These words may be considered profane, but they are important.
The statement is a reference to the famous song that has become an anthem. “F--k tha Police” was once considered the most outrageous line in hip-hop. It was both the title and chorus of a track on “Straight Outta Compton,” the explosive 1988 debut album from Los Angeles rap group N.W.A. By the summer of 1989, the Parents’ Music Resource Center and an official in the FBI condemned the group’s “cop killer” record for inciting violence. Meanwhile, with the help of a national “fax campaign,” a predecessor to today’s viral hashtags, the Fraternal Order of Police galvanized local communities from Philadelphia to Shreveport, La., to boycott N.W.A.’s music and its concerts.
Rapper Ice Cube called the record his “revenge fantasy.” His lyrical diatribe was an imagined courtroom drama in which the Los Angeles Police Department stood on trial for abuse of power, and young black men filled the positions of judge, jury, witness and prosecuting attorney. The track was an expression of defiance against a racist system of policing that terrorized Los Angeles’s black residents and endured despite local and national attention to it.
Two decades before, after the 1965 Watts riots, state and federal leaders had conducted hearings on racial discrimination in policing in the city. National civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP Director Roy Wilkins called for greater scrutiny of police practices and of then-Police Chief William H. Parker’s leadership. In the firebrand paper “Muhammad Speaks,” local members of the Nation of Islam provided evidence linking Los Angeles law enforcement to a culture of white supremacy. All the while, the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party inspired young black people with a plan of armed resistance against state power.
By the end of the 1960s, Los Angeles had become the focal point of a national crisis in racist policing. But it was also ground zero for coordinated local and federal crackdowns on black radicalism. Within just a few years, prominent leaders of L.A.’s Black Power movement, including Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, were dead, and the local Black Panther Party had collapsed.
Despite setbacks, the fight to check the power of the police in Los Angeles persisted in the work of local, grass-roots campaigns. Most notably, the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) formed with the express goal of gathering and publicizing information about “the senseless harassment, injury and murder of community people by the police.” In fact, local campaigns to mobilize citizens against what CAPA referred to as “police terrorism” gained momentum in the late 1970s, just as Parker’s dutiful protege Daryl Gates became L.A.’s newest top cop.
As chief, Gates doubled down on the tactics of his predecessors. Under his leadership, the LAPD deployed a six-ton tank-like battering ram and conducted racially motivated “gang sweeps” in black neighborhoods. While Gates spoke flippantly of black people killed by his officers — he said that black men were more likely to die in police chokeholds because “the veins or arteries do not open up as fast [in them] as they do in normal people” — his LAPD infiltrated citizen-led efforts to curb police misconduct and spent extravagantly on public relations to justify its abuses. The result was a militarized police department with seemingly impenetrable strength. By the end of the 1980s, it was the most notorious law enforcement agency in the nation.
Rappers directly challenged these developments, and they were villainized for it. In the late 1980s, a distinctively hardcore brand of rap music exploded from within the Los Angeles communities under siege. Taking cues from early New York, Philadelphia and Oakland hip-hop artists, L.A. rappers like Toddy Tee, Ice-T, King Tee and the members of N.W.A. offered up candid reflections on being black in America that were provocative by design. “Gangsta rappers,” as the press labeled them, were like bluesmen in that their art was a form of blunt, sometimes explicit self-expression never intended to soothe white listeners. Rather, it horrified many of them.
N.W.A.’s music was wildly effective at riling the censors with its references to vice and violence, gangsters and guns. The outrage made it easy to forget — as MTV did in 1989 when the channel refused to air the video for “Straight Outta Compton” — that the young black men brandished lyrics while the police wielded real weapons.
Controversy was a weapon, too. For N.W.A., it helped ensure that the public would pay attention when they chose to vent anger, fantasize about revenge and dream up a topsy-turvy world, as they did in “F--k tha Police,” where black men have all the institutional power and police pay the price for foul play.
“We’re getting back at them for all the years we couldn’t do nothing,” MC Ren, who wrote the track with Ice Cube, told Arsenio Hall in 1990. But he added that the song’s chorus was not the battle cry that moral crusaders and government officials feared. It was, instead, a way to vocalize a common — though often privately voiced — feeling about state authority.
“In everybody’s lifetime, they get harassed by the police for no reason,” Ren told Hall, “and everybody wants to say it, but they can’t on the spot ’cause something will happen to them.” Ice Cube later said that what N.W.A. sought to do was to expose the public to “all the pain and frustration” that his people felt each day. After decades of black activism and unrest in Los Angeles, justice had not come. Reform had not come. And the nation continued to ignore the crisis. Speaking of the experiences of generations of black Americans, Cube explained: “You have no voice. Nobody can hear you scream.”
Ren argued that N.W.A.’s track was actually rather benign because it was an expression of powerlessness — a fantasy about scoring a victory when defeat was already a burning reality. But parent groups and the FBI saw it as dangerous; that controversy, in turn, made it a hit. Across America, the song reverberated with black and brown rap fans who heard echoes of their own grievances, and it seduced young white listeners drawn to the sound of rebellion.
When LAPD officers were captured on video brutally beating Rodney King in 1991, the city’s rappers knew they had the whole nation’s attention. And they felt vindicated. More than 10 minutes of the mob-like attack on King (after which police threw a sheet over his head, assuming he was dead) had been caught on camera. The brutality was not new, but the videotaped proof was. As Ice Cube remembered gloating, “We finally got y’all … on tape.”
But, again, justice did not come.
When the four LAPD officers who beat King were acquitted despite what seemed to be irrefutable evidence, the city rose up in protest and outrage. And while Los Angeles burned, protesters blasted N.W.A.’s song from their cars.
By 1992, “F--k tha Police” had become the soundtrack of insurrection.
It remains so today. The simple invective at protests now, along with the more recent variant “F--k 12,” quoting a song by the Atlanta-based rap group Migos, is a battle cry. A lament about dreams lost. A hymn for the oppressed. A eulogy for George Floyd. And a demand for justice that has gone unanswered for three decades and counting.
Sometimes, to get the world to listen, you need to be explicit.