My enduring memory of the L.A. Uprising/Riots was the night it came north. On April 30, 1992, the second night of turmoil continued in Los Angeles and by then, unrest had spread to the Bay Area, including Berkeley.1 My roommate and I watched as someone threw a firebomb into a car parked in the lot across from our dorm window. We wondered aloud if the gas tank would explode - like you always saw in the movies - and while that didn't happen, when the horn melted, it sounded for minutes, like a long, angry death rattle.
One of the grand ironies that evening is that while other channels broadcast images of black rioters taking to the streets in L.A., NBC aired the series finale of The Cosby Show, practically the platonic ideal for a genteel, post-Civil Rights, black bourgeoise. The last scene of the show was Cosby and his television wife, Phylicia Rashad, dancing out of their living room and onto the live studio stage. They were breaking the proverbial fourth wall, but what was even left of such a wall once the "not guilty" verdicts had been handed down in Simi Valley the day before?
The cognitive dissonance of The Cosby Show's neatly-sewn closer with the unruly reality on California streets only highlighted how many corners of popular culture missed (or avoided) the undercurrents of tension leading up April 29.2 Instead, it was music - and hip-hop in particular - that served as seer and storyteller in the months before and after the "fire this time."3 This is hardly a new observation and what follows isn't an attempt at a summation for a topic that can - and has - filled books.4 Rather, treat it as a series of moments, captured in music, from before and after the Riots, offering a cultural lens to understanding an event that, 20 years later, continues to leave its imprint on Los Angeles.
Toddy Tee: Batterram (1985)
Of the simmering tensions brewing in L.A. of the 1980s and 90s, resentment towards the LAPD ranked at the very top. The most storied push-back was NWA's 1988 hit, "Fuck the Police," but while it grabbed the biggest headlines, it was hardly the first song to take on LAPD tactics. One of the more unlikely L.A. early rap jams of the mid-1980s was Toddy Tee's single, "Batterram," an ode to the LAPD's infamous, six-ton armored personnel carrier outfitted with, well, a 14-foot batter ram. Created ostensibly for drug house raids, the vehicle was designed to smash through walls to provide an "element of surprise" (if not terror) but from inception, its use was highly controversial, resulting in a flurry of lawsuits and within a year of its introduction, the California Supreme Court limited its use.
For all its slippery electro-funk, Tee's tune is a clever bit of songwriting, with the first verse addressing drug dealers ("yeah rock man, you'll see it soon/and you won't hear a snatch, you'll hear a boom") and the second verse written for drug users ("you were so damn high, my little friend/that you didn't know your living room was in your den"). However the last two verses take a more direct turn towards the police, as Tee criticizes them for racially profiling his family ("I know to you we all look the same/But I'm not the one slinging 'caine") before taking Mayor Tom Bradley to task for allowing such draconian measures ("Because you must've been crazy or half-way wack/To legalize something that works like that"). Tee was impressively ahead of his time in this trenchant critique, three years ahead of "Fuck the Police," and seven years before Ice T/Body Count's infamous "Cop Killer."5
Ice Cube: Black Korea (1991)
Recorded in the months between the Rodney King beating and the subsequent trial, practically all of Ice Cube's sophomore album, Death Certificate, could be read as an oracle for the Uprising. However, no other song on the album was as chilling in its prescience as "Black Korea," easily one of Cube's most controversial songs in how it singles out Korean storeowners for potential retribution: "so pay respect to the black fist/or we'll burn your store, right down to a crisp." This is, of course, precisely what happened during the Riots, with over 2000 Korean American stores either looted or destroyed.6
Cube's song didn't exist in a vacuum; the early '90s was a particularly fraught time for Black/Korean relations in several American cities, owing mostly to a combination of economic competition and racial distrust. Few places was the tension higher in L.A. due to the 1991 shooting death of Black teenager Latasha Harlins by Korean merchant Soon Ja Du, an incident made worse by a judge's decision to only give Du probation. As for Cube, there's a certain irony in how the Korean American community was able to compel him to issue an apology for "Black Korea" by using their vendor power to boycott St. Ides, the malt liquor company that used Cube as a spokesman.
Kid Frost: I Got Pulled Over (1992)
Few besides hardcore Frost fans likely remember this album track from the Chicano rapper's second album but besides the fact that it came out eight days before the Uprising, Frost's own takedown of the police is an important reminder of L.A.'s Latino community and their own relationship to the Riots. Even two decades later, the popular history has largely erased Latinos from the event, treating it mostly along black/white lines, or, at best, with Koreans on the margins. However, police records suggested that anywhere between 30-50 percent of those arrested during the Riots were Latino and likewise, 30-40 percent of looted/destroyed stores were Latino owned. In the words of a criminologist from the think tank, RAND, "this was clearly not a black riot. It was a minority riot," but the collective retelling of the Uprising rarely acknowledges that nuance.
Kid Frost, along with Lighter Shade of Brown and Cypress Hill, was one of the few Latino rappers trying to make their voices heard within this environment and "I Got Pulled Over," features Frost, MC Eiht and ALT telling their tales of police harassment. Here's Frost's key line: "Yo, go ahead and write your ticket/but hey yo, Mr. Officer, you know where you can stick it/I say this to myself, I let him do his thing/or he might beat me down just like he beat down Rodney King."
Kam: Peace Treaty (1992)
The title is taken from the gang truce between the Bloods and Crips, a monumental show of unity that occurred in Watts on April 28, the day before the Rodney King verdicts were announced. The truce was credited with lowering the homicide rate L.A. for years to come but its benefits were historically overshadowed by the events of the day after.
As a Watts native, Kam had special reason to take pride in his city's role in the truce and though "Peace Treaty" might have been the umpteenth L.A. rap song to flip George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," those thick-bottomed bass lines and fat hand claps powered one of the most memorable of the post-Riots songs in celebrating a key show of solidarity and community possibility. His second verse is dedicated specifically to the Uprising: "Looking at the aftermath of the riot/I can still smell the ashes/from all the clashes/But quiet is kept, it wasn't just the blacks/everybody was looting/and had each other's backs."
King Tee, Yo-Yo, MC Eiht, B-Real, J-Dee, Kam, Threat, Ice Cube: Get the Fist (1992)
Released sometime in the summer or fall of '92 to raise money for the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade Black United Fund, "Get the Fist" was one of the most interesting - though lesser-known - post-Riots artifacts. Featuring a veritable who's who of L.A. rappers of the era, the posse cut wasn't even of the "no justice/no peace" variety; that's not an option on the chorus: "who can get with that or you can get with this/you can get the boot or you can get the fist." The single's label, Mercury, failed to push it very hard, perhaps because of how incendiary its lyrics were, especially from Compton Most Wanted's laconic lead rapper: "Gyeah, MC Eiht got the pale face runnin' scared/gang of blue/fuck the white/I'm down with the red." It's no surprise that the New York Times' Jon Pareles described the song as "the most belligerent charity single ever made."
"Get The Fist" made a striking contrast to its informal prequel, "We're All in the Same Gang," a 1990 anti-gang violence ensemble song by the West Coast All-Stars, which included Easy E, Dr. Dre, MC Hammer and Digital Underground. However, "We're All in the Same Gang," in its own way, predicted the peace treaty that Kam rapped about, a moment that also weighs heavily on "Get the Fist," including from former Ice Cube protege, J-Dee: "I never thought I'd see a thousand Crips in the Nickerson/Gardens/pardon my manners/I saw the Bloods and Crips/waving big black banners."7
Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg: Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang
The lead single from Dr. Dre's landmark The Chronic album, "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" had nothing overtly to do with the Uprising (unlike The Chronic's "The Day The Niggaz Took Over") but along with Cube's pseudo-idyllic "It Was a Good Day," no other songs set the tone for post-Riots L.A. If, as Jeff Chang wrote, hip-hop of 1991 and early '92 were "all tension and little release," the Riots were a spectacular, cathartic - and violent - unleashing of all that pent-up energy. In that wake cruised Dre and Snoop in a drop-top Impala, offering the nation a taste of the Southland "G" life, all backyard picnics and parking lot parties. "'G' Thang," like earlier L.A. anthems - the Beach Boys' "California Girls," the Mamas and Papas' "Californian Dreamin'" - was ultimately about celebrating a mythical L.A. lifestyle that fires, shootings, beatings and riots ultimately couldn't deter.
1Berkeley's reputation for public unrest is often overstated, not the least of which is that after the late 1960s, the local and campus police forces became far more aggressive in tamping down protests. But in the early 1990s, Berkeley was especially volatile and not always for social justice reasons; just a month before the L.A. Uprising, 500 people participated in a riot through the streets south of campus after being turned away from a fraternity party.
2One notable exception from the cinematic world was John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, which, while not focusing exclusively on police abuses, made one such incident a dramatic turning point in the film. However, the bulk of that film was still centered more on black-on-black violence than the uneasy racial relationships in the Southland as a whole.
3A recent VH1 documentary, Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots, attempted to probe some of that relationship but despite incredible archival footage of the event, the actual relationship to music was strangely underutilized. Besides using rappers as talking head commentators and witnesses, the documentary's treatment of hip-hop - as a cultural movement or community - was more tenuous than its title would suggest. Nonetheless, the documentary is still well worth viewing as a blow-by-blow (quite literally) chronicle of the riots.
4The ideal book on L.A. hip-hop and the Riots is, alas, long out of print: Brian Cross's It's Not About a Salary: Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993). Find it at your local library; not only does Cross include an invaluable history of L.A. hip-hop, but his dozens of interviews make this one of the best books ever written on hip-hop of any city. Also check out the L.A. chapters of Jeff Chang's exhaustive history, Can't Stop, Won't Stop.
5Dan Charnas's discussion of "Cop Killer" and its fallout is essential reading in his The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
6The documentary Sa I Gu tells the story of the Riots' impact on L.A's Korean American community.
7Minor trivia note but Ice Cube's verse on the song is identical to his lead verses from "We Had To Tear This Motherfucker Up," from 1992's The Predator. Though Cube nods to the Riots throughout that album, this song was his most explicit engagement with it.
Top Image: National Guardsmen watch a business go up in flames in South Los Angeles, 30 April 1992. Photo Credit: HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images.
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