In light of the ongoing protests and calls for justice worldwide, we look back on 10 instances where rap artists were inspired to speak out against police brutality and corruption on wax.
In hip-hop, “fighting the powers that be” is a sentiment and call to action that is all too familiar. Before and after Chuck D and Public Enemy helped coin that phrase with their seminal 1989 contribution to the Do The Right Thing soundtrack, hip-hop artists have spoken on the strained relationship between the criminal justice system and the Black community, with law enforcement being the main target of that ire.
During the ’80s and ’90s, the anger built from decades of watching minorities being victimized by those sworn to serve and protect began to spill into the lyrics of rap’s biggest stars. From acts like N.W.A. famously taking the LAPD and other police departments across the country to task with the incendiary salvo “Fuck tha Police” in 1988 to KRS-One undressing African-American officers abusing their power on “Black Cop” in 1993, artists from all regions aired their grievances with the racially-motivated tactics of the boys in blue.
However, specific instances, such as the assault of Rodney King, as well as the murders of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Jeremy McDole, and countless others at the hands of the police have sent the hip-hop community into a rage. The pain and suffering as a result of those tragedies have accounted for some of the most impassioned songs denouncing various law enforcement agencies and calling for reform — if not abolition — of police forces nationwide.
In 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others in police-related deaths have reminded the hip-hop community that the fight against those forces must continue in order to take back power and turn the system upside down.
In light of the ongoing protests against racial inequality and calls for justice worldwide, Okayplayer looks back on 10 instances where hip-hop artists were inspired to speak out against police brutality and corruption on wax.
Main Source — “Just A Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991)
Police brutality garners comparison to America’s favorite pastime on this cut from rap group Main Source’s Breaking Atoms album, with Large Professor using baseball jargon to describe the various ways that cops victimize members of the Black community. Proclaiming that his “life is valuable” and threatening to protect it at all costs, Large Pro and Main Source aim their ire at law enforcement on this oft-overlooked analysis of the relationship between Black and blue.
Dr.Dre, Snoop Dogg, Daz Dillinger, & RBX — “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” (1992)
The anger that engulfed Black America after witnessing the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer resembled the vitriol that came as a result of the not guilty verdict in the Rodney King case in 1992, which was conveyed on The Chronic cut “The Day the Niggaz Took Over.” Dr. Dre, along with Snoop Dogg, Daz Dillinger, and RBX, helped provide the perfect hip-hop soundtrack for looting and rioting and breaking off the police force and their co-conspirators with a dose of their own medicine.
KRS-One — “Sound Of Da Police” (1993)
For minorities, the wail of a police siren has been synonymous with danger for far too long, which rapper KRS-One touched upon in 1993, on “Sound of da Police,” from his debut solo album, Return of the Boom Bap. Addressing law enforcement’s penchant for racially profiling and antagonizing young black men and women under the guise of protecting the community, the Blastmaster also takes those from his own community to task for joining The Blue Wall, making for one of the more enduring rallying cries aimed against the authorities.
Geto Boys — “Crooked Officer” (1993)
In the wake of the Rodney King verdict the year before, the Geto Boys were one of the rap acts to verbally seek out their own pound of flesh against the police with the incendiary track “Crooked Officer.” Voicing their rage with emboldened threats against all branches of law enforcement, the Houston rap trio joined in with their Western and Eastern counterparts to put a spotlight on the abusive relationship between people of color and police departments across the country.
Hip Hop for Respect — “One Four Love” & “Protective Custody” (2000)
On “One Four Love,” from the 2000 project Hip Hop for Respect, several rap stars team up to fight the powers that be, in response to the 1999 murder of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by NYPD plainclothes officers in the Bronx. Calling for justice within the black community in light of the police brutality running rampant, rappers Doug E. Fresh, Pharoahe Monch, Common, Kool G Rap, Posdnuos, Rah Digga, Shabaam Sahdeeq, and Sporty Thievz joined Talib Kweli and Yaasin Bey in their quest to unify the people and cast aspersions on law enforcement.
Another song from Hip Hop for Respect, an EP that struck a chord with the public was “Protective Custody,” which paired Talib Kweli and Yaasin Bey with fellow sociopolitical-minded rappers.
Featuring Breeze Brewin, Donte (of Mood), El-P, Imani Uzuri, Jah-Born, John Forté, Main Flow, Mr. Khaliyl, Mr. Len, Nine, Punchline, Tiye Phoenix, and Jean Grae, “Protective Custody” saw the succession of spitters giving their critique of corrupt officers policing their community and lamenting the lack of justice afforded to blacks.
dead prez — “Police State” (2000)
The mobilization of law enforcement to carry out the plans of clandestine figures in the shadows of society is no secret, a topic rap duo dead prez brought to the forefront of the conversation with “Police State.” Included on their 2000 debut Let’s Get Free, “Police State” delves into the various tactics that cops and their cohorts use to surveil and prey on the Black community, particularly the violence committed in the name of upholding American values.
The Coup & T-K.A.S.H. — “Pork and Beef” (2001)
The Coup’s Boots Riley lets the listeners know exactly what’s on the menu with this takedown of police brutality, from the group’s 2001 album Party Music. Speaking on the nefarious inner-workings of the justice system, Riley and rapper T-K.A.S.H. urge the people to band together and inflict their own damage on our foes on patrol with this revolutionary call to arms.
Cassidy, Drag-On, Styles P., Talib Kweli, & Maino — “Stand Up” (2008)
Hip-hop showed up in a big way following the death of Sean Bell, who was murdered on November 25, 2006 after NYPD plainclothes and undercover detectives fired fifty rounds into his vehicle on the morning of his wedding. One song that not only paid tribute to Bell’s life, but vilified the officers involved — who were found not guilty in 2008 — was “Stand Up,” featuring Cassidy, Drag-On, Styles P., Talib Kweli, and Maino. Released in May 2008, just weeks after the verdict was announced, “Stand Up” channels the anger and disbelief that accompanies the devaluing of black life in the eyes of law enforcement.
Killer Mike — “Don’t Die” (2012)
Killer Mike spins a riveting tale about being the target of an intense manhunt after defending himself from trigger happy policeman on “Don’t Die,” from the Atlanta raptivist’s 2012 effort R.A.P. Music. From the onset of the song, when he wakes up to the sight of a firearm aimed squarely at his face, Killer Mike laments the fervor with which law enforcement hunt down Black people, but refuses to be victimized and goes full Larry Davis, putting forth a triumphant number that scoffs in the face of fear.
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?