Brow Beat

Ed Koch’s Legacy in Hip-Hop

Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing
Radio Raheem’s death by police brutality in Do the Right Thing was inspired by a real-life incident.

Still from YouTube.

Longtime New York City mayor Ed Koch died this morning at 88. While The New York Times points out that “historians and political experts generally give Mr. Koch mixed-to-good reviews,” he won’t be remembered quite so fondly by another community: The generation of New York City rappers, DJs, and graffiti artists that gave rise to modern hip-hop.

Koch presided over New York City from 1977 to 1989, almost exactly the years during which hip-hop went from a small scene of Bronx block parties to a global cultural phenomenon. During those years, the history of hip-hop is the history of Ed Koch’s New York: Until the last couple years of his reign, nearly every major hip-hop artist rose out of one of the five boroughs or Long Island, from Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Flash to Run DMC and Chuck D. While Koch saved the city from sliding towards bankruptcy—cops, teachers, and firefighters had just been laid off, and crime and fires were on the rise in the South Bronx—his relationship to these communities would ultimately be mixed at best, culminating in his defeat by New York City’s first and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins.

Tensions began with his crackdown on graffiti, one of the so-called four elements of hip-hop. Koch wasn’t the first New York City mayor to wage battle against street art: Mayor John Lindsay declared the first “War on Graffiti” in 1971, and in 1976 Mayor Abraham Beame spent $20 million to buff all the trains. But Koch’s war on graffiti was particularly fraught. One of Koch’s first actions was to put dogs and razor-wire around the subway yards to discourage the young artists who tagged the trains. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t put in dogs, but wolves,” Koch said, at least partly joking, explaining that artists would be “scared as hell.” In the acclaimed 1983 documentary Style Wars, Koch defends his attacks on graffiti, saying that such vandalism “destroyed our lifestyle.”


1983 was also the year graffiti artist Michael Stewart died following an arrest for tagging an East Village subway station. Stewart’s death led to protests and multiple trials for police brutality. Jean-Michel Basquiat depicted Stewarts’s  death in “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” and six years later, Spike Lee paid tribute to Stewart’s with the death of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. (Raheem is killed by the same nighstick chokehold witnesses said was used against Stewart.) The incident would also be remembered in rhyme, including just last year on “New York City Cops” by Das Racist rapper Heems.

Koch appointed Benjamin Ward, New York’s first black police commissioner, that same year, but incidents of police brutality by a largely white police force continued. The following years would also see a number of highly inflammatory incidents of racially motivated violence inflicted by citizens. In 1986 three men had their car break down near Howard Beach, Queens. After they hiked into town and grabbed a few slices at a local pizzeria, they were attacked and badly beaten by a gang of white teens. When one of the men, Michael Griffith, tried to escape, he was struck by a car on the highway and killed. Koch called it “the most horrendous incident” of his term, comparing it to an old-fashioned lynching.

It was this climate of racial tension that gave rise to a new generation of highly political hip-hop artists, most notably Public Enemy. After Yusef K. Hawkins was killed in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn while going to see a used car, Hawkins’ and Griffith’s deaths were memorialized on tracks like Kool G. Rap’s “Erase Racism” and Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.” (“First nothing’s worse than a mother’s pain/ Of a son slain in Bensonhurst,” rapped Chuck D.) In anger at Griffith’s death, thousands of marchers took to the streets and eventually made their way to Koch’s residence, chanting “Mayor Koch, have you heard? Howard Beach is Johannesburg.”

The movement came to a head around the 1989 mayoral election. On the sets of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee filmed walls graffitied with “Dump Koch” to the tune of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” And he encouraged people to register to vote him out. “I don’t know if the film will defeat Ed Koch, but I hope so,” he said, calling Koch “a polarizer of races in the city.” On A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Can I Kick It?,” Phife Dawg would rap, “Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?/ You’d be doing us a really big favor.”

Attacks on Koch cooled down after his tenure in office. These days when he gets name-checked in hip-hop it can even be with a hint of nostalgia. Biz Markie looked back on the days “When Koch was the mayor and Reagan was the Pres’ ” on tracks like “Throw Back” and “Turn Back the Hands of Time.” “EMG” finds El-P remembering his days as a juvenile “who was trained by Ed Koch to hop a turnstyle.” On “Livin’ Astro” in 1999, Kool Keith was still bragging, appropriately, “I run rap like Mayor Ed Koch.”