Apr 29, 2012

The Day The Niggaz Took Over

I know, it's been a long time...I shouldn't have left you, without some strong lines to rep to.  That being said, The Good Dr. is never far away.  Don't call it a comeback!

The 20th "anniversary" of the LA Riots has been keeping me occupied as of late.  As I made the media rounds discussing those volatile events of 20 years ago, this forced me to reconsider my own history relative to those unforgettable occurrences. The word "anniversary" has never seemed appropriate to me, but the 20 year public remembrance of those monumental events has meant that I have been in perpetual demand to comment on what it all meant.  This, of course, is both professional and personal. 

In January 1992 I came to Los Angeles to be interviewed for the gig that I've now held for the last 20 years.  As I sat in my hotel room across the street from the USC campus, trying to get my head right for the interview the next day, I watched the local news.  An older white resident from Simi Valley was being asked about his opinions on the upcoming Rodney King case.   He said quite emphatically that, if Rodney King hadn't been doing anything wrong, the police would have never stopped him.  He went on to say that had Rodney King not posed a threat to the cop's lives that they wouldn't have had to beat him.  In other words, this old man was saying what the jury would say a few months later when they concluded that Rodney provoked his own beating and thus the cops were innocent of all charges.

The old man's bitter comments had awaken me from my momentary slumber.  I was thinking, like a lot of people, that for once there was finally irrefutable evidence on tape that the cops were guilty of extreme brutality against an unarmed black man and that this evidence was indeed unambiguous.  The old man's comments though reminded me that we were still living in an America where for many people a black man's guilt was already assumed.  In a society where the threat of a black man named Willie Horton had helped get the sitting President George H.W. Bush elected back in 1988, it shouldn't have been too hard to imagine that another black man laying on the ground absorbing blows from both billy clubs and taser guns was in fact the one who was at fault for his own beating.

For me, the unjust beating and ridiculous verdict are more important than the riot that followed.  Yet no one wants to focus on the 20th "anniversary" of the beating or on the 20th "anniversary" of the kangaroo court-like verdict.  Instead, we focus on the riots at 20.  Oh well....

Having mastered the interview that I originally came to USC for I was offered the gig a few months later in March 1992.  The day I signed that letter accepting this gig, I was happy as a runaway slave!  You see, I had decided that I was destined to be at USC way back in 1974, when, as a ten year old boy, while sitting at home in Detroit, I saw Anthony Davis take the second half kickoff deep in the end zone and return it for a score that started a route and culminated in one of the greatest college football games in history, as the Cardinal and Gold defeated Notre Dame 55-24.  It took me a while, but by 1992 I had finally made it.

When the verdicts were announced on April 29th, 1992, I was at an academic conference in Pittsburgh, miles away in mind and body from the action taking place in the streets of LA.  Sitting in a hotel room, I was glued to the television for hours.  Finally I called my Dad in Detroit.  He was a riot veteran, having lived through two riots in the Motor City, one in 1943 and again in 1967, the second of which I had also lived through but for some reason living through a riot at age three doesn't count for much.  That evening, my Dad and I talked for several hours.  Knowing that I would be moving to LA very soon, we chose not to talk about the the death and destruction being focused on in the news media, instead we talked about the huge opportunity born of the conflict taking place in the LA streets that I was about to walk into. My father, the unofficial black nationalist that he was, always taught me that more concrete examples of racial progress had come about for black people because of the threat generated by various urban riots during the 1960s, than from the non-violent rhetoric and actions of MLK and the Civil Rights movement.  So to him the LA Riots were but another opportunity waiting to happen.

Sometimes you just have to tear something up and then start over.  The riots to me tore open the facade of an America that was constantly patting itself on the back about its own greatness. These riots taking place in the last decade of the celebrated "American Century" would signal loud and clear that all was not right in this fabled land.  The fact that in 1992 cops in the nation's second largest city could beat a black motorist as though he were a slave and get away with it as though we were still stuck in Mississippi of the 1950s meant that America had a long ways to go before it could ever truly define itself in such glowing moral terms. Such egregious things shouldn't still be happening in a nation that aspired to greatness.

                                          Regret it?/ Nope/Said it?/Yep/Listen to my big black 
                                          boots as I step/Niggaz had to break you off somethin'/
                                          give Bush a push/but your National Guard ain't hard/
                                          You had to get Rodney to stop me/cause you know what/
                                          we woulda tore this muthafucka up!

                                          We Had to Tear This Muthafucka Up, Ice Cube (1992)

I moved to LA about a month after the riots.  The charred remains of burnt out buildings were still quite visible then. It seemed as though I could still smell the smoke.  Helicopters swarmed over my head on the USC campus so often that I thought I was on the set of Apocalypse Now (1979).  The nerve endings of the city were still raw.  Though the fires were no longer raging out of control, the heat from the riots suggested a slow simmer which could still erupt into another inferno at any moment.

Once I settled in at USC though, the aftermath of the riots would provide a jump off point for my own career.  As the smoke cleared, everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about hip hop and the black film renaissance that was taking place in the early 90s.  Mickey Rourke, for instance, had made some especially dumb-ass comments suggesting that films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Boyz N The Hood (1991) had been responsible for the riots.  With such ignorance floating around, a proper rebuttal was much needed and I planned to fulfill this vacuum.  I had come to the USC School of Cinematic Arts because I wanted to be close to where the culture was being produced.  Knowing that I could find a place to articulate my ideas in this environment,  I figured that someone would be needed to clarify what was really going on in the culture, so it might as well be me!

During the day, my young ass, still only in my late 20s, would put in work at 'SC, while at night I went about discovering LA with reckless abandon.  I knew that in order to have the impact that I wanted to have I would need to fully immerse myself in the culture.  I seldom slept.  In those days, we had faculty meetings at 9 in the morning.  I would sometimes roll into these meetings straight from the streets, taking perverse pleasure in how hung over I was, figuring that no one ever paid enough attention to me to really notice anyway.  Though if they had, I wouldn't have cared.  I wanted them to know that I didn't give a fuck.

I can remember talking to cats like the late basketball great Walt Hazzard and Earth Wind and Fire's iconic Verdine White, while hanging with my "brotha from another mutha," audio engineering maestro Patrick "Pimp Tech" Smith, at my man Branford Marsalis' Century City gigs.  The absurd image of an amusingly inebriated Chaka Khan talking to Bushwick Bill, while I was backstage with Patrick and Reggie Hudlin, kicking it with Ice Cube before he went on stage stands out too.  I had been in town all of two weeks when Reggie, fresh off of directing Boomerang (1992), invited me to a George Clinton concert.  Before I knew it, I sitting in Eddie Murphy's VIP section, meeting cats like Chris Rock and Nelson George for the first time.  I can even remember seeing Snoop and Dre at the ghetto-ass Century Club long before The Chronic had even dropped.  One night, while at a private party in Prince's Glam Slam club, Wesley Snipes, the most popular black actor of that time, nearly Ron Artest'ed my head with his elbow while retrieving drinks in the crowded bar area. Upon realizing his error, he quickly apologized and then embraced me in the "black man hug" that was starting to take the place of hand dap at that time.  Eventually the black man hug would become simply the "man hug" but this was the first time that I'd experienced it.  I have the "Tax Man" to thank for this!

I was living the life.  My professional world and my personal world were really one in the same now.  I was hangin' as much as I was doing research, but there was really no difference between the two.  The seamless life that I had longed to create had started out with a bang.  Now, some 20 years later, I am asked repeatedly to comment on the riotous events that defined those times.  For me, the reminiscence is an introspective one, but a celebratory one as well.  As the riots put hip hop culture on the front burner, my expertise would be increasingly in demand.

Over the last 20 years hip hop has taken over American popular culture.  Why even the President has been known to "brush his shoulders off" on occasion.  As this culture rose, so did I.  The man you now know as The Notorious Ph.D. was really created in those days immediately following the LA Riots.  20 years later, it ain't hard to tell.  To some the riots were all about destruction, but for me those events provided the opportunity to establish myself in a game that was only itself just starting to come into focus.  Rising from the LA ashes like that proverbial phoenix, the Notorious Ph.D. was born.

Now, 20 years after the fact, I can sit back taking the long view.  Many now breath a sigh of regret when talking about the Riots.  Not me.  In the aftermath of those riots the conditions of the culture changed dramatically.  The space that I needed to do my thing had been created.  Now all I had to do was step my game up so as to capitalize.  Here I am now, still talking about those long ago days.  Guess I did something right, huh?  While others mourn the Riots or decry that such events ever came into existence, I take this opportunity to pause and give thanks.  Cheers!