When J Dilla Said “Fuck the Police”
The late producer’s take on the N.W.A classic was inspired by his own experiences with law enforcement
There’s a scene in Straight Outta Compton in which the members of N.W.A are hanging around outside a studio in Torrance, CA and are harassed and humiliated by the boys in blue, before Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller steps in to defuse the situation, in perhaps the character’s only redeeming moment. This is one of several unnecessary run-ins with the cops that the members have in the film, but at this pivotal moment, O'Shea Jackson Jr.’s Ice Cube is pushed past his limit, resulting in his writing of “Fuck tha Police.”
Real life Cube’s writing of the song was actually after several police encounters that he had experienced in his lifetime, rather than just narrowed down to one particular incident. Cube had the song concept before the altercation that was portrayed in the film, however had a hard time getting Dr. Dre on board to record it, because Dre was spending his weekends in jail due to traffic violations.
“He didn’t want that song out while he had to go back and forth in the county. But when he was off of that little stint, when I brought the idea back up, he was down to do it.” Ice Cube told The Guardian earlier this month. “We were sick of being harassed by the police, just because we was young and black. [LAPD chief] Daryl Gates had declared a war on gangs. And if you think every black kid is a gang member, that means there’s a war on every black kid you see.”
Later in the film, when the song is performed on the final stop of their tour in Detroit, the cops arrest N.W.A and a riot breaks out. This actually happened in 1989, roughly around the same time a teenage James Yancey aka J Dilla/Jay Dee was working his first job as a junior police cadet for the Detroit Police Department. His opinion of the police would change years later, as Dilla would record his own version of “Fuck tha Police” at 27 years old in 2001.
“That song was totally true. He caught so much flack from the police for being a clean young man,” Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey revealed in an interview with Chicago writer Ronnie Reese. “The police department was down the street from where we lived, and every time he pulled off they’d stop him and harass him. They even tossed the car once looking for something; because he was young and clean-cut, they thought he was selling drugs.”
Jay Dee’s “Fuck the Police” was originally recorded for Dilla’s debut solo vocal album, The Diary to be released on MCA Records around 2001. It would be the follow-up to his BBE Beat Generation LP, Welcome To Detroit, which was part of a series of producer based albums that featured other rappers on top of his beats. But The Diary would be the opposite of that, with Dilla rapping over different producers’ beats, such as Pete Rock, Madlib, Nottz, House Shoes, and Karriem Riggins.
However “Fuck the Police” was turned down by MCA Records, who seemingly didn't want to receive any ominous, unsolicited letters from the FBI. Dilla instead brought the song to indie imprint Up Above Records, who would release it in 2001 on a 12" vinyl single. This was during the height of the late 90s/early 00s independent hip-hop movement, which found unsigned rappers like Eminem and El-P pressing up and distributing their own music.
“Before it came to us, the people at MCA just thought the record was too subversive. People just didn’t want to touch the record because it was right after 9/11 happened,” Key Kool of Up Above Records told Cuepoint. “He brought it to us, and it was just the best shit I’d ever heard. I was like ‘Don’t let it leave the room. Let’s lock it down.’”
“Disclaimer: The views expressed on this recording are solely those of the artist and by no means do we encourage or condone violence against law officials.”
The record begins with a public service announcement denouncing violence against police officers, yet only before suggesting “We can lose a few of ‘em, we got enough of ‘em.”
“Dilla said he was going to add something to the front of it, because after 9/11 happened, he was just being respectful,” says Key. “As strong as the message of the record was, he wanted to add something to it — not to soften it — but just to respect the law enforcement people that had to go through what they did during 9/11. It was interesting, because he was very conscientious about that.”
Dilla’s duality and internal conflict is displayed both on the song itself and in its cover design, which features images of the Rodney King beating, martyr Amadou Diallo [“Thought he had a gun / made-a-mistake-cops”] and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Like N.W.A’s timely new biopic, the sentiment of Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” mirrors that of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement. Yet as many rap fans will tell you, young black men being harassed, beaten, and killed by police is not a new epidemic. It happens so frequently that it has been covered in hundreds — if not thousands — of hip-hop songs over the last 30+ years.
The back cover of the “Fuck the Police” 12" single features the aforementioned disclaimer Dilla speaks at the beginning of the song, yet it is set against the backdrop of a pig’s head on an African spear.
“Even the cover of the record, Dilla was like, ‘I don’t want to put my face on it,’” remembers Key. “I ended up doing the artwork. But he just said ‘Grab images that you think represent the record.’”
Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” was actually not a cover of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” but obviously was inspired by it, as the two songs even play in the same key. Dilla’s track is built upon a sample of Belgian musician Rene Costy’s 1972 track “Scrabble,” from which the drum break and violin sample are taken from. It was a harder, more stripped down sound than the vibey style his fans were used to.
“I heard ‘Fuck the Police’ and was like ‘Where the fuck are those drums from?,’” producer Rich Medina said of the record in 2012. “I’m not exactly sure where I was — to be honest with you — when I heard that record. But when I heard it and when I got my head around it, the way I felt about it was: ‘I need them drums!’… It’s like ‘Its Just Begun’ or ‘Apache’ or ‘Cavern.’ Breaks on that level.”
“What was interesting is that, in Japan, they wanted to hear a different type of sound. They expected ‘Fuck the Police’ to be more like his A Tribe Called Quest style of production,” says Key Kool. “In retrospect, after it was exploding here and obviously in Europe, then it started taking off in Japan.”
Despite the record’s runaway success, ironically MCA Records would not only have turned it down, but would also end up shelving the entire Diary album, despite the removal of the song. This was common practice in hip-hop/rap music at the time, which was largely driven by the success or failure of radio singles. Yet despite the lack of crossover airplay, “Fuck the Police” was an international, underground smash and a hit at subterranean hip-hop shows.
“You get a lot of ‘Ooooh!’ You get a lot of ‘Detroit’s in the hooouse!’ You get a lot of ‘That’s my shit!’ You get a lot emotion out of that record.” Medina says of the response to when the record is played. “If there are b-boys and b-girls in the room, and the sound system is holdin’ it, they're going to be getting busy to it.”
“I went to some spot in London and the whole crowd was singing that song as if it was their anthem. It was incredible, I didn't know it was that big of a record.” says Key. “It’s still today one of my favorite records, period. To a lot of people it is.”
Despite the rights reverting from MCA back to his estate’s Pay Jay Productions, the fate of Dilla’s Diary album is still unclear, as since 2013 release windows have been announced for it but have came and went. Nevertheless, a series of beautifully produced transparent clear vinyl 12" singles have been released by Pay Jay via the RappCats website over the past two years. Each of the three singles feature previously unreleased tracks from The Diary LP, along with bonus cuts, including: “Anthem,” featuring Frank ‘n Dank, produced by Dilla; “Trucks,” which is billed as “a gangstafied Gary Numan tribute”; “Diamonds,” produced by Nottz; “Ice,” produced by Madlib; and a trio of Supa Dave West produced tracks, “So Far,” “Give ‘Em What They Want” and “The Doe.”
Project coordinator Eothen “Egon” Alapatt tells Cuepoint that they are still working on The Diary and insures it is coming soon. “We’re hoping for early 2016. It’s been a bear of a project,” he says.
Additionally, “Fuck the Police” was given the ultimate reissue treatment earlier this year as a part of Record Store Day. On April 18, 2015, Pay Jay Productions released a police badge shaped picture disc single of the track, limited to 2500 copies. Due to popular demand, it recently has been reissued. The song still has never been officially released on CD.
In 2003, Dilla revealed his motivations behind writing “Fuck the Police.”
“That’s a song I been wanting to do for a long-ass time. I need to do a Part 2 actually. It’s getting so crazy in Detroit now with the police, man. I just felt like I wanted to speak on it. People knew it from N.W.A, but I just wanted to touch it on a more underground level so the people that I fuck with can relate too and people know that it’s still going on,” said the late producer. “It’s real, yeah! It’s like you can go through life and act like it’s not but I deal with it everyday, for real, just riding in a nice car they’ll fuck with you. Just being a black person in Detroit, it’s so stupid.”
“[D12 rapper] Proof was at the house one evening when James had another run-in with them. He had only gone to the gas station which was three doors away. I told him not to get upset because he was hurt to tears,” says Dilla’s mother. “He was so angry and just tired of being harassed, so I told him, ‘Look, this is what you do — you go downstairs and make a song about it, and you laugh in their face.’ And that’s when he came up with the ‘F the Police’ thing. And people are still singing it today! Every time I go somewhere, that’s one of the songs they play.”
“I don’t think nobody’s even saying it, saying enough about it. Like you see it on the news everyday, but it’s like it goes right over their heads,” said Dilla. “People know that there’s corrupt cops and cops do bullshit all the time and motherfuckers get pulled over ‘cause of the color of their skin, but it just seems to go over their heads. So I think it helps out a lot if you’ve got a little voice and somebody can hear it. Like I said, in Toronto people hear that and it puts them on some other shit like ‘Damn, this gonna be some shit!’ I just hope that gets across to the masses.”
That it did. Aside from the critical praise, fan love, and sold out vinyl, the story of Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” came full circle on July 4th, 2015. The song received the ultimate honor of being recognized by original “Fuck tha Police” creator Dr. Dre on the first episode of his Beats 1 mixshow, The Pharmacy. James Yancey’s version of “Fuck the Police” was played at the end of a five song Dilla set. Dre gave high praise to the late producer.
“There’s actually a lot of producers that I like to listen to, there’s a lot of producers that I respect, there’s a lot of producers that I get inspiration from. But you know what? I’m going to write a prescription for just one…Dilla,” said Dre, addressing Beats 1 listeners. “One of the most incredible things I liked about Dilla, is that Dilla was in his hospital room on his death bed and he had his machines and was still making beats before he passed away. Now if you are talking about dedication to what you really love and your passion? It gets no deeper than that. That’s why J Dilla is one my favorites.”
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