In 1992, KRS-One was at a crossroads. After a string of three gold records, his group, Boogie Down Productions, had only sold 250,000 copies of its most recent album, Sex and Violence. He was under industry fire for throwing PM Dawn rapper Prince Be off the stage during a notorious show at New York City’s Sound Factory. Some listeners complained that his music had become too preachy; others questioned his decision to drop a song like “13 and Good.” Meanwhile, BDP itself was coming apart. Other members had sued him for half the ownership of the group, and he’d recently split with his wife, Ms. Melodie, who was also a part of the crew.
Sitting at the Tokyo airport while on tour in support of Sex and Violence, that year, he wrote the lyrics for a new song. He called it “Sound of Da Police.” There wasn’t a particular incident that inspired it. Nothing had occurred between him and the authorities in Japan. The L.A. uprisings had happened earlier that year, but they weren’t consciously on his mind. The song’s inspiration was straightforward and ingrained: generation after generation after generation of Black people experiencing unfair treatment and violence at the hands of the cops.
“When you’re from my hood, from the Bronx, it’s like every day we go get milk, eggs, and fuck the police. We have no respect for that institution at all.”
“It’s just every day, fuck the police, straight up,” says KRS-One, speaking on the phone from his home in Atlanta. “It’s still like that to this very day. July 2020: Fuck the police. When you’re from my hood, from the Bronx, it’s like every day we go get milk, eggs, and fuck the police. We have no respect for that institution at all.”
“Sound of Da Police” wasn’t the first time KRS called out police harassment and criminality in his music. With BDP, he had released songs like “Illegal Business,” “Who Protects Us From You?” and “30 Cops or More.” The cover of 1989’s Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop featured an image of him on a stoop being confronted by a Black cop. Still “Sound of Da Police” would be his most indelible indictment. Beyond becoming a Golden Age rap classic, the song’s reach has spread and tangled over the past 27 years, following unexpected paths that have taken it to everything from dance music remixes to the soundtrack of an animated kids’ movie — and, most recently, the intro for Kanye West’s newest song. Though it was only a moderate hit when it was first released, “Sound of Da Police” currently has over 56 million plays on Spotify, dwarfing any other song in KRS-One or Boogie Down Productions’ catalog by more than 30 million streams.
And it almost didn’t happen.
KRS didn’t plan on keeping “Sound of Da Police” for himself. He wrote it for his protégé Heather B, who at the time was appearing on TV screens across the country as one of the housemates in the groundbreaking first season of MTV’s The Real World. Once KRS returned to the U.S., Heather B recorded a version of the song over a track produced by KRS’s brother and frequent collaborator Kenny Parker; ultimately, though, she decided it wasn’t a good fit for her.
At the same time, KRS was putting together what would become his 1993 album Return of the Boom Bap — to help refresh his career, he wanted to put it out under his own name — and he needed beats. Part of that quest was a visit to see producer Showbiz in the studio, where he found Showbiz and rapper Freddie Foxxx looking depressed. Foxxx had been working on his debut album, but the underground beats he was choosing weren’t impressing his management team. “I was bringing them some raw shit and they were like, ‘No, we want melodies. We need radio play,’” says Foxxx now. “I never really cared about that.’”
Foxxx and Showbiz played KRS one of the rejected tracks called “8 Bars to Catch a Body,” a rugged beast that sampled Grand Funk Railroad’s “Inside Looking Out.” The beat, KRS realized, might pair perfectly with the lyrics he’d written for Heather B.
Everything changed in December 2009, when the song appeared in the trailer for Kevin Smith’s Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan buddy comedy “Cop Out.” Stripped of its context, it became not a warning about the police, but a theme song for them — a gag to replace “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle.
Foxxx wasn’t disappointed to see the beat end up with KRS-One, the man he calls his favorite MC. “I’m not like the rest of these bucket-ass motherfuckers — one minute they love you, one minute they don’t,” he says. “I loved that he had that beat, because I knew he was going to kill it. He made a better record than I did. I was just rockin’ the mic; he made a concept out of that shit.”
“Sound of Da Police” wasn’t just a concept; it was a conflagration. Driven by a dizzying, propulsive beat, KRS floats in and out of Jamaican patois the way he had on “The Bridge Is Over,” challenging the authorities with lines like, “We run New York/Policeman come, we bust him out the park/I know this for a fact, you don’t like how I act/You claim I’m selling crack, but you be doin’ that.”
References to aggressive policing and brutality had been in rap music for years. It was the subject of Toddy Tee’s “Batterram” and Ice-T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’” and arguably reached its apex with N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” in 1988. Following the popularity of that infamous track amongst new (often White) listeners and the videotaped beating of Rodney King, songs about law enforcement spread out from the West Coast and became prevalent around the country. In New York, Main Source offered “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball,” L.A.’s Cypress Hill cooked up “Pigs,” and Houston’s Geto Boys recorded “Crooked Officer.” Even LL Cool J released “Illegal Search,” which gave the subject a pop-rap sheen. “The idea of rhyming about police criminality or injustice, that should be a part of every MC’s repertoire of lyrics,” says KRS-One. “If you really want to say, ‘I’m an MC,’ you should have one verse that just speaks to the injustices of urban environments.”
Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and an author of two books about hip-hop’s history, says these songs joined an even longer tradition for Black America. “People have been complaining in various venues about police brutality since Emancipation,” she explains. “You see it in sermons, you see it in poetry, you see it in the titles of instrumental songs. It’s not called ‘police brutality’ in that direct of a way all the time, but it’s in the blues all over the place.”
Still, when KRS-One recorded “Sound of Da Police,” he didn’t think it would have much reach beyond the hip-hop community, which at the time remained predominantly young and Black. “I was really preaching to the choir,” he says. “When we first did the song, it was just for us, those who are sharing this oppression: This is your confirmation that what you are experiencing, you’re not experiencing it alone.”
KRS-One maintains that actual police officers became fans of “Sound of Da Police” as well, often asking him to pose for pictures or hollering the song’s Whoop! Whoop! siren sound when they saw him on the street. “My biggest fans are at the CIA and the FBI,” he continues. “Those are the people that come up to me all the time and they’re like, ‘Yo, we hear you, and please continue doing what you’re doing.’”
In December 1993, “Sound of Da Police” became Return of the Boom Bap’s second and final single. The video got some play on Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City, but it was largely ignored by the radio and other more mainstream outlets. Hip-hop listeners, however, instantly embraced it and the similarly minded album cut “Black Cop.” Return of the Boom Bap moved more than 350,000 units and put KRS’s sales back on the upswing.
Almost immediately after its release, “Sound of Da Police” was absorbed and incorporated into the lexicon of rap music. A year later, KRS-One’s vocals were sampled in Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “The Main Ingredient” and Redman’s “We Run N.Y.” Just as quickly, underground DJs and dance music producers reworked the song in the style of their favored subgenres: London’s Shy FX gave the song a jungle treatment and New York’s DJ Delirium created an intense hardcore version, both under the title “Sound of the Beast.” By the 2000s, the song had become a favorite of more postmodern artists, with Das Racist reciting the song’s “overseer”/“officer” riff for the track “Chicken and Meat” and Girl Talk working its chorus into his mashup tour de force Night Ripper. Even now, more than 25 years later, dance music reinterpretations of the song persist.
Filmmakers loved it as much as producers. “Sound of Da Police” made its first on-screen appearance in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 breakout La Haine, the French cousin to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But everything changed in December 2009, when the song appeared in the trailer for Kevin Smith’s Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan buddy comedy, Cop Out. Stripped of its context, it became not a warning about the police, but a theme song for them — a gag to replace “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle. The phenomenon repeated itself in an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, both Ride Along films, and The Angry Birds Movie.
KRS isn’t bothered by the anti-police message of “Sound of Da Police” being subverted or misinterpreted through its use as a comedic device. “The situation is that I have not been co-opted into this situation,” he says. “One of my songs, one of my more revolutionary songs, has been co-opted into a corporate situation. And let me not be hypocritical either about it, I do enjoy the money, too.”
So far, KRS has not inserted himself into this most recent battle, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, to fight racism and to end police violence. He did his activist work decades ago, he says, and it’s time to allow a new wave to take the lead.
It’s also not the first time he’s found himself in similar circumstances. In 2002, he allowed Jennifer Lopez to sample BDP’s ruthless “South Bronx” for her bouncy pop track “Jenny From the Block.” KRS also points out that even though he has attacked BET for years, the network adopted one of his core philosophical principles when they created the I Am Hip Hop award — the equivalent of a lifetime achievement honor — at the 2006 edition of the BET Hip Hop Awards ceremony. KRS received it himself in 2007. “This is what happens to the revolutionary,” he says. “The very people you are railing against, you actually become them.”
Rob Rosenthal, a professor emeritus of sociology at Wesleyan University and the co-author of Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements, argues that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Rosenthal has spent decades studying how the meaning of a particular song can change and transform over time, sometimes taking on political attributes and sometimes losing them. “Once you release music into the universe — because of context, because of what the audience brings — you can’t control what’s going to happen to it,” he says, “but you can up the chances of people understanding what it is you are trying to say if you want to. There are ways in which you can think about how this can work better. I would say, one of the ways it doesn’t work better is by allowing it to be used in a context that takes the teeth away from it.”
Along with this moment’s reinvigorated fight to limit police authority and funding, the use of “Sound of Da Police” may be arcing towards the political. In 2019, the song played during the closing credits of Black and Blue, an action film from African American director Deon Taylor about a Black police officer in New Orleans (played by Naomie Harris) who has to survive and fight back against a group of murderous, corrupt cops. Then on July 12, Kanye West posted to Twitter a two-minute snippet of a song called “DONDA.” The track begins with his mother, who passed away in 2007 and was an English professor at Chicago State University, reciting parts of the first two verses from “Sound of Da Police.” (It hasn’t been disclosed when and under what circumstances this recording was made.) Then West begins rapping in a laid-back flow: “The devil is usin’ you, confusin’ you/Our job is to understand who is who/Righteous indignation in this nation/We gon’ start a revolution in this basement.”
Though many activists who have taken to the streets in recent months don’t embrace many of West’s recent statements, his entrance into the discussion is indicative of a greater feeling that is pervading the United States. “Everybody’s fed up with the police, now,” KRS says. “Even the police are fed up with the police. We need to reform and get some things done, but it’s not all the police. In fact, I would even say what the whole of America is crying out for, the police are really only about 20% of it. The other 80% has to do with civility and what does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a citizen of a nation?”
So far, KRS has not inserted himself into this most recent battle, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, to fight racism and to end police violence. He did his activist work decades ago, he says, and it’s time to allow a new wave to take the lead. “My protest these days has more to do with the spiritual side of things, which I don’t think the United States is ready for yet,” he says. “We’re going to get there of course, because it’s inevitable, but we’re not there yet. We’re still here in the courts.” (Lest you think the Blastmaster has lost his blast, this statement is part of a 51-minute response to a question about whether he had participated in any of the recent demonstrations.)
So far a defining anthem of this time hasn’t emerged yet, but usually the harder you try to write an anthem, the less likely it’ll be adopted as one. Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” may be the closest any song has come, but then again, protestors have preferred to march to apolitical songs by late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke. What role “Sound of Da Police” will have now, or any time in the future, remains unknown. KRS says that though his publishing company would hate to hear him say it, these days he almost considers his music to be public domain. “Where that song goes, it has its own life,” he says. “You’re along for the ride.”