Hip-Hop and controversy have always gone hand in hand since DJ Kool Herc's historic 1973 Sedgwick Avenue party. While a song like N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" doesn't require a lot of explanation in regards to the dust it kicked up after being released, there were certain songs that were as — or possibly more — inflammatory in nature.
While it's one thing to call a cop a pig, it's something entirely different when you call for violence against a politician.
Music and politics famously converged in 1997 after then Vice President, Dan Quayle, called for 2Pac's music to be pulled from shelves after a Texas state trooper was killed by a man who was listening to "Soulja's Story."
In legal terms, the court had to assess the "true threat" doctrine which has its origins in the 1969 Supreme Court ruling Watts v. United States. In Watts, the court found a draft protester's rallying cry that, were he ever inducted into the army, "the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ" to be political hyperbole: Within the context it was delivered, it was not a true threat and thus was protected speech.
However, there is precedent indicating that lyrics can be construed as criminal threats if they don't include "political, social, or academic commentary, nor are they facially satirical or ironic." As a result, songs can still be construed as criminal acts.
Here are six songs that could have potentially landed rappers on the FBI watch list.
1. "Who Shot Rudy" by Screwball
"Glasses of Henny were spilled and we got twisted/Smokin' blunts on the corner like we used to 'cause we missed it/'Knowing he was gone for good, dead stinking/It got me thinking/Ay-yo, where the fuck Dinkins?"
Screwball was a Queensbridge rap crew signed to Hydra Records in the mid-1990s. The four members — Blaq Poet, Hostyle, Kyron, and KL — had already worked with Marley Marl, Nas, and Cormega on "On the Real" before their album dropped.
The group's debut, Y2K: The Album featured production from luminaries like DJ Premier and Pete Rock. Their lead single “F.A.Y.B.A.N.” — an acronym for “Fuck All You Bitch-Ass Niggas” — was deemed unplayable on the radio.
At the time of the song's release, Mayor Rudy Giuliani had already served six years as New York City mayor. Men like Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and Abner Louima were all high-profile victims of police brutality under his administration.
Kyron wrote "Who Shot Rudy" in Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility while serving seven months for criminal sale of a controlled substance. The song lays out a well-executed assassination which attempts to answer the question in the title. As a result, it remains one of the most controversial Hip-Hop songs of all-time.
2. "We As American" by Eminem
"Fuck money! I don't rap for dead presidents/I'd rather see the President [dead]."
Even though Eminem doesn't mention President Bush or the President of the United States specifically, it is standard procedure for the Secret Service to investigate anything that might be considered a threat against the Commander in Chief.
"We As Americans" was originally released on the mixtape Straight from the Lab, before it later was included on the Encore bonus tracklist. While the lyric in questioned stayed, they ultimately reversed the word "dead" to soften the blow.
3. "Corner Bodega" by 50 Cent
"(Hey, times is hard man) I know, don't remind me/If I catch another case I'mma kill Giuliani."
On his 2002 compilation, Guess Who's Back, 50 Cent also took a major shot at Rudy Giuliani. Perhaps lost in his barrage of mixtapes — which ultimately led to him signing a deal — was a threat which built upon what Screwball had outlined three years earlier.
4. "Last Wordz" by 2Pac featuring Ice Cube & Ice T
"Dan Quayle, don't you know you need your ass kicked?/Where was you when there was niggas in the caskets?"
2Pac's "Last Wordz" was a gathering of three West Coast legends. On Pac's verse, he took issue with then Vice President, Dan Quayle, who had called for pulling Shakur's first album from shelves after legislators tied it to the murder of a state trooper.
“There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation," Quayle said at the time.
Not surprisingly, 2Pac wasn't one to hold his tongue when he dropped his second LP.
5. "Bush Killa" by Paris
"And give him two from the barrel of a black guerrilla/And that's real from the motherfucking Bush Killa."
After releasing 1992's "Bush Killa" on his independent project, Sleeping With the Enemy, Paris stated unequivocally, "I am not an assassin and 'Bush Killa' is not an assassination attempt. I am an artist and 'Bush Killa' is a song."
The rapper, whose politically charged 1990 album, The Devil Made Me Do It, sold a quarter of a million copies, had wanted Sleeping With the Enemy to come out before the presidential election.
Ultimately, the ACLU was there to back him up when he decided to unleash his venom of President Bush.
The organization called "Bush Killa" a political protest, not "a meaningful threat," and cited some case law. In a 1983 decision (United States v. Howell), a federal appellate court noted "a true threat is a serious one, not uttered in jest, idle talk, or political argument." Three years later in United States v. Olson, a federal district court found an alleged violation not a true threat because the "defendant spoke his threatening words in the context of his political views primarily against the foreign policies of President Reagan."
6. "By The Time I Get To Arizona" by Public Enemy
“The song took off with the video as opposed to just the song,” Chuck recalls. “In the song I could say a lot of things that people wouldn't notice right away. But when we showed the video, the video was immediately impactful.”
In the music video, director Eric Mazer, Hank Shockley, and Chuck D contrast '60s Civil Rights Marches as Chuck D and Public Enemy plan and execute takeover of government buildings and assasination of elected officials responsible for oppression.
“I was talking about a take-over of a very blatant, one-sided, heinous situation that was all fantasy," he says. "I pushed my fantasy button when it came to filmmaking. We made an impactful statement at that particular time.”
The video could not be ignored. It was quickly condemned by conservatives and banned from TV. The message was already out there though, and Public Enemy received tremendous support from the artist community. The song helped in national efforts to make MLK day a holiday everywhere. It put pressure on other artists to boycott the state, and had to play some role in the NFL’s decision to pull the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix.
The song and video definitely struck a nerve. To recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day is to recognize MLK's role in the civil Rights Movement and in doing that, forces us to recognize the evil that MLK fought to end. It is a conversation a lot of folks did not want to have in 1991, and it's a conversation that many still don't want to avoid at all costs. It took a vicious pandemic, and a summer of riots and civil unrest for America to wake up and recognize the racism and white supremacy that is embedded in the very DNA of this country.