Rodney King and the L.A. Riots As Told Through Rap Lyrics

We went through some rap lyrics and decoded the Rodney King Saga, The L.A. Riots, and everything in-between.

LA Riots
Image via Lindsay Brice/Getty
LA Riots

Today marks the 25-year anniversary of the L.A. riots, largely in response to the beating of Rodney King by members of the L.A.P.D. The brutal assault is an infamous moment in American history, ending in the combustion of South Central L.A., as its residents responded to an attack on one of their own from the very organization that was meant to protect them. What came to be remembered as the King saga, and the subsequent trial of the officers accused of using excessive force, the 1992 L.A. riots were a response to numerous other incidents, including the shooting of LaTasha Harlins, the beating of Reginald Denny, and the resignation of L.A.P.D. police chief Daryl Gates. King's beating was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back. As an incendiary moment in American history, the entire ordeal has been immortalized in rap lyrics through the years. It's one of the first times the genre, which was coming into its own as the most vital American artform, operated as a primary document for history, as well as a response to the events going on around it. Which is why we decided take a look back at the series of events that began with King’s beating, and ended with him winning $3.8 million in a civil suit, through the lens of various rappers who’ve made Rodney King references or songs inspired his story. So please, can’t get all just get along?

Rodney King Beaten by L.A.P.D. Officers (March 3, 1991)

What happened? Following a high-speed car chase—an unarmed, black motorist named Rodney King is savagely beaten by four L.A.P.D. officers when he is pulled over for speeding. Due to his erratic behavior when the police approached him, the officers believed King was high on PCP, but later drug tests on King come back negative. However, King was drunk at the time which is why he sped away in the first place—he worried that if he got a DUI he would violate his parole.

Song: Digital Underground f/ Biz Markie “The Odd Couple” (1998)

Complex says: Like the rest of us, Biz Markie was appalled at the ruthless display of police brutality evidenced by King’s infamous mug shot. However, despite making some poor choices (mainly, drinking and driving while on parole) and getting fucked the fuck up by cops, King didn’t look half as bad or make as many poor decisions as some of the human characters in Planet of the Apes.

Footage of King’s Beating Airs On National TV (March 4, 1991)

What happened? When local L.A. resident George Holliday heard police sirens outside his apartment building, he decided to grab his camcorder and run outside and document what was happening. He ended up catching the tail-end of the police beating King. Holliday would go on to give the video to TV station KTLA and eventually the video was being aired on television programs worldwide. Holliday would later license use of the tape to Spike Lee for the opening of Malcolm X.

Song: Kid Frost “I Got Pulled Over” (1992)

Lyrics: “But hey yo, Mr. Officer, you know where you can stick it/I say this to myself, I let him do his thing/Or he might beat me down just like he beat down Rodney King.”

Complex says: Kid Frost alludes to the feeling that even before the footage of the beating ever aired, minorities felt that police brutality could occur at any moment with little provocation. However, it was certainly never documented and aired on national television before. So shouts to George Holliday for basically inventing smartphone journalism way before smartphones existed.

Officers In King Beating Are Indicted (March 14, 1991)

What happened? After being formally charged with excessive use of force, the grand jury returns indictments against L.A.P.D. officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno—the first four officers on the scene in the Rodney King beating.

Song: Ice Cube “The Predator” (1992)

Lyrics: “Fuck Laurence Powell and Briseno, Wind and Koon, pretty soon/We'll fuck them like they fucked us and won't kiss 'em/Riots ain't nothing but diets for the system.”

Complex says: Ice Cube has been saying “fuck the police” since day one, so we weren’t the least bit surprised when he pulled no punches and called out King’s attackers by name. Recorded during the height of racial tensions in L.A., Ice Cube’s third solo LP, The Predator, was heavily influenced by the Rodney King saga and it remains as a glaring reminder that Ice Cube used to be a smart-mouthed gangster and not a shill for TBS.

LaTasha Harlins Is Fatally Shot By Korean Store Owner (March 16, 1991)

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What happened? LaTasha Harlins—a 15-year-old African-American girl—entered Empire Liquor to buy orange juice, but instead she ended up dead. The store was owned by a Korean American named Soon Ja Du, who mistakenly believed Harlins was attempting to steal the orange juice. Du and Harlin got into a scuffle which later resulted in Du shooting Harlins in the back of the head. Store security cameras later showed that Harlins had money in her hand, ready to pay for the juice, during the fatal shooting.

Song: 2Pac “Hellrazor” (1997)

Lyrics: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why/Little girl like LaTasha, had to die/She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot/Her little body couldn't take it, it shook and dropped.”

Complex says: Pac tries to make sense of LaTasha's tragic death, which came just 13 days after the King beating. The shooting fueled racial tensions in L.A. between blacks and Koreans right when racial tensions between blacks and whites were already tense.

Officers In King Case Plead Not Guilty (March 26, 1991)

What happened? Officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno all enter a plea of “not guilty” despite the fact we’ve all seen a tape of them viciously beating King.

Song: Geto Boys “Crooked Officer” (1993)

Lyrics: “Cause you want to harass me, yeah?/And if I talk back, you want to beat me down fast G/Just like Rodney King/But if you try that shit with me, it’s going to be a different scene.” (Bushwick Bill)

Complex says: Bushwick Bill warns that he ain’t going out like King but the truth is he’d probably get a much worse deal than King did. Mostly because—as his recent arrest proved—he can always get the Shyne treatment and get deported.

Shooter In Harlins Case Gets Probation (November 15, 1991)

What happened? Although Soon Ja Du is found guilty of manslaughter by the jury in the Harlins case, Judge Joyce A. Karlin sentences Du to to a ten-year suspended prison term, five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.

Song: 2Pac “I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto” (1997)

Lyrics: “Tell me what's a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts/And even when you take the shit/Move counties, get a lawyer, you can shake the shit/Ask Rodney, LaTasha, and many more/It’s been going on for years, there’s plenty more/When they ask me, ‘When will the violence cease?’/When your troops stop shooting niggas down in the street.”

Complex says: Pac makes it clear that Rodney King and LaTasha Harlins were just two of many victims of violent crimes that happened at the time. But there was no denying that justice was pretty scarce when being convicted of shooting a 15-year-old only sets you back $500 and probation.

Officers Acquitted In King Case, L.A. Riots Begin, Reginald Denny Beating Broadcast On Television (April 29,1992)

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What happened? When King’s trial came to an end, the jury (consisting of 10 whites, a Latino, and an Asian) acquitted the officers of excessive force. The acquittal left many in awe, including then-President George Bush who said the verdict, "Has left us all with a deep sense of personal frustration and anguish." Things started getting ugly on the streets as black residents began to riot in response to the evident lack of justice for Rodey King. Hours later, a 33-year-old white construction truck driver named Reginald Denny is pulled out of his truck and beaten by black gang members, who later were dubbed “The L.A. Four.” The incident airs live on television as people begin to torch buildings and loot the city. L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley declares a local state of emergency.

Song: D12 “No Rubber” (2000)

Lyrics: “Tempt one of you niggas to try to offend me/Pull you out the truck and beat your ass worse then Reginald Denny.” (Bizarre)

Complex says: Imagery of the Denny beating illustrated to the public the severity of the L.A. riots. Years later, Bizarre used Denny as an example as to how ugly shit could get if you made him angry. But the truth is Bizarre’s been out of shape for a long time, so your best bet is probably just running away—or jogging even.

California Governor Pete Wilson Declares State of Emergency, Deploys National Guard (April 30, 1992)

What happened? Governor Pete Wilson declares a state of emergency and—at Mayor Bradley’s request—deploys 2,000 reserve soldiers from The National Guard. Mayor Bradley holds a press conference warning residents to avoid clashes with police and promising enough law enforcement to restore order in the city.

Song: Dr. Dre “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” (1992)

Lyrics: The entire song

Complex says: No song captured the chaos of the L.A. riots better than “The Day The Niggaz Took Over.” Dre, Daz, Snoop, and RBX make it clear that the injustices of the times were the motivation behind the madness that ensued. Plus, as Dre points out, there’s pretty much never a better time to come up on some brand new furniture and appliances.

King: "Can't We All Just Get Along?" (May 1, 1992)

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What happened? On the third day of the L.A. riots, Rodney King stands before cameras at a press conference and utters his most famous phrase, "Can we all get along?" However, in a famous instance of misquoting, his line is remembered as, "Can't get all just get along." In the emotional press conference, King urged rioters to take a more peaceful approach. That night, President Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office and outlines the federal response to the L.A. riots, placing The National Guard soldiers under federal control.

Song: Willie D “Rodney K” (1992)

Lyrics: The entire song

Complex says: You knew Rodney King couldn’t catch a break when Willie D was calling him a sellout for simply making a call for peace.

Armed Forces Deployed In L.A. (May 2, 1992)

What happened? Thousands of soldiers and Marines are deployed into Compton to disperse the crowds. L.A. begins to quiet down with the help of community volunteers who helped direct traffic, hand out food, and shuttle local residents in need of transportation. The U.S. Justice Department announces that it will launch a federal investigation into whether or not King's civil rights had been violated.

Song: Ice Cube “We Had To Tear This Motherfucka Up” (1992)

Lyrics: The entire song

Complex says: Cube wasn’t exaggerating when he claimed L.A. was tore up. Riot damage in L.A. totaled nearly $1 billion and cans of whoop ass were being served like fortune cookies by the time the armed forces were deployed in the city. In the end, 53 died due to the riots and thousands more were injured.

L.A.P.D. Chief Daryl Gates Resigns From L.A.P.D. (June 28, 1992)

What happened? Under pressure to step down from both Mayor Bradley and City Council, the controversial Chief of the L.A.P.D., Daryl Gates, officially resigns. He is replaced by Willie L. Williams, the first-ever African-American police chief of the L.A.P.D.

Song: Body Count “Cop Killer” (1992)

Lyrics: The entire song

Complex says: Due to his sometimes controversial rhetoric and his handling of the L.A.P.D. during the King saga and the riots, Gates hadn’t made many fans in the black community. We’re not entirely sure how everyone else felt about Gates' resignation, but what we do know is that Ice-T and Body Count made their sentiments pretty clear when Ice screamed, “FUCK DARYL GATES!”

L.A. Four Sentenced In Reginald Denny Case (December 1992)

What happened? When the trial of the L.A. Four (which later became six, though after the name had been popularized) concluded, only two of the six charged with beating Denny were sentenced to jail time. The verdict was seen by many as payback for the Rodney King case, as many whites thought the sentencing was light due to the heinousness of the crime. Debate raged on for weeks, further exacerbating racial tension in Los Angeles.

Song: Ice Cube “Down For Whatever” (1993)

Lyrics: “Don't take a nigga for granted/Cause whether it's a verdict, or the L.A. four/You just don't know/That this rapping-ass nigga will change with the weather/And be down for whatever.”

Complex says: The controversial verdict of the L.A. Four spawned a lot more tension and arguing between blacks and whites in L.A. But Cube isn't necessarily the guy you want to argue with about some shit like that any way, so making sure you were on his side was pretty much the only way to win an argument with O'Shea.

Rodney King Civil Trial Begins (February 25, 1993)

What happened? A civil trial, separate from the original state trial, begins on the charge of violating the civil rights of Rodney King. The lawsuit is prompted by federal prosecutors who believed the beating was racially motivated. This time the jury is more racially mixed and it includes two black jurors (one of whom King later dated and recently got engaged to).

Song: 8Ball & MJG “You Don’t Want Drama” (2004)

Lyric: “In the middle of a fire, scorch and burn him, let’s overheat him/Really mistreat him, let's Rodney King him and over-beat him.” (MJG)

Complex says: Rodney King’s testimony shed more light on how bad the officers really beat him. MJG later used Rodney's name as a verb, helping to illustrate Rodney's beating as an elite level of ass-kicking, also known as police brutality punishable by zero jail time.

King Wins Millions In Damages From Civil Case (April 17, 1993)

What happened? After Judge Davies postpones the verdict until the 17th for fear of rioting, the jury finds officers Koon and Powell guilty of violating King's civil rights, while Briseno and Wind are acquitted. 6,500 police officers are called to duty (including police snipers) in preparation for another riot, but none occurs. King wins $3.8 million in his lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. He later uses some of the funds to found a rap label, Alta-Pazz Recording Company.

Song: TRU “Living That Life” (1995)

Lyrics: “And it's sad to see a mother cry/It took the beating of Rodney King/Hit three million dollars to realize.” (Master P)

Complex says: So was the verdict just? Depends on who you ask. Percy Miller didn't think so, but in the end Rodney King made off with $3.8 million. That’s baby money to P, but at least he’s sympathetic. And he ought to be, because despite getting caked up, King’s life after the civil trial didn’t really get that much better since he fought alcoholism and eventually ended up on Celebrity Rehab.

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