/ 24 September 2020

Canary in the coalmine: How Christopher Dorner keeps showing up in protest music

Yankee And The Brave
Run the Jewels single Yankee and the Brave (EP. 4) appears to reference Christopher Dorner’s death

In 1992 a song out of Los Angeles rocked the American white establishment by channelling rage at racist and corrupt police into powerful moments of protest. Ice-T’s heavy metal outfit Bodycount was censored for Cop Killer. “I got my twelve gauge sawed off/ I got my headlights turned off/ I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off/ I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off” rapped Ice-T before delivering a chorus of, “I’m a cop killer, better you than me/ Cop killer, fuck police brutality!”

Released about a year after the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD’s) vicious beating of Rodney King in March 1991, Cop Killer was an examination of the breaking point in the psyche where racist police brutality fuels the need for revenge.

Much like the recent murder of George Floyd, footage of King’s beating had been aired on news stations the world over and when the police officers were acquitted in April 1992, a month after Cop Killer was released, the verdict sparked riots in LA.

Called “obscene” by the administration of George Bush Snr, the song was seen as so threatening to the white establishment that executives of Warner Brother Records received death threats and shareholders threatened to pull out their money.

Breaking point

In the wake Floyd’s killing by police officer Derek Chauvin, Ice-T spoke to The Washington Post in June this year, reflecting on Cop Killer, the song he had recorded 29 years earlier.

“It was a song about somebody who, during a moment like this, got so mad that they went after the cops. We don’t want that guy, but a lot of times you warn people by saying this can happen,” he said.

If Cop Killer was Ice-T’s warning about pushing people to their breaking point, then new protest songs released this year by Pink Siifu, Ho99o9 and Run the Jewels appear to be exploring the idea of the breaking point anew, through the story of the LA police officer turned cop killer, Christopher Dorner.

They are also examples of how the boundaries between musical genres such as hip-hop, punk, jazz, industrial and noise are breaking down to create fluid new creations, new music that is deliciously difficult to define. Near the end of March this year, hip-hop duo Run The Jewels dropped the first single from their then forthcoming album RTJ4.

 The cover artwork of Ho99o9’s 7 inch single Christopher Dorner

 The single, titled Yankee and the Brave (EP. 4) saw Killer Mike delivering the lines, “I got one round left, a hunnid cops outside/ I could shoot at them or put one between my eyes/ Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide/ And if the news say it was, that’s a goddamn lie.”

The lyrics appeared to be a reference to Dorner’s death.

He was a police officer who was fired by the LAPD in 2008 after reporting the use of excessive force by a fellow officer. He pursued numerous legal routes to clear his name, however in February 2013 he resorted to a revenge-killing spree, targeting police officers and their family members, killing four and wounding three.

Dorner’s killing spree took place over nine days in February 2013 and came to an end when he was reported to have taken his own life during a standoff with police from a cabin in the San Bernadino Mountains.

In a June interview with the LA Times, published after the RTJ4 album had dropped, Killer Mike was asked whether Dorner had inspired Yankee and the Brave.

Killer Mike said that he had not. “It’s just a fantasy for every black dude who has been harassed by cops,” he told the LA Times. “It’s what you wish could happen to the bad guys.”

EL-P, Killer Mike’s partner in Run the Jewels, described the song as “an action movie about crooked cops”.

“Why is everyone in the streets right now? Because when a police officer hurts and kills, it’s the biggest betrayal,” he said.

‘It’s okay to be angry’

In April, the month after the Yankee and the Brave single dropped, LA-based rapper/producer Pink Siifu (real name Livingston Matthews) released his second full-length album, Negro.

It was a stylistic about-turn for Pink Siifu, who delivered a collage of free jazz interludes, hardcore punk scorchers and lo-fi hip-hop all dressed down in tape hiss and noise, to articulate his heartbreak and rage at the violence being meted out by American police officers. “Black frustration needs to be heard,” he told MTV when the album dropped. “It’s okay to be angry.”

Showcasing many styles and diverse collaborators, Pink Siifu’s Negro is a monumental piece of work

Delivering 20 songs in less than 40 minutes and featuring collaborations with Moor Mother, Jeremiah Jae, Slauson Malone, Psychopop and Ho99o9’s OGM, Negro is a monumental piece of work. What is fascinating about the album is how coherent it feels even with so many styles of music represented and the diversity of Pink Siifu’s collaborators from noise poet Moor Mother to OGM from hardcore rap-punk duo Ho99o9. “I love gumbo,” Pink Siifu told MTV. “I like when shit is mixed.”

He has admitted to wanting to surprise people with unexpected musical directions. “I’ma do everything,” he told Hype Beast. “This is a testament to that.”

Accompanying Negro’s release, Pink Siifu published a list of the album’s influences, which included free jazz pioneer Sun Ra, poet Amiri Baraka, punk rock pioneers Death and Bad Brains and more contemporary artists such as Death Grips, Gonjasufi and Ho99o9.

Like the work of the artists he mentions, Negro is difficult to listen to because it is so honest.

Starting off the second half of the album is a hardcore punk song titled Chris Dorner, which lasts for all of a minute and 10 uncomfortable seconds.

The lyrics are fairly indecipherable set to production work from Brainfeeder alumni Michael Lundy, but Pink Siifu can be heard spitting the lyric, “Cop killer, cop killer, that’s my n***a”.

He has admitted in interviews that the story of Dorner had a profound effect on him and said he one day wants to make a movie about him.

Although Dorner embodies the person in Bodycount’s Cop Killer, he was not just a man pushed to his breaking point, who then acted out the fantasy of killing cops.

He was a police officer who experienced the racism in its ranks. He was a man who admitted that the LAPD had not changed since the “Rodney King days”; that it had “gotten worse.”

During his killing spree, Dorner published an 11 000-word post on Facebook declaring “unconventional and asymmetric warfare” on police officers and their families and associates, unless the LAPD admitted publicly he was fired in retaliation for reporting the use of excessive force by a fellow police officer.

It is this context of a cop fighting racism in the police force that has led many to embrace Dorner as a symbol of resistance or as a freedom fighter.

‘Run Pig Run’

The trend of anti-cop songs is nothing new, with Bodycount releasing Cop Killer in 1992 

On Negro, the song Chris Dorner is no stand-alone when it comes to the subject of taking violence to the police.

SMD begins with a sample from the 1973 film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, based on Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel of the same name.

The film tells a fictionalised story of the first black agent recruited by the CIA, who, after completing training, resigns and returns to Chicago to train black militants or “freedom fighters” to fight the white system, using the techniques he had learned.

The sample leads into a bad brains influenced slab of punk noise, while Siifu spits, “White man trying to take our shit/ White man trying to take my shit/ Landlord trying to take my shit/ Tell the police he can eat a dick.”

On Run Pig Run, the lyrics are even more explicit, “Run pig run, all pigs/ White pigs, black pigs/ All pigs, see a pig, shoot a pig/ Run pig run, shoot a pig/ Run away, run pig run/ You have to shoot a pig.”Deadmeat is another hardcore punk song that sounds like it has been drenched in industrial sludge and peppered with police sirens and the terrified heavy breathing of someone on the run. “Pig think I’m deadmeat/ say he do anything/ Treat me like I’m piece of shit/ Fuck all y’all piece of shit,” spits Pink Siifu over production from Brainfeeder alumni Jeremiah Jae.

In an April interview with online hip-hop magazine Passion of the Weiss, published two weeks after Negro had dropped, Pink Siifu recounted how Deadmeat was one of the first songs he recorded, back in 2016. The song was inspired by a police citation that he received at the time from an incident that happened in New York with a black cop. “He had kind of roughed me up for skipping the train right after I had got out of JFK,” recalled Pink Siifu. “He was just talking hella shit.He was like, ‘Man, you dead meat right now. I can do anything I want with you. You handcuffed, you fucking meat. You ain’t nothing’.”

Pink Siifu says he channelled his rage from the experience into recording Deadmeat the very next day. The song feels suffocating and dangerous and Siifu again references Dorner.

“My lil n***a feel like Chris/ Feel like going to Chris/ We feel like killing pigs.”

‘Pigs Want Me Dead’

Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD police officer, became the subject of one of the largest manhunts in LAPD history in 2013. (Associated Press)

On June 19, the day used to commemorate the ending of slavery in the United States, LA-based outfit Ho99o9 dropped a new single featuring the songs Christopher Dorner and Pray or Prey.

Ho99o9 (pronounced horror) is another LA-based band that’s fluidly crosses musical boundaries. The fusion of hardcore punk, gangster rap and industrial strength beats has been garnering attention since their debut album United States of Horror in 2017. They are also serial collaborators, working with Industrial outfit 3Teeth one minute and Synth-punk N8NOFACE the next.

On Christopher Dorner, OGM spits, “You told my country lies, and you told me that I should fight/ I put my trust in you and you led me to the fire/ I got a taste for revenge tonight and nobody gonna leave alive.” The song attempts to get inside the headspace of the famed cop killer, which makes for uncomfortable listening.

But coupling the song with Pray or Prey, the band’s most introspective and quietest song to date, delivers a poignant one two combination. Pray or Prey appears to want to will the safety of family and friends through prayer, in the face of its own indifference to religion, as suggested by its title and lyrics. The hunters are looking for prey; the hunted are resigned to prayer.

As if this one-two from Ho99o9 was not a powerful enough statement on its own, on July 14 another single, titled Pigs Want Me Dead, was released. The grimy song was accompanied by a Grand Theft Auto styled video that sees avatars of the band going to war against digital police officers, and the lyrics leave no doubt about the song’s message.

“Worldwide barbecue/ Burn pigs coast to coast/ Used to hang from a tree/ Now its murder third degree.”

Dorner may not get a mention but his ghost is present.

Canary in the coalmine

These new songs by Run the Jewels, Ho99o9 and Pink Siifu are visceral expressions of black anger and frustration and examples of how today’s musicians are not going to be boxed in by genres that limit the scope of their expression. The barriers are being dismantled and the beginnings of something new is emerging.

In 1992, Cop Killer felt like a singular moment of rage fantasy, a song that dared to speak to the US white establishment about something it didn’t want to hear. Twenty-one years later Christopher Dorner’s killing spree appeared to bring that fantasy to life.

What is apparent in these recent songs about Dorner’s legacy is that he is the canary in the coalmine for the white American establishment.

Much like Body Count delivering their warning in 1992, Pink Siifu, Ho99o9 and Run the Jewels are daring to ask the question (in a world where pigs want you dead for your skin colour): Where is your breaking point?