Riot Music: Looking Back on Hip-Hop’s Role in the L.A. Riots 20 Years LaterPosted by Nathan S. on 04/30/12 | Filed under Features, Opinion
We're talking the largest civil unrest in American history. We're talking 54 deaths, thousands of injuries, over 1,000 buildings burned down and over $1 billion in damages. We're talking people sitting on their roofs with sniper rifles to protect their businesses. And hip-hop predicted it all. In fact, the interplay of hip-hop and the riots are the most interesting examples as rap both serving as a reflection of life and a catalyst for action.
While time has conflated the rise of gangster rap and the riots - rioters were constantly referred to as "gangsters" by the media - the release of N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" actually came out a full four years before the riots broke out. Anyone who claimed to have no idea about the unrest brewing in L.A.'s streets clearly hadn't been listening to Eazy E and company.
Similarly, Ice-T's infamous "Cop Killer" was actually written and first recorded nearly two years before the riots broke out, although he would update the song's lyrics with references to then L.A. police chief Darryl Gates and Rodney King. (Side note: if rappers think they're hated on now because of some comments on Facebook, Ice was facing a congressional hearing over "Cop Killer". Now that's some real shit.)
Hip-hop was giving voice to the unrest that would explode in 1992 long before Rodney King was ever pulled over, but it's important to remember that the riots weren't just about black Angelenos angry at mistreatment by white police. Latinos made up a large part of the population that participated in and were directly affected by the riots, and the trial of a Korean shop owner who had shot and killed a black teen weeks before helped spark what became something terrifyingly close to full out racial warfare in America.
Still, as much as the riots had a soundtrack hip-hop was that soundtrack, and it's a powerful reminder of the ways that music can truly become a part of our lives, even in the most extreme circumstances. I worry that now that hip-hop has largely lost its desire to affect lives on such a deep level, although from Kendrick Lamar to Thurz there are a rising group or artists, fittingly spearheaded by several Angelenos, who are unapologetically making music that carries on N.W.A.'s legacy of rebellion.
To check out Thurz' full "L.A Riots" album click here, those interested can check out the L.A. Times' incredible photo gallery, and I'll let Tupac close things out. It's bigger than hip-hop.