In Mark Ford’s new documentary, "Uprising: Hip-Hop and the L.A. Riots," which airs tonight on VH1, the music coming out of South L.A. in the early '90s was more than just news, or what Chuck D of Pubic Enemy called the "black CNN." The explicit and furious hip-hop and gangsta rap that flowed out of that community was a warning about the riots that would erupt there on April 29, 1992.
“Ironically, I was working at the real CNN at the time. I remember being baffled by the violence and not really having a frame of reference for it,” Ford said. “But as I studied hip-hop, I saw that it was music with very specific grievances. Some people took a song like “F… tha Police” as inflammatory, but it was the truth.”
Watch a clip from the documentary, which does contain mature language and scenes of rioting, here.
On the 20th anniversary of the riots, Ford’s documentary examines the cauldron of anti-authoritarian rage cooking in what was then called South-Central L.A. in the years leading up to the riots, seen through a lens of the visceral hip-hop music being made across the area. Interviews with performers such as N.W.A., Snoop Dogg and Ice-T illuminate the prescience of albums that re-defined a genre, made big headlines, and drew condemnation from the FBI with their brash imagery.
For those who knew the perils of being a minority in L.A. at the time -- police harassment, a violent drug trade, gang warfare to rival any military occupation -- records such as “Straight Outta Compton” were strong representations of conditions on the ground. The early era of gangsta rap was an artistic primal scream from a community that felt victimized by the LAPD, by drugs, by an institutionalized poverty right at the doorstep of L.A.'s extreme wealth -- a corrective to mainstream media depictions of life before and after the riots, which oscillated between sensationalism and demonization.