I’m gonna be honest: we’ve been holding back on this playlist for a long time. We both separately had an idea for a Dystopian Dance Mix about cops months ago, but there was a problem: cops kept killing people, and I didn’t want to look like we were insensitively capitalizing on the outrage to peddle our stupid Spotify playlists. Well, now we’ve finally had about three months go by without a high-profile police killing–our nation’s police force having apparently moved on to merely tackling Black teenagers at pool parties, while the task of murdering Black people has been picked up by card-carrying white supremacists rather than badge-carrying ones. So I guess now is as good a time as ever to release this thing.
Obviously, this is not going to be an unbiased and neutral examination: whatever our own thoughts on the police (we hate them, especially Sting), it’s undeniable that jazz, rock, soul, and hip-hop–originated by Black people, beloved by teenagers, countercultures, and others on the fringes of society–have historically had a contentious relationship with authority. And, quite frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way; would you want to listen to a playlist of music by those “Blue Lives Matter” dickheads? So please, enjoy this anti-authoritarian, anti-police brutality mix. And if there’s another high-profile police killing after it comes out–because, let’s face it, the way things are going, there probably will be–just know that our intentions are of solidarity, not exploitation.
1. The Clash: “Know Your Rights”
(from Combat Rock, 1982)
We begin with a classic punk rock anthem–or, as Joe Strummer puts it, “a public service announcement…with guitar!” “Know Your Rights” purports to be a rundown of the rights–“all three of them”–guaranteed in a modern Western democracy; but, as Strummer’s irony-drenched declaration unfolds, it becomes quickly apparent that even these basic rights aren’t guaranteed to everyone. Most pertinent to the playlist is number one: “You have the right not to be killed / Murder is a crime! / Unless it was done by a policeman.” But number three will undoubtedly also resonate with the many activists who have been jailed or brutalized for participating in demonstrations against the police: “You have the right to free speech / As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!” And, though “it has been suggested in some quarters” that these three “rights” are “not enough,” Strummer’s mock-authoritarian character is quick to remind us that we should be happy with what we have–or else the only right we’ll have left is the Miranda “right to remain silent.”
2. KRS-One: “Sound of da Police”
(from Return of the Boom Bap, 1993)
As the Clash suggest on “Know Your Rights,” police forces around the world have historically been used by those with power to oppress those without. In the United States, however, this class warfare took on a specifically racial dimension, with “slave patrols” employed by plantation owners to monitor and discipline African slaves long before there was ever a formalized police force. And, as KRS-One famously observes in “Sound of da Police,” not much has changed: “Take the word ‘overseer,’ like a sample / Repeat it very quickly, in a crew, for example / Overseer / Overseer / Overseer / Overseer / Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer! / Yeah, officer from overseer / You need a little clarity? Check the similarity / The overseer rode around the plantation / The officer is off patrolling all the nation / The overseer could stop you what you’re doing / The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing / The overseer had the right to get ill / And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill / The officer has the right to arrest / And if you fight back, they put a hole in your chest.” The transformation from plantation overseer to police officer has resulted in the continuous oppression of African Americans for generations, all in the name of “preserving the peace”: as KRS-One puts it, “My grandfather had to deal with the cops / My great-grandfather dealt with the cops / My great, great-grandfather had to deal with the cops / And then my great, great, great, great…when it’s gonna stop?”
3. Andre Williams: “The Car with the Star”
(from Silky, 1997)
Now here’s another history lesson from Detroit R&B godfather Andre Williams, who brings us back to his granddad’s generation, when “the hustlers” made their money from selling “that good ol’ corn liquor” and “you always had to be careful for that car with the star.” With former Gories Mick Collins and Dan Kroha on guitar, Williams paints a vivid picture of a rollicking car chase, punctuated by the classic refrain: “Run, run, run like hell / All you motherfuckers goin’ to jail.” If there isn’t a video somewhere on YouTube of this song replacing the score from a Keystone Kops short, there is simply no hope left for America.
4. Ice-T: “Drama”
(from Power, 1987)
These days, Ice-T is arguably most famous for playing a cop on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Back in 1992, though, he was most famous for terrifying White America with “Cop Killer,” an anti-L.A.P.D. screed by his rap-metal band Body Count that ruffled so many blue feathers, it was removed from its parent album and never officially re-released. And five years before that, he was describing less violent brushes with the law with tracks like “Drama”: a classic street narrative in which our protagonist is busted while driving a stolen car to a gang battle, interrogated, and finally locked up after his homey snitches on him. Like many Ice-T tracks of the era, it’s actually a cautionary tale: his character got caught because he was “a fool in a fight, too damn dumb to know right”; in the last verse, he reflects, “I wouldn’t be here if I fed my brain / Got knowledge from school books, instead of street crooks / Now all I get is penitentiary hard looks.” Remember, kids: listen to Ice-T, stay in school, and you too can have a bizarre third act as a network TV star married to a big-booty glamour model.
5. Sammy Hagar: “I Can’t Drive 55”
(from VOA, 1984)
Not so much another cautionary tale as a brazen declaration of his refusal to abide by the rules of the road, here’s our old friend Sammy Hagar confessing his constitutional inability to drive below 60 miles per hour. Yes, I choose to interpret the lyrics of “I Can’t Drive 55” as an admission of a bizarre disorder–perhaps psychological, perhaps physiological–that literally prevents Hagar from driving the speed limit. Sometimes I also like to imagine what the movie Speed would have been like if the mad bomber had been played by Hagar instead of Dennis Hopper; basically, I’m an idiot. But the point is, Sammy Hagar doesn’t have time for traffic cops: he’s had it up to here with “black and white” coming and “touching his groove,” and he’s going to continue to fight the power, even if it means getting pulled over and handcuffed in his Hulk Hogan outfit, playing a sweet guitar solo on the judge’s bench, and finally being thrown in the state pen, like in the song’s video. Nowadays, of course, it’s hard not to read “I Can’t Drive 55” as the ultimate in white privilege; if Sammy Hagar were Black, that video would have ended with the cop emptying his revolver into Hagar’s back and testifying that he was acting in self-defense. But still, you kind of have to admire the Red Rocker’s rebel spirit. And also that backflip he does over the bailiff’s head…gotta admire that, too.
6. Lil Wayne featuring Bobby Valentino and Kidd Kidd: “Mrs. Officer”
(from Tha Carter III, 2008)
Leave it to Lil Wayne to release a smooth R&B ballad that’s also a lewd sexual fantasy about what happens when he gets “stopped by a lady cop.” It’s mostly a vehicle for goofy quips about what it would be like to date a police woman: after they have sex, for example, Wayne asks her for her number and she replies, “911.” And, of course, her moans sound like a police siren–or, as guest crooner Bobby Valentino demonstrates on the hook, “Wee-ooh-wee-ooh-wee.” But there’s also a clever call-out to rap music’s history of police protest songs when Weezy raps, “she know I’m raw, she know I’m from the streets / And all she want me to do is fuck tha police.” And things get a little dark when he references an infamous case of police brutality to describe their lovemaking: “I beat it like a cop / Rodney King, baby, beat it like a cop.” The whole song might feel a bit like it was improvised in a few minutes and a haze of weed smoke–because it probably was–but it’s a testament to Wayne’s untutored wit that it’s as clever and subversive as it is.
7. The Strokes: “New York City Cops”
(2001 B-side; available on Is This It [U.K. version])
But hey, anti-police sentiment isn’t just for rappers, punk rockers, and Sammy Hagar; it’s for the hipsters, too, as former NY rock darlings the Strokes proved on their 2001 album-track-turned-B-side “New York City Cops.” A kind of blank pastiche of a protest song–its main lyrical hook, “New York City cops ain’t too smart,” isn’t exactly Phil Ochs material–“New York City Cops” became unexpectedly politicized after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, after which it was no longer kosher to refer to the N.Y.P.D. as anything other than valiant heroes. As a result, the song was pulled from the U.S. version of the Strokes’ debut album Is This It, and replaced by (the vastly inferior) “When It Started.” Way to stick it to the man, guys!
8. Rick James: “Mr. Policeman”
(from Street Songs, 1981)
“Punk-funk” innovator Rick James is known for many things: his prodigious appetite for sex and drugs, his side gig producing for Eddie Murphy, his violent grudge against white leather couches. One thing he’s not as well-known for, however, is his social commentary, which is what makes 1981’s “Mr. Policeman” such a revelation. Over a reggae-inspired funk arrangement, James excoriates a police officer who patrols the inner city and brings violence with him. The song’s stark refrain is powerful in its simplicity: “It’s a shame / Such a disgrace / Every time you show your face / Somebody dies.” Throw in an impassioned coda featuring backing vocals by Teena Marie, and you’ve got a rare gem of jheri-curl protest music.
9. Ice Cube featuring Chuck D: “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside)”
(from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, 1990)
As a former member of N.W.A.–whose anthemic “Fuck tha Police” isn’t included here only because it’s too low-hanging a fruit–Ice Cube is something of an authority on issues of police brutality; and, as the lead M.C. for Public Enemy, Chuck D has earned the authority to pronounce “young Black teenagers” as the latest “Endangered Species.” So it should come as little surprise that a 1990 collaboration between the two would be scintillating–especially with P.E.’s sonic terrorists the Bomb Squad on production duties. In his first verse, a fiery response to critics who argue that gangsta rappers should preach “peace” to the inner cities, Ice Cube shoots back that it would make no difference anyway; the police, not the kids in the streets, are the ones causing violence: “Every cop killing goes ignored / They just send another nigga to the morgue / A point scored / They could give a fuck about us / They rather catch us with guns and white powder.” But, he warns, his community’s problem will be everybody’s before long: “Call my neighborhood a ghetto ‘cuz it houses minorities / The other color don’t know, you can run but not hide / These are Tales from the Darkside.” Ice’s words were prophetic; almost exactly two years after the song’s release, South Central Los Angeles erupted into unrest after the L.A.P.D. officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, forcing white people to get at least a glimpse of what it’s like to live on the “Darkside.” Sound familiar?
10. Run the Jewels featuring Boots: “Early”
(from Run the Jewels 2, 2014)
Probably the most depressing thing about writing this playlist is the way it throws into sharp relief how relations between the police and the Black community have not improved in the last 25 years; indeed, if anything, they seem to have gotten worse. Unlike the street-hardened characters portrayed by Ice-T and Ice Cube in their respective songs, the persona taken on by Killer Mike for Run the Jewels‘ recent album track “Early” is of a family man just “tryin’ to smoke and chill”; but that doesn’t stop the “pigs” from stopping and frisking him for (medical) marijuana, violently arresting him, and shooting his wife in front of their young son. Yes, it’s a work of fiction, but the sad thing is it isn’t far from the truth: think about Eric Garner, a married father of six with three grandchildren, choked to death by police officers while being arrested for the crime of selling loose cigarettes. The fact that it could just as easily have been ripped from the headlines is what makes Killer Mike’s nightmare scenario all the more nightmarish.
11. Clear Soul Forces: “Gamma Ray”
(from Fab 5ive, 2015)
A lesser-known protest song from the last year, but still a good one, “Gamma Ray” by Detroit underground hip-hop crew Clear Soul Forces delves into the much-discussed phenomenon of “Driving While Black.” “The lights red, white, and blue,” the opening verse announces, “Welcome to Black America.” Later, we get a detailed breakdown of the techniques police use when racially profiling Black drivers: “Hand on your pistol, approachin’ my window like I’m a criminal / Plates outdated, I’m actin’ like how you expect me to / Puttin’ knees in our backs, you don’t cuff us as individuals / You treat the 9 to 5 Black guy the same as the trap guy / The biggest coward abuses his power, from Adolf / Hitler to law enforcement, excessive force is enormous horseshit / Miranda rights are an abortion of freedom, after speedin’ them, readin’ them / After you step out of your seat and shit / Illegally step from your vehicle, mouthin’ off, try’na / Get me to retaliate, say you’re resistin’ arrest, and put you in check.” It’s a great, powerful track–punctuated, I’m compelled to add, by a classic line borrowed from Kanye: “It don’t matter where you go, it don’t matter what you do / Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigger in a coupe.”
12. Bruce Springsteen: “State Trooper”
(from Nebraska, 1982)
Moving on from Driving While Black, here we have perhaps the greatest song ever written about Driving While Bruce. Okay, so that’s not actually true; “State Trooper” isn’t written from the perspective of Bruce Springsteen, Dad-Rock Poet Laureate, but from a desperate, unnamed character who seems to have committed a terrible crime. With its stark lyrics and arrangement–an uncanny translation of electro-punk duo Suicide‘s primal synthesizer throb to acoustic guitar–it’s a gripping, suspenseful track; one that leads the listener to pray, along with the narrator, for “Mr. State Trooper” not to stop him on the highway: not because of what the trooper will do to him, but because of what he might do to the trooper. “Maybe you got a kid,” Springsteen sings with a chillingly empty menace, “Maybe you got a pretty wife / The only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life.” Seriously, though: cops, I know we’ve been hard on you so far, but please, for your own sake, don’t pull Bruce Springsteen over; if his performance here is any indication, he’s probably crossing the New Jersey Turnpike with a duffle bag full of severed heads.
13. Jay-Z: “99 Problems”
(from The Black Album, 2003)
Back to more conventional subject matter, here’s Jay-Z with his Rick Rubin-produced 2003 hit “99 Problems.” I actually almost left this off the list, because it felt a bit obvious. in the end, though, I couldn’t resist that second verse, where Jay-Z recounts a 1994 brush with the po-po by playing the roles of both himself and the officer, for whom he affects a delightful Boss Hog drawl: “So I pull over to the side of the road, I hear / ‘Son, do you know what I’m stopping you for?’ / ‘Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low? / Do I look like a mind-reader, sir? I don’t know.” Though Jay wrote in his memoir Decoded that it was based on a real experience, the verse comes across as pure power fantasy; I have my doubts that even Hova could approach a traffic stop with such bravado, especially when he was young and unknown with a trunk full of cocaine. But that’s kind of the point: doesn’t everybody who listens to “99 Problems” wish they could talk back to a cop like that, and get away with it?
14. The Mothers of Invention: “Mom & Dad”
(from We’re Only in It for the Money, 1968)
It’s easy to forget, but when he wasn’t making smutty jokes about groupies and viciously satirizing American culture, Frank Zappa occasionally showed his sober, reflective side. One of those fleeting moments comes early in the Mothers of Invention‘s 1968 masterpiece, We’re Only in It for the Money, with “Mom & Dad”: an honest-to-god protest ballad about the comfortably bourgeois parents of a teenager on the outskirts of the 1960s counterculture. Upon hearing about the police shooting of “some girls and boys,” they simply shrug: “They looked too weird / It served them right.” But the song ends on a devastating note; this time, it’s their own child who becomes a victim of police violence: “Shot by the cops as she quietly lay / By the side of the creeps she knew / They killed her, too.” In today’s context, the song once again stirs up the notion that the more things change, the more they say the same: think about the white middle-class indifference that largely greeted the killing of Michael Brown, for example, with the excuse that he must have been doing something wrong to attract police attention in the first place (“He looked too weird / It served him right”). It’s sad to think that almost 50 years later, we’re still struggling to find the basic human empathy whose absence is decried in “Mom & Dad”; but then, I guess that’s the America Zappa always loved to loathe.
15. The Flaming Lips featuring Tegan and Sara and Stardeath and White Dwarfs: “Lovely Rita”
(from With a Little Help from My Fwends, 2014)
Back to slightly more uplifting fare, “Lovely Rita” is a McCartney-penned ditty from the Beatles’ epochal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, written from the perspective of a nebbish who becomes smitten with a meter maid after she writes him a parking ticket. Basically, it’s a dry run for the aforementioned “Mrs. Officer” (and yes, I just referred to a Beatles song as a “dry run” for a Lil Wayne song; also, fuck you), but without the sexual explicitness or, to be honest, the subversion. But still, let’s give the lads a break: in middle-class 1967 Britain, making a mildly rude joke about asking a traffic warden home for “tea” was still fairly rebellious, if not exactly “Cop Killer” level. As for the version on this playlist (because the Beatles are still too good for Spotify), well, it comes from the Flaming Lips’ 2014 track-for-track cover of Sgt. Pepper, which means it’s quaintly acid-fried (with appropriately twee guest vocals by Canadian indie pop duo Tegan and Sara), but pretty much completely inessential.
16. Gil Scott-Heron: “No Knock”
(from Free Will, 1972)
Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron established himself early on as a gadfly for the White American establishment, with revolutionary tracks like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues“–and “No Knock,” a scathing protest “to be slipped into [the] suggestion box” of former Attorney General John N. Mitchell. In the late ’60s, Mitchell had championed the use of “no-knock” entry by police– a policy supposedly, as Scott-Heron wryly notes in his introduction to the song, “legislated for Black people, rather than for their destruction.” “No knock, the man will say / To keep that man from beating his wife / No knock, the man will say / To protect people from themselves”; but, as Scott-Heron reveals, “no-knock” was often extended past its (already paternalistic) justifications, to be used as a means of arresting and killing Black dissidents: “No knocked on my brother Fred Hampton / Bullet holes all over the place / No knocked on my brother Michael Harris / And jammed a shotgun against his skull / For my protection? Who’s gonna protect me from you?” But these racist policies, the poet ultimately warns, won’t save Mitchell and his like from a potential uprising: “if you’re wise, no knocker / You’ll tell your no-knockin’ lackeys, ha! / No knock on my brother’s head / No knock on my sister’s head / No knock on my brother’s head / No knock on my sister’s head / And double lock your door / Because soon, someone may be no-knockin’ / Ha, ha! For you.”
17. 10cc: “Rubber Bullets”
(from 10cc, 1973)
A gem from the early, Mothers of Invention-inspired days of future MOR hitmakers 10cc, “Rubber Bullets” was written by band members Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, and Graham Gouldman after the 1971 prison riot at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility. Sung to a mockingly chipper vintage rock’n’roll beat, the song tells the story of a “party at the local county jail” where the convicts are “having a tear-gas of a time.” The governor calls up “Sergeant Baker,” a (loosely) fictionalized sadistic thug who loves “to hear those convicts squeal” as he peppers them with the titular rubber bullets. 10cc, for their part, are firmly on the side of the prisoners: “Well we don’t understand why you called in the National Guard,” they sing, “When Uncle Sam is the one who belongs in the exercise yard.” A trenchant critique of state violence by the guys who sang “I’m Not in Love“; who’da thunk it?
18. Sinéad O’Connor: “Black Boys on Mopeds”
(from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990)
We’ve taken, I’ll admit, a pretty America-centric viewpoint so far on this playlist, mainly because we’re from America, and are far from experts on issues of law enforcement nationally, let alone worldwide. It’s important to note, however, that the United States isn’t the only Western nation whose police use excessive force against the underprivileged. So, here’s the reliably radical Sinéad O’Connor with a bristling anti-Thatcher ballad to remind us that “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses / It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds”–a reference to the 1989 death of 17-year-old Nicholas Bramble, who died while being chased by police who assumed he was riding a stolen vehicle. And if that weren’t enough, the song’s parent album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was dedicated to the memory of another young Black man killed by British police: 21-year-old Colin Roach, who died “mysteriously” of a gunshot wound inside the entrance of Stoke Newington police station in 1983. So, yes, next time some cocky Brit says something condescending about America’s problem with race, just play them some Sinéad O’Connor and remind them that we all made this shit bed, and we all have to sleep in it together.
19. Village People: “Hot Cop”
(from Cruisin’, 1978)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: geez, guys, are there any cops that you don’t have a problem with? And the answer is, yes, there is in fact exactly one: Victor Willis, lead singer of the Village People and the group’s own designated “Hot Cop.” On this track, Willis is apparently tasked with enforcing the Greenwich Village gay community’s mandatory dancing ordinance, as he patrols the dance floor and sternly announces: “C’mon, y’all, this is the Hot Cop talkin’ to ya! I want everybody to get on their feet! Don’t want nobody, nobody to be sittin’ down!” But, as with “Mrs. Officer,” there’s a subversive undercurrent to the disco-police persona. The Village People and their gay audience were old enough to remember the 1969 Stonewall Inn rebellion, when marginalized members of the Village L.G.B.T. community fought back against the N.Y.P.D.’s frequent, dehumanizing raids. By taking a symbol of the literal policing of sexuality and queering it into a kind of heterosexual drag act (played, it should be added, by one of the group’s few straight members), the Village People–whether consciously or not–asserted cultural ownership of heterosexism’s most explicit form of social control. And anyway, who doesn’t love a hot cop?
20. Tim and Eric: “Cops and Robbers”
(from Uncle Muscles Presents: Casey and His Brother, 2008)
And now, we end this Dance Mix, as we often do, with a song by “anti-comedy” duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, in character as their bizarre public access freak show, severely stage fright-stricken Casey and his unnamed, mute, bicycle shorts-wearing brother. And really, maybe we should have led with this, because it says pretty much everything there is to say about the police: “Bang, bang, cops and robbers / Bang, bang, robbers and cops / Bang, bang, rob that bank / Put ’em in jail, put ’em in jail.” What more can we add? Well, I guess there is this. And on that note, we’ll see you next month.
Well, folks, it's been almost a year since the last installment of this pop geography series we call Dystopian Road...