On the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, Ice Cube remembers where he was when the uprising broke, and how hip hop fueled the insurgence
Twenty years ago, when the L.A. riots were ignited on April 29, 1992, a single man’s life became the catalyst for a rap revolution led by Ice Cube and a handful of other hip-hop icons. By the time of Rodney King’s beating, rap had already put its stakes firmly into the American musical underpinning, giving birth to both intellectual discourse on race relations and social injustice, as well as unabashed verbal rebuke in the form of gangsta rap. Loud, observant, and demanding of attention, gangsta rap, in particular, became soundtrack to this era of racial instability, and is believed by many to not only have led the nation in cultural exploration, but to have actually prophesized the insurrection.
A prominent voice in the movement, Cube became a rapper and actor who pioneered this subgenre of west coast hip-hop with his anti-authoritative gang of poetic nihilists, N.W.A.. At the time of the riots, he was on to his own initiative, releasing solo records and focusing on a burgeoning career in the movie business.
“I was actually in a movie meeting when the fight broke out,” Cube told theGrio, backstage at K-Day’s annual Krush Groove concert in Hollywood, on the eve of the riots’ 20th anniversary. “When I heard the verdict, I really wanted to end the meeting, you know? I really wasn’t into it after that. And I was on my way home, and you know, I could hear things going down…on Florence and Normandie…. I was like basically, ‘What did they expect to happen?’ It was like a big slap in the face.”
For the entertainer, the riots were the inevitable result of America’s callous disregard for the black community, a by-any-means-necessary approach to prevent the silent removal of an African-American thread in the country’s cultural weave. It was never why, only when. N.W.A. made that clear from the onset, and Cube furthered the storyline throughout his own work.
On his 1991 album, Death Certificate, his second release as a solo artist, the rapper discussed many tensions that would later lead to this outburst, specifically in his song, “Black Korea.”
He explained, “You could feel the tension, could feel the heat in the community. Feel people getting fed up. You know? The police really had carte blanche in our neighborhoods till we did the song “F**k tha Police,” then people really started to actually look at what they were doing. And then the Rodney King incident came out to really show [it]. So, we had been talking about this all along, that it was happening. We had talked about it on my record “Death Certificate,” which was in ‘91. We talked about the tension between Blacks and Koreans, Latasha Harlins…She got shot in the back of the head over some orange juice by a Korean store owner. These kinds of things were starting to fuel animosity and blame and just nastiness.”
The riots initially broke due to public outrage over the acquittal of four policemen caught on tape abusively beating King with their batons, while other officers watched on with no regard. Six days of looting, pillaging and extreme murder ensued, becoming more than merely a statement for King, but one for everyone he represented. After the third day, most of the violence had been extinguished, but the message lived on through rap’s most diligent leaders.
Among the most forthright of music mercenaries, Cube led the way with tracks like “We Had to Tear This Motherf**ker Up,” a song he considers to be most monumental and reflective of the era. Beside him were artists like Tupac Shakur, Ice-T, and Dr. Dre, bringing the context of economic turmoil and youth indignation into the limelight with their expressive beats and rhymes. Others, like Public Enemy, were screaming just as loudly from the opposite coast, telling the world to “Fight the Power” and “Bring the Noise.”
“There was gang truce records, you know, records that really tried to grab the spirit of the riots and what it was about,” said Cube, “It wasn’t about burning buildings, it was about justice. You know, for not just Rodney King, he’s just the spark. Justice for all the Rodney Kings that’s out there that didn’t get on camera, didn’t get on film. At a certain point, people just get so fed up they get violent.”
Yet such momentous rage and subsequent retaliatory action may not have had the lasting impression many activists sought. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death twenty years later, the haunting parallel cannot be overlooked. Shot carrying skittles rather than orange juice, and detonating a nationwide rekindling of racial confrontation, Martin’s death begs the question of whether the U.S. has come full circle since the warfare of the early ‘90s.
“I think we’re sort of in the same place we were. I think that people make a lot of money on us being separated, and those people are still in power and they haven’t moved, and things are pretty much the same,” commented Cube, who famously noted in his track, “Wicked,” that there would one day be a sequel to the riots.
He added, “You still see justice being handed out slow when it comes to black Americans…but I think that arresting George Zimmerman was a big step in showing, you know, we just want the same justice that everybody else want. We’re not asking for anything more.”
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia