Fuck The Police: A Musical Sentiment From NWA To Ferguson
, May 18th, 2015 12:18
With police violence against African Americans once more dominating the news, Paul Rekret goes back to NWA's 'Fuck The Police' for an analysis of rap's musical counter attack
Photograph courtesy of 1000 Words/Shutterstock
"This is non-violent protest music". So said Ice Cube recently in an interview announcing a forthcoming biopic of his former group N.W.A. His claim is rather timely. "Fuck the Police", the musical refrain popularised 1988 by "the world’s most dangerous group", is having something of a moment. Occasioned by collective anger at American law enforcement’s proclivity for murdering Black men at the rate of once every 28 hours, the song - or rather, songs - deserve inquiry.
Dismissal of Ice Cube's claim is likely. N.W.A. are better known for lyrics depicting misogyny, homophobia and violence without which many of their songs would be, if not altogether silent, at least palpably shorter. There’s also a tendency to reduce 'Fuck The Police' to cliché progressivist demands for free speech, as both Ice Cube and the schlocky narrative of the N.W.A. film imply (imagine Ice Cube as the Jim Morrison/Val Kilmer character).
But as jaunty parody backed by James Brown's ubiquitous 'Funky Drummer' break, N.W.A.’s 'Fuck The Police' registered a changing lived reality for a substantial portion of America at the hands of a brutal form of policing and the prison industry it feeds. In doing so, it laid out a set of affects that would echo across the better part of nearly three decades of hip-hop.
It's Gonna Be a Bloodbath
A frenzied array of soul guitar licks and drum breaks, the mise en scene of 'Fuck The Police' is of courtroom testimonies making up its three verses, each sung by one of the group's then three main MCs. Sandwiched by an earworm chorus, each verse follows the pattern laid out by Ice Cube's opening gambit. Claims of injustice and brutality ("They have the authority to kill a minority... Thinking every nigga sellin' narcotics") sit alongside braggadocio fantasies of violent revenge ("Beat a police out of shape and when I'm done bring the yellow tape").
So rather than refute the popular equation of Blackness with criminality N.W.A. redeploy it as parody, as more discerning critics have noted. Hyperbolic masculinity contests police who appear as dangerous but bumbling and effeminate clowns. Spectacular and visceral fun is had in replying to police brutality with an imagined violence of epic proportions; a theatre also performed in the contemporaneous video to 'Straight Outta Compton' which stages Eazy-E's rescue of the rest of the group from custody.
Context might not be everything but for any account of N.W.A.'s 'Fuck The Police' that wants to avoid thinking it as symptomatic of cultural affliction, the changing social conditions of many, if not most, African Americans is a good place to start.
Responding to growing labour militancy and declining profits in the 1970s, capital rapidly abandoned U.S. industrial cities. White America followed, welcoming racial integration with suburban decampment. Through consequent revolts against welfare programmes upon which the urban poor relied, together they shut the door firmly behind them.
This lead to a problem of social control since, in the case of the American inner-city turned redundant to capital, the inmates were not going to be allowed to run the asylum. Enter Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who bequeathed to America a 'law and order' rhetoric that has since become the air that politics breathes. The need and the will thus came to exist to warehouse inner-city populations overwhelmingly fated to precarious, poorly paid work, if not a state of permanent unemployment.
Federal and state governments dutifully responded in the 1970s and 80s with what the anthropologist LoÏc Wacquant has called a "de facto policy of carceral affirmative action" towards African Americans. 'Three strikes' laws and a 'war on drugs' entailed permanent militarised surveillance of poor communities so that as geographer Ruth Gilmore has shown, by the time N.W.A. released 'Fuck The Police' in 1988, crime and drug use rates were decreasing yet the prison population was exploding.
Now Let’s Define the Term Called Dope
N.W.A. weren't the only group in the late 1980s offering a musical chronicle to this changing social reality. Releasing their first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987 – notable as the year in which black men came to outnumber whites in U.S. Prisons – Public Enemy only truly took up their pretensions to be 'Black America's CNN' in their 1988 follow-up, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
P.E.'s militant affectations literally and figuratively adorned them. Dressed as soldiers, members performed a dance of fitful marching on stage to foregrounded drum breaks and clipped guitar and horn samples. Vocals often filtered through megaphone effects implied an address to an imagined assembly. Lyrics sometimes tended towards the pedantic, preaching a mind over matter politics as if everyone had bootstraps by which to pull themselves up.
Two tracks from Nation Of Millions in particular show how a pose of social documentary risked partial, if not distorted understanding. 'Night Of The Living Baseheads' portrayed crack addicts as zombies while vilifying dealers, implying drug consumption and distribution are just bad decisions. 'She Watch Channel Zero' condemned women whose "brains being washed" by a sofa-bound life watching soap operas. Ostensibly educational, the song aped attacks on parasitic 'welfare moms' used to justify cuts to welfare.
Both the attraction and the limitations of N.W.A.'s vision are gleaned in their differences from Public Enemy. Narrated from a first person perspective, their songs largely eschewed the sorts of conceits risked by P.E. lyricist Chuck D, offering instead, as the writer Robin Kelly has noted, a not necessarily coherent negotiation of the relationship between conditions as they are lived and decisions as they are made. For critic Tricia Rose, the gangsta as avatar provided an accessible if narrow critique of poverty, exploitation, and especially the carceral system that reinforces them. And what more accessible critique could there be than the one that repeatedly chants "fuck the police"?
Off the pigs?
While the single for 'Fuck The Police' was sufficiently popular (it charted at #37) for the group's label, Ruthless Records, to receive notice from the FBI, N.W.A. were by no means the only group of the period to address police violence and the militarist tactics widely imported from the Vietnam war and Latin American counter-insurgency operations.
By comparison, notable tracks such as Boogie Down Productions' 'Who Protects Me From You?', LL Cool J's 'Illegal Search', and Main Source's 'Friendly Game Of Baseball' all remain within a moral register condemning the violent system of mass incarceration. BDP's KRS-One for instance, asks "who are they really protectin'? The rich? The poor? Who?" while Main Source employ the metaphor of a rigged baseball game to brilliant effect: "they shot him in the face, sayin' he was tryin' to steal a base". None of these however, match NWA 's debauchee vision of a righteous vengeance by the caricatured criminals society imagined them to be.
If 'Fuck The Police' is read as a Black Nationalist withdrawal of legitimacy from state violence, then we might imagine it as a mutated rhetorical inheritance from the Black Panther slogan of 'Off The Pigs'. But herein lies the rub: much like the 1992 L.A. riots for which the track might be taken as prophecy if not anthem, frequent reduction to a pathological expression of cultural self-destruction has entailed ignorance of it as political gesture.
This sort of decontextualisation and individualisation also made 'Fuck The Police' open to consumption by a dominant white culture that co-opts it as adolescent rebellion and the assertion of male power. In fact, more than 80% of the album's sales were in mostly white suburbs - partly because that’s just where records were mainly sold. But also because the group's first person perspective, affording little critical distance to the experience it described, produced a nihilism easily digested by the dominant culture.
But who protects me from you?
We might take the L.A. riots as marking something of a historical shift in anti-police rap. Set against the background of proliferating 'three strikes' laws and Bill Clinton's massive cuts to social welfare, groups of the period tended to adopt particular sets of ingredients supplied by N.W.A.: one part claim of racist injustice - often borrowing BDP's refrain of "who protects me from you?" - one part revenge fantasy.
KRS-One's 1993 hit 'Sound Of The Police', still regularly heard at street protests, is a standout from the period. The song's addictive chorus is both warning call (the repeated "Whoop! Whoop!" aping sirens) and biblical derogation ("the sound of the beast"). One lyric, drawing a continuity between the police officer and the slave overseer is rather insightful, given some historians take slave patrols as America's first organised police forces. Another line is rather less subtle: "the police them have a little gun, so when I’m in the street I carry a bigger one".
In the same year, fellow New Yorker Big L's 'Fed Up With The Bullshit' similarly drew on claims of injustice and warning of violent revenge while Bay Area rapper Mac Dre's 'Punk Police' noted the indistinction between the police and any other gang.
Two tracks from the 90s are particularly noteworthy for mobilising these tropes to great effect. UGK's Pimp C raps an ecstatic comic-horror fantasy of killing not only a cop who harassed him, but the attendees at his funeral (!) on 1994's 'Protect And Serve'. In 'G Code' Houston's Geto Boys affirm not only their refusal to cooperate with police but repudiate the legitimacy of the legal system itself, living instead, as the title suggests, by a code of informal street rules.
Special notice though, should go to the masterful musical putting to work of anger and frustration in Jay Dee's 2011 version of 'Fuck The Police'. Reportedly recorded immediately following some quotidian harassment, the song is a minimalist masterpiece. Consisting only of the sort of heavily EQ'd drums for which he's reputed accompanied by a lengthy funk flute sample, the song pushes forward with a pulsating energy that matches its fury. A call and response chorus deftly blends the ferocity of a vocal invitation to join a collective chant of "fuck the police" with a musical invitation to dance.
Innocence and Insurrection
The post-9/11 era was one of intensified militarisation of policing, with forces importing both equipment and techniques from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, widespread adoption of 'zero tolerance' policies criminalised the most minor municipal infractions, partly in support of gentrification processes tied to financial speculation in real estate. Despite this, there is a scarcity of anti-police rap in the period. Of course police have parts to play in the hyper-masculine tales of criminal virtuosity that frequently function as vessels for the expression of daily struggle in rap, but the past decade and a bit provides few notable anti-police brutality anthems.
For whatever reason, this seems to change in the era following the 2007 economic crisis. For instance, in 2008 Styles P not only echoes NWA's song title as well as the sorts of funk piano and bass loops they popularised in the 1990s, but also samples an early NWA concert recording, the crowd chanting the refrain. But while the song explicitly pays homage to NWA, it is more characteristic of the 90s message of injustice mastered by BDP: "now we all know the hood got drugs, but the burbs do too so go there and draw blood".
Conversely, Slim Thug's 2013 rendition is not musically notable – its swirling synths and half-time breaks were by that point a stale rehashing of Southern rap devices, but lyrically, it marks a notable return to the fantasy of violent retribution. While there's a boisterous silliness in Ice Cube's challenge to a police officer to a fight, its ultimately reinforced by some appeal to justice – lyrics, after all, are delivered as courtroom testimony. By contrast, Slim Thug's partisan outlook recalls the relativism of Thomas Hobbes more than the ethical appeal of 'who protects us from you?':
"Its a prison built every minute
and the White folks try to keep us niggas in there
we ain't havin that bullshit no more
we gonna reach that limit
I got guns, we got guns
so fuck the prison sentence"
But if, as Joshua Clover has written in a trenchant essay on the Ferguson uprising, "every generation gets the fuck the police it deserves", then Clover is right to suggest that its folk hero Lil Boosie's version of the invective that serves as a kind of totem for the present. This is especially given its status as an anthem at Ferguson; reportedly blasted from car stereos throughout the weeks of protest and rioting.
Boosie's track is as remarkable for its circuitous history as it is for its musical intensity. Just months after the mixtape including the song was released in 2009, Boosie was sentenced to eight years for conspiring to smuggle marijuana and ecstasy. He served five years in the infamous Angola maximum security prison in his home state of Louisiana, notable for having the highest incarceration rate in a country with the world's highest incarceration rate.
Boosie’s version, like Slim Thug’s, is set apart by his refusal to countenance any appeal to legal justice. But instead of only fantasizing violent revenge, he also combines lifelong frustration in verse with a chorus of unrivalled anger. Punctuated by his thick Southern drawl and almost feminine sing-song voice, the first verse is indicative of the at times devastating account of a lifetime of quotidian police brutality:
"They killed Venelle when I was 12, turned me against 'em
Sent me to my first funeral now I'm a victim (of the law)
My daddy called em pigs, I'll never forget
He went to jail on Highland road, for tryna piss
Kicked my auntie Trina door, lookin for my cousin
Looked at me across the street and said boy you ugly
Made 11 dat was my first run in with them busters
When stupid roughed me up cause I told em motherfucka"
This blues verse is punctuated by a chorus uttered in time to off-beat snare hits, the three words screamed rather than sung. Boosie moves to and fro between pain and of anger, his only resolution is total negation: "Cities, Fuck 'em!, Narcotics, Fuck em!, Feds, Fuck em!, D.A.'s, Fuck em!" Potency lies with the refusal to countenance any possibility of reform.
Bound by the device of first person narration which also lends them their power, Boosie's vision, like N.W.A.'s, is not always cohesive or coherent. Coherence however, comes with its own pretensions, risks and costs. Nonetheless, what seems to have disappeared in the twenty odd years separating Boosie’s 'Fuck The Police' from N.W.A.’s is any assertion of injustice at all and so with it, any indication that things might get better. This is a fundamental transformation and its unclear whether there’s any turning back from it. Boosie’s will by no means be the last word, its just not clear what’s left to be said?
To backtrack a bit then, Ice Cube might indeed be right; this is "protest music", though not in the terms he seems to imply. And so, despite what a chorus of critics might think, politicised music is not dead, it just might be, as with crowds in Ferguson and now Baltimore, eliciting a politics more radical than the dominant culture is prepared to hear.