PART 5 - Rap, Race & Riots (How the Rodney King Verdict Changed Hip Hop)

Part 5 of 5 Part Series by Staff Writer Nunneh Nimley

Read Part 1 HERE

Read Part 2 HERE

Read Part 3 HERE

Read Part 4 HERE

The Effect On Hip Hop Culture & Black America

In the 23 years since South Central Los Angeles went up in flames, what have we learned about the system? More importantly, what have we learned about ourselves? Hip Hop culture at the time of the uprising had more of a political stance in some respects - the riots occurred just as the content was more or less being overhauled. The red, black & green that was ever so prevalent with the hip hop of the late 80’s was slowly becoming bandannas on the west, and army fatigue on the east.

The events of April 29th would also serve as inspiration for the upcoming generation of artists, which included 2Pac, NaS & Naughty By Nature. This was the first time in some cases that we got the opportunity to see what could be done by the black and brown community when there was a common goal, even if it was destruction as seen in this case. What it showed the generation was, what couldn’t be done with words could be done with actions. All the anger and frustration being articulated by some of the biggest and brightest rappers was being ignored on a larger scale, but it was those inspired by those words that would get the attention of a nation.

In the years that followed, KRS One, once again used his platform to speak truth to power. He released his solo debut, ‘Return Of The Boom Bap’, in September of 93. Taking the time to attack the intentions, and integrity of police departments throughout the country on “Sound Of The Police”. Making the connection between the overseer on the plantations our ancestors once worked under in inhumane conditions, and with the officers who now patrol our communities. His assault on crooked police isn’t just limited to the violation of rights of American citizens, he also takes the time to address the apartheid stricken South African nation, and making the connection between how black police officers are used to create and support civil unrest in communities of color. To this day, “Black Cop” applies to the conditions of the inner city in 2015.

Tupac with mother Afeni Shakur

Tupac with mother Afeni Shakur

The son of a Black Panther, who was pregnant with him as she prepared to defend herself against charges of conspiring to bomb various government locations in NYC. Afeni Shakur was a part of the group now known as the Panther 21, pacing in her jail cell as her stomach was growing, she was eventually acquitted of all charges, after acting as her own attorney. She would be freed, and would give birth to a baby boy, who would later be known as Tupac Amaru Shakur.

2Pac would go on to be mentioned by name by (then Vice president, Dan Quayle), in response to a Texas State trooper being murdered while conducting a routine stop. The teenager who was responsible for the death, would go on to say he was inspired by a track on Pac’s debut album. Christening himself, “Mr Fuck-a-Cop” on the title track to his sophomore album, ‘Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z’. He dedicated the video to the albums 2nd single, “Keep Ya Head”, to the memory of Latasha Harlin’s. Throughout his career he made reference to the riots, and upon the release of VH1’s ‘Uprising’ documentary, its revealed that Pac was in L.A. as the riots broke out, filming ‘Poetic Justice’. In classic 2Pac form, he leaves the set to go be amongst the people. So you have people stealing TVs, VCRs, only stopping to get an autograph from 2Pac. How real is that?

As the years have passed, there’s been a new 'Rodney King' with each passing year. Rappers have been vocal in their distaste to the police and the justice system as a whole. Queens rapper NaS takes aim at the police on “I Want To Talk To You”, where he questions the mayor, governor and president about addressing the problems that exist in the urban communities throughout the country. He references a case of police brutality that took place in “San Fran” that involved a young girl being shot dead by police officers, and while I couldn’t locate the actual news story that may have inspired those lyrics, I don’t doubt the scenario one bit.

Fast forward to today, many careers were birthed from the music recorded by both Ice Cube & Dr Dre in the wake of the Riots. One of those who was influenced was Kendrick Lamar, who would go on to sign with Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment in March of 2012, and release his critically acclaimed debut album ‘Good Kid M.a.a.d. City’. One of the bonus tracks was “County Building Blues”, in its 2nd verse he describes being with his father during the riots, at the tender age of 5. Whether or not this is a factual account, we may never know, but the visual his lyrics describe make it seem that much more believable.

While rappers of the early 80s drew inspiration from the events of the late 60s and 70s as template for their socially conscious material. The rappers of the mid 80s, dug a little deeper, often sampling speeches from Civil Right’s greats, African medallions (which Dre denounced in ‘Let Me Ride’) became more popular than rope chains in the final portion of the 80s. Tracks like “Self Destruction” on the East coast, and “We’re All In The Same Gang” on the West, included All-Star line ups of the who’s who in hip hip, addressing the senseless violence of the crack epidemic, and how gang violence was also exasperated by the local drug trade.

As the 90s approached, not to say there was a shortage of events to draw inspiration from, but there just wasn’t that major event that the entire hip hop and black community could look towards and say, “That’s when IT happened”. The uprising in Los Angeles became that moment. For people like myself, 7 years old at the time, it was one of my first times seeing just how much race meant in this country, and how little had truly changed in comparison to the events of the decades before. I remember sitting in my living room with my brother, just wishing we were somewhere near Southern California so we could go on what seemed at the time, like a shopping spree for the black and brown.

At the same time in which the uprising approached, Spike Lee was prepping his biopic for Civil Rights leader, Malcolm X. Hat’s bearing simply an “X” were popular in black communities throughout the country (as can be seen by those in Matty McDaniels’ film ‘Birth Of A Nation 4/29/93). Political awareness was once again gaining grounding, even in the midst of the rise of ‘Gangsta Rap’. Rappers from 2Pac to Treach (of Naughty By Nature) can be seen donning Malcolm “X” gear. Maybe it was genius timing in the part of Spike Lee, or maybe it was GOD at work, but the uprising served as an awakening to the entire nation, regardless of race.

America still had a race problem, and ignoring the fact wasn’t going to be the proper means to solving these age old issues. While there was no steep decline in party records, or shift to political rap to point to, in 92-96, it was more of the energy that the events produced. 2Pac would carve out his niche in the genre in those years, balancing street orientated rhymes with a ‘Black Empowerment’ overtone. NaS would record records like “If I Ruled The World” & “Street Dreams Remix”, two records that started a socially conscious theme to the majority of his music that would follow.

Established artists like Willie D (of The Geto Boys) was less diplomatic with his response to the Rodney King beating, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers responsible. His track, “Fuck Rodney King” is exactly what it sounds like, angry and unapologetic. The influence of the events would go on to inspire music other genres as well, including Rock’n’Roll legends, Aerosmith and alternative heroes Sublime, who’s song “April 29 (Miami)” provides another perspective on the events.


The Effect On The LAPD

In the years following the events, Rodney King was eventually awarded just under $4 million from the city of Los Angeles. Almost a year to the day of the original verdict, Laurence Powell and Stacy Koon would be convicted in federal court and were sentenced to minimal sentences. The others involved were once again acquitted. The decision didn’t get nearly the amount of attention as the original verdict. By this time the city was in a time of healing, and rebuilding the communities most hardly hit by the days of rioting.

While the relationship between Koreans and blacks never quite recovered from the events of April-May of 92, there has been some signs of progress. In some cases the owners of the shops destroyed collected their money and took there business elsewhere, but in most cases Korean owners stayed, and rebuilt their business and reopened. The communities, for the most part remain overrun with poverty, and a lot of the issues that cause frustrations some 23 years ago still exist. It makes me wonder, what will be the straw that breaks the camels back this time.

After Daryl Gates resigned, Willie Williams, who had previously been the chief of police in Philadelphia took over. He was focused on building a bond between the officers, and the residents of the areas in which they patrolled. His time as Chief was short-lived after his contract was not renewed. He was replaced by interim Bayan Lewis, before Bernard Parks was named Chief Of Police. Like always, there’s going to be officers who overstep their boundaries, and the LAPD has not fully shaken its reputation for being corrupt. In the ladder part of the 90s, they were hit with yet another scandal, known as RAMPART.

The RAMPART scandal is focused around the city’s CRASH (Community Resource Against Street Hoodlums) Unit was formed to break down the structure of gangs in the area’s Rampart division. The end result was disastrous, 70 officers would be implicated in crimes related to the scandal, 24 would eventually be convicted. The whistle blower, Rafael Perez, had strong ties to Death Row Records, where he served as private security for company functions throughout the mid 90s.

What makes this scandal more sinister is Perez’ dear friend and partner while in the CRASH unit, David Mack. Mack, grew up in Compton with Death Row CEO Suge Knight, and also claimed allegiance to the Bloods street gang, similar to Knight and many others associated with Death Row. He has even been identified by those on the scene of the murder of Christopher Wallace (Notorious BIG), on March 9th of 1997 in Los Angeles. Upon further review, it was discovered that he took 3 consecutive sick days before and after the murder of Wallace. His home was searched, he had a vehicle similar to the car the shooter is said to have been riding in, a dark colored mid 90s model Chevy Impala.

The investigation, then headed by LAPD detective Russell Poole was prohibited by his superiors into any further investigation of Mack. and his associates. Later that year, Mack would be convicted of a bank robbery that took place in November of 97, and sentenced to a 14 years in prison (he was released in 2010). Poole would go on to sue the LAPD, alleging that his efforts to solve the murder of one of hip hop brightest stars was halted due to possible police involvement. In the 18 years since the murder, there has yet to be an official suspect named, while the majority of leads have now run cold. Even with the murder being caught on tape, and in the possession of the LAPD within hours of the murder, there has been no progress made.


Rodney King

After receiving his settlement money Rodney King, changed his scenery to the suburb of Rialto, about an hour outside of LA, in a decent-sized house with a pool in the backyard. The problems he thought he had left in his old stomping grounds continued to follow him, onto the tree lined streets of his new home. He would go on to struggle with drug addiction in the years that followed, and subsequently have several run ins with the law, eventually spending 6 months in jail. He became a punch line, because of his poorly orated message of peace, the butt of many jokes.

In 2012, as the 20 year anniversary of the riots approached he would once again see his face on television sets across the nation, doing interviews with CNN and participating in the VH1 documentary ‘Uprising: Hip Hop & The LA Riots’, while he appeared to be healthy even after the substantial injuries he sustained in his attack, he still struggled with substance abuse. He would eventually succumb to his addiction, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he suffered a heart attack and drowned in his backyard pool on June 17th of 2012.


Gang Culture In Los Angeles

The 92 truce, while it didn’t involve all the Blood/Crip sets in the city, can still be seen as somewhat of a success. In the 2 calendar years that would follow, a drop in homicides would be seen. Whether or not this connection can directly be an effect of the gang truce can not be proven either way. Upon further review, if the gangs were the reason behind the murder increase, it would only make sense that in the face of them joining forces on some fronts, the numbers later dropping may have more correlation than some politicians and police officials would ever admit.

In the days in which crack was at its peak, it came with the steep price of gang culture infiltrating many different cities and regions. The influx in powdered cocaine at some of the lowest prices outside of only Miami, caused gang members began to venture outside of LA. Cities like Las Vegas started to see a rise in gang membership and the senseless violence that followed. Bloods and Crips began to pop up in St Louis, Kansas City, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the most famous examples would be Little Rock, Arkansas. Here is the home state of former president Bill Clinton erupting in a bloody gang war that would be profiled by HBO on two separate occasions, 10 years apart. Gangbanging was no longer just an inner city problem, it was becoming the entire country's problem. As gang membership grew, innocent bystanders would find themselves in the middle of gang warfare.

Once again, this is an issue that was addressed early on. In 1990, Ice Cube’s detailed the proliferation of gang activity on the track “My Summer Vacation”, which tells the story of Cube and his crew (including gang members), going to St Louis to sell drugs. During their time in the city, their presence is felt, and eventually begins a conflict with the natives. While the song is more than likely fictional, the story itself is all too real. Due to the fact that this track was ignored to an extent, it allowed these police departments in other cities to play catch up, and try and figure where the problem came from.

Blood and Crip gangs now have a presence in almost every major city, and in most cases the only exception are cities that already have established gangs. Documentary styled television shows such as A&E’s ‘Gangland’ are built around exposing the origins of a city or state's gang activity. Documentaries like ‘Bastard’s Of The Party’ take a more in-depth look at the original Blood and Crip sets and how they formed, and spread throughout the city. Narrator Cle “Bone” Sloan, uncovered some previously unknown stories from the gang truce as well.

Gang activity as a whole in Los Angeles is at an all time low, partly due to ‘Gang Injunction’ laws which ban members of gangs from certain neighborhoods. The crack epidemic died down towards the mid 90s also plays a factor. While South Los Angeles is still impoverished, unemployment rates for black men is double the national average. Harsh ‘3 Strike’ laws put away many of the OGs from gangs, splintering the leadership and in ways hurting the gangs recruitment efforts. Where as in the 80s you may have a couple millionaires from a set, that’s unlikely now. The youth have dedicated their time to pastimes like sports, dancing and music. And while the history of the gangs still exist, it would be highly unlikely for the violence of the late 80s and 90s to return.


The Effect On The Rest Of The Country

In the years that followed, there have been a several instances of police brutality in large cities, and small towns as well. While no single case ever reached the magnitude of Rodney King, we witnessed what at the time was the biggest response to police brutality in the case of Mike Brown, an 18 year old who was killed in the summer of 2014. After an altercation, Brown was shot several times by officer Darren Wilson in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson. Political leaders would make their way to the small Missouri suburb in the weeks that followed, along with several hundred protesters.

There was a revolt that took place, citizens were outraged, businesses were burned, and of course the cameras weren’t too far behind. From the events, this generation got the opportunity to stand against the system. Many organizations would form afterwards, and it also served as the catalyst for a gang truce in the streets of St Louis. Once again something bad, has served as the start of many things good. Marches throughout the country and world were held in solidarity with those in and around St Louis, and while Wilson would never face charges for the crime, the event helped awaken the revolutionary spirit in yet another generation of young people.

That revolutionary spirit would not lay dormant long, on April 15th, 25 year old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray was arrested by two officers on bike patrol, and another on regular duty. Video surfaced of him unable to stand, before being dragged to the police van. The events that followed have yet to be fully uncovered, all that is known is Gray ended up in a coma, and was pronounced dead a week later. Amongst his injuries was a nearly severed spine.

As the story broke, protests would follow. Thousands peacefully marched through the dangerous streets of East and West Baltimore before finally reaching downtown. What would happen next is what made this a national story. As marchers approached the Baltimore Oriels’ stadium Camden Yards, fans began to allegedly throw beer on them, and used racial epitaphs, prompting a violent outburst by the local youth. Cars that were honking at protesters, and screaming obscenities were damaged, along with Baltimore City Police vehicles.

The anger and frustrations of the community were put on display for the world to see, stores were burned and looted. While it was nowhere near the magnitude of LA, it was a reminder to America that you can only push a community so hard for so long until eventually they push back. All news media directed their efforts towards the happenings of Baltimore, and as fate would have it, all of these events occurred within days of the 23 year anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising. Maybe it’s a sign of things to come, or maybe its just a coincidence.

Like LA before, it also allowed the opportunity for the nation to see that the Bloods and Crips had also formed a truce, what the country was not aware of is the fact that this truce had been standing since the Ferguson uprising, some 7 months prior. As a photo of the members of both gangs, along with the Nation Of Islam made it to the mainstream, the same tactic used in the 92 truce was once again brought out. Within hours of the photo appearing on social media, the Baltimore Police released a letter, stating that it had reliable “sources” that relayed the message of the gangs joining forces to take the police to war.

As TV cameras rolled, members of the gangs have come forward to say that this information is beyond false, that the truce is simply to preserve black life, and to restore order back in the community after the unrest. The National Guard was deployed to the streets of Baltimore and after about 72 hours or so. As I type this, order is still being restored, and while the majority of the protests went on without any trouble, it was that very trouble that made this story news worthy, much like what happened in LA some 23 years prior.


What Can We Learn From The L.A. Uprising

As we go into the future, as painful as it is to admit, police brutality isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. With the access to social media, and camera phones being common place, there will only be more ‘Rodney King-like’ videos to appear online. Police have always abused power, but the ball is now in our court as citizens. Once the flames were put out in Ferguson, Attorney General (at the time) Eric Holder started a Department Of Justice investigation into the practices of the Ferguson police department. During the course of the investigation, once again Darren Wilson would not be charged with any crime in connection to the death of Mike Brown, but what was uncovered was quite telling.

Numbers indicated that Ferguson Police specifically targeted African-Americans more so than others, be it for something as simple as a traffic infraction or just through routine stops. It lead to the resignation of not only Officer Wilson, but also of the sitting police chief Thomas Jackson would retire in March of this year. The family of Mike Brown also has a pending lawsuit against the city, Officer Wilson, and the former Chief, Jackson. Those cases are still pending, and will probably take months, if not years to settle.

The damage done to the small city is in the process of being rebuilt, there has also been somewhat of an overhaul in not only the department but also in certain parts of city hall. Kind of makes you wonder if not for the many protesters, and even the rioters would the light be shined so bright on such a small community? Odds are probably not. While statistics indicate that a black man is killed by police every 28 hours or so, how many Ferguson’s and Baltimore’s will there be in the near future.

In the week after the Baltimore uprising, the 6 officers who arrested and transported Freddie Gray were charged in his death, its too soon to say if these charges will stick, and they will stand trial or if they will eventually be dropped. Even if the officers are put on trial, there’s always the possibility that they can be acquitted, as seen in the Rodney King case, so there are no guarantees, except for the fact that it will happen again of course.

Where we can learn, and not make the same mistakes as LA, in the case of Baltimore the majority of those responsible for the revolt were the cities youth. I personally refuse to condemn their actions, because they play a role in the change that most big city police forces need. The youth helped get the attention of the nation, something the mayor, governor or president couldn’t do. Now that the spotlight is on Baltimore, its up to the intellectuals to come in and sit at a table and discuss the very frustrations that fuel situations like this. But will that happen? That remains to be seen.

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