[Editor's note: Over the past week West Coast Sound has been speaking with rappers and writers whose work has been influenced by the L.A. riots, to coincide with their 20th anniversary yesterday.]
Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop, perhaps the most important book about hip-hop ever written. In the tome he explores West Coast rap through the lens of the riots (among other subjects). We spoke with him about how politics and hip-hop affected, and were affected by, the riots.
Where were you when you heard about the riots?
I was actually working in Sacramento at the time. I remember coming home and turning on the TV and hearing about the verdict coming down. I remember just being glued to the TV all night, watching the fires, and just thinking about how hip-hop predicted the riots in so many ways. I wasn't actually in Los Angeles at the time. I was working in the state legislature. But I knew it was going to be a turning point in my life and a lot of people's lives.
You titled the book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of The Hip-Hop Generation. So hip-hop culture, not hip-hop music, inspired the riots?
No, hip-hop culture didn't inspire the riots. The hip-hop movement didn't inspire the riots. What inspired the riots were the conservative politics that Democrats jumped on board with. With neoliberal economics, there was a whole shift in the state where it was abandoning the folks in society who needed [social services] the most.
Hip-hop was just a way for people to express what was happening, and do so in their own voice. And not have to be pleading to politicians, journalists or civil rights leaders to articulate their views. It was like "I'm gonna say what's on my mind, and this is how I'm feeling."
So to clarify, hip-hop predicted the riots, not help start them?
Hip-hop was a way that young people had to be able to express themselves. And what we heard in hip-hop, in the late '80s through 1993, was a lot of youth under a lot of pressure. We heard a lot of raw stuff. We heard a lot of stuff that didn't fit our political notions of what liberation looked like. It had challenged a lot of people on the left and on the right. On the right, obviously it started a whole set of culture wars. After the riots, you have Actor Charlton Heston taking Ice-T to task about "Cop Killer."
But Body Count's "Cop Killer" was punk, not hip-hop.
Exactly! And that was the whole thing. They came down on hip-hop, but that was Ice-T's heavy metal experiment...So the labels didn't feel the pressure to get rid of other heavy metal bands. They felt the pressure to drop a bunch of rappers.
You write that hip-hop targeted president George H. W. Bush, who was serving at the time.
There was a huge recession beginning in 1991 that preceded the riots. And Death Certificate was dropped right into the middle of this. [Bush] had gone to war in the Persian Gulf in part to draw attention away from the huge decline in the economy and the rising unemployment rate. And of course, this was felt most intensely in the ghettos, in the barrios, and the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles of predominately young people of color. Bush was a huge target on Death Certificate. He was a huge target on a lot of these records. There was a song out that a rapper named Paris had written called "Bush Killa."
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Do you believe NWA's phrase "fuck the police" seeped into the culture?
Yeah, it was deep. The weekend after the riots, there was a huge rally in Koreatown. Like hundreds of thousands of Korean Americans rallied. And their essential message was not "Fuck the police," but was pretty much like that.