This is a transcript of Episode 1 of Season 3 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
This podcast has language that some people might find offensive.
Ronald Ray Howard grew up in South Park, a tough neighborhood in Houston. He described it as a war zone. Like Tupac Shakur, he moved around a lot as a child. Howard attended nine different elementary schools and was held back three times. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school.
Howard ended up selling drugs in the town of Port Lavaca, two hours down the Gulf Coast from Houston. That’s where he was headed the night of April 11, 1992, when a Texas Highway Patrolman pulled him over.
Howard wasn’t a fan of law enforcement. This is Allen Tanner, a criminal defense lawyer.
ALLEN TANNER: Here’s a young kid from Houston who had had problems with police in his neighborhood where a lot of the kids are brought up there to hate cops to begin with.
Howard had another reason to be wary: he was a drug dealer driving a stolen car.
The patrolman who pulled Howard over was named Bill Davidson. He’d been on the force for about 20 years. He and his wife Linda had raised two children in the town of Edna, population 5,500, where he was a city council member and the president of the little league.
As Davidson approached Ronald Ray Howard’s car, Howard shot him in the neck with a 9-millimeter pistol.
Davidson died three days later.
Howard was arrested not long after he fled the scene. He confessed to the crime soon after.
In most cases, the murder of a highway patrolman would have remained a local tragedy. But the killing of Bill Davidson became a national story – one that would change the shape of the music industry.
That’s because of the cassette tape that was playing in Ronald Ray Howard’s car: a dubbed copy of 2Pacalypse Now.
How did gangsta rap push America to confront police brutality? How was fear of gangsta rappers used to prevent a reckoning with police violence? And would a jury believe that rap music could turn black listeners into cop killers?
This is Slow Burn. I’m Joel Anderson.
ICE-T: The cops in America actually kill kids.
REPORTER: The rap music promotes violence against authority, and consequently violence against law enforcement.
ICE-T: The way this LAPD was operating, they needed to get killed.
CHARLTON HESTON: I’m about to bust some shots off, I’m about to dust some cops off.
Episode 2: Cops on My Tail
In the summer of 1989, a spokesman for the FBI sent a one-page letter to the Los Angeles office of Priority Records.
The New York Times said the letter was historic: until then, “the bureau had never taken an official position on a work of art.”
The work of art in question was the song “Fuck tha Police,” by the rap group N.W.A —short for Niggaz With Attitudes.
Milt Ahlerich, assistant director of the FBI’s office of public affairs, accused NWA and Priority Records of encouraging violence and disrespect for law enforcement. He noted that 78 officers had been killed in the line of duty in 1988.
And he said, “I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.”
No doubt, “Fuck Tha Police” was provocative. In their lyrics, the members of N.W.A fantasize about retaliation.
“Fuck tha Police”—N.W.A
[From “Fuck tha Police” by N.W.A]
Ice Cube will swarm
On any motherfucker in a blue uniform
Just ‘cause I’m from the CPT
Punk police are afraid of me!
Huh, a young nigga on the warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dyin’ in L.A.
N.W.A was a loose fraternity of rappers and DJs from southern California. The group’s leader was Eazy-E and its stars were Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Together, they created raw and profane music from the things they saw in their neighborhood—gangs, guns, and drugs.
“Fuck tha Police” was a response to decades of racist abuse, particularly the gang sweeps that had become common in southern California. Police said they were trying to stop the drug trade and gang violence. But many residents, especially the black and brown ones, called it racial profiling.
When N.W.A’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton, came out in August 1988, it didn’t get much radio play. MTV wouldn’t air their video. Rolling Stone didn’t publish a review.
Most of the group’s early buzz came from local shows, autograph sessions, and small black-owned record stores.
But not long after the album caught on with black hip-hop fans, it crossed over to white audiences. A Priority Records salesman called Straight Outta Compton “illicit, forbidden fruit” for junior high students.
REPORTER: Obviously somebody is listening: in just 6 weeks, SOC has gone gold, selling more than half a million copies.
Rebellious teenagers and hip-hop heads weren’t the only people paying attention. Local police departments faxed the lyrics to “Fuck tha Police” from city to city.
Many officers refused to work security at N.W.A concerts, which made it difficult for promoters to book the group. At a concert in Detroit in 1989, the members of N.W.A were chased off stage by police, after performing a few lines of the song.
The controversy got N.W.A a lot of news coverage.
REPORTER: Many in law enforcement fear that N.W.A’s rap entices youngsters into crime by glamorizing street gangs and making police out to be the bad guys.
MC REN: We was just letting everybody know that black people was fed up with getting harassed by the police and getting beat by them.
All that attention, positive and negative, helped make N.W.A a national sensation. Dr.
Dre thanked Ahlerich for writing the FBI letter. “You made us a lot of money,” he said.
Over the next three years, few other rap artists succeeded in drawing attention to police brutality in such an intense way.
Then in March 1991, police abuse reached millions of American living rooms.
REPORTER: The 3 police officers facing felony criminal charges were among a group of 15 who stopped 25-year-old black man last Saturday night, then beat him, kicked him, and clubbed him, unaware that an amateur photographer was recording the incident on video tape.
The beating of Rodney King was recorded by a L.A. resident who sent the tape to a local TV station. It was one of the first widely seen videos of police brutality. And it went whatever it is we called viral in the 1990s.
REPORTER: Prior to his release from jail last night, 25-year-old Rodney King showed his injuries to reporters. The bruises, broken leg, and the scars from the stun gun which jolted him with 50,000 volt shocks.
RODNEY KING: “Like I said, after the first 3 good licks, one with that shocker, the next with the billy club across the face…”
For decades, members of minority communities had argued that police brutality was under-reported. The Rodney King video was evidence that they were right.
After the tape came out, rappers joined civil rights activists in leading a national conversation about police brutality.
Their music also took on a new urgency.
While America reckoned with the Rodney King video, Tupac was putting together his solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now.
Tupac rapped about police harassment and brutality throughout the album. In a 1991 interview with Davey D, a Bay Area hip hop journalist, he explained his relentless focus on police violence.
TUPAC SHAKUR: In some situations I show us having the power and the other situations I show it as it’s more apt to happen with the police or with the power structure having the ultimate power. I show it both ways. I show ways how it really happens and ways I wish it could be.
The first single from 2Pacalyspe Now was called “Trapped.” In the lyrics, Tupac fantasized about getting revenge on the officers who harassed him.
[From “Trapped” by 2Pac]
They got me trapped, can barely walk the city streets
Without a cop harassin’ me, searching me, then askin’ my identity
Hands up, throw me up against the wall, didn’t do a thing at all
I’m telling you one day these suckers gotta fall
On October 17, 1991, Tupac was crossing a street in downtown Oakland when two policemen stopped him. They accused him of jaywalking and asked to see his ID. In the police report, officers refer to Tupac by his middle name “Amaru” and call him “angry and hostile.” They said Tupac told them, “this is just two white cops who wanna stop a nigger.”
ATTORNEY: Good morning, I am here today with my client: Tupac Amaru Shakur.
In a press conference about a month later, Tupac told his side of the story.
TUPAC SHAKUR: Next thing I know my face was being buried into the concrete and I was laying face down in the gutter and waking up from being unconscious, in cuffs. With blood on my face, and I’m going to jail for resisting arrest. That’s harassment to me. That I have to be stopped in the middle of the street and checked like we’re in South Africa, and asked for my ID.
Tupac sued the Oakland Police Department for $10 million, alleging false arrest and imprisonment.
The case eventually settled for a reported $42,000.
On the same day Tupac filed his complaint against Oakland police, November 12, 1991, 2Pacalypse Now appeared in record stores. It was the first major rap release for Interscope Records, which was partly owned by Warner Music Group.
2Pacalypse Now was no best-seller. It peaked at number 64 on the Billboard Hot 200. But what it lacked in commercial success it made up for in social resonance. Tupac rapped about the plagues of poverty and violence. And his righteous anger at the police carried echoes of his Black Panther lineage. Tupac told Billboard magazine the album was “like a battle cry.”
The police didn’t pay much attention to 2Pacalypse Now. The record that set off the next battle between hip-hop and the cops wasn’t rap at all—it was a heavy metal album put out by Ice-T.
Ice-T was one of the first gangster rappers. His landmark song, “6 in the Mornin’,” named for the LAPD’s early a.m. battering ram raids, helped to define the genre in the mid-1980s.
But Ice-T was also a fan of thrash metal, and in 1990 he formed a metal band with his high school friend Ernie C. Ice sang and wrote the lyrics, which covered the same street-level subjects he rapped about. They called the band Body Count. Their first album, released in March 1992, featured the songs “KKK Bitch,” “Evil Dick,” and “Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight.”
But the one that caused all the fuss was the last song on the album.
“Cop Killer”—Body Count
[From “Cop Killer” by Body Count]
I’m a cop killer - better you than me
Cop killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family’s grievin’ (fuck ‘em!)
Cop killer, but tonight we get even!
“Cop Killer” mentioned Rodney King by name, and also namechecked LAPD chief Daryl Gates.
Ice-T called it a protest song.
Body Count’s album, released by Warner Brothers Records, didn’t top the charts. Here’s Dan Charnas, who wrote about rap for The Source and signed hip-hop acts for record labels.
DAN CHARNAS: What happens is this album comes out and it’s really not that successful commercially. It’s a media event. You know in terms of, ‘Oh, Ice-T’s doing a heavy metal thing and that’s cool.’ But it’s not really getting airplay.
Then the verdict came in.
A month after the release of Body Count, the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted of almost all charges.
The jury’s decision ignited one of the biggest race riots in American history.
REPORTER: Since darkness fell last night, the City of Angels has been a perfect vision – of hell.
REPORTER: As the numbers swelled, they suddenly about a half an hour ago got more militant and started burning things.
REPORTER: Nearby, dozens of thieves strip an auto store, some sick Christmas has exposed the worst in all of them.
REPORTER: 1992 and Los Angeles is ignited by the fires of riots, sparking a war of words over justice in America.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I feel that the jury in Simi Valley gave the OK to continue to abuse and oppress and suppress black people in this country.
In the midst of the riots, news media turned to Ice-T to explain what was happening in Los Angeles.
REPORTER: Well young rap musicians have opinions of their own about what caused the deadly violence.
ICE-T: We definitely knew it was a lot of tension down here, and we tried to explain to people, but nobody wanted to listen. We were like the voices in the hood down here, yelling out to people on rap records.
During one interview, a TV news anchor in LA asked Ice-T to do something to “stop the riots.” But he refused to play that role.
“I can’t honestly say that if I didn’t have this money in my pocket, and I wasn’t who I was, that I wouldn’t be there too,” Ice-T said.
When the fires died down, sixty-three people were dead and nearly 2,400 were injured. Police had made 12,000 arrests. Estimates of the damage ran as high as a billion dollars. And thanks to “Cop Killer,” Ice-T was one of the public faces of the violence and destruction.
In the weeks after the riots, a Dallas police officer came across the Body Count album.
One of his teenage daughter’s friends had brought it over.
The officer got the lyrics from “Cop Killer” printed in his police union’s newsletter, next to a call for a boycott of Time Warner products. “If we want this pulled from the record stores,” it read, “we’re going to have to make it happen ourselves.”
Soon the campaign expanded to police unions nationwide. Here’s Dan Charnas:
DAN CHARNAS: This jeopardizes all of Time Warner’s upcoming business in getting cable franchises all over the country. And then nationwide, police unions begin to join with Texas, because all of them are sort of, like, on the defense after the L.A. riots and the Rodney King thing. So, they’re basically trying to paint themselves as the victim. “See? You know, people don’t have respect for the police.” But it’s the same thing as saying Blue Lives Matter today.
The protests from law enforcement got the attention of elected officials, including those on Time Warner’s home turf. The LA city council and county board adopted motions condemning Ice-T and the label.
California Attorney General Dan Lungren sent letters to record stores urging them to stop selling the record.
The National Rifle Association promised to give legal assistance to the family of any police officer shot or killed if it could be shown that the violence was incited by “Cop Killer.”
Sixty members of Congress signed a letter to Time Warner calling “Cop Killer” “vile” and “despicable.” And then Vice President Dan Quayle got involved.
DAN QUAYLE: Take for example the work of the rapper Ice-T. [booooo!]
Quayle was speaking at a convention of police officers who were involved in an anti-drug program.
DAN QUAYLE: I am sure you’re all familiar by now with Ice-T’s record, distributed by Time Warner, which says that it’s OK to kill cops. Time Warner’s defense is that this is free speech, and it is constitutional. Well, of course we all believe in free speech, and it may be constitutional. But that doesn’t make it right. It is wrong for Time Warner Corporation to do what it is doing!
These were calls for censorship of a single record from local, state, and federal officials.
Their implication: that rap music might cause listeners to murder police officers.
Ice-T and his defenders tried to keep the focus on the reality of police abuse, rather than hypothetical violence against cops.
Here he is being interviewed on Australian TV in 1992:
ICE-T: American people are really up in arms about this song, which doesn’t kill, it’s just a song. But the cops in America actually kill kids. This is a very angry song. It’s a song about rage.
ICE-T: American people are really up in arms about this song, which doesn’t kill, it’s just a song. But the cops in America actually kill kids. This is a very angry song. It’s a song about rage.
ICE-T: They have no trouble with killing what they consider brutal kids. See, my attitude is that just because you have a badge, doesn’t give you the right to murder me.
For a while, Time Warner defended the rapper and the song. In a June 1992 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, CEO Gerald Levin called “Cop Killer” “a shout of pain and protest” and asked why critics couldn’t “hear what rap is trying to tell us?”
Everything changed after the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting.
That meeting was held in July, at a hotel in Beverly Hills. Outside, shareholders were met by nearly a hundred police officers with picket signs. Ice-T cruised by in a Rolls-Royce and gave the protesting cops the finger.
Inside the hotel, boycott supporters brought in the big guns. The actor Charlton Heston, who’d become a right-wing activist and prominent member of the NRA, was there to speak.
Here’s Heston recounting his performance years later.
CHARLTON HESTON: I asked for the floor, and to a hushed room of 1,000 average American stockholders, I simply read the full lyrics of “Cop Killer”—every vicious, vulgar, dirty word they were selling. [applause] “I got my 12-gauge sawed off / I got my headlights turned off / I’m about to bust some shots off / I’m about to dust some cops off.”
Following Heston, Time Warner board members heard from two officers who’d been shot in the face and disfigured.
After the meeting, the Burbank headquarters of Warner Bros. Records was under siege.
Executives were bombarded with hate mail and received threatening phone calls.
Bomb threats forced police to clear the building.
Eventually, Ice-T caved. In his memoir, he wrote that Time Warner never pressured him to make a decision. He said he “felt awful” for the corporation, and he realized the controversy wasn’t going away.
“I’d been dissing rappers for years; they didn’t do shit,” he wrote. “Then I dissed the cops — and they came after me like no gang I’ve ever encountered.”
Ice-T decided to re-release the album without “Cop Killer,” and police groups called off the boycott.
In January of 1993, Warner Brothers let Ice-T out of his contract. He signed with Priority Records, which had distributed N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton.
DAN CHARNAS: The upshot for music artists and hip hop of “Cop Killer” is that Warner Brothers is going to start to tamp down all kinds of things that can cause problems in the future. We’re going to have to look at every lyric that you guys are doing. And if you don’t like it then we’ll let you go. You don’t have to be with us. But we have too many irons in too many fires, corporately speaking, to risk everything because somebody is going to get upset at your lyrics.
Throughout the battle over “Cop Killer,” no one could point to a single incident in which rappers had directly incited violent behavior.
That changed when Ronald Ray Howard killed Texas state trooper Bill Davidson.
Here’s Howard’s defense attorney, Allen Tanner.
ALLEN TANNER: The prosecutor in the case, whose name was Bobby Bell, called me one day when I was in Houston and said, “We found some recordings that were in the vehicle that Ronald Howard was in. And I think you’d be really interested in hearing them.” And so I said, “OK.” And he said, “Drive on down here to Jackson County and we’ll listen to them.”
So Tanner heard the tape—including the song “Soulja’s Story.” That song describes a traffic stop that ends with a gunshot.
[From “Soulja’s Story” by 2Pac]
Cops on my tail, so I bail til I dodge ‘em
They finally pull me over and I laugh
“Remember Rodney King?” and I blast on his punk ass
Now I got a murder case
As Tanner listened, he realized he could argue that Tupac’s words, had gotten inside of Ronald Ray Howard’s head.
ALLEN TANNER: I didn’t know what gangsta rap music was at the time, but, you know, here’s a young kid from Houston who had had problems with police in his neighborhood. And I was kind of fascinated by this music that he was listening to. And that’s where I got the idea to use that as a potential defense as to why all of this happened.
As soon as the press reported that Ronald Ray Howard had been listening to 2Pacalypse Now, Tupac replaced Ice-T as America’s most dangerous rapper.
Dan Quayle jumped back into the fray, demanding that Time Warner pull 2Pacalypse Now from stores.
DAN QUAYLE: Once again, we’re faced with an irresponsible corporate act. There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation.
2Pacalypse Now didn’t end up getting pulled. But Tupac was now part of a national story.
He was 21 years old. He’d appeared in one movie and released one album. Now the Vice President was calling him a villain and a menace.
Here’s Andrea Dennis, the co-author of Rap on Trial:
ANDREA DENNIS: I think Tupac helped solidify the perspective of police and law enforcement that gangsta rap right is violent, gangsta rappers are violent.
There was no dispute about Ronald Ray Howard’s guilt. Allen Tanner conceded that reality in his opening statement.
“There’s no doubt about it: Ronald Howard is going to be convicted of capital murder,” he told the jury.
And he was right: on June 8, 1993, jurors found Howard guilty in less than an hour.
The only part of the trial that was truly contested was the penalty phase: Would Howard get a life sentence, or lethal injection?
In a jailhouse interview, Howard said that Tupac’s song was so intoxicating it had driven him to murder.
He told a reporter: “The music was up as loud as it could go with gunshots and siren noises on it and my heart was pounding hard. I was so hyped up, I just snapped.”
Tanner asked the 12 members of the jury, only one of whom was black, to consider the possibility that Tupac had made his client snap.
He then played a series of gangsta rap songs for the jury. The judge wore earplugs while the music played.
ALLEN TANNER: They all had a lyric book and they were able to follow through with the words as to each song. And we played like 15 songs. From Tupac and from the Geto Boys. And I think maybe N.W.A and maybe Gangsta N-I-P, I remember. But the jurors heard all the lyrics. We blasted the courtroom. It was loud. They heard everything.
Houston Chronicle reporter Roy Bragg remembers how stressful things were at the Austin courthouse.
ROY BRAGG: You had this throbbing mass of anger in the crowd. These state troopers and Mr. Howard’s family and you know security everywhere. It was just really intense the whole time.
The tension grew as the jury continued to deliberate.
ROY BRAGG: And so at that point, when the jury’s out now for more than one day, you know even beyond lunch, now it’s an even bigger story. Because now, “Why is the jury out this long?” The sense was you know things are going, we’re hurtling into the sun because we’re not going to execute this guy.
The jury twice said they were hopelessly deadlocked. The judge sent them back in.
ALLEN TANNER: And then they folded after like, six days. I don’t know why they folded.
On the sixth day of deliberations, July 14, 1993, the jurors sentenced Ronald Ray Howard to death. He was executed 12 years later.
Another lawyer tried the blame-rap defense in 1995, after two Milwaukee teenagers shot and killed a police officer. This time, the defense pointed to Tupac’s guest verse on a song by South Central Cartel.
The attorney for one of the boys said that Tupac’s “Violent anti-police lyrics appear to have acted as command hallucinations which influenced his behavior.”
The strategy didn’t work that time either. Both of the teenagers were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
Back in Texas, Bill Davidson’s widow blamed Tupac and his music for the trooper’s death.
LINDA SUE DAVIDSON: What we’ve been through has been devastating – to hear how my husband was killed. And I feel like companies should be responsible for, and liable for, the products that they produce and sell.
The day after Ronald Ray Howard was sentenced to die, Linda Sue Davidson moved forward with a lawsuit against Tupac, Time Warner, and Interscope Records.
By the time Tupac was deposed in that lawsuit, he was doing time for sexually abusing Ayanna Jackson - the case we talked about in our previous episode.
In a meeting room in the Clinton Correctional Institution, Tupac sparred with Linda Sue Davidson’s attorney about whether his songs encouraged violence against police.
Tupac said the message in his music was clear.
ATTORNEY: Was it your intention to try to get young black people to be violent to police?
TUPAC SHAKUR: No.
ATTORNEY: Were you trying to provoke anybody to do anything in particular?
TUPAC SHAKUR: Yes.
TUPAC SHAKUR: Think. Use your head.
Next week on Slow Burn: Who Shot Ya?
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week this season.
In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear more about how rap lyrics have been used as criminal evidence in court. I talk with law professor Andrea Dennis about how cops and prosecutors have used Tupac’s songs and other hip-hop music to convict and incarcerate men of color.
To hear it, sign up for Slate Plus at slate.com/slowburn.
Slow Burn is produced by me and Christopher Johnson, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Sophie Summergrad is our researcher. Our mix engineer is Jared Paul. Donwill composed our theme song.
The artwork for Slow Burn is by Lisa Larson-Walker. Special thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, Derreck Johnson, Katie Rayford, Lowen Liu, Allison Benedikt, and Jared Hohlt.
Thanks to Nine Australia and journalist Davey D for some of the audio you heard in this episode.
And by the way, we created a playlist on Spotify to go with this season. We’ll be updating it each week with new episodes, and songs by Tupac, Biggie, and their collaborators. Check it out every week at the link in the show notes.
Thanks for listening.