Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cop Rock: 21 (Mostly Negative) Songs About Law Enforcement

Illustration for article titled Cop Rock: 21 (Mostly Negative) Songs About Law Enforcement

1. N.W.A, "Fuck Tha Police"

It's easy to forget those simpler times—on the back of Straight Outta Compton, this classic of legal-civilian relations is listed as "F___ Tha Police." The track, in which the members of N.W.A take the witness stand to testify about mistreatment at the hands of the L.A.P.D., inspired an angry letter from the F.B.I. and U.S. Secret Service, which in turn inspired massive sales, cementing Straight Outta Compton's place in gangsta-rap history. While that all sounds serious, "Fuck Tha Police" is actually an incredibly funny, witty song, if you can get past the killing. Quoth Eazy-E: "Without a gun and a badge, what do ya got / A sucker in a uniform waitin' to get shot."

A fan-made video for Fuck That Police

2. The Bottle Rockets, "Radar Gun"

The Bottle Rockets' seminal 1995 album The Brooklyn Side contains many evocative song-stories, none more potent than this swift, devastatingly funny single about a young cop getting off on a petty abuse of power. The song pegs its subject as a dim-witted local who never made it past junior college, yet did well enough on his Police Exam to consider it a rite of passage ("Got me a gun and a badge / I'm a man"). Now with his "shiny new radar gun," he's "makin' money" and he's "havin' fun" running speed traps, presumably on all the jerks who looked down on him in high school. And don't think this by-the-books officer is letting you off with a warning: "43 from where I was sittin'/ 30 miles an hour is the law of our land."

Some folks messing around with radar guns, set to The Bottle Rockets

3. Fugazi, "Great Cop"

This blast of energy from Fugazi's 1993 zenith, In On The Kill Taker, is slight but pointed, with just a few lyrics ("I look for wires when I'm talking to you / You'd make a great cop"). It's not exactly about cops, per se, but uses the word as the ultimate insult, providing screaming catharsis in the middle of Fugazi's first album to really slow things down.

Great Cop from a key moment in the Fugazi film Instrument

4. Johnny Cash, "Highway Patrolman"

No one knew better than Johnny Cash that the common man often grows to hate the law. But sometimes the common man is the law. Bruce Springsteen originally recorded "Highway Patrolman" for his Nebraska album, and Cash's cover brings a sober view and hard-won sympathy to a state cop named Joe Roberts, who lets his reckless brother Frankie off easy time and again. Then things get nastier, and he lets Frankie escape into Canada. This isn't a happy ending—in Springsteen's bare, acoustic version especially, it seems Joe's just doing his best to improvise his way out of a hopeless cycle. And, in case that sounds too sentimental, Nebraska followed the song up with the much more paranoid "State Trooper."


5. Bruce Springsteen, "State Trooper"

The Boss and the state trooper never actually meet in this spooky classic from Nebraska; it's all about the tension around what might happen if they do. The character, on the edge, knows what evil lurks within, and simply begs the cop not to pull him over—for the cop's sake. Creepiest line: "Maybe you got a kid / Maybe you got a pretty wife / The only thing I got / Been botherin' me my whole life."

The Boss joined by Win and Regine from The Arcade Fire

6. The Strokes, "New York City Cops"

Pulled from the US release of Is This It due to the line, "New York City cops / They ain't too smart"—not exactly a popular sentiment in the wake of 9/11—The Strokes' most infamous song is hardly the incendiary piece of anti-authoritarian polemic it was initially made out to be. Really, it's a fairly standard Strokes track, full of typically vague lyrics about leaving a paranoid girlfriend (or, uh, something). In fact, if there's anything truly offensive about it, it's that the song—widely hailed as one of the band's best—was replaced with the middling B-side "When It Started," denying American audiences the filler-less album that international audiences enjoyed. Thanks, terrorists.

From MTV's short-lived $2 Bill concert show

7. Happy Mondays, "God's Cop"

In 1975, Sir James Anderton was appointed Chief Constable of Greater Manchester. Fiercely conservative and devoutly Christian, Anderton's controversial career was marked by frequent proclamations against homosexuality (which he declared should be illegal) such as famously saying that AIDS victims were "swirling in a cesspit of their own making." To make matters worse, Anderton claimed to be "an instrument of divine judgement" who spoke directly with the Lord, leading the press to dub him "God's Cop." Later, Anderton was embroiled in scandal when his Deputy Chief was accused of collusion, and while nothing was ever proven, that didn't stop Shaun Ryder from giving him a tongue-in-cheek ribbing about how he "pilfered the bag and AmEx Gold" in this biting tribute. Of course, being falsely accused of embezzlement probably wouldn't upset the straitlaced Anderton nearly as much as the image of he and the chief getting "slowly stoned."

Kick-ass fighter planes set to God's Cop

8. The Dicks, "Hate The Police"

Austin hardcore pioneers The Dicks—led by crazy "commie cross-dresser" Gary Floyd—burst onto the '80s punk scene with this classic debut single featuring the incendiary refrain, "You can't find justice / It'll find you." Singing snarling lyrics about a cop who "got himself a good job killing niggers and Mexicans" would be a bold move for anyone, let alone an openly gay liberal in the heart of Texas, but even removed from its historical and geographical contexts "Hate The Police" remains a powerful song. This was later proved by Mudhoney, who included a cover of it on Superfuzz Bigmuff with the altered lyrics, "Mudhoney hates policemen, yes it's true."

Mudhoney hates the police, live


9. KRS-One, "Sound Of Da Police"

KRS-One's solo career-making screed boasts one of the most heavily sampled and recognizable hooks in hip-hop history; the next time you're at a show, try throwing out a "Woop woop!" and you're bound to hear someone echo back, "That's the sound of da police!" Besides clever onomatopoeia, the track offers a convincing side-by-side comparison of today's police "officer" with an "overseer" of field slaves: "The overseer rode around the plantation / The officer is off patrolling all the nation /
The overseer could stop you what you're doing / The officer will pull you over just when he's pursuing /
The overseer had the right to get ill /
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill /
The officer has the right to arrest /
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest."

Low-budget KRS video, because The Man wouldn't give him any more cash

10. Alkaline Trio, "Cop"

Like N.W.A, Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba reacts to authority with a mixture of braggadocio and anger, sneering—like all young punks—at the kind of person who might choose a life in law enforcement to begin with ("Maybe as a baby you dropped your rattle"). It's funny and fierce, and one of the best songs on one of pop-punk's semi-lost treasures, the Trio's debut album, Goddamnit!

Alkaline Trio live in 2006

11. Le Tigre, "Bang! Bang!"

Le Tigre was known mostly for crafting delicious dance-punk anthems spiked with feminist sloganeering, but "Bang! Bang!" isn't an attempt to move hips as well as minds: It's a bluntly brutal protest song. Citing the wrongful killings by NYPD officers of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and Patrick Dorismond in 2000, leader Kathleen Hanna amps up the rage and bile that once fueled her band Bikini Kill: "Who gave them the fucking right / to run around like they own the night?" she screeches passionately, then adds, "Bang, bang, daddy, I want you dead / Bring me Giuliani's head." The song's nod to Joe Cuba's warm-fuzzy boogaloo anthem "Bang Bang" doesn't make Hanna's punches any less pulverizing.

Bad-ass photo plus Le Tigre song equals gold

12. Rick James, "Mr. Policeman"

A fugitive at age 16 after going AWOL from the Navy, Rick James got off on the wrong foot with the long arm of the law. His most infamous crime and incarceration wouldn't come until the '90s, but in 1981 he had already stored up plenty of hatred for cops. "Mr. Policeman"—a track off Street Songs, the album that yielded his biggest hit, "Super Freak"—is a loping, reggae-flavored harangue against the 5-0. "It's a shame / It's a disgrace / Every time you show your face / somebody dies," James cries over some uncharacteristically restrained funk. "Mr. Policeman / I saw you shoot my good friend down / He was just having fun." Of course, James' idea of fun was burning women with crack pipes, so his opinion might be a little suspect.

13. Dead Kennedys, "Police Truck"

14. Black Flag "Police Story"

'80s hardcore is an almost bottomless repository of anti-police songs. Some are acidly hilarious, such as Dead Kennedys' "Police Truck," in which Jello Biafra adopts the persona of an officer of the peace—then rakes cops over the coals for abuse of power, brutality, and rape via lines like "Tonight's the night that we've got the truck / We're goin' downtown, gonna beat up drunks." But there's nothing funny about Black Flag's "Police Story." Fronting an outfit whose shows were regularly raided by the cops, Henry Rollins—in one of the high points of his checkered tenure with Black Flag—sums up the era's tension savagely and succinctly: "Understand we're fighting a war we can't win / They hate us, we hate them / We can't win."

A use of Police Truck that Jello never imagined

15. "Police On My Back," The Clash

"Police On My Back," from 1980's Sandinista!, represents one of music's rare occurrences: a cover outdoing the original. Originally by Eddy Grant's British reggae/R&B outfit The Equals, "Police On My Back" speaks to the disenfranchisement The Clash continually expressed. Here, police harassment is a daily threat; against a siren guitar, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer sing, "I've been running Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday / what have I done?"

Killer live rendition of Police On My Back

16. Body Count, "Cop Killer"

A mediocre metal song from a mediocre metal band fronted by Ice-T, "Cop Killer" caught the ears of the then-fledgling alternative nation when Body Count played it at the inaugural Lollapalooza in 1991, the same year that Rodney King was beaten by LAPD cops. By the time it was put to tape and released on the band's debut the following year, the rest of the country had an opinion about it, including the first George Bush, Dan Quayle, and Tipper Gore, all of whom joined a chorus of protests that eventually led to the song being removed from the album. The first-person fantasy featuring a sawed-off shotgun, a "long-assed knife," and an intro that announces, "I'd like to take a pig out here in this parking lot and shoot 'em in their motherfucking face," is plenty incendiary, but the music isn't nearly as imaginative.

Not much to look at, but if you want to hear the song…


17. Operation Ivy, "Officer"

In 1987, a Maximum RocknRoll compilation introduced the first two songs ever recorded by the young Bay Area band Operation Ivy. Op Ivy went on to become a ska-punk legend—as well as launching the far more successful Rancid—and those early tracks still pack an uppercut. But "Officer" is more than just some punk-rock temper tantrum; besides screaming against the strong-arm excesses and psychological shortcomings of certain members of the law enforcement community, singer Jesse Michaels ends the song on an up note: "Tough guy asshole, do what you can / Whatever you destroy, we'll create again."


A student film set to Officer

18. Killdozer, "The Pig Was Cool"

Leave it to the crudely perverse band Killdozer to write a song about a relatively nice cop—even if "The Pig Was Cool" drips with sarcasm and menace. "Jammin' the Foghat on my eight-track / with a case of malt liquor and a bong in back," growls Michael Gerald through a mudslide of rotted distortion. "From out of nowhere came the man in blue / I thought we were busted, but the pig was cool." Turns out Gerald and the merciful officer went to school together—and later in the song, a different simpatico policeman even shares a joint with him. Cue the Bad Lieutenant montage.


19. Charley Patton, "Tom Rushen"

Early Delta bluesman Charley Patton was, as R. Crumb described him, "a rambler, a shiftless no-good who lived off women and passed his time in total idleness." So it's not surprising that over and over in his songs, he talks about encounters with the law, and especially repeated variations on a theme of the Prohibition-era cops coming to either take Patton's illegal liquor away or toss him in the clink for public drunkenness. (See: "High Sheriff Blues," "Revenue Man Blues," "Whiskey Distillery," etc.) A lot of these songs mention specific details from Patton's life—the title character of "Tom Rushen" was the sheriff of Marigold, Mississippi—but they tend to follow the same basic pattern: Patton's just trying to ease his worried mind with a little liquor ("It's boozy booze, now, Lord, to cure these blues"), but the white police force clamps down hard on him, often brutally ("If they see you with a bottle, they will almost break your neck"). It's not hard to imagine that Patton would have an instant sympathy with a lot of the gangsta rap created nearly a century after his heyday.


20. Leonard Bernstein And Stephen Sondheim, "Gee, Officer Krupke"

After being chewed out by Officer Krupke for wanton criminal acts (loitering), street toughs The Jets retaliate by singing an upbeat, scathing retaliation for their way of life—after he leaves. They blame society and their upbringing for becoming juvenile delinquents, from the plausible unwanted child of pot-smoking parents to the impossibly fucked-up product of a house fraught with domestic abuse, a communist grandfather, cross-dressing siblings, and a grandmother who "pushes tea." The Jets can point fingers all they want, but it's a safe bet fewer of them and their rival gang, The Sharks, would have died in a knife fight—no matter how elegantly choreographed it may be—had Officer Krupke been around to intervene.

Those were simpler times… Or were they?

21. Isaac Hayes "Theme From Shaft"

Though it's nearly three minutes into the song before the first line of lyrics is delivered, that build-up and the opening stanza sum up Shaft perfectly: "Who's the black private dick / That's a sex machine to all the chicks?" Why, that'd be Shaft, of course. There isn't much need for lyrics, though, as the effortless cool of Shaft is conveyed perfectly via the now-famous ocean of wah, tambourine, and slick orchestral strings. As a cop, Shaft is a man of action—which always speak louder than words—but as the song unfolds, he's seen either intensely wandering with purpose or just lost in Harlem before arriving at a decidedly non-badass destination: a shoe shine parlor.

Slow-motion Isaac in the studio