S1: 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 11th 1992 when a Texas highway patrolman pulled him over.
S2: Howard wasn’t a fan of law enforcement. This is Alan Tanner a criminal defense lawyer. Here is a young kid from Houston who had had problems with police in this neighborhood where a lot of the kids were brought up there to hate cops to begin with how he’d had another reason to be where. He was a drug dealer driving a stolen car.
S3: 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 fifty five hundred where he was a city council member and the president of the Little League.
S4: As Davidson approached Ronald Ray Howard’s car. Howard’s shot him in the neck with a 9 millimeter pistol Davidson died three days later.
S5: 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. Dubbed copy of to Apocalypse 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 believed that rap music could turn black listeners into cop killers.
S6: This is slow burn. I’m Joel Anderson. The cops in America actually kill kids. The rap music promotes violence against authority and consequently violence against law enforcement.
S7: The wait is LAPD was operating. They needed to get killed. I’m about to bust some shots off I’m about to dust some cops off. Episode Two. Cops on my tail.
S1: In the summer of 1989. A spokesman for the FBI said 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 the police by the rap group NWA short for niggas with attitudes Milt Aldridge assistant director of the FBI his 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 the police was provocative in their lyrics. The members of NWA fantasized about retaliation white cops made. NWA was a loose fraternity of rappers and deejays from Southern California. The group’s leader was easy 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 the police was a response to decades of racist abuse particularly the gang sweeps that have 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 NWA is debut album Straight Out Of 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 record salesman called Straight Out Of Compton illicit forbidden fruit for junior high students.
S8: Obviously somebody is listening in just six weeks straight out of Compton has gone gold selling more than a half a million copies.
S1: Rebellious teenagers and hip hop heads weren’t the only people paying attention. Local police departments facts the lyrics of fuck the police from city to city. Many officers refused to work security to NWA concerts which made it difficult for promoters to book the group at a concert in Detroit in 1989. The members of NWA were chased off stage by police after performing a few lines of the song. The controversy got NWA a lot of news coverage.
S8: Many in law enforcement fear that NWA ways rap entices youngsters into crime by glamorizing street gangs and making police out to be the bad guys.
S9: We just let everybody know that black people is fed up with getting harassed by the police and getting beat Bob.
S1: All that attention positive and negative helped make NWA a national sensation. Dr. Dre thanked all rich 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 and such an intense way then.
S10: In March 1991 police abuse reached millions of American living rooms.
S11: The three police officers facing felony criminal charges were among a group of 15 who stopped a 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 videotape.
S10: Los Angeles police chief the beating of Rodney King was recorded by an L.A. resident who sent the tape to a local TV station. It was one of the first widely seen videos of police brutality anywhere. Whatever it is we called viral in the 1990s.
S12: Prior to his release from jail last night 25 year old Rodney King showed his injury to reporters the bruises broken leg and the scars from the stun guns jolted him with 50000 volts shocks.
S13: I can say after the first three good good licks with well you know won’t that shocker and the next with the billy club cross face. I was scared. I was scared.
S10: For decades members of minority communities had argued that police brutality was underreported. The Rodney King video was evidence that they were right.
S14: After the tape came out rappers joined civil rights activists in leading a national conversation about police brutality.
S1: Their music also took on a new urgency while America reckoned with the Rodney King video Tupac was putting together his solo debut to Apocalypse Now. Tupac rapped about police harassment and brutality throughout the album and in 1991 interview with DVD a Bay Area hip hop journalist.
S15: He explained his relentless focus on police violence in some situations that show us having the power and other situations that show it has this more has to happen with the police or with the power structure.
S1: Having ultimate power I show it both ways I show ways how we really happen in ways that I wish it could be the first single from to Apocalypse Now was called Trapped in the lyrics Tupac fantasized about getting revenge on the officers who harassed.
S16: They got me badly both the city’s streets not a cop asking me to shoot me and ask get my hands up throw me up against the wall and do a thing Madeleine. One day I got a phone call.
S1: A few weeks after the song was released the story from trapped became very real for Tupac on October 17th 1991. Tupac was crossing the street in downtown Oakland when two policemen stopped him. They accused him of jaywalking and asked to see his I.D. in the police report. Officers refer to Tupac by his middle name Amaro and call him angry and hostile. They said Tupac told them this is just two white cops who want to stop a nigger.
S17: Good morning. I am here today with my client to pop a more shock here as well.
S1: In a press conference about a month later Tupac told his side of the story. Next thing I know my face was being buried into the concrete and I was laying face down in the gutter. Waking up and being unconscious in cuffs.
S18: With blood on my face and I’m going to jail. Resisting arrest. That’s harassment to me that I had to be stopped in the middle of the street and shit like we in South Africa and asked for my I.D. off as a boy.
S1: Tupac sued the Oakland Police Department for 10 million dollars alleging false arrest and imprisonment. The case eventually settled for a reported forty two thousand on the same day Tupac filed his complaint against Oakland police. November 12 1991 to Apocalypse Now appeared in record stores. It was the first major rap release for Interscope Records which was partly owned by Warner Music Group Apocalypse Now was no bestseller. It peaked at number 64 on the Billboard Hot 200 but what it lacked in commercial success it made up for 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.
S14: The police didn’t pay much attention to to Apocalypse Now. The record that set off the next battle between hip hop and the cops wasn’t rap at all.
S1: It was a heavy metal album put out by ice tea I see was one of the first gangsta rappers his landmark song 6:00 in the morning name for the LAPD early a.m. battering ram raids helped to define the genre in the mid 1980s but I see it was also a fan of thrash metal and in 1990 he formed a metal band with his high school friend Ernie C. I 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 Mama’s got a date tonight but the one that caused all the fuss was the last song on the album. But that we get even cop killer mentioned Rodney King by name and also name checked LAPD chief Daryl Gates. ISC called it a protest song body counts album released by Warner Brothers Records didn’t topped the charts. Here’s Dan Shaughnessy who wrote about rap for the source inside hip hop acts for record labels.
S19: 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 I see he’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.
S20: Since darkness fell. Last night the city of angels has been a perfect vision of El. That. As the numbers swell. They suddenly about a half hour ago just got more militant and started burning nearby dozens of beach strip an auto parts store some sick. Christmas has exposed the worst in all of them.
S21: Nineteen ninety two and Los Angeles is ignited by the fires of riots sparking a war of words over justice in America. I feel that the jury in Simi Valley gave the OK to continue to abuse an oppressed and suppress black people in this country.
S1: In the midst of the riots. News media turned to ice tea to explain what was happening in Los Angeles.
S22: Well young rap musicians have some ideas of their own about what caused the deadly violence.
S23: We definitely knew there was a lot of tension down here and we try to explain it to people but nobody want to listen. We would like the voices from Danny the hood yelling out to people on a rap record.
S1: During one interview a TV news anchor in L.A. asked ice tea 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 to Ice T said when the fires died down. Sixty three people were dead and nearly 20 400 were injured. Police had made 12000 arrests estimates of the damage ran as high as a billion dollars. And thanks to cop killer ice he 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 daughters 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 Chanos.
S19: 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 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 L.A. city council and county board adopted motions condemning iced tea and the label.
S14: California Attorney General Dan Lungren sent letters to record stores urging them to stop selling the record.
S1: 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 60 members of Congress signed a letter to Time Warner calling cop killer vile and despicable and then Vice President Dan Quayle got involved.
S24: Take for example the work of the rapper Ice T quote was speaking at a convention of police officers who were involved in an anti-drug program. I am sure you’re all familiar by now.
S25: With ice teas 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.
S17: 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’s doing.
S1: These were calls for censorship of a single record from local state and federal officials.
S14: Their implication that rap music might cause listeners to murder police officers iced tea and his defenders tried to keep the focus on the reality of police abuse rather than hypothetical violence against cops.
S1: Here he is being interviewed on Australian TV in 1992.
S26: American people are really up in arms about this song which doesn’t kill. It’s just a song but the cops are in America actually kill kids. This is a very angry song song about rage.
S27: Okay but I understand that you said this in one of your U.S. interviews. I’ve got no trouble with killing brutal cops.
S26: 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.
S1: Time Warner defended the rapper in the song in a June 1992 op ed in The Wall Street Journal CEO Jerry Levin called Cop Killer a shout of pain and protest and asked why critics couldn’t he would rap is trying to tell us everything changed after the company’s annual shareholders 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 I see 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.
S7: I asked for the floor and to a hushed room with a thousand average Americans stockholders.
S28: I simply read the full lyrics of cop killer every vicious vulgar dirty word they were selling.
S7: I got my 12 gauge sawed off. I got my headlights turned off. I’m about to bust some shots of I’m about to dust some cops off following Heston.
S1: 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 Brothers 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 don’t do shit he wrote. They’re not just the cops and they came after me like no gang I’ve ever encountered I see decided to rerelease the album without cop killer and police groups called off the boycott in January of 1993. Warner Brothers lit iced tea out of his contract he signed with Priority Records which are distributed NWA straight out of Compton.
S19: 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 and too many fires corporately speaking to risk everything because somebody is going to get upset at your lyrics throughout the battle over cop killer.
S1: No one could point to a single incident in which rappers had directly incited violent behavior.
S29: That changed when Ronald Ray Howard killed Texas state trooper Bill Davidson here’s how Woods defense attorney Alan Tanner the prosecutor in the case who his 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. Jackson County and all listen to him.
S14: So Tanner heard the tape including the song Soldier’s Story that song describes a traffic stop that ends with a gunshot. They got problems got so much they failed to love. God.
S30: Bless this guy. I got a murder case.
S1: Tanner listened he realized he could argue the two parks words he’d gotten inside of Ronald Ray Howard’s head. I didn’t know what gangsta rap music was at the time. But here 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.
S31: As to why all of this happened as soon as the press reported that Ronald Ray Howard had been listening to Tupac clips.
S32: Now Tupac replaced ice tea as America’s most dangerous rapper. Dan Quayle jumped back into the fray demanding the time warner pull to Apocalypse Now from stores. Once again we’re faced with. An irresponsible. Corporate.
S33: Act. There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation Apocalypse Now didn’t end up getting pulled.
S1: 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 I think Tupac helped solidify the perspective of police and law enforcement that gangsta rap is violent gangsta rappers are violent. There was no dispute about Ronald Ray Howard’s guilt. Alan Tanner conceded that reality in his opening statement there’s no doubt about it. Ronald Howard is gonna be convicted of capital murder. He told the jury and he was right.
S4: On June 8th 1993 jurors found Howard guilty in less than an hour the only part of the trial that was truly contested was the penalty phase. What Howard get a life sentence by lethal injection. In a jailhouse interview Howard said the Tupac song was so intoxicating that it had driven into murder.
S10: He told a reporter the music was up as loud as it could go with gunshots and siren noises on it.
S4: And my heart was pounding hard. I was so hyped up I just snapped.
S10: Tanner as 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.
S34: The judge wore earplugs while the music played they all had a lyric book and they were able to follow through with the words to each song and we played like 15 songs from Tupac and from the ghetto boys. And I think maybe NWA and maybe gangster nip I remember that the jurors heard all all the lyrics and they heard we blasted the courtroom it was loud they heard everything.
S4: Houston Chronicle reporter Roy Bragg remembers how stressful things were at the Austin courthouse.
S35: You had this throbbing mass of anger in the crowd these state troopers and Mr Howard’s family and you know security everywhere. And it was just really intense the whole time the tension grew as the jury continued to deliberate. And so at that point when the jury is out now for more than one day we’ve moved 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 gone. You know we’re hurtling into the sun because we’re not going to execute this guy. The jury twice said they were hopelessly deadlocked.
S36: Judge sent them back in and they folded after like six days. I don’t know why they folded. On the sixth day of deliberations July 14th nineteen ninety three.
S10: Jurors sentence Ronald Ray Howard to death. He was executed 12 years later.
S14: Another lawyer tried to blame rap defense in 1995 after two Milwaukee teenagers shot and killed a police officer. This time the defense pointed to two parks guest verse on a song by South Central cartel the attorney for one of the boys said the two parks violent anti police lyrics appear to have acted as command hallucinations which influenced his behavior the strategy didn’t work that time either.
S1: 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. Well we’ve been through it’s been devastating to hear how my husband. Was killed. And I feel like.
S37: Company should be responsible for life before the products they produce and sell.
S1: 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 Guyana. 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.
S38: Was it your intention to try to get young black people violent to police. No.
S39: Were you trying to provoke anybody to do anything particular. Or were you trying to travel are trying to get people to do things. Yes. Tell us what. Is.
S38: Ahead. Next week on slow burn. Who Chacha.
S40: 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. And 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 songs and other hip hop music to convict and incarcerate men of color to hear it. Sign up for Slate Plus at Slate dot com slash slow burn.
S41: Slow Burn is produced by me and Christopher Johnson with editorial direction by Josh Levine and Gabriel Roth. Sophie Sommer grad is our researcher our mix engineers Jared Paul. Don will composed our theme song. The artwork for slow burn is by Lisa Larson Walker special thanks to Slate’s child to Derrick Johnson. Katy Rayford Lowe and Lou Allison Benedikt and Jared hope.
S40: Thanks to 9 Australia and journalist Davey D for some of the audio you heard of this episode and by the way we created a playlist on Spotify to go with this season will be updated get each week with new episodes and songs by Tupac Biggie and their collaborators.
S42: Check it out every week at the link in the show notes. Thanks for listening.