I Gotta Be Able to Counterattack: Rap and the Los Angeles Riots

"L.A. hip hop, like the punk and skateboarding subcultures of the 1970s, had sprouted from the imaginations of forgotten kids..."

By Jeff ChangMay 3, 2012

    I Gotta Be Able to Counterattack: Rap and the Los Angeles Riots

    image: Bangin on Wax by B+ for Mochilla

    "PROFILING": IN THE EARLY 1980s, the street definition of the word was something like "looking fresh and clean." Most often — as in that party song from the Connecticut crew the Skinny Boyz — "profiling" rhymed with "styling." It celebrated that moment before the first morning bell after summer break when the schoolyard became a fashion runway, the memory of the weekends when the boulevards thrummed sensually, streets filling with tricked-out cars, youths spilling off the sidewalks flirting or trying to get their mack on.

    But by 1989, N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police" essayed a new definition of "profiling," one associated with force, authority, the pathologies of the powerful. That shotgun blast of a song captured all manner of shifts that had taken place: from East Coast to West, revelry to rage, abandonment to containment.

    L.A. hip hop, like the punk and skateboarding subcultures of the 1970s, had sprouted from the imaginations of forgotten kids in depopulated urban spaces. They built codes, rules, and vocabularies for themselves to compensate for scarcity and lack. Their play was the organized chaos of the unseen and the unheard.

    But with the advent of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates' Operation Hammer in 1988 those invisible kids moved into the crosshairs, appearing now as dangerous surplus bodies. "Anti-loitering" was the name of the new discourse. Crenshaw and Westwood Boulevard were shut down. Curfews were imposed. Injunctions were prepared. The CRASH units and battering rams occupied the streets.

    By 1991, L.A. rap was all tension and little release. On Cypress Hill's "Pigs," corrupt cops flooded B-Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs's imaginary Latino real estate (anticipating the Rampart scandal by seven years), as blues guitars oscillated like sirens. On WC & The MAAD Circle's "Dress Code," producer Sir Jinx pitched Duck Dunn's bass and Al Jackson's drums down to a brooding pace, then added Jimmy Nolen's telling guitar squall from — what else? — James Brown's "The Payback." From restaurant to school to nightclub, WC rapped, "Seems like everywhere I turn I'm assuming the position." The logic of "profiling" — in the police's sense — had now penetrated every aspect of daily life in inner-city neighborhoods. The prison was everywhere. Even the apple-for-the-teacher kids of the Pharcyde were begging, "Please don't pull me over, Mr. Officer, please."

    The year culminated with Billboard's unusual call for an industry-wide boycott of Ice Cube's album, Death Certificate. Cube had described it as something close to a mental jailbreak. It was received as an act of sonic terrorism, a 56-minute time bomb whose scattershot targets included Uncle Tom sellouts, Korean-American storekeepers, Al Davis, Cube's former bandmate Eazy-E, Jesse Jackson, the LAPD, and George H.W. Bush.  In retrospect, it seemed, to borrow a line from the French scholar Jacques Attali, like "music [as] prophecy." Ice Cube's subtext was unmistakable: "I predict a riot."


    The searing televised spectacle of the 1992 riots would simply overwhelm most of the art, let alone pop music, that followed. One of the exceptions was Kam's powerful single, "Peace Treaty," recorded amidst the giddy joy unleashed when Watts gangs formed an unprecedented truce just before the riots. Over a hydraulic bassline borrowed from George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," Kam rhymed:

    I’ma always remember this
    Because my niggas made the history books
    And now the mystery looks a lot clearer
    The man in the mirror’s got power

    And there was one last affirmation and prophecy:

    We came to an understanding
    Demanding justice
    Bust this
    We all had our hand in the cookie jar
    Looking for enough to make a statement
    Daryl Gates—that’s where all the hate went

    By the end of June, Gates would be gone. 

    But it was Dr. Dre's The Chronic, released 10 days before Christmas, that became the quintessential post-riot album. The public had been primed. Television had brought middle America closer to the rage of urban youth than ever before; meanwhile, the growing controversy over Ice T and Body Count's "Cop Killer" was bringing rappers (and media multinational Time Warner) closer to middle America's rage than ever before. Against the backdrop of the reintensified culture wars and the patently empty promises to "Rebuild LA," The Chronic seemed a heaven-sent balm, a handshake extended by capital to the kids.

    On singles like "Let Me Ride" and "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," Dr. Dre matched the crossover appeal of another 1991 track: DJ Quik's counterintuitive "Tonite," a seemingly effortless back-porch afternoon gem propelled by a polished bass groove and "day in the life" stories about wild partying the night before. Dre's songs spoke less explicitly than Kam's, but no less powerfully, to the atmosphere of the truce parties, the ecstatic freedom of rolling down the street without having to worry, for once, about cops or enemies. 

    But separated from the prospect of a potential war between armed united gangs and the LAPD — for which authorities were at one point reportedly preparing — The Chronic could also be heard as the beginning of a guiltless, gentrified gangsta: no Treaties, rebuilding demands, or calls for reparations: just the party and bullshit. It was the product that finally and seamlessly closed the gap between the vanilla exurbs and the chocolate inner-cities: a brand-conscious "G" Thang ready for easy consumption.


    The strangest record of the post-riot period was an album called Bangin On Wax, with eight tracks each by rappers from Blood and Crip sets. In the opening skit, an older man confronts a room of loudly skeptical bangers, finally shouting at them, "Take out this motherfucker's ass on the goddamn record! Show the white man you can be smart."

    As art, it wasn't memorable. The bangers rehashed the old themes, lyrics, and samples long ago popularized by gangsta rappers, but with a specificity that most of the professionals wouldn't dare attempt. The Blood and Crip rappers called out their neighborhoods, shouted out their sets, and named their street enemies. Legend has it that the record couldn't be restocked fast enough in Valley Wherehouses.

    But as an artifact of what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism," the album is astonishing: the separation into teams; the factional rivalries; the rhetorical gun-waving; the obsession with performance, both spectacular and meritocratic. Here was "reality rap" as blueprint (or redprint, depending on what state you claimed) for reality TV. The riots marked the moment when neoliberalism finally began to understand the value of multiculturalism. After all, what was the alternative? More fires? The riots were the beginning of a new colorized consensus.

    Meanwhile, at B. Hall and R. Kain Blaze's Leimert Park health food store The Good Life, the Heavyweights crew and dozens of other MCs and DJs were building a "True School" hip-hop avant-garde based on freestyle improvisation. They constrained themselves with rigid conceptual rules (no curses, no use of the words "diggety" or "wiggety," experimentation and booing of wackness highly encouraged) and freed themselves with a D.I.Y. ethic and aesthetic. (Award-winning director Ava DuVernay, a former rapper and open-mic regular, lovingly captures the story in her excellent documentary, This Is The Life.) In a sense The Good Life's spiritual lodestar was 103rd Street after the 1965 riots, where free jazz and spoken-word trailblazers mingled and collaborated at spots like the Watts Writers Workshop and the Watts Happening Coffee House.

    The Heavyweights were centered around Freestyle Fellowship, a local quartet composed of rappers Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter. Like their heroes Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and the Watts Prophets, their influence would be incommensurate with mainstream pop success, though artists like Outkast, Mos Def, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, and Ice Cube would soon cash in on their innovations. In 1993, the Fellowship dropped Inner City Griots, an album that many greeted as rap's equivalent to Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz To Come. On "Inner City Boundaries" Myka 9 sang,

    I gotta be righteous
    I gotta be me
    I gotta be conscious
    I gotta be free
    I gotta be able to counterattack
    I gotta be stable
    I gotta be Black

    The group's poetic manifesto, "We Will Not Tolerate," which was rapped in unison (a throwback to the days when Bronx crews measured their clout by numbers: Treacherous Three, The Funky Four+One More, The Furious Five), included lines stronger than anything Kanye ever apologized for, and kept alive the spirit of '91:

    We will not tolerate
    Daryl Gates
    creates mistakes false facts
    fuck that
    get myyyyy gat

    They concluded, "We will not tolerate...FEAR!" 

    By 1994, young white Hollywood stars were showing up at The Good Life Cafe. TV execs wrote storylines based on the scene. Record deals were signed. Rivalries intensified. Groups imploded. Some artists disappeared back into the mean streets. Some were arrested. Others trooped on, knowing that the times were changing. By the end of the year, The Good Life was over.

    And rap's profile would grow bigger than ever.

    LARB Contributor

    Jeff Chang will be publishing Who We Be: The Colorization of America — on the rise, fall, and messy aftermath of multiculturalism — in early 2013. He is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation


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