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“Fuck Tha Police”: N.W.A’s Most Courageous Song Is Still as Relevant as Ever

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Today’s premiere of the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton has everyone thinking back to a time when the streets of L.A. were burning, and “Fuck Tha Police” was blasting from car tape decks everywhere. The timing of the new movie could not be better, given that “Fuck Tha Police” has become the anthem of a new wave of activists fighting against police brutality and racism around the country.

Upon its original release on N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton LP in 1988, the song was safely titled “_ _ _ _ Tha Police (Fill in the Blanks),” and the album cover was among the first to feature the infamous “Parental Advisory” label, warning moms and dads about the album’s explicit lyrics. A censored version of the LP even omitted the song entirely. In spite of the controversy the record caused, it went double platinum, the first album to do so without the support of mainstream radio.

According to some reports, Dr. Dre did not even want to put this song on the LP, but after he and Eazy-E were harassed by the LAPD for shooting paintball guns, he changed his tune. “Our people been wanting to say, ‘Fuck the police’ for the longest time,” Ice Cube explained in 1989. “If something happened in my neighborhood, the last people we’d call was the police. Our friends get killed; they never find the killer. 387 people were killed in gang activity in L.A. In 1988.” This reality is driven home in scene after scene of the new film, to the point where outrageous police harassment becomes almost routine. 

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Life in late ’80s L.A. was bleak for many lower-income residents, after the outsourcing of union jobs to overseas left 45% of African-American males in South Central L.A. unemployed. In 1987, Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates launched Operation Hammer, a large-scale attempt to crack down on gang violence. On August 1, 1988, one week before the release of Straight Outta Compton, 88 LAPD officers raided two apartment buildings in southwest L.A. “to deliver a strong message to the gangs.” The cops smashed furniture, destroyed family heirlooms, ruined food and clothing, and humiliated and beat residents of the buildings, causing so much damage that the Red Cross stepped in to provide aid to the survivors.

Between 1984 and 1989, there was a 33% spike in citizen complaints of police brutality, complaints that went largely ignored by the LAPD. Between 1986 and 1990, 1,400 officers were investigated for using excessive force, but less than 1 percent were prosecuted. Operation Hammer saw the arrest of over 50,000 people by 1990, with more young black people being arrested by the LAPD than at any time since the Watts riots, which took place 50 years ago this week.

“A war on gangs, to me, is a politically correct word to say a war on anybody you think is a gang member,” Ice Cube remarked during a recent panel discussion about the film. “So the way we dressed and the way we looked and where we come from, you can mistake any kid for a gang member—any good kid. Some of them dress like gangbangers, and they go to school every day because that’s the fashion in the neighborhood. So that meant a war on every black kid with a baseball hat on, with a T-shirt on, some jeans and some tennis shoes. It was just too much to bear, to be under that kind of occupying force, who was abusive. It’s just, enough is enough. Our music was our only weapon,” he added. “Nonviolent protest.”

Kids from the streets were glad to hear their stories finally being told, but the establishment was not so pleased with Straight Outta Compton. N.W.A soon became known as the “World’s Most Dangerous Group” after outrage against the album’s explicit content led to the album being banned from radio play. When N.W.A toured to promote the album, “local police departments faxed a version of the song’s lyrics from city to city, and since off-duty police officers often double as concert security personnel, promoters found it increasingly difficult to put on N.W.A. concerts without them.” This pressure led several promoters to cancel N.W.A.’s gigs, and cops rushed the stage in Detroit as soon as they tried to play “Fuck Tha Police.”

The song even caught the notice of the federal government, as N.W.A. discovered when their label, Ruthless Records, received a letter from Assistant Director of the FBI Milt Ahlerich. “Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action,” the letter read. “Recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.”

Although facing discrimination and brutality at the hands of cops was an everyday reality for minorities, suburban America still refused to believe that this discrimination was happening. This all changed in 1992 when the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers was caught on video. After the cops who beat King were found innocent, the city exploded into violence, quickly escalating into the largest urban uprising in U.S. history, causing $1 billion in damage. The unrest finally got the attention of CNN and world news, and former L.A. mayor Tom Bradley was at last forced to launch an investigation into the LAPD.

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The investigation, popularly known as the Christopher Commission, found that a significant number of cops regularly used excessive force, and that “repeat offenders” on the force were not disciplined or fired for their actions. The investigation found that only 42 out of over 2,000 allegations of excessive force by the LAPD were sustained, leaving more than 98% of these complaints unaddressed.

But anyone listening to N.W.A already knew the facts. Since the genre’s birth in the late 1970s, hip hop served as a mirror, reflecting exactly what was happening to young people of color in this country, carrying on the tradition of protest music that supported the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s and early ’70s. The connection between rap and the riots is driven home clearly by Straight Outta Compton—and has been explored in other films as well, including the 2012 documentary Uprising.

From “Fuck Tha Police” to Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke,” rappers were reporting exactly what was happening in their neighborhoods, from L.A. to NYC. As early as 1982, Melle Mel was letting listeners know what life was like as a young black man in the South Bronx via Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” In 1985, Toddy Tee released “Batterram,” telling the story of the armored vehicle that the LAPD used to batter down the front doors of suspected crack houses in the city. (The dreaded batterram makes a cameo appearance in Straight Outta Compton.) Meanwhile on Strong Island, Public Enemy let the world know that “911 Is a Joke” for people living in the ghetto and encouraged them to stand up and “Fight the Power.”

Dre carried on the story of L.A.’s streets after he left N.W.A, using actual video footage shot during the L.A. riots in “The Day the Niggaz Took Over.” KRS-One’s 1993 “Sound of da Police” was heard as often as the actual sound of the police. UGK’s “Protect and Serve” from 1994 mocked the cops’ failure to uphold their oath while detailing violent revenge fantasies against abusive cops. Ice-T’s rap-rock hybrid “Cop Killer” sparked a wave of controversy and law enforcement backlash that rivaled “Fuck Tha Police,” which eventually led to his band Body Count losing their major label record contract. The list of politically charged hip hop tracks released in the ’80s and ’90s goes on and on, telling the stories that the newspapers didn’t want to tell. “We’re almost like headline news,” Chuck D famously said in 1989. “Rap music is the invisible TV station that black America never had. Public Enemy and rap music are dispatchers of information.”

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Moving into the 21st Century, hip hop became one of the biggest and most successful genres of music, securing rappers million-dollar record contracts as well as million-dollar advertising sponsorships. But with all that money came a decline in politically charged material, as major-label hip hop artists began to focus on radio-friendly topics like relationships, personal beefs, and bling. Aside from Jay Z describing being stopped by Jersey cops in his 2004 hit99 Problems,” hearing a major radio hip hop hit that criticized the police became less common.

As the focus of mainstream hip hop shifted from the realities of life in the ‘hood to mansions and premium vodka, the media began to describe a “post-racial” America where the problems of racism that the country has struggled with for centuries had finally been put to rest. Ice-T, who once sang a song called “Cop Killer,” became a cop himself on Law & Order: SVU. Right-wing pundits used President Obama’s election as proof that racism was a thing of the past.

But in reality, discriminatory policing and police brutality against minorities did not stop. Isolated killings of black men like Oscar Grant and Sean Bell by cops briefly made headlines, but it took the shooting of Michael Brown to re-focus the country’s attention on police violence against minorities. The deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and many more unarmed black men began making the news, and it wasn’t long before violence erupted in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson.

As protests and anger against the police grew, “Fuck Tha Police” became the anthem for a new movement of civil rights protesters. In Ferguson, chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” turned to “Fuck Tha Police” as the protests turned to riots. In Denver, protesters dumped red paint over a police memorial and tagged the back of it “fuck the police” during a Black Lives Matter protest. As N.W.A found out, even just saying “fuck the police” draws the risk of further persecution by the police. After the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore, city officials compiled a list of anyone who posted social media hashtags like #fuckthepolice or #blacklivesmatter, and categorized them as “threats.”

With acts of police brutality caught on video, protesters chanting “fuck the police,” and riots in the streets, it is starting to feel like early ’90s L.A. all over again. But one thing has changed: mainstream hip hop is no longer reflecting what’s happening in the streets. Instead, technology has taken on this role, with mobile phone video and social media allowing the latest police killing to be recorded and shared to the world instantly. And for this new generation of activists, “Fuck Tha Police” remains as powerful now as it did in 1988. As Ice Cube himself pointed out recently, “‘Fuck Tha Police’ was 400 years in the making. And it’s still just as relevant as it was before it was made.”

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