From 'Fuck Tha Police' (1988) to 'Alright' (2015) - Hip hop music and the representation of the relationship between black people and the police then and now

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. A short history of hip hop music in the United States of America

3. Representation in hip hop music

4. The relationship between black people and the police in rap songs
4.1. The past: Analysis of Fuck Tha Police (1988) by N.W.A
4.2. The present: Analysis of Alright (2015) by Kendrick Lamar
4.3. Differences and similarities between Fuck Tha Police (1988) and Alright (2015)

5. Conclusion

6. List of references

1. Introduction

In this paper, I will analyze how the relationship between black people and the police is represented in hip hop music, more precisely rap music. For that reason, I chose two important songs in hip hop history which discuss this exact issue and therefore function as a representation of their particular time. In the theoretical part, I will give a short overview of the development of hip hop for a better understanding of the genre. After that, I will elucidate how representation in hip hop functions and which theory it refers to. In the practical part, I will analyze the two songs, Fuck Tha Police by N.W.A from 1988 and Alright by Kendrick Lamar from 2015, since both are important representatives of hip hop of their individual point in time. After the analysis, I will work out the differences and similarities in the representation of the relationship between black people and the police and finally draw my conclusion.

Hip hop culture consists of four core elements: rap, graffiti, breakdancing and DJing. In this paper, I will focus on the aspect of hip hop music, more precisely the hip hop element of rap music. Music is always a mirror of its present and therefore is highly suitable to reflect the thinking and zeitgeist of one particular point in time. Through taking a closer look at how the relationship between black people and the police has been portrayed in hip hop music it is possible to reconstruct and get a feeling of the mindset of the people at that time. In the recent protests in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the recurring attention that is drawn to the problematics of police violence and institutionalized racism, hip hop artist and their music have become a powerful source to spread the message, that the circumstances under which black people are living need to change. It is indisputable that there is also violence against the police which plays a role in how the relationship between the two entities has developed. The current uprising riots against police brutality and institutionalized racism, and Alright being used as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter Movement prove, that the relationship of black people and the police is strongly represented in hip hop music. Consequently, it is important to take a closer look at the issue’s representation in rap music and which conclusions about our society can be drawn from its development throughout history. The currency of the issues between black people and the police and the growing popularity of hip hop music proves the relevance of my paper.

2. A short history of hip hop music in the United States of America

Before we can analyze the changes in the representation of the relationship between black people and the police in hip hop music over the last decades, it is important to first give a short overview of the history of hip hop, and, as I will focus on hip hop music, of the development of rap music.

The story of hip hop music began in the 1970s in the New York suburb the Bronx where Block parties were very popular at that time. A young man from Jamaica, who had recently migrated to the US, named Kool DJ Herc, was a well-known DJ on these parties. What distinguished him from the other DJs was, that he talked over the instrumental breaks of his Latin-tinged funk (Devos, 2007, p. 9). That was the birth of what we know as rapping. The switching between the various record decks and the additional talking was too hard, so he hired people to do the talking for him. Those people were then called MCs, today better known as rappers. In 1974, Lovebug Starski coined the term hip hop by shouting ‘Hip hop, you don’t stop’ to animate the crowd at Block parties (Robinson, 1999, p. 1). Five years later, the modern history of rap began with the release of Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight, the first commercial rap record in history, by the most influential label of that time, the label of Sylvia and Joey Robinson, Sugar Hill Records. Another milestone in rap history was set when in 1982, also signed with Sugar Hill Records, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released their single The Message. This record was the first political rap song bringing the ‘despair, anger and claustrophobia of the ghetto to the public uncensored’ (Devos, 2007, p. 11), giving a voice to the voiceless. It openly criticized the impact of the governmental decisions on the working class and urban-locales (Devos, 2007, p. 11). Grandmaster Flash deserves to be mentioned here not only as a member of the group but for his innovative function in hip hop. In the 70s, after watching Kool DJ Herc, he figured out a way to keep two records spinning seamlessly over and over again and became one of the most famous DJs, ‘spinning his turntables like a showman’ (Robinson, 1999, p. 2). In addition, he was responsible for some of the most influential songs in rap history such as Superrappin’ and The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels of Steel. In 1986, rap music had its breakthrough to popular culture with the collaboration of Run DMC, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry with the release of Walk This Way. With the release of the album Straight Outta Compton of N.W.A, a group of rappers from South Compton, gangsta rap achieved widespread commercial success without conventional mainstream promotion (Devos, 2007, p. 14). The single Fuck Tha Police from this album gained the most attention in the public because of its notorious lyrics, which led to the FBI sending a letter to the label, signalizing that the group was being under their radar and declaring the song ‘as an example of the anti-law-enforcement element in rap’ (Robinson, 1999, p. 4). Fuck Tha Police bluntly addresses problems that are going on in black communities and most importantly for this paper, police violence against black citizens in poor neighborhoods. After splitting up from N.W.A, Dr. Dre released his debut album The Chronic in 1993, redefining West Coast hip hop and demonstrating gangsta rap’s commercial potential while establishing G-Funk. In 1993, Snoop Doggy Dogg released his debut album Doggystyle which then became the first debut album ever to enter the Billboard music charts at number one (Devos, 2007, p. 18). In 1996, rapper 2Pac brought gangsta rap to another level with his nine times platinum album All Eyez On Me. The year 1997 can be seen as the year where gangsta rap came to pause after two of its biggest representatives, 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., were killed. This stirred up the debate about West Coast gangsta rap and the whole hip hop scene being too violent and criticism about gangsta rap was expressed heavily. With the debate about West Coast rap being too violent an East Coast artist called DMX released his first album entering the charts at number one. His following three albums also entered at number one, which made him the first artist ever to achieve something like that, hence established him as an important figure in hip hop music. In the same year, another extremely influential figure of hip hop had his breakthrough with his album Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life: Jay-Z. In 1999, the first white successful rapper named Eminem released his first album The Slim Shady LP after Dr. Dre discovered his potential and signed him with his label Aftermath Records, using pop influence to make rap more suitable for the mainstream taste of the masses. Three years later, the two of them discovered 50 Cent and released his six times platinum album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. With the development of rap music and hip hop culture, the impression emerged that the movement that once started as entertainment for mostly black and poor people in the Bronx, developed into a more and more ‘commercially oriented phenomenon’ (Forman, 2004, p. 10). Since the mid-2000s rap music has changed drastically. Where, at the beginning coming from a poor background and rapping about survivor, criminality and the struggles of the street life was obligatory, these days rap can be anything (McNulty-Finn, 2014). Rappers like Macklemore proved that there are no taboo topics in rap anymore and that rap can be humoristic and also a voice for the whole LGBTQ community as well. Reflecting upon the homophobic lyrics of many rappers this is a true novelty. In addition, rappers that do not come from the ghetto, are commercially successful as well, as you can see on the example of Canadian rapper Drake who has been called ‘the furthest thing from the hood” (McNulty-Finn, 2014, p. 12). Where at the beginning, artists rapped about their way to success, today it is mostly about what they have achieved already, whether it is true or not. Hip hop music has become more about an individual artist's persona and about mixing with other genres, to make the music more appealing for the broader masses to make it commercially more successful. Two recently successful rappers that brought a new twist to rap are Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino. Childish Gambino’s This is America attracted major attention for its concealed depiction about the problems of being black in the United States by using indirect references to the history of black people. Kendrick Lamar also takes up upon this issue in an extraordinary artistic way, combining black music styles from all decades with his rapping skills. His song Alright has been discussed and praised since the release of it, some saying his references are too drastic, some saying he finally speaks about the true life and struggles of the black people. In 2018, Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for his album Damn. being the first rap artist to ever achieve that. The jury honored his artistic depiction of the complexity of African-American life in the United States of America.

3. Representation in hip hop music

What is represented through hip hop music and in which way does it function as a ‘representational system’ (Hall, 1997, p. 1)? In this chapter, I want to briefly explain what I mean when talking about representation and how hip hop operates this concept. Representation is one of the central practices which produce culture and a ‘key moment in the ‘circuit of culture’’ by Stuart hall and da Gag (Hall, 1997, p. 1). Culture is about ‘shared meanings’ (Hall, 1997, p. 1) and uses language as the privileged medium to make sense of things and produce and exchange meaning. When referring to language in this context, not only spoken words are meant but any sound, word, image and object which functions as a sign and is organized with other signs into a system that is capable of expressing or carrying meaning (Hall, 1997, p. 19). However, hip hop uses the most obvious form of language, the actual language in the form of lyrics of a song. Not only the spoken words but the function they have enables rap music to represent and transmit meaning. Representation is therefore used in this paper in the sense of being ‘the production of meaning through language’ (Hall, 1997, p. 10). The connection of hip hop and representation is easily made when looking at how meaning is produced in a variety of different media, especially through the mass media, to which hip hop nowadays belongs (Hall, 1997, p. 3). Additionally, historical circumstances play an important role since meaning is never really fixed and changes with context (Hall, 1997, p. 9) and culture is ‘not so much a set of ‘things’ as a process of ‘practices’’ (Hall, 1997, p. 2). These aspects make hip hop music a notable form of representation of cultural practices throughout history, as well as a source of insight into mass media and popular culture. Through this insight, it is possible to share cultural codes and thus enable people to make sense of the world in broadly similar ways, which is the core definition of a shared culture. Only by encoding and decoding these codes in similar ways, people can belong to the same culture. Thus, it can be argued that hip hop music, through its presence in the contemporary mass media and popular culture contributes to people from outside the culture comprehending the cultural codes which creates a greater understanding of the ‘other’ culture. One major problem that occurs when trying to interpret and decode the languages of different cultures is, that there is a great danger in interpreting signs wrongly and misrepresenting the intended meaning. This phenomenon can often be seen when people create a one-dimensionalized image of hip hop music being only misogynist, violent and criminal (Hart, 2010, p. 12). Since rap music became more popular throughout the decades, a wrong representation of black urban life based on the restricted images produced in many rap songs and the subsequent misinterpretation of the signs by people outside that culture proceeded. This is the reason for the persistent misunderstanding of the reality of authentic black urban experiences in the majority society.

4. The relationship between black people and the police in rap songs

4.1. The past: Analysis of Fuck Tha Police (1988) by N.W.A

The song Fuck Tha Police has been released in 1988 by the rap group N.W.A, short for Niggaz Wit Attitudes, on their album Straight Outta Compton. The hip hop group consisted of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, Ice Cube and MC Ren and existed from 1986 to 1991 (Green, 2018). Fuck Tha Police is to this date one of the most influential hip hop songs and is being sampled and referred to by many rappers. Every time a discussion about the relationship between the police and black people rises up in the media, this song will certainly somehow be mentioned again. Because of its ongoing currency, I chose this song as a representative for the earlier days of hip hop music and how it represents the relationship between the police and black people.

The song describes a fictional setting in a courtroom where the N.W.A holds a trial on a police officer, explaining the incidents where he treated them wrongly. In the end, the police officer is found guilty and convicted. Dr. Dre functions as the judge here and the other members are portrayed as the attorneys in the trial against the police department. At the beginning of the song, it is stated that the case is ‘N.W.A vs. the Police Department’ (N.W.A, 1988). With this statement in the very beginning and with the title of the song, the artists clarify, what the cause and the message of the song are. It is meant to be a clear attack against the police and an attempt to turn around the power relation between the two entities. N.W.A symbolically stand for the black people from the ghetto, since that is where they all originate from.

One striking characteristic of the song is its vernacular language choice. Even though it is meant to portray a courtroom scenario, all of the persons involved articulate in a very colloquial manner, swearwords are used which would never be tolerated in a conventional courtroom. This enhances the impression that the N.W.A is in full charge of the situation and that this is not an ordinary setting. Additionally, the language is a way to remain authentic.

In the first incident, Ice Cube takes the stand and explains a case where he has been searched and put into jail, seemingly because of the color of his skin. This refers to the racial profiling that has always been a big issue when it comes to the relationship between black people and the police. He then refers to the prejudice of every black person engaging in drugs or dealing in the eye of the police and goes into stating that if black people possess anything of value, the police automatically suspect crime behind it. After that, he mentions gun violence by stating that he could harm a police officer badly if it was only for a physical fight and that without a gun the police would not stand a chance. The part ‘Just 'cause I'm from the CPT/ Punk police are afraid of me!’ (N.W.A, 1988) represents the issue of the stereotyping according to the area someone lives in. ‘CPT’ stands for Compton, a poor ghetto in the Los Angeles area.

In the next verse, MC Ren reports about an incident where he has been pulled over in his car and sent to jail seemingly because the police officer felt like it. With this case, N.W.A refers to the unjustified mass incarceration of black, mostly male, citizen by police, just because they ‘feel like it’ (N.W.A, 1988). This depicts another part of the racial profiling policy in the United States. MC Ren then gives a suspected reason for the police to act this way, ‘Because the niggas on the street is a majority’ (N.W.A, 1988). The suspected reason for the police’s actions is fear because in the ghetto they are the minority. He then picks up on some issue Ice Cube earlier addressed by stating that he keeps a gun on hand for ‘so-called law’ (N.W.A, 1988). By stating this, he points out two things: firstly, that black people feel the need to arm themselves to be able to defend themselves against the gun violence of the police and secondly, that there is no such thing as a law for black people. This statement is intensified later when he says police are ‘Readin' my rights and shit, it's all junk’ (N.W.A, 1988) Hereby, Ren clarifies that the law, especially the rights that are meant to protect citizen, do not apply for black people which makes them unprotected to arbitrariness.

In the next verse, Eazy-E presents his case where his house has been searched without any visible reason, stating his criminal potential and fantasizing about killing police in a drive- by shooting. In this verse, the aggression and threat the song contains are very visible. Eazy-E talks about some kind of a revenge scenario and brags about his violent potential. In the end, the police officer is found guilty ‘of being a redneck, white bread, chicken shit motherfucker’ (N.W.A, 1988) which examples the arbitrariness with which black people are being treated, reversing roles here. This refers to the institutional racism which is visible in the unjustified incarceration, gun violence, racial profiling, stereotyping and killing of black citizens.

The overall tone of Fuck Tha Police is aggressive and provoking. N.W.A make sure that everyone who listens to it gets the message that they have had enough of the unequal treatment they experienced by police. The strong language as well as the violent images they create represent the anger and aim for justice the black community feels. Even though the song is highly aggressive, the helplessness about the situation is overall prominent. Behind the fake courtroom scene stands the wish for power and the trial against the police officer stands for the demand for justice. The overall aggressive tone can be interpreted as a cry for help where N.W.A use their power as artists to represent the victims of police violence and raise awareness for the issue.

4.2 The present: Analysis of Alright (2015) by Kendrick Lamar

Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar’s Alright, released in 2015 on the platinum album To Pimp a Butterfly is probably best known as the ‘unofficial anthem’ (Manabe, 2015, p. 13) of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The song addresses the social difficulties of African- American life in the United States, especially with institutional racism and police violence, subtly and indirectly. Due to its recent popularity and the many controversial opinions about the song, I chose Alright as a representation of the relationship between black people and the police today. Interestingly, the album has partly been produced by Dr. Dre, a former member of the N.W.A.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


From 'Fuck Tha Police' (1988) to 'Alright' (2015) - Hip hop music and the representation of the relationship between black people and the police then and now
University of Freiburg  (Anglistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Hip Hop, Black, Police, representation, hip hop music, Hall, Spivak, Police violence, identity, Black people, African-American, United States of America, USA, US, music, music industry
Quote paper
Melissa Kern (Author), 2020, From 'Fuck Tha Police' (1988) to 'Alright' (2015) - Hip hop music and the representation of the relationship between black people and the police then and now, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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