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Reality Meets Rap: The Legacy of Hip-Hop and the L.A. Riots

Thirty years ago Friday, a shocked nation watched as an uprising sprung up in the streets of Los Angeles. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been a surprise had people listened to the artists reporting from the frontlines.

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Rarely is a cultural shift so plainly apparent as the evening of April 30, 1992. After the first day of the uprising that followed the acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers shown on video brutalizing Rodney King, two news anchors for L.A.’s KNBC grimly noted that 18 people had been reported dead, suggested residents fill up their gas tanks, and reminded viewers of the curfew imposed on much of the viewing area. Then, a profoundly awkward segue to a third anchor, who was tasked with introducing the series finale of The Cosby Show, which was also airing that night. With no apparent irony, the anchor positioned the heavily hyped episode as “a welcome change of pace” and “a breath of fresh air in a sometimes crazy and chaotic world much like we saw today.” That night, while thousands of young Black men who had been locked out of the American Dream were rebelling on the streets of Los Angeles, Cliff Huxtable was preparing for his son, Theo, to graduate from NYU on NBC’s airwaves.

For the previous few years, a Black popular culture born in those same South Los Angeles neighborhoods had been infiltrating the mainstream, making Cosby’s hard-won respectability politics look ancient, if not acquiescent. The new politics were embodied by Ice Cube, a charismatic and smart 22-year-old who had released a chart-topping concept album called Death Certificate the previous year that doubled as a scorched-earth Black nationalist political program. In the wake of the uprising, Cube explained to the Los Angeles Times just how the lawyers could’ve convinced a jury that the officers were innocent. “America looks at Black men in two ways. You have the nice Black man, like a Bill Cosby, and you have the bad Black man … the person you see going to jail at night on the news,” he said. “If Rodney King was seen as a good Black, then the officers would have been found guilty, but all through the trial, they kept saying that he was a monster … a wild animal … plus he had a past criminal record. To the jurors, he was a bad Black, so anything done to him was justified.”

Barely old enough to legally drink, Cube was already an elder statesman of L.A. street rap. Four years earlier, he’d penned most of the lyrics to N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Express Yourself,” kick-starting a movement that was currently upending the music industry. One of his L.A. contemporaries was also quick to chime in on what was transpiring in the city that spring. Ice-T, the self-minted O.G. of L.A. street rap who embodied the “gangsta” persona as iconically as Cube and his erstwhile group mates, called the Times from his car phone while driving through South-Central in the midst of the uprising, “I’m not saying I told you so, but rappers have been reporting from the front for years,” he crowed. Cube added historical perspective. “I don’t even call it a riot, I call it an uprising,” he told the Times. “Unfortunately in this country, quiet protest really doesn’t work. You can hold your signs. You can march. You can do all those things, but conditions aren’t going to change.”

As the smoke cleared and the nation tried to piece together a coherent narrative for the largest incident of civil unrest in a generation, the press was treating Ice Cube and Ice-T less like vulgar hip-hop shit-stirrers and more like the street reporters and political pundits they’d been calling themselves for years. “It should now be obvious to all that rappers are reporting real events and not just striking tough-guy poses,” Alan Light wrote in Rolling Stone.

The Los Angeles uprising that exploded 30 years ago Friday was catalyzed by the King verdict, but a true accounting of its causes needs to incorporate decades of racist over-policing, mass incarceration, and economic devastation. National and local TV coverage offered moments of clarity, perspective, and context, but were dwarfed by the networks’ desire to turn it into a high-tech TV blockbuster, exploding the racialized crime panic of local television news coverage into a weeklong miniseries. They broadcast endless shots of dramatic building fires and locals—frequently dubbed “hooligans” and “thugs” by anchors and correspondents—smashing windows and looting stores, and the constant recitation of statistics that always disguise more than they reveal. A 1994 study concluded that “the dominant message” of local and network TV news coverage of that week was that “most of the responsibility lay with the rioters because they were lawless, immoral, and greedy people.”

But anyone who had been seriously listening to N.W.A, Ice-T, Ice Cube, and their dozens of descendants for the previous few years had a very different opinion on the uprising’s origins and aftermath. Though “gangsta rap” was the hottest new commercial genre this side of grunge, the name didn’t sit well with the rappers themselves. “I don’t know which writer is the one that called it ‘gangsta rap,’” Cube told one interviewer. “I still call it reality rap … to me, it means a network of information.” In his memoir, Ice-T called his music “street level journalism,” a description echoed by Eazy-E, who said N.W.A was “giving them reality. We’re like reporters.” Snoop Doggy Dogg agreed: “The situations I deal with on my albums is reality. The same things the news is bringing you,” he told Arsenio Hall in 1994. “But I’m bringing it to you live and direct like the news can’t give it to you, ’cause I know it.”

As hip-hop inched closer to the pop epicenter in the previous half-decade, rappers were increasingly thinking of themselves as journalists and pundits as much as entertainers. It made sense, given the Reagan and Bush administrations’ insistence on casting young Black men as the nation’s lurking criminal menace and TV news producers’ willingness to play along. In a now-legendary 1988 interview, Public Enemy frontman (and Cube’s primary inspiration) Chuck D told Spin magazine that rap was “Black America’s TV station,” offering “a whole perspective of what exists and what Black life is about,” far more than any other news or entertainment medium. (Chuck was not a fan of BET.) But rappers serving as newscasters dates back to the music’s first moment of maturation. It’s hard to hear “It’s Like That” as anything other than Run-DMC’s weary, street-weaned nod to “ … and that’s the way it is,” the comforting nightly sign-off from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, who retired a couple of years before the Hollis trio’s breakthrough single. Or to hear “The Message” as anything other than a blistering series of tabloid headlines from the Bronx trenches.

By 1992, Los Angeles reality rappers had established themselves as not only a significant political force in popular culture, but one that sold millions of albums to white suburbanites as well as their core Black audiences. With their allies in a burgeoning hip-hop press, they were primed to counterprogram the national news media with their own, on-the-ground perspective on the uprising, during a presidential election year. It wouldn’t be easy, and when it was over, hip-hop was something different altogether.


In the August 1992 issue of The Source, Chris Wilder’s editorial read: “Chuck D’s 1988 warning about the media still holds true today. Most anything reported about the Black community is coming from an outsider’s perspective, which surely means there will be misunderstandings and that leads to misrepresentation.” Started as an industry tip sheet only a few years earlier, The Source was now billing itself as “The Magazine of Hip-Hop Music, Culture and Politics.” Immediately after the verdict in the trial of the officers who beat King was handed down, Source editor James Bernard flew to South-Central and filed a lengthy report on what he called “the hip-hop generation’s first collective gasp.” A ride through the city with some locals showed Bernard the reality of the uprising. “I was surprised about how carefully chosen the ‘rioters’’ targets were,” he learned. One of his interlocutors called the looting and arson “surgical strikes.” When Bernard noted that the “corporate monster” McDonald’s was still standing, he was informed that “they hire a lot of Blacks from the community.” Ice Cube’s influence was felt, for good and for ill: A Comfort Inn was left untouched because, first, as one local laughed, “Where else are the fellas gonna take their girls?” Second, of course, the brand name had made an appearance in the Ice Cube and Flavor Flav track “I’m Only Out for One Thang” from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. And when Bernard quoted a local saying, “We knew what businesses we wanted out of the neighborhood,” in a paragraph that mentioned Korean American shop owners, the racist Death Certificate interstitial “Black Korea” was hovering just out of frame. In the end, Bernard concluded that “the ‘riots’ were really a very disciplined and spontaneous cry for economic empowerment.”

Yet while reality rappers and their own media outlet were delivering post-rebellion street reportage, state authority figures were seeking a hip-hop scapegoat to deflect attention away from the real problems in Black Los Angeles. Ice-T came first. His thrash metal side project Body Count had released its debut LP to little notice in March, and Body Count had performed the track “Cop Killer” multiple times at the previous year’s Lollapalooza festival, but it suddenly became the most controversial song in the United States when Texas’s largest police union held a June 10 press conference to suggest a boycott of Time Warner, the entertainment behemoth that distributed the album.

Going after the entertainment industry was a perfect election-year wedge issue for incumbent president George H.W. Bush, who used his vice president, Dan Quayle, to assail rap as the cause of, not a response to, the deep problems between Black Americans and the police. “Time Warner is making money—a lot of it—off a record that is suggesting it’s all right to kill cops,” Quayle crowed. Never one to back down from a challenge, Ice-T responded by comparing his lyrics to America’s foundational conflict: “Have they forgotten that Paul Revere became a Revolutionary War hero for warning everybody, ‘The police are coming, the police are coming?’” The rapper was supported by Gerald Levin, the president and co-CEO of Time Warner, who published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “Why We Won’t Withdraw ‘Cop Killer.’” But outside Southern California, the battle over “Cop Killer” quickly boiled over, giving the press something new to focus on instead of racist police.

A week after Body Count arrived in stores, the Public Enemy–affiliated rapper-orator Sister Souljah released her debut album, 360 Degrees of Power, also to little notice. In May, during a press-cycle interview with The Washington Post, Souljah was asked to comment on the L.A. uprising, and she did so by unapologetically decrying racial double standards, as was her wont: “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that Black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?”

Souljah had expressed a simple yet bluntly phrased sentiment that echoed Ice Cube on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted: The white American power structure could ignore Black criminality as long as it was contained within Black communities. This was, in essence, LAPD chief Daryl Gates’s idea when he pulled his officers out of South-Central during the uprising. But in the heat of a presidential election, Souljah’s quote provided the perfect platform for centrist Democratic candidate Bill Clinton to signal to moderate whites that he could stand up to powerful Black interest groups and would be just as law-and-order as his Republican predecessors. Three days after Texas cops suggested a “Cop Killer” boycott, Clinton gave a campaign speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, which had previously hosted the rapper. Clinton isolated a specific part of Souljah’s interview for rhetorical effect: “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton told the crowd. “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘Black’ and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” Days later, Souljah held her own press conference, unrepentantly claiming she was being “used as a vehicle, like Willie Horton and various other Black victims of racism.”

A complete unknown a month earlier, Souljah was now on the cover of Newsweek. Along with Ice-T, Souljah was the subject of “Rap and Race,” a report on an inconvenient truth: Black musicians had taken over American popular culture without even pretending to cater to white tastes or politics. But while Souljah’s Black nationalist oratory was easily contained in the marketplace, Ice-T’s hard rock was at risk of crossover to white audiences—a fun-house mirror reflection of the racial paranoia stoked in the wake of the uprising. With Time Warner under increasing pressure, the rapper held his own press conference on July 28, announcing that he had approved pulling “Cop Killer” from future editions of the Body Count album. Fans were shocked that the rapper who had spent his career going directly after the mass-media powers that be would fold so quickly. The Source’s Reginald C. Dennis offered an apocalyptic prediction: “Mark July 28, 1992 … as the beginning of the end of rap music.” If Ice-T’s next album was going to be as uncensored as the rapper had promised, Dennis worried, “the only place we will be able to hear it is in his living room.”

The conservative censors had won. Not only had they successfully eradicated a recording from commercial circulation, but they had shifted the national discourse from post-rebellion protest and police reform to a referendum on hip-hop as incitement to violence. Bernard was spot-on in a September 1992 Source editorial: “As long as rappers get cast as the enemy, those who twist the knobs of this twisted society get off the hook. We end up talking about ‘Cop Killer’ rather than killer cops. We end up debating whether Sister Souljah is a racist rather than holding those in the White House and corporate America responsible for the destruction of our communities.”

Sister Souljah wasn’t done yet, though—but she wouldn’t reply via song, but sitcom. That fall, prime-time TV dove headfirst into the aftermath of the rebellion. From Doogie Howser, MD to LA Law, numerous shows used the unrest as a backdrop, offering the kind of new news that, the argument went, allowed average Americans to process the events with a sense of narrative closure. Souljah had her chance during the Cosby spinoff A Different World’s two-part sixth-season premiere, which set Dwayne and Whitley’s honeymoon in the opening moments of the rebellion. Whitley is in an electronics store when the verdict is announced, a wall of televisions behind her. In a state of shock, Whitley seeks solace in the Constitution, but she’s countered by fellow shopper Ianta (Souljah in a cameo), who tells her: “When that piece of paper was written, African people in this country were slaves.” She ends with a suggestion—to Whitley and the millions watching: “Stop worrying about integrating and being accepted, and start thinking about building—for yourself, for our people, so that we can provide a future for our children.” Three months after Bill Clinton turned her into a pariah, Souljah took her nationalist oratory to the stage of the most popular Black sitcom. The live studio audience broke into applause.


A few months later, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre had their say. The Predator was Cube’s third solo album, and it debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album track “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up” dramatizes and historicizes the uprising. The track opens with a smash cut—starting with Nashville mayor Ben West responding to violence at a 1960 sit-in (sampled from a VHS tape of the PBS civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize) and then integrating the voice of NBC’s Tom Brokaw announcing the King “not guilty” verdict. Cube then reels off a litany of grievances and imagined scenarios, from fantasies about murdering the LAPD officers to the racial economy of looting and arson (“Don’t fuck with the Black-owned stores but hit the Foot Lockers”). Blamed by the Black community for letting Rodney King’s assailants get off, L.A. County district attorney Ira Reiner catches a stray on the album’s title track, and Cube rhymes “S-I-M-I Valley” (the mostly white enclave where the officers’ trial was moved) with “KKK rally.”

Since AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Cube had positioned himself as a Black vigilante speaking in the media’s own language. He used The Predator’s liner notes to sarcastically thank “America’s cops for their systematic and brutal killings of brothers all over the country,” adding that “most of their stories never made it to the camera.” Accordingly, the album’s most intelligent and persuasive moment is “Who Got the Camera?” in which Cube solidifies the role of citizen videography in the existential power struggle between police and Black men. George Holliday’s camcorder footage might not have made a difference in the Simi Valley courtroom, but Cube still held out hope that pointing and shooting with a Sony could do more than a Smith & Wesson. It might not have convicted Rodney King’s assaulters, but the video camera might still usefully function as a weapon of representation.

The South-Central filmmaker Matty McDaniel agreed. A key documenter of the L.A. hip-hop scene, McDaniel had used his VHS camcorder to become what Big Daddy Kane later called “the West Coast Walter Cronkite.” After the King verdict was announced, McDaniel headed to the streets of South-Central to chronicle the rebellion, which he edited into a documentary titled Birth of a Nation: 4*29*1992, a title-flip of D. W. Griffith’s epic and famously racist 1915 Civil War drama. McDaniel’s film positioned the uprising as the start of a new world, with hip-hop as the journalistic voice of young Black America. In the middle of the unrest, Dre was recording what would become The Chronic, and McDaniel stopped by the studio to play his friend some raw footage from the agitated Wednesday-evening gathering at the South-Central AME Church. Out of the vociferous crowd, one man emerged—“I’ma say this and I’ma end mine,” he barks directly to the camera. Merging nationalist rhetoric and gangsta force, he erupts: “Let us brothers and us Africans step in and start puttin’ some foot in that ass!” Dre loved that moment, and sampled it at the start of the menacing, reggae-tinged spaghetti Western “The Day the Niggaz Took Over,” the album’s pro-looting anthem.

The Predator may have out-charted The Chronic, but Dre’s sonic innovations paved the way for hip-hop’s post-rebellion future. It’s evident in a few bars from “Let Me Ride”: “No medallions, dreadlocks or Black fists / It’s just that gangsta glare with gangsta raps / That gangsta shit makes us gangs of snaps.” Dre’s primary enemies were no longer cops or censors but his industry competition. Battles over personal authenticity were overtaking diatribes against racist authority. Yet the music videos for “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and “Let Me Ride” offered a symbolic rebuke to the post–Rodney King world of hypercautious Black motorists, showing Dre and Snoop peacefully cruising through their city in exuberantly detailed lowriders, hitting up barbecues and house parties, the police only a distant threat. Cube’s smash single “It Was a Good Day” is built from the same foundation, themed to the eerie absence of death and violence in Black Los Angeles. The “Good Day” music video opens on nearly the same day-in-the-hood note as “‘G’ Thang,” with a tracking shot leading through a ranch-style suburban home, through the interior hallways, to Cube, who, like Snoop in the “‘G’ Thang” clip, gets up from bed to start his day. A couple years later, Cube would pick up the thread with the movie Friday.

By the end of 1993, hip-hop had shifted again: Ice Cube and Ice-T started angling toward film, and Dre toward production duties and Death Row A&R. While the East Coast was rapidly regenerating after a few years of West Coast dominance, Snoop and Tupac Shakur were ascendant, and reality rap’s second generation came of age on the other side of the looking glass: Snoop debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 while awaiting trial for first-degree murder (he was later acquitted), and Tupac was trying to craft a bona fide revolution from deep inside the spectacle of celebrity. Over the next few years, while Black Los Angeles rebuilt, hip-hop started a new war with itself.

Legacies are complex things. For those who didn’t live through the second half of 1992, perhaps Bill Cosby is known only for his conviction on sexual assault charges (which were later overturned), Dr. Dre is a headphone entrepreneur, Ice-T is a TV cop hawking Cheerios, and Ice Cube is a movie cop with questionable politics. Only Sister Souljah is remembered specifically for her time in the spotlight, but more as a political pawn than an activist and author. In 1992, hip-hop was still in the early stages of a pop culture takeover that, 30 years later, is easy to take for granted. But for a brief moment after the L.A. uprising, a handful of reality rappers established themselves as much more than entertainers. They were journalists, opinion leaders, and activists trying to accomplish a nearly impossible feat—and one that hasn’t been duplicated since–using popular culture to instigate real political change.

Eric Harvey is an associate professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality.

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