trayvon Martin trial, those laws don’t apply the same to everyone.
Not all lives matter, it seems.
It’s a testament to the intellectual ability of the NYPD that they bought the LAPD’s line about not knowing who shot Biggie Smalls hook, line and sinker.
Once the NYPD finally admitted to profiling rappers, they claimed it was because Biggie and 2Pac had been killed and no one knew who did it, this despite the fact that Biggie and 2Pac had been killed in L.A. and Las Vegas respectively.
The NYPD could give a rat’s ass about who killed Biggie and 2Pac, as evidenced by the fact that they haven’t solved either of those crimes upwards of 20 years after the fact. They were using those tragic events as an excuse to harass New York rappers, as well as rappers from other cities who were in town to perform.
For years, they wouldn’t even admit that they were profiling rappers. It wasn’t until the guy who invented what came to be known as the Hip-Hop Police came clean—to try to get paid, natch—that they did, and even then they tried to claim it was for rappers’ own protection. They said some of Fabolous’ weed carriers had been robbing rappers—probably the same guy who slapped Kat Stacks.
Remember Kat Stacks? Ah, the late 2000s.
When Lil Wayne was arrested in 2007, it was his first big show in New York since he’d become hipsters’ equivalent of Otis Day & The Knights. Wait until Lil Wayne sees us, thought many a neckbeard. Lil Wayne loves us! It almost certainly wasn’t his first show in New York, since he’s been a famous rapper since he was a kid and toured extensively with the Hot Boys back during the “Back That Azz Up” era.
Lil Wayne got off stage that night and was promptly arrested by the Hip-Hop Police. They searched his tour bus and found a gun in the bathroom. The gun was registered to his manager, but the police said Wayne’s “genetic material” was found on it, leading some to wonder if he’d somehow jerked off onto it.
This was the arrest that eventually led to Lil Wayne doing about a year in jail in 2010. And it was the same show that led to Ja Rule’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, first for gun possession and then for tax evasion.
Ja Rule’s career was already over by then. Lil Wayne was just then reaching his commercial zenith. The legal headaches and the time spent locked up must have cost him untold millions. Many would argue that he hasn’t been worth a shit since he got out.
Run The Jewels
In a year some people are calling the worst year ever for rap music, Run the Jewels have been the only show in town, figuratively speaking.
Major label rappers aren’t just absent in their response to police brutality—they’re just plain absent. Drake, Jay, Kanye and Kendrick Lamar all decided to sit this one out, for whatever reason. Birdman won’t let Lil Wayne release Tha Carter V, and apparently he’s been left with no recourse but to complain about it on Twitter.
Rick Ross released not one, but two albums this year, but no one seems to give a shit other than the few people he let interview him to promote Hood Billionaire. He’s a former corrections officer, but none of the interviewers asked Ross what he thought about recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island and elsewhere. I’m sure that’s just because they forgot.
Run the Jewels were quite literally the only show in town the night the grand jury decision was announced in the Mike Brown shooting. They were the only artists to not cancel their show in St. Louis that night. Their tour bus actually broke down on the highway hours away from the venue and they had to be airlifted in like Phil Collins at Live Aid.
They took the stage right as Ferguson went up in flames. Before they began performing, Killer Mike delivered an impassioned address that quickly went viral on the Internets. They’d been taking the stage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” he said, but every now and again something comes along and kicks you on your ass, and you don’t feel like a champion; that night, he’d been kicked on his ass, so to speak.
Killer Mike has emerged as a true leader of the hip-hop community in the past few weeks, in part because he’s a highly articulate commentator in interviews with CNN and op-eds in Billboard and USA Today, and in part because, perhaps more so than any other rapper, his music speaks to the issues the hip-hop community faces in this particular moment.
The song “Early” from Run the Jewels 2 is an excellent case in point. It tells the story of a black man who smokes weed to cope with the fact that he doesn’t feel in control of his own life, though he knows he can go to jail if he gets caught. Sure enough, he gets caught up in a stop and frisk. When his wife tries to intervene, the cop forces her to lie face down on the ground and then executes her right there in front of their son.
In the second verse, El-P raps from the perspective of a white man who smokes weed to cope with the fact that he’s growing increasingly paranoid—which doesn’t seem like a very good strategy, now does it? El-P’s music often focuses on the nexus between wacky conspiracy theories and just-as-wacky reality, and at times it’s not clear where exactly that point lies.
The song has a twist ending. It’s revealed that El-P’s character heard the shooting from maybe two blocks away. He says the ubiquitous security cameras somehow didn’t record it, which suggests to me that the cop ended up getting away with it. He went home that night, went to sleep and woke up early the next day, as if this was no big deal. Which, in a sense, it wasn’t. These things seem to happen more and more frequently.