STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable year in music.
(SOUNDBITE OF A MEDLEY OF RAP SONGS)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Rapping) Black Green, 1993.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Rapping) But it's '93. Or should I say '94, four months...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Rapping) I needed more doing score so I tried doing rap. Now in 1993 I'm living that...
SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Follow me, follow me, follow me but don't lose your grip nine-trizzay's the yizzear for me to...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Rapping) Yeah, my man, watch your back. Ninety-three means...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Rapping) 1993 exotic mix...
INSKEEP: Over the 12 months of 1993, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Salt n Pepa, Clan, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, the Wu-Tang Clan, and more than a dozen other rappers released albums that helped to change the sound of America. Some of this music grew out of the cultural and social upheaval after the Los Angeles riots.
NPR's Frannie Kelley kicks off a series about rap's greatest year, with a story on the album that started it all, drawing directly on the riots: Dr. Dre's "The Chronic."
FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: On this day in 1993, there were still burned-out buildings in South Central Los Angeles. It hadn't been a year since the acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Anger at the verdict had not cooled and you could hear it in the music on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME RIDE")
DR. DRE: (Rapping) Don't think I forgot, let you slide, let me ride, just another homicide. Yeah, it's me so I'ma talk on stomping on the easiest streets that you can walk on. So strap on your Compton hats, your looks, and watch your backs 'cuz you might get smoked, lo...
KELLY: Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" was in part a response to the riots, but its incendiary sound began long before the first match was lit. Five years earlier, his first group, NWA, put out this song. Dre made the beat and Ice Cube took the first verse.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRONIC")
NWA: (Rapping) The police coming straight from the underground. A young (bleep) got it bad cause I'm brown. And not the other color so police think they have the authority to kill a minority...
KELLY: NWA's tales of police brutality were not only prescient, they were also common knowledge, according to Matthew McDaniel, who was an intern at KDAY, a Los Angeles AM station devoted to hip-hop. He was also a filmmaker who interviewed just about everybody in the L.A. rap scene.
MICHAEL MCDANIEL: This is what was happening. This was the relationship with the cops and young black people, young Mexicans, and nobody seemed to care to even talk about it. So when they stepped out with that one, it was like, oh my god.
KELLY: The song was still huge when the Rodney King verdict came down on April 29, 1992. The city erupted.
MCDANIEL: We're out here, First AME Church, the day of the verdict of the Rodney King trial...
KELLY: That's Matthew McDaniel in the documentary he later made about the six days of chaos that followed the verdict. His camera captured furious Angelinos and one man in particular.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: If you ain't down for the ones that suffer in South Africa in apartheid, damn it, you need to step your punk ass to the side, and let us brothers and us Africans step in, and start putting some foot in that (bleep).
KELLY: McDaniel never got that man's name, but he says he listened to the clip over and over again.
MCDANIEL: I think he represented a million people that day.
KELLY: And there was another man. While he's speaking, he lifts a toddler onto his shoulders.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I'ma tell you right now. If I have to die today for this little African right here to have a future, I'm a dead mother (bleep).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Right.
KELLY: McDaniel says he knew he had powerful tape. A month after the riots, he heard Dr. Dre was working on a new album.
MCDANIEL: At that point in time, you could just call Dr. Dre up on the phone.
MCDANIEL: You know, not so easy for people now. You know, but you could just get Dre's number, call him, he'll pick up the phone hello.
KELLY: No, it's not so easy now. Dr. Dre wasn't interested in speaking to NPR, but in 1997, he did give an interview to the makers of a documentary called "Rhythm and Rhyme."
DRE: The music talks about crime, violence and drugs because it exist. I mean, for me, it's nothing political to it. Some people involve it in politics and what have you. But for me, I love doing it. And it also makes money. It's going to better my life and my family's life.
KELLY: Dre wanted to make an album that people would like enough to buy. He wound up using pieces of McDaniel's footage from the riots in not one but two songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIL GHETTO BOY")
DRE: (Rapping) Wake up, jumped out my bed. I'm in a two man cell with my homie Lil Half Dead. Murder was the case that they gave me. Dear God, I wonder can you save me? I'm only 18, so I'm a young buck. It's a ride, it I don't scrap, I'm getting stuck. But that's the life of G, I guess, Ese's way deep, shanked two in the chest. Best run 'cause brothers are dropping quicker. Uh, too late, damn, down goes another (bleep).
KELLY: That one, and "Lil Ghetto Boy" and (bleep)...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, " THE DAY THE NIGGAZ TOOK OVER")
DRE: (Rapping) Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. Break 'em off some. I got my finger on the trigger so (bleep) wonder why. We're living in the city, it's do or die. I got my finger on the trigger so (bleep) wonder why. They wonder where me bailing and don't really understand. The reason why they take me life and me on hand. Me not out for peace and me not Rodney King. Me gun goes click, me gun goes bang...
KELLY: The hard-edged album made millions for Dre, his label and the record stores that sold it. It was arguably the first rap album to reach well beyond the rap audience. But filmmaker Matthew McDaniel, whose clips Dr. Dre sampled, says back in 1993, not everybody was happy about rap's growing popularity.
MCDANIEL: People's parents, like, don't listen to that. You know, for one reason or another - racial reasons, cultural, the differences in generations. My family, I was the youngest out of six. And nobody - nobody appreciated it. They thought it was a complete waste of time.
KELLY: But McDaniel says "The Chronic" is still worth listening to, even 20 years later.
MCDANIEL: It's a document, it's an audio document with a lot of creativity and art and entertainment going along with it. Some people might think that that's wrong but it's art, it's poetry. And it's supposed to have pain in it. You can gather that from listening to "The Chronic" - about the L.A. riots - you can feel it, you can kind of understand. And a lot of people agree that they captured it incredibly well.
KELLY: McDaniel says the album doesn't have all the answers and it didn't solve the problems of its time. Its low-riding party music, intended to provide an escape and a voice for the anger and frustrations, born from burned out buildings, grinding poverty and a feeling that nobody cares.
Frannie Kelley, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME RIDE")
DRE: (Rapping) And so on, and so-on, why don't you let me roll on? I remember back in the day when I used to have get my stroll on. Did nobody...
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME RIDE")
DRE: (Rapping) Beating up the streets. Is it Dre? Is it Dre? That's what they say, every single day. Yes, but I ain't tripping, I'm just kickin it. While my deez keep spinning and I'll be rolling in my six-four. With everybody saying, thank God, sweet chariot stop and let me ride...
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