OK, so Compton isn’t actually Los Angeles, but then neither is Beverly Hills which is widely featured in other songs of this series. Perhaps the series title refers to the county rather than the city. In any case, there is a striking lacuna of songs south of I-10, let alone south of I-105. And South Central is even in the city proper.
Police brutality and police corruption is certainly not a distinguishing feature of Los Angeles, per se. Other American, and worldwide, cities have more than their share of it. But few other places can match the breadth, scope, or duration of persistent abuse, and its incendiary results, that our city has managed, from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, to the 1965 Watts Riots, to the 1992 Rodney King uprising, to the long-standing, systematically brutal Rampart Division, to the 2007 Police riot in McArthur park. Sure, Hollywood’s culture industry is venal, and the plastic people of Melrose and Ventura Avenues are trite and foolish; but it is the century long culture of official violence that has shaped the city more fundamentally.
NWA’s album Straight Outta Compton is pivotal in several ways, and especially so the song “Fuck Tha Police.” You can more or less read the simmering history of the next four years after its 1988 release through the 1992 riots right out of the tone and sentiment of the song. The hyper-violence of NWA’s lyrics, for all its bluster and possible retrograde attitude, reflects an actual politically dissident reality from LA’s underclasses. Take this:
Fuck tha police
Comin straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad cuz I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
At the same time, this song represents a musical shift. It brings a DIY attitude of punk and lo-fi into rap music, while shifting the cultural center of rap from New York and Boston to Los Angeles. Or at least it made LA enough of a presence in the genre’s axis to represent another stylistic pole. Even wrapped in the new hyperbolic toughness of gangster rap, there is a levity and humor to NWA. Can anyone quite avoid reminiscence on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” in:
Fuckin with me cuz I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics
The song as a whole, of course, is a framed narrative of a mock trial of the brutal LA police, concluding with:
The jury has found you guilty of bein a redneck,
whitebread, chickenshit muthafucka.
Wait, that’s a lie. That’s a goddamn lie.
I want justice! I want justice!
Fuck you, you black muthafucka!
In a broader context, “Fuck Tha Police” also became a touchstone to national and international debate over censorship and free speech, being banned and blocked in many places, and hence seeing increased sales and protest radio play in those places escaping direct censorship (or covertly under censorship regimes). A whole lot of Los Angeles is condensed into a few minutes of song.
Epilogue: Into the 1990s and 2000s, of course, gangsta rap became just another deadeningly successful cultural motif, with far less clever lyrical hyper-violence (and misogyny and homophobia) becoming keys to wide record sales. The genre, done with far less musical or lyrical skill than NWA, became the mainstay of MTV, Hollywood movies, and the general culture of America. It would be foolish to read into these few young rappers much of a political program and sophisticated radicalism. On the other hand, I do not think NWA (the young versions of themselves, until they became the various things the members became), should be held to account for the later co-optation of the genre they mostly launched.
Also read more posts in this series.