The story of how an FBI assistant director for public affairs wrote to Ruthless Records to complaint about Straight Outta Compton promoting violence against law enforcement is well known among the rap/hip-hop community. So is the letter’s consequence – a flurry of media stories that introduced the album to a whole new audience. What is less well appreciated is how the dynamics of cultural insurgency and counter-insurgency played out in the wake of the FBI-N.W.A. contretemps.
The letter was written by Milt Ahlerich, the Bureau’s assistant director for public affairs, to Gui Manganiello, National Promotions Director for Priority Records, the parent company of Ruthless Records. It protested:
A song recorded by the rap group NWA on their album entitled “Straight Outta Compton” encouraged violence against and disrespect to the law enforcement officer and has been brought to my attention…
…Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action. Violent crime, a major problem in our country, reached an unprecedented high in 1988. Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were felonisouly slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such an the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.
Amusingly, the song they were referring to was not named in the letter, but it’s obviously Fuck tha Police, written by Ice Cube. The song does advocate for violence against the police, but no more than a thousand episodes of cop shows advocate for violence against anyone the police deems a ‘felon’ or a ‘suspect’. After a century of the LAPD giving out commendations to officers for shooting poor black and brown people, the fact that one rap song turning the dynamic on its head in an obvious act of cultural rebellion caused such a stir is telling. It betrays the closed-off, sociopathic mindset within the self-appointed enforcers of the law, that they are the law and therefore can do no wrong and should not be opposed.
That the FBI, the US’s senior law enforcement agency, saw fit to send a warning to a rap label because of one song that stepped out of line, shows the totalitarian mentality within these institutions. Any opposition, any criticism, any rebellion or insurgency against them makes them the victims. Even when that criticism is coming from people they’ve harassed, spied on, beaten up, imprisoned and killed en masse. If you ever wondered where the American alt right get their uppity, self-proscribed victim status from, you could do a lot worse than looking at the FBI and the LAPD’s responses to accusation of racism and oppressive violence.
Furthermore, let’s follow this logic through – being racist and violent and ignoring people’s rights isn’t discouraging and degrading to police officers and FBI agents, but a rap song is? Working within institutions that routinely cover up these things isn’t putting people off, but the mere existence of a song is causing them problems? How weak-minded are these people? I find it astonishing that they’re able to suit up and fight crime every day, if they can be so easily derailed by one rapper telling them to go fuck themselves. Aren’t these ‘tough on crime’ ‘living in the real world’ macho types who consistently mock liberals for having the slightest empathy supposed to be stronger than this?
Indeed, by revealing the weakness within themselves, the ‘entire law enforcement community’ that Milt believed he spoke for laid themselves bare. The press, and even Congress, reacted to the FBI’s letter with disdain and criticism, encouraging more people to buy N.W.A.’s album and engage with their message of insurgency. If the Bureau had said nothing, the album would have been less successful, both politically and commercially. By showing that Mr Cube’s words had got to them, they invited more people to see them in these terms.
However, several members of N.W.A. went the other way, in a typical insurgent-counterinsurgent exchange, and became part of the mainstream. Years later, Cube would appear in Rampart, one of a string of movies responding to the late 90s Rampart scandal within the LAPD. The film, if anything, is a piece of copaganda that trivialises the scandal and even blames the revelations that cops were robbing banks, stealing drugs, killing people with impunity and general acting like gangsters, for the problems that the city faced. The same kind of self-serving deflection is at play in this movie as in the FBI’s letter – that it’s not the corrupt cops that are the problem, but people finding out the cops are corrupt, and therefore not trusting them.
Rampart included among its consultants former LAPD officer Brian Liddy, one of three cops accused but ultimately acquitted during the scandal. He and the others sued the city for violating their civil rights, and got multi-million dollar settlements. Liddy has outright denied that the Rampart scandal even took place in a video report that was little more than a puff piece for the LAPD, so why was he hired to help make a film set in the wake of the scandal? This is as clear a sign as any that Ice Cube had gotten on board with a film that was always intended to be pro-police, while masquerading as the opposite.