6HWbNHN-show-poster2x3-c7tgE2Y.png

Artbound

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
HvlSxHY-show-poster2x3-4ik43uV.png

Earth Focus

Start watching
5LQmQJY-show-poster2x3-MRWBpAK.jpg

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

Investigating Murder Music in Los Angeles

Support Provided By
serby poster thumb.jpg

Murder is big business. Countless number of movies, books, and songs have capitalized on our morbid curiosity, and Los Angeles, with its killer track record of scandalous murders and gruesome bloodshed, is the capital of inspiration when it comes to producing death art.

"Murder Music: An Evening of Songs about Killing," happening this Saturday, March 31, 8 p.m. at The Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, will be a night of facing our horrors for art. Presented by singer/songwriter (and KCET's own) Dudley Saunders, 10 artists will reprise their sold-out January performance at the Center for Arts in Eagle Rock, as they "excavate the ancient horror with a modern eye" and provide a "compelling window into the modern American Heart of Darkness." To make the evening even darker, the performances will be accompanied by projections of actual Los Angeles crime scene photos to amplify the sinister message of the songs.

murder music miles-thumb-600x972-25811-thumb-475x769-25812-thumb-450x728-25826

Traditionally murder ballads are rooted in local folkloric history, telling tales of jealous rage and scandals and the inevitable death that comes along with it. The songs were passed on by itinerant troubadours migrating from the Old World to the New World, from the East and South to the Appalachians, finally to the vast openness of the West. They mutated as they traveled, often personalizing the narrative with local history. Henry Lee, Stagger Lee, Frankie & Johnny, Pretty Polly -- all famous names whose evil doings in song have been adapted and twisted to fit the narrative of the narrator.

So where does Los Angeles fit in this grand tradition of murder music?

Not every murder ballad is ancient folklore. Since L.A. is relatively new town, it makes sense that its most famous bloody songs are relatively recent in origin. Let's take a look at some examples of murder music in Los Angeles:

Hey Joe

If L.A. had a traditional murder ballad to call their own, it would be "Hey Joe." Recorded by The Leaves, Love, They Byrds, The Standells, The Surfaris, Music Machine, and countless other 60s Sunset Strip bands, the song portrays the titular character who shoots a woman who'd done him wrong, and escapes across the border to Mexico. Known most famously in the version by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the origin of the song can be a bit hazy, and it's unclear if "Joe" is based on a real-life character. Reportedly written in the early 60s by California songwriter Billy Roberts (though many claim to have written it), it was soon adopted by L.A. folkie David Crosby, who began playing the song around the Strip. It quickly spread around the incestuous scene until the Leaves became the first to have a minor hit with the song in 1965, igniting a morbid curiosity all around Los Angeles.

Narcocorridos

Evolved from the tradition of corridos and norteño music from Mexico, narcocorrido roughly translates to "drug ballad." These songs, often performed by balladeers paid by the drug cartels, tell glamorized tales of asesinos and beheadings in the deadly drug trafficking drama that plague many Mexican border towns. The style was popularized around Los Angeles in the 1980s-90s by Mexican immigrant Chalino Sánchez, who was shot on stage while performing in Coachella (he quickly shot back with his own gun), and later murdered in Sinaloa, forever preserving his outlaw image. Today artists like Alfredo Rios, the Rivera Family and Jessie Morales make Los Angeles the center of the narcocorrido industry.

Gangsta Rap

Perhaps the most popular of all murder music, gangsta rap gained a stake in music history in the early 90s, with South Central-based artist like Ice-T, N.W.A., and Snoop Dogg pushing the image of the killer gangster onto the pop screens of MTV and into the modern lexicon. Much has been written about the controversies surrounding explicit lyrics and the East Coast-West Coast feuds, but what we can take away from it all is this: gangsta rap pushed murder music into the mainstream.

saunders poster thumb.jpg

Images courtesy of Dudley Saunders

Support Provided By
Read More
Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz

Youth Leaders Making a Difference Honored by The California Endowment

The Youth Awards was created in 2018 to recognize the impact youth voices have in creating change throughout California. Learn more about the positive work they're accomplishing throughout the state.
A 2011 crime scene in Tulare County, where one of Jose Martinez's victims was found. | Courtesy of Marion County Sherff’s Office via FOIA/Buzzfeed

California's Unincorporated Places Can Be Poor, Powerless — and the Perfect Place to Commit Murder

It's time to do better by communities that don’t even have local police to call, let alone defund.
Protesters confront police outside the 3rd Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after the George Floyd killing | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In California, A History of Young, Powerful Voices in Journalism Emerge

In the Golden State, the youth have a long history of storytelling that uncovers little-heard narratives.