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Looking Back To Move Forward: The LA Riots and How They Changed West Coast Sound

CONTENT WARNING: Racism, acts of violence, oppression

April 24, 2023

On April 29th, 1992, South Central Los Angeles exploded with fury, spurring riots for days, causing over a billion dollars in damages, changing not just the city, but its music as well.

When four white police officers were filmed horrifically beating Rodney King during a traffic stop, LA residents felt justice was close behind. The verdict was anything but, acquitting the officers of any wrongdoing causing tensions to boil over.

Simultaneously, hip-hop was in its golden age as new technology emerged creating unique styles, and socially conscious lyrics began to fill notepads. These factors combined to create a unique environment ready for the eruption of the LA Riots.

Before the riots, hip-hop was more minimalist, with resolute MCs laying rhyming lyrics over a DJ’s instrumental tracks. Lyrics were often storytelling or life events, and some socially conscious lyrics. The West coast differed from its New York rival by exporting hip hop filled with the energy of beautiful beaches and relaxed attitudes. New Yorkers could only fantasize about
warm California days while writing about the tough winters many young artists faced in the New York projects, already focusing their lyrics on inequalities in the nation.

It wasn’t until the beating of Rodney King was plastered to every TV screen across America that LA hip-hop artists became serious with their societal critiques.

The LA Riots gave young artists ample opportunity to ascend to the next level, in more ways than one. The ensuing chaos and rioting flooded the streets with the latest audio production equipment, placing Grammy level tools in the hands of dreamers. The violence and social justice protests were also an overwhelming source of content for young songwriters to grapple

Up and coming artist Tupac Shakur, was recording his second studio album — known for its commentary on the Rodney King beatings — the day the riots broke out. Friends in the studio remember Shakur feeling delighted to complete the project that day. Later, Shakur would participate in the riots, being shot at while raiding a music outlet and then entering a smoldering
liquor store, grabbing whatever he and his friends could.

Any LA resident’s life would have been halted by the riots, as the world watched live on television. But the eyes of the impoverished Black neighborhood residents were filled with the action unfolding right in front of them; resilience, flames, and national guard troops. Everything would change, especially the music.

Lyrics, now, would not hold punches as the raw gashes of racism burned sharply in the minds of Black Americans. LA artists took on a stronger aim at the establishment and would release songs that would rock the nation.

Superstar Ice T would explore genres and release his first heavy metal project “Cop Killer.” The lyrical description of murdering police officers was smeared by the press causing many stores to refuse to sell the album. Tupac’s album, born in the midst of the riot, was directly attacked by then Vice President Dan Quayle for its anti-police lyrics. West Coast cornerstone album The Chronic holds the song “The Day the N****as Took Over,” describing the significance of the moment to the various neighborhoods.

As the City of Los Angeles began to clear the rubble, they were left with something new. Artists had been given a new perspective on their home and were keen to use it in the coming months and years. Now that the nation had seen what NWA’s Ice Cube called an “uprising”, Black America’s issues were broadcast through lyrics more than ever. The iconic G-Funk sound of the West coast had gone from laid back to full on protest.

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