Between 1988 and 1992, N.W.A. released the song “Fuck tha Police,” a Florida record store owner was convicted of obscenity for selling a 2 Live Crew album and Ice-T’s Body Count released the song “Cop Killer.”
In the same time period, the series “Cops” premiered on network television, the police beating of Rodney King was captured on film and five days of rioting gripped Los Angeles after four officers were acquitted in King’s beating.
New book “Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality” extensively explores the rise of gangster rap, tabloid TV and ways the two sensations intertwined. Author Eric Harvey revisits controversies related to the musicians – self-inflicted and otherwise – and how the stories played out on talk shows “Geraldo,” “Oprah” and “Donahue” at the beginning of the 1990s.
“You had this culture war exploding,” Harvey says. “That’s the backdrop for what I wanted to write about.”
The concept of “reality” provided a unifying thread for Harvey, an associate professor of communications at Grand Valley State University. Although “gangster rap” became the acknowledged label for recordings by N.W.A, Ice-T, Geto Boys and others, many performers characterized their work as “reality rap.”
Harvey grew up in Indianapolis as a fan of the music and as the son of a police officer. He was a pre-teen when the Fox network introduced “America’s Most Wanted” in 1988 and “Cops” in 1989.
“That was really the first time when ‘reality television’ started to be used as a descriptor for this type of TV that was a little bit news, a little bit documentary and a lot of entertainment,” Harvey says.
Harvey writes that image can outweigh truth in the quest for reality. The pilot episode of “Cops,” for instance, showcased one of Florida’s “Operation Crackdown” drug sweeps – an initiative that became known for hundreds of arrests but relatively few convictions.
Meanwhile, rappers were being held accountable for lyrics that were presented as fiction. In a sharp defense of poetic license, Ice-T said, “If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.”
Nick Navarro, the Broward County sheriff who launched the Operation Crackdown drug sweeps, investigated 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” album with the idea that sexually explicit lyrics were dangerous.
2 Live Crew needed an appeals court ruling to be cleared of wrongdoing. In a separate case, record store owner Charles Freeman was convicted in a 1990 jury trial for selling obscene material in the form of “As Nasty As They Wanna Be.” Three years later, a circuit judge overturned Freeman’s conviction.
In 1992, the widow of a Texas police officer sued Tupac Shakur with a claim that Shakur’s lyrics incited a teenager to kill her husband. A judge dismissed the lawsuit against Shakur, who later became a high-profile label mate of N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre on Death Row Records.
From ruthless to respected
On the inaugural Lollapalooza tour in 1991, Ice-T’s heavy metal band Body Count performed the song “Cop Killer” with zero backlash. “Cop Killer” then appeared on Body Count’s debut album released in March 1992. Three months later, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas launched a boycott that successfully pressured Time Warner Inc. and Ice-T to withdraw the album and reissue the recording minus “Cop Killer.”
“Who Got the Camera?” (University of Texas Press) supports Ice-T’s explanation that “Cop Killer,” similar to N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police,” was an artistic statement of frustration in response to police brutality. Harvey says the song’s opponents “wanted to make it appear, to frightened suburbanites everywhere, that these Black men are going to kill police.”
Snoop Dogg, who began his career as a protégé of Dr. Dre, faced a murder charge in 1993 after his bodyguard fatally shot Los Angeles resident Philip Woldemariam from a car driven by the rapper. Snoop Dogg and the bodyguard, McKinley Lee, were acquitted by a jury in 1996.
In subsequent years, Snoop has enjoyed mainstream acceptance in marked contrast to his ’90s persona. At Super Bowl LVI, he will perform as part of the halftime show with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar.
Two more mainstream evolutions: Ice-T has portrayed a police officer on 22 seasons of “Law & Order: SVU,” and N.W.A.’s Ice Cube has starred in 30 films.
Yesterday and today
Although the “Cops” television series was canceled after a 33-season run in 2020, it’s being resurrected as a streaming show on the Fox Nation platform.
“Maury” and “Dr. Phil” exist as tabloid talk show options for viewers, but the programs generate less buzz than shows that aired during the “Donahue” era. In “Who Got the Camera?” Harvey quotes Emerson College professor Jane Shattuc’s description of ’90s talk shows that presented “stories of ageless fascination: sex, violence, crime and tragedy” to audiences who “feel repressed by day-to-day conformity and economic limitations.”
“I honestly think the internet soaked up a lot of this energy,” Harvey says. “The sense of populism that blew up on ‘Donahue,’ ‘Oprah’ and ‘Geraldo’ – where you have these people from the ‘fringes of society’ who didn’t really have a platform in mainstream daily newspapers or television news finding a space to express themselves and talk about their lives – I feel like that’s the day-to-day experience of being on Twitter and Instagram.”
Harvey’s book – which borrows its title from a 1992 Ice Cube song inspired by the Rodney King beating – follows the reality narrative through the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995, the volatile rivalry of East Coast and West Coast rap and the assassinations of Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997, respectively.
When asked about attention-grabbing social commentary within 21st-century hip-hop, Harvey says the messages are presented differently today.
“I think Black Lives Matter reframes just about everything about how we understand the power dynamics between African Americans and the police, and then the broader economic and social implications of racism,” Harvey says. “You do hear that in rap, in folks like Kendrick Lamar. But Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics are so deeply personal and so poetic that pulling a message out like ‘Fuck tha Police’ is not going to be anywhere near as easy as it was with N.W.A.”
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