Over thirty years later, N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police" resonates with a new generation, finding life as a modern-day protest anthem.
It’s rare that a song’s power only intensifies with time. Though nostalgia can be a powerful means of preserving replay value, more often than not a song stands as a representation of a moment in time. A reflection of the social climate, of the musical trends prevalent. When N.W.A. first released “Fuck Tha Police” back in August of 1988, over thirty years ago, it’s uncertain whether Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella had any idea what they had created. A song that has continued to resonate with people of all ages, unified by a shared disdain for abusive police and the systems they represent.
Following the death of George Floyd, murdered by the disgraced police officer Derek Chauvin, the protests that sparked in defiance looked to the past for its theme music. With thousands placed in direct confrontation with police, in many cases forced to suffer abuse with impunity, the need for a rallying cry has reached an apex. “Fuck Tha Police” has found new life as a modern-day anthem, one whose message has endured for decades. In its simplest form, a stand against authority figures, especially those who succumb to the temptations of tyranny. Yet amidst the simple bluntness of the titular curse lies a long and complex history. One chock-full of racial prejudices borne through a lack of empathy and understanding. Satisfying though it may be to blast “Fuck Tha Police” in a cop’s vicinity, the deeper meanings should not be diluted.
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The story of its creation was sold to many by the 2015 N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, which depicted our five heroes being racially profiled outside of a recording studio and roughed up for no other reason beyond their skin color. In reality, a revelation on HBO’s The Defiant Ones confirmed that “Fuck Tha Police” was originally declined by Dr. Dre, after Ice Cube presented the young producer with the incendiary lyrics. It was only after Eazy-E and Dre engaged in a joyride on the Los Angeles freeway, possessed by a desire to fire paintballs into passing cars. “Fifteen minutes after that, the police is behind us,” reflects Dre, older and wiser. “They pull us out of the car with guns drawn, lay us face down on the freeway.”
In the same clip, Cube admits that Dre’s frequent trips to jail were the catalyst for “Fuck Tha Police.” As he explains, Dre’s company tended to mean that the parties were in full swing; in Cube’s eyes, the Doc’s recurring weekend slammer trips were the ultimate buzzkill. “I was mad that all the fun stopped, and Dre had to go to jail till Monday,” smiles Cube. “So I wrote ‘Fuck Tha Police.’” A far cry from the narrative put forth in the film, but authorial intent doesn’t necessarily matter when the product is ushered into the world. The minute it was released, “Fuck Tha Police” provided a voice to everybody who ever experienced police brutality. Especially when Cube’s opening verse painted such a vivid picture, one that could be juxtaposed with any given protest montage of today with no shortage of relevancy.
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It’s become all too familiar a sight. A Black person harassed, assaulted, and in the bleakest cases, murdered because a police officer claims to have feared for their safety. We’ve seen the footage. Traffic stops turned fatal, as was the case for Philando Castile. A fatal chokehold placed on George Floyd over a counterfeit bill. Instances where the consequences of an officer’s actions went unfeared, the system backing them designed as an impenetrable safety net. For Ice Cube, frustrated by the seemingly unconquerable presence of the police, rebellion came through music. By belittling the organization that had disrupted his daily life. Provocative in its blunt title and direct message, it didn’t take long before “Fuck Tha Police” caught the ire of law enforcement across the country. For those who self-aggrandized themselves as untouchable, the hostile bars of Compton’s finest served as the ultimate undermining. And given how infectiously catchy the track was, its popularity ensured that “Fuck Tha Police” quickly achieved anthem status. And given how many different walks of life have experienced negative interactions with aggressive police officers -- across all generations -- NWA’s controversial creation continues to carry the same weight today.
Though the track’s longevity speaks to the brilliance of its creators, it also reveals a darker truth on the other side of the coin. The fact that the animosity between the civilian population and the police sworn to serve and protect still exists is a disturbing reality. It also highlights how deeply entrenched within the system that racism really is. “Police think they have the authority to kill a minority,” rapped Ice Cube, in his instantly recognizable opening verse. Sadly, that truth has revealed itself like clockwork. Only this time, it seems as if the people have had enough. The streets have since come alive in protest; there isn’t a person in the entire United States that hasn’t come to know the name of George Floyd. Though some police have attempted to combat the uprising with force, they’ve quickly realized that heightened publicity can be a devastating counter to their all-too-often unprovoked bouts of violence. Excessive force will no longer be judged by fellow officers, but the court of public opinion -- one that is, for what feels like the first time, standing largely united. All the while, N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” continues to capture the zeitgeist once again, gaining renewed purpose as a protest anthem for a new generation.