Twenty five years ago today, the Los Angeles riots erupted response to the shocking acquittal of four LAPD officers videotaped beating motorist Rodney King the year before. Over six days, 55 people died, 11,000 were arrested, and the city suffered approximately $1 billion in property damages. But the riots profoundly changed the city, laying bare systemic problems of race and class discrimination that had plagued LA for decades – problems music artists had been screaming about for years.
Warning: explicit lyrics.
Dead Kennedys – “Riot”
This 1982 song from the San Francisco hardcore punk band was inspired more by unrest in the ’60s and ’70s, but in 1992 it felt like a psychic prediction of what went down in LA. “Riot” laments how the energy expended fails to turn into full-blown revolution though, after 1992, LA enacted several reforms to address the causes of that event.
Toddy Tee – “Batteram”
This 1985 track is one of Rap’s earliest LA-focused protest songs. Named after the battering rams used by LAPD to break into suspected drug houses (as seen in the film “Straight Outta Compton”), the track focuses on how frequently the tactic was deployed against innocent people.
N.W.A. – “F— Tha Police”
N.W.A. made its name as “the most dangerous group in America” thanks to this expression of rage against LAPD brutality and racial profiling. Hugely controversial when released in 1988 – prompting an angry letter from the FBI and threats of police boycotts – the reaction to the Rodney King acquittal showed it was an accurate reflection of the feelings of LA’s black community.
Guns n Roses – “One in a Million”
This 1988 track from the LA metal act saw lead singer Axl Rose channeling bitter, frankly racist and homophobic thoughts about the situation in LA in the late ’80s. It sparked huge controversy upon release, something Rose seemed genuinely confused and annoyed by – a metaphor as good as any for the cultural climate preceding the riot.
Public Enemy – “Burn Hollywood Burn”
It’s not on this list just because of the lyric “I smell a riot going on.” Guest starring Ice Cube, this 1990 protest song rails against the way black people are depicted on film and television. Frustration that African American communities were being ignored by the media was a huge contributor to tensions leading up to the riots.
Ice Cube – “Black Korea”
We’ll be honest: This song doesn’t age very well. Ice Cube’s 1991 track was written about the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocery store owner just 13 days after the Rodney King beating. An unflinching depiction of racial tensions in South LA, it’s also unfortunately packed with racial stereotypes, and Cube was accused of inciting racism. Sadly, looters targeted Korean businesses during the riots the next year – a possibility threatened in the song’s lyrics.
Body Count – “Cop Killer”
Rapper Ice-T’s punk side project Body Count became notorious for this song, released just one month before the riots. Despite massive outrage by police organizations, Ice-T wasn’t actually calling for the murder of cops – he insisted the song was an expression of rage against brutality. Name-checking Rodney King and LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, the song depicts police brutality as a problem all races should worry about.