Rodney King, John Singleton on 'Uprising: Hip-hop and the L.A. Riots'
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.
“Even before the riots and Rodney King’s assault, voices in L.A. hip-hop were foretelling what was to come,” said director John Singleton, who appears in the documentary and whose film “Boyz n the Hood” was the first empathetic look at South L.A life for many Americans. “So many people who didn’t grow up black and poor couldn’t understand why it happened. You can live in a different part of L.A. and never understand that frustration. But if you listen to ‘F… tha Police,' you hear where they’re coming from."
There were other songs, too, such as Ice-T's "Cop Killer." But the N.W.A. song is a flashpoint for Ford’s documentary. It appears again and again as both an early barometer of the frustration and anger in the area, and once the riots commence, as a kind of motif throughout the archival footage (much of it from the young black filmmaker Matthew McDaniel, who caught it firsthand). Ford, who grew up in suburban New Jersey, directed a 2008 TV documentary on N.W.A., and in his hunt for amateur, street-level footage of the riots, saw how deeply that song resonated at the scene of the upheaval.
“People would talk about how that song was a unifying force, that it would tell people they weren’t alone, that other people were feeling this way,” Ford said. “With hip-hop and the riots, I wanted to ask, ‘How close was the link?’ In so much archival footage, people were cruising down the street bumping that song.”
Twenty years on, and after real improvements in the LAPD and economic development in South L.A., it’d be easy to treat the period as a kind of museum piece, a sad time and place with a powerful and era-defining soundtrack. But a new generation of L.A. rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and Odd Future now elaborate on N.W.A.’s legacy and artistic strategy of pairing shock value with incisive emotional truth.
And those who were there still feel the wounds of 20 years ago -- none more than the man whose hellish beating proved the final straw for a neighborhood. For those who saw it all happen, that past is never really past.
“I know the scream of Trayvon Martin, because it sounded like my own,” said Rodney King, a major figure in the film and the author of a forthcoming memoir about his life before, during and after the riots. “I look back on all that time and realize we haven’t changed as fast as we need to. That beating made me realize what our civil rights leaders died for.”
-- August Brown
Photo: A March 31, 1991, frame from a videotape shot by George Holliday from his apartment in a suburb of Los Angeles shows what appears to be a group of police officers beating a man -- Rodney King. Credit: George Holliday/Courtesy of KTLA Los Angeles / Associted Press