25 Years After the Riots: Rapper Ellay Khule Recalls Going From the Studio to the Streets

Ellay Khule
Ellay Khule
Ted Soqui

This is the 11th installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. At the time, rapper Ellay Khule (aka Rifleman) was a young recording artist working on new material in the studio. When breaking news of the riots came on the television, Khule and his fellow musicians knew they needed to be in the streets rather than in the booth.

At the very first hour of it starting, we were in the studio recording songs. We happened to be on a break, and the news interrupted the broadcast on TV saying something was going on at Normandie and Florence. We watched for a while, and after we watched for like 10 or 15 minutes, a couple of us said, "Let’s head down there right now." That’s what we did, and it escalated from there. I remember it only being like 40 people in the street at first, and then it turned into what everybody knows it as. We were involved at the very, very first hour.

I think the reason why it picked up so fast was because at this time in the inner city, the police were Rodney King–ing everybody. That wasn’t a surprise to us, but it was a surprise to people who never saw that or don’t live in the area. It was crazy how big and fast it spread. It hit so many different areas really rapidly.

I remember by day two, we were going into the mall and seeing my buddies from another neighborhood coming out of the mall. We didn’t stop to say hi, we just passed by them and they passed by us. There was no time to stop like that. It was high-paced and going fast. We’d be going somewhere and then it was like, "Pull over, they’re doing something right here." You couldn’t get to a destination because there was so much looting and rioting going on. It was insane. It was the craziest I’ve ever seen any city.

The riots themselves actually brought peace to the people inside of these areas. For two weeks straight, every Crip and every Blood was in one spot. Every black gang in the city came together. Enemy gangs rode in the same cars together. People don’t like to talk about that a lot, but there was more peace inside of the city. From the outside, it looked like mayhem or a war zone or something, but inside it was actually pretty peaceful. They upheld truces for over a year between certain gangs that weren’t getting along before or after that.

Some of the music might’ve influenced the riots or the rebellion or whatever people want to call it. Ice Cube’s album that came out right at that time [Death Certificate] was talking about that exact same stuff. He was right on point. It was almost like he prophesied what was to come in the city.

We made a song that same month called “Another Rodney King,” saying that every black man was just another Rodney King. Then maybe six months later, I made a song called “Fuck a Cop” that’s like “Fuck the Police” on the underground, and over 20 years later, I still have to perform it anytime I still do shows. People still respond and still go crazy. People really picked up on it because it was the voice of the people at the time. There was a lot of social consciousness in music before that, and I think that’s what helped start the riots was that people were politically aware of what was going on. They just didn’t know how to deal with it as a whole, and the riots helped people express themselves.

People talk about how we messed up our own neighborhoods and stuff. Yes, it’s our neighborhood, but they weren’t our businesses. That was one of the problems from the beginning, was that all other races can come into the inner city and build businesses but the people who actually live there don’t have the same opportunity.

I was out there from the very, very beginning to the very, very end, and I didn’t see one person light one fire to anything. I didn’t see people with Molotov cocktails or stuff like that at all. I think some of the business owners were using that to get their insurance money.

In the last day and the week after, there was a double feeling throughout the city. There was a certain calm and a certain peace, but there was also the feeling of destruction as far as visuals. The look of the city was really weird. There were a lot of spots that were burned down and didn’t come back for years — they’re still rebuilding some of them. It put an eyesore on the city as far as a look, and a look can change your feeling. When you look good, you feel good, but when you looked at the city, things didn’t look as they used to. But sometimes in order to build, you must destroy.

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Now, things are flourishing, it’s multiracial, there’s gentrification going on, it’s entirely different. In the ’90s, gentrification wouldn’t have been possible. Now, on every block out here you have white neighbors walking their poodles and things of that nature. That’s not to say the city isn’t still dangerous — because it is — but it’s a lot more calm and understanding.

People look down on the riots and the rebellion, and they talk bad about it — especially if they weren’t involved in it and couldn’t see the impact. It really, really helped how police deal with black youth in the city. Before this, every single stop they were pulling you out of the car, guns out, and you were on the ground. I’m talking about every single traffic stop, all the time. That was protocol. It’s not like that any longer. That’s not to say they’re not still poking at people in the urban cities — because they are — but it’s not the same as it was before. They’ve got better training and better people in there, maybe because of the riots.

It gave the authorities and the people the insight that if things get too bad, then things will get worse. It let the city and other cities as well know that people will react if things get so bad. Over the last 10 years, you see black kids getting shot and other cities rebelling and doing the same type of stuff. It seems like people wait to see what L.A. is doing before they’ll do it. Like, are we just going to march and be civil or are we going to protest and burn stuff up?

What a lot of people don’t understand is that when you don’t have a voice — or you have a voice and nobody listens — and then you get one moment where everybody listens, the approach may not seem like the right way. But if that didn’t happen how it happened, nobody would be having these conversations. People around the world wouldn’t be paying attention to it. It made people listen to the voice of the unheard. We’d always been crying about unjust treatment and police brutality for years before the riots came, but it wasn’t being addressed.

When the riots came, people started paying attention, and after that, we started getting dialogue. I think it helped shine a light on the problem, and whether it was a negative way or a positive way, positive things came out of it. I think it was something that was really needed. I know everybody doesn’t agree, but I was born and raised in the exact same area that all this stuff started. I saw police kick people’s teeth out, knock them unconscious, shoot them, all that stuff. It shined a light on that problem, so in 2017, the problem isn’t what it used to be. It’s still a problem, but it’s nowhere near where it used to be.


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