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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Twenty Years Later, Sublime's "April 29, 1992 (Miami)" Is Still the Best Song About White Boys Piggy-Backing on a Riot

Posted By on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 10:28 AM

The L.A. riots.
  • The L.A. riots.

Let's begin by addressing a source of confusion: The Sublime song we're about to semi-fondly recall is entitled "April 29, 1992 (Miami)." But as sung, its lyrics refer to "April 26, 1992" -- 20 years ago today.

This is clearly a mistake, since the song is about the L.A. Riots: Specifically about Sublime members' alleged involvement in the looting, burning, and general hell-raising that took place in the streets after a jury decided that video showing four cops (three white, one Hispanic) senselessly beating a black man named Rodney King somehow did not mean that four cops senselessly beat a black man named Rodney King. The jury's verdict was delivered on April 29, 1992, and inspired riots that lasted for for six days.

Those riots were a definitive event of the urban crime-obsessed early-'90s, and forever changed the relationship between the local community and the much-criticized Los Angeles Police Department. The shadow of the King riots loomed large over the O.J. Simpson trial of a few years later, with many predicting a similar outburst if Simpson was found guilty. (Simpson was acquitted, and to this day nothing like the King riots has happened again in L.A.)

In keeping with the misfit rep of Sublime -- a white reggae-punk band that's remembered as mythical by many California offspring and not at all by some contemporary critics -- the song's point of view on the riots is unsettling. "April 29, 1992" rides a sluggish, bass-heavy reggae beat, borrows samples from Doug E. Fresh and Mobb Deep, and comes off like an anthem. Its lyrics are essentially a celebration of total chaos. In between real, crackling samples of L.A. police radios, late Sublime singer Bradley Nowell begins with a brag: "You were sitting home watching your TV / While I was participating in some anarchy." He goes on to describe looting his local liquor store, "where I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford"; afterward, they turn "that liquor store into a structure fire."

Next stop we hit it was the music shop

It only took one brick to make that window drop

Finally we got our own P.A.

Where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?

Only after the crew loots some new furniture does the song begin to wrestle with justifying itself. And let's remember here that "April 29, 1992" was released in 1996, on Sublime's breakout, the Geffen-released, self-titled album that includes hits "What I Got" and "Santeria." Let's also recall that Nowell would die of a heroin overdose in San Francisco at age 28, months before the album's release.

Here's how the musicians explain their looting. Nowell delivers these verses, as with much of the song, in a quasi-rap, basically toasting in a dancehall style over the beat:

'Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here

It's getting harder and harder and harder each and every year

Some kids went in a store with their mother

I saw her when she came out, she was gettin' some Pampers

They said it was for the black man

They said it was for the Mexican

And not for the white man

But if you look at the street, it wasn't about Rodney King

It's this fucked-up situation and these fucked-up police

It's about coming up and staying on top

And screaming 187 on a motherfuckin' cop

It's not in the paper it's on the wall

National Guard smoke from all around

Something about the idea of white guys piggy-backing on a race-related riot has always troubled this listener. In the light of a mostly law-following, non-rioting day, these lines seems like a pretty poor justification for burning and destroying and stealing -- especially when the mom-and-pop store owners of south central L.A weren't the ones who beat up Rodney King.

But these lines, and this song, are nonetheless powerfully persuasive. It's easy to hear them and think: 1) Wow, Nowell was a punk fucking rocker; 2) I want to participate in some anarchy; and 3) Let's play that song again with the volume up louder. (This writer recommends turning it up until you can feel the sub-bass in your gut.)

Sublime walked a thin line with this one -- "April 29, 1992 (Miami)" could easily have come off as totally exploitative, shallow, and self-serving. It does seem Bad in the general moral sense. ("Good citizens don't use police beatings as an excuse to steal," your mom would say.) Yet the subversive genius of the song is that it somehow makes white guys ripping off liquor and guitars sound radically progressive -- an act of solidarity with a community that was demonstrably oppressed by its police department. The song paints fostering total chaos as something that's self-advancing, entertaining, and even noble. That's a lot for one quasi-reggae anthem to do.

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