Sound & Vision: How Hip-Hop Responded to the Rodney King Verdict 27 Years Ago

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
Ice-T // photo by Glen E. Friedman

April 29th marked the 27th anniversary since four police officers were acquitted of charges of using excessive on Rodney King. Rodney King was a black motorist whose traffic stop and beating was caught on video. Here to talk about the case, its relevance today and its connection to hip-hop music is Dr. Daudi Abe, humanities professor at Seattle Central College.

KEXP:  Before we dive into the Rodney King case, can you set the scene for police relations in LA leading up to the beating of Rodney King?

Daudi Abe: If you go back to the 1950s and 60s then you have the chief at the time William Parker who actively goes out and recruits officers who are Southern white males, ex-military type to come to Los Angeles and to patrol neighborhoods like Watts and South Central. And so you had a pretty deliberate attempt to bring in officers to patrol a neighborhood where the outcome was not going to be one that was based on cooperation and trust and a kind of community involvement. . . And West Coast hip hop really helps kind of set the stage for what's happening here. You have songs like Ice-T's "6’ N The Mornin’" which is kind of viewed as the first West Coast gangsta rap song and the song literally begins with the police at his at his front door. 

You have songs like "Squeeze The Trigger" also by Ice-T where there's a line in there, “cops hate kids, kids hate cops, cops kill kids with warning shots.”

And on the other hand in group form you have NWA, a song and a video like "Straight Outta Compton." And also a song like "F the Police." The genius in this song is the group members casting themselves as judge and prosecuting attornies, putting the police officer on trial. 

If you listen to a lot of what was happening, in a lot of ways they essentially predicted not only what was kind of upcoming but if things didn't change that there was going to be a bad result. You know if you listen to a lot of stuff from that time the message is clearly there. 

Bring us to 1991 where we have this video of Rodney King being beaten by police officers, tell us about that video.  

So on March 3rd 1991 after a brief pursuit, Rodney King who's an Afri African-American motorist who’s on parole at the time and was being pulled over for suspicion of DUI, emerged from his white Hyundai. He was hit with a stun gun, kicked and struck with a baton 56 times for over a minute by four white LAPD officers. There were roughly 17 other officers at the time standing around just kind of watching this. So he's struck over 50 times within about a minute by these officers. Now standing on his balcony maybe a hundred feet or so away is a man named George Holiday and he had just recently purchased one of the things that was the emergent technology of the time which was the hand-held video camera. That is shot on March 3rd on March 4th, Holiday turns that videotape over to a Los Angeles television station KTLA which subsequently broadcast it and it is now not just a local story not just a national story but a worldwide story.

Can you tie that in today where everyone has access to phones and when we see instances of police brutality when people are able to shoot it with their phones we're seeing more and more of this as an example. Can you talk about today's landscape and how we are very much aware of this issue of police brutality especially when it comes towards the African-American community. Do you think this helped fuel what we’re seeing today or do you think we're just able to have more access to showcase that today. 

Yeah, I think that everything that you're seeing and hearing today is just what's been happening the entire time. 

Fast forward to April  5th 1992, nearly a year after this video broke, a trial starts for the four police officers who were charged with using excessive force on Rodney King. And shortly before the trial was supposed to start the trial was moved from downtown Los Angeles to a suburb called Simi Valley. 

[Simi Valley] was known to be the homes of lots of police officers and their families. And so the jury makeup is going to be completely different with the trial being held in a place like Simi Valley then it is going to be in Los Angeles proper. And so all of these things kind of come together. And the trial began on April 5th 1992. It went on for about three weeks and on April 29, 1992 all four officers were found not guilty. And it takes about 30 minutes or so for the four word travel back to South Central L.A. and things start to pop off. . . People start coming out on the streets and you know rocks are being thrown, it’s getting hectic real fast. And stores start getting broken into. And you know here is where you start to see and hear in the music that is kind of released in the aftermath of it, you really start to see hear and feel the utter rage and disgust at the system. You have a song like Ice Cube's “We had to Tear This Mothafucka Up.” One of the lines in the song is, “To get some respect, we had tear his mothafucka up.”

You have another song like Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over.” One of the interesting things about that song is how you have kind of interspersed throughout the song, audio footage from people who were involved, right in the midst of the uprising as it was going on and you also have kind of clips of news people who are on the air kind of describing it as it's happening and talking about fires down at the end of streets.

Do you feel like we’re getting anywhere with more and more videos coming on to the stage. Do you feel like anything is getting better? 

I think it’s pushing discussion and I think that’s where it has to start. . . I think that the Rodney King issue certainly bears some historical marking in the time since it's happened and all that has happened in between. And I also think that the legacy of it. . can be looked at as a starting point for when we were able to really expand the field in terms of honest conversations around race and policing as they relate to so many of these communities around the United States and how they relate to our local police departments. 

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

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