[Editor's note: All this week West Coast Sound is speaking with rappers and writers whose work has been influenced by the L.A. riots, to coincide with their 20th anniversary on April 29.]
Few speak more passionately on the L.A. riots than rapper Thurz, the former member of U-N-I whose well-reviewed 2011 concept album L.A. Riot features songs with titles including “Rodney King.” The work also features clips of residents recounting their experiences, and lyrics detailing the events surrounding the events. We spoke with him about the album, his memories of the time, and other subjects.
Where were you when you learned about the riots?
I was driving from my grandmother's house. She lives on 55th and Central and we were coming west off of Slauson, passing Normandie. And when we reached that intersection, on the southeast corner was a line of police in riot gear with guns and looking crazy. On the opposite side of the street were a lot of angry people from the community. And I saw some news vans and all that. I was like six or seven, and I just remember people walking in the street and it was kinda hard to drive through.
Somebody was throwing something and almost hit my mom's car. But we made it through. You know, we get home and we looking at the news. And we're seeing a lot of pandemonium in the city. And you start hearing about buildings burning and you see footage of it all on TV.
You interviewed people in South Central for your album, right?
We talked to people in the community, recorded a lot of conversations. And we also had people calling in to give us their stories regarding the riots. And when you listen to the album we use a lot of inserts of these audio clips from our research.
I'm referring to my friend Tomas Whitmore. He's a creative director and we do a lot of filming together. He helped out on the L.A. Riot projects. So me and him — and another friend Daniel Figur — we were all together, gathering all this data…We had to make it as real as possible, and as detailed as possible. So we had to go that extra mile for it to be okay to call an album LA Riot. So that was our main reason for just going door to door, gathering all the data. It was just to make it as real as possible and to make sure it didn't come across as just an album that's using this historical event to sell records. We wanted people to make sure we were paying homage to the most historical event in Los Angeles history.
For your “Rodney King” video, you were made up to look disfigured to draw attention to the beating. What went through your head seeing your video for the first time?
When I saw it, I was like, “Wow, this is crazy.” I didn't know it as gonna look like this. It was like starting a drawing that turned into a beautiful painting. That had so much meaning to it.
What do you think was accomplished by the riots?
The only positive thing about it was that the community came together. You had Bloods and Crips who put down their issues to band together. And that wasn't seen before. You saw all likes of people just joining as one. That's probably the best thing about the riots. Other than that, your own city — your own backyard — was burning.
How do you think the riots shaped you?
The riots have affected me by letting people be aware that your skin color can lead to trouble. When you look at the Rodney King situation — and you know Rodney, he wasn't 100 percent innocent in that situation, some of the stuff could have been avoided — but the way he was beaten was very unjust. And it comes down to the question, “Would this have happened to someone who wasn't black?” It makes you think about those issues.
So the riots have shaped me to let me know that I'm a black male and there may be situations that may be unjust. And it almost makes my mentality a little stronger, knowing that I have to work a little harder at anything I do. And I know that I can speak for myself and I'm gonna work for what I need and what I want.
What do you want listeners to take away from LA Riot?
That it takes artistry and somebody dedicated to make an album like that. I want people to be inspired by it. I feel it's a great piece of art that I've created with my friends and I just hope they appreciate it.