A lot has changed in hip-hop and society since the L.A. riots and The Predator. But not everything.
This past Sunday, Rodney King died at age 47, closing the book on a troubled life burdened by one of the more tragic cases of unwanted celebrity in recent American history. Only two days prior to King's death, the rapper and actor Ice Cube turned 43 years old, and 20 years ago no musical figure was more centrally and controversially tied to the riots that enfolded South Los Angeles in the wake of the King verdict. It was a connection that reached its culmination in November of 1992 with the release of The Predator, an album-length essay on insurrection whose historical specificity and raging force of purpose position leave it somewhere between a faded antique and a dusty but still-live grenade. In light of King's passing, it seems worth cleaning off.
Ice Cube had been at the forefront of the "gangsta rap" genre since his visionary turn on N.W.A.'s 1988 breakthrough Straight Outta Compton, an album that did for Los Angeles rap what Meet the Beatles did for British rock and roll. When South Los Angeles convulsed on April 29, 1992, the moral panic swarming around gangsta rap and its practitioners made it both the ideal scapegoat and imagined soundtrack for what conservative America perceived as urban race war. Banning Body Count's "Cop Killer" became a cause célèbre, even if it was a song far more people had heard of than had actually heard. Cube's own "Black Korea" from 1991's Death Certificate—an admittedly pretty deplorable piece of music, inspired by the shooting death of Natasha Harlins—was accused of inciting violence against Korean-Americans during the uprising.