The following roundtable discussion was published in Option magazine 25 years ago. The points made in this discussion by members of the L.A. community and a handful of music journalists — including James Bernard, editor of hip-hop magazine The Source; Lee Ballinger, editor of Rock & Roll Confidential; myself (I was editor of Option at the time) and others — are as relevant today as they were a quarter-century ago. I remember the uprising like it was yesterday: sitting on a curb at La Cienega and Sunset boulevards in West Hollywood, just up from my apartment building on Holloway Drive, watching L.A. burn, from Hollywood to my left, over to Koreatown and down to South Los Angeles, which sprawled in front of me. It was positively surreal.
Rap and Rebellion
By Mark Kemp, Option, July 1992
We have been more unified in the last four days than we have been in the last 30 years . . . To the brothers and sisters out there: don’t be hardened that a few businesses were burnt down. It was nothing but urban renewal. We’re cleaning up what was dirty so we can build what is clean.
– Brother JC on L.A. radio station KCRW’s late-night hip-hop show, 5/3/92
SIX DAYS after the words “not guilty” sparked a 36-hour insurrection across Los Angeles, leaving 58 dead, 2,383 injured, 16,755 arrested, and chunks of the city burned to the ground, some 30 people met at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica to talk about the role of pop music in the rebellion. It was an open discussion, and many attendees raised important issues that quite logically extended beyond the scope of music. For the purpose of this column, however, we have excerpted mainly those comments which kept the musical focus.
Speakers include James Bernard, senior editor of the New York-based hip-hop magazine The Source; Lee Ballinger, an editor at the music and politics newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential; Mark Kemp, Option‘s editor; Vernon Odom and photographer Gregory Everett, residents of Los Angeles; and West, a former employee for the band Fishbone.
James Bernard delivered the opening comments.
Bernard: A friend of mine was on the Today show yesterday along with a number of established elected black officials, one of whom was Andrew Young. The host asked her, ‘Who are kids listening to today?’ She said they’re listening to people like Ice Cube, Chuck D, KRS-One. And Andrew Young said something like, ‘Well, people don’t vote for those rappers.’ Now, I don’t remember what my friend’s response was, but she should have said, ‘Well, they don’t vote for you either.’
I was not here for the initial outbreak, and I don’t live in L.A., so I sort of come from the perspective of a person who was not here. What’s funny to me, though, is that the uprising surprised [L.A. police chief] Daryl Gates. The police were so surprised about the outrage, how angry people were, that they were unprepared.
Now anybody at all who has listened even casually to rap music over the last three, four or five years would not have been surprised at the level of anger, the level of political sophistication, and mostly just the level of outrage. But people have an anti-pop music bias; they think pop music just doesn’t matter. To them, some things are meaningful, and that’s high culture, and some things are meaning less, and that’s low culture. And within that anti-pop music bias there’s certainly an anti-rap music bias. People think rappers are…well, just stupid; that they don’t know what they’re saying, they just curse a lot; that it’s not even music, they’re just talking over noise. The reality, though, is that over the last three or four years in particular – and in general, in all of rap’s existence – rap musicians are the only people who’ve addressed these issues head-on in a way that’s at all emotionally honest – and also intellectually honest, but I think the key thing here is that it’s emotionally honest.
If you look at the 1988 song, ‘Fuck Tha Police’, by N.W.A, for instance, they weren’t saying, ‘Oh, these police, we have a problem with them in our neighborhood,’ they were like, ‘These people are my enemy. I hate them.’ And now Daryl Gates is surprised that people want to drive by and shoot cops. Back in ’88, the critical emphasis on that song was, ‘You’re saying bad things. You’re saying things that are irresponsible. You’re using impolite language.’ It wasn’t so much on asking, ‘Why are these people angry?
I’ve done a lot of interviews over the last few days, and I’ve found that a lot of people are making this connection now. People have told me that the first thing they did after the disturbances broke out was reach for a copy of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, because a lot these issues are really tackled on that album. I don’t know if you remember, but when that album was released last Halloween it was attacked from a lot of peoples’ perspectives. People said the songs were violent, that Ice Cube basically called for the assassination of Daryl Gates; they thought the album was racist because of the song ‘Black Korea’, which actually addresses the tensions in the black community with the Asian store owners. But, again, instead of asking, ‘Why is Ice Cube so angry? Why does he feel this frustration?,’ people chose to attack him and say, ‘Stop saying these things, that’s not polite.’ I think that’s the wrong response. If anybody at all had tried to address these issues in a more positive way earlier on, from what I can tell about this situation, a lot of what happened could have been avoided.
Everett: A friend of mine went to Trinidad for Carnival and when he came back I asked him how it was. He said, ‘You know what? I know how it feels to be white.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I could go any place, in any store, and people weren’t looking at me, the police weren’t looking at me.’ When the average white person is driving down the street in Los Angeles and they see the police it’s kind of like when a black person is driving down the street and sees a bus or something. You see them, but it’s no big deal. It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a policeman.’ But when we see the police a chill runs down our spine. The question is, ‘Are they going to fuck with me?’ And we let each other know. We have to warn each other, saying, ‘There’s goes a one-time’ – we call the police one-times because it only takes one time for them to fuck you up. We have to alert each other when we haven’t done anything at all.
Ballinger: If you go back and look at what happened during the Watts rebellion – and before Watts – almost no artist, writer, filmmaker, or musician spoke out. I would almost say none did, but there’s probably an exception to prove that wrong. The point is that when the deal went down back then, everybody said the police and the Army had to get it back under control. There weren’t any articles saying, ‘Ice-T and Ice Cube said this,’ and there weren’t any press releases saying, ‘No Justice, No Peace.’ All these types of things that have happened this time did not happen back then. For instance, we all know that right now – tonight, as we’re talking – people are in recording studios all across America putting down their thoughts about this. And it’s not just rappers either.
I think we should know what the role of artists is in our society during this period of potential revolutionary change. One aspect of it is just being the conscience. There’s no question that in the past seven, eight, nine years musicians have been the conscience of the world. On any issue where you could guarantee that most politicians, church leaders, etc. wouldn’t say anything, musicians were out making records, organizing concerts, doing benefits, and pointing, pointing, pointing their fingers all the time. Now that the stakes are raised ever further, I think a lot more people in music are going to come forward. Ten million people in L.A. can’t get together physically, right? So we depend on our musicians, writers and filmmakers to be the link between us.
Odom: A lot of white people don’t want to know what’s going on in the ‘hoods, because if they know it gives them the responsibility to have to deal with it within themselves. It means they have to change within themselves, that they have to meet us half way. A lot of white people are in denial. They’ll say, ‘I’m not racist. How dare you call me racist?’ Admitting it means that you have to take more responsibility for your own actions and for what you say. It means you’re going to have to see us in a different light.
Certain rappers were already saying to burn the place down. They put the ideas in people’s minds about burning stores down and coming together. A lot of gang members are not going to school; rap music is their school.
– former gang member Will M., quoted in The New York Times, 5/7/92
Kemp: James brought up a good point at the beginning of the discussion that a lot of people – intellectuals, policy makers, political activists, whatever – don’t take pop music seriously. I think it’s very important that this be discussed, that pop music be taken seriously, rap in particular. Lee mentioned that musicians are in studios all over America putting their thoughts and feelings down on tape, and pretty soon we’ll be able to hear their reports. Too many people didn’t really want to listen in ’88 when the first N.W.A album came out – they called it profanity, not reporting – and they didn’t really want to listen last year when the Ice Cube album came out, perhaps because it was too difficult for them to get past the references to Jews and Koreans.
Bernard: I think it depends on what you mean by ‘they.’ When you’re talking about rap music, you’re talking about a place where people go to find meaning. It’s where a lot of kids go, and not just black kids. That’s what makes this different from the Watts rebellion. I think rap is already doing so much more than any art has been able to do in a long time. It’s really educating people. So I think the upside is that kids are listening. When Ice Cube went to number two, it wasn’t just people like me that did it. But I know what you’re saying: How are we going to get them to listen?
Kemp: Yeah, the ’60s kids, the intellectuals, the policy makers…
Bernard: …[rock critic] Bob Christgau, George Bush, all those people. I don’t know, really.
Odom: I don’t know that it’s going to be possible to get those people to listen. But like James said, what’s happening here is that the kids are creating their own world and they’re supporting their own world.
Kemp: The fact that it seems to me that the world Ice Cube presents is a realer world than the one the mainstream press feeds us is what makes me pose the question. I mean, I learned something from those albums. I learned stuff that I didn’t have any experience of, and I think I got a clearer version of reality than I’d get from some academic report in U.S. News. So it seems to me that if establishment types were listening to pop music, rather than ignoring it…I mean, it’s great that kids are listening, and that James is, and Lee is, and I am, and he is, and even perhaps Bob Christgau is, but I’m talking about people who make decisions.
Odom: I have dozens of friends who are white who like more rap music than I do. And they listen to it more than I do. And they have friends who listen to it more than I do. So the message is, there are a lot of white kids out there who are supportive of rap, not only because the music is jammin’ or whatever, but also because the message of it talks to you about a lot of the things these rappers see in society.”
Bernard: Right, but what I think Mark is asking is, ‘Why isn’t the quote-unquote establishment listening?’ Here’s a quick answer to that: Chuck D did a video for ‘Arizona’ and it was shown on CNN. I mean, just think about that. It was a pop music video and it was discussed on CNN for a whole hour. I think we’re moving in a direction where people are paying attention, where people are having to pay attention. They’re seeing that rappers have their fingers on the pulse.
West: I think what we need to realize – particularly you brothers – is that people were saying this about punk rock ten years ago. Bad Brains, four brothers from D.C., were telling you about pop politics; so was Joe Strummer in England, the Sex Pistols, etc. But the media crushed it. What happened with hip-hop is that it snow-balled. When CBS pressed It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy nobody expected it to wind up in white America’s house. They’d have never put it out. What happened is that what they thought was a fad became people’s reality. And now they’ve glutted the market with all kinds of things to try to discredit the music.
Bernard: The important point is that the Clash never even went gold and Public Enemy goes platinum.
Everett: I’ve learned a lot of what I know about the real history of America and slavery by listening to rap music; hearing a little snippet of something by X-Clan or KRS-One or Public Enemy, and then going out and doing some research on it. This is what a lot of kids out in these streets today have done.
Bernard: And they’re younger. They’re kids ten years younger than you.
Everett: The mentality of these kids in the streets is different now. They understand more about what really happened in history and they cannot help but be mad. [He points to Bernard] It’s like, if his father killed my father and I knew it, I’d go, ‘Man, why’d your father kill my father?’ That’s the way these kids feel toward the white race right now.
West: To elaborate on his point, that’s why this whole thing happened. With rap music, black people found out how dirty this country was while trying to find out our place in it. If you wonder why people are out there saying ‘We’re not playing around anymore,’ it’s because we know what’s going on. If everybody would learn more about how things really happened in this country then there might be some kind of understanding.
Bernard: Also, when young white kids grow up listening to Ice Cube or whatever, they can explain these things to their parents, get to those middle class whites who are in denial. Young white kids can get much further with middle class whites than I could. [Points to a white man sitting across from him] It’s like, he can get further with his friends than I could.
Anger, despair, and sadness: That’s what we are feeling after the acquittal of the four white officers in the Rodney King case. Someone should write a song about it. Or perhaps they already did.
–Janine McAdams, Billboard‘s R&B columnist, 5/16/92
Everett: When rap music first came out in ’79, it was about partying, having a good time, throwing your hands in the air, waving like you just don’t care. There was more partying going on in L.A. than ever in history when rap first hit the streets. Then it was about whose DJ was the best, and when that started, everybody got into DJing. All the little black kids wanted to get turntables, and even a lot of little white kids were saying, ‘I want to be the first white DJ.’ Today, rap is about change and revolution, and that’s what’s going on in the streets.
West: I used to work for a band called Fishbone, who’s from L.A., seven black guys. They did a video by Spike Lee of a song called ‘Sunless Saturday’ last year. The song was about dealing with the community and why there’s no sun in the ghetto. The president of CBS said, ‘This is not a racial matter. You put some white people in your video or nobody’s going to see it.” Spike didn’t and nobody saw it.
Bernard: I have just a couple more things to address. One is that if you look at all the press accounts – today, for example – about everything that’s happened, they show stuff like a couple of football players going into hospitals to visit with the victims. Which is not a bad thing. But when you frame it that way, and when you frame it the way the U.S. News did, or the way Time magazine did, it makes the whole thing look like it was just an issue of lawlessness. When you say, ‘The Riots: the Aftermath,’ and ‘Let’s go visit people in the hospital,’ and that’s all you say – or when you ask, ‘What can Bush do? One-two-three,’ and it’s all about law enforcement, I think you’re missing the point.
What we’re seeing in the press denies how widespread the outcry was. It also denies the fact that this was not just, ‘Oh, here’s an excuse to go riot,’ and it was not just about Rodney King. These are tensions that have been building up in the neighborhoods for a long time. It was a very conscious outcry against something very specific. When we deny that part of it, we’re just setting ourselves up for more problems later on.
© Mark Kemp, 1992 http://www.
The video below, set to Ice Cube’s post-uprising song “We Had To Tear This Motherfucka Up,” was made from news clips from the time. It was a college journalism project. The student superimposed the sample from a 1961 civil rights-era address by Ben West, mayor of Nashville, over footage of George Bush Sr., who was the U.S. president during the ’92 L.A. uprising.