On June 18, 1989, eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees N.W.A were the talk of the music world. Released the previous summer, the Hip Hop pioneers’ powerhouse breakthrough album Straight Outta Compton was “Rock & Roll” to its core. Young people loved it, old people were scared of it and, eventually, the cops got involved.
Though largely accepted today as a gritty, ground-level critique of racially-targeted policing, the popularity of N.W.A’s classic track “Fuck Tha Police” was shocking at the time. It was particularly unnerving, of course, to authoritarian figures and Christian groups, who were knee-deep in Satanic panic and PMRC nonsense, which sought to blame scary new music on societal ills, but usually just helped sell more records for the offending acts.
You can draw a straight line from those cultural “controversies” from 30 years ago to things happening in our society today — from the Black Lives Matter movement to the recent attempts to scapegoat video games as a leading cause of mass shootings.
By the time N.W.A came to Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum on June 18, 1989, police departments across the country had reportedly set up an “informal police network” to conspire to get the group’s concerts canceled. Though most of N.W.A’s music was hostile to authority, violent, “vulgar” and likely offensive to a majority of people over 30, “Fuck Tha Police” was the track causing the most upset. Even the FBI got involved, sending N.W.A’s label a letter of disapproval that said the song “misrepresented” the police (it was later confirmed that one “rogue” FBI representative had sent the letter). Targetting the group over that one song certainly made it seem as if the motive for shutting N.W.A down was pure vengeance.
In the face of threats of arrest, the group decided to not put “Fuck Tha Police” in their setlists for the 1989 tour — promoters assured local authorities they wouldn't play it — but there was heavy police presence at their concerts all over the country, just to make sure.
In Cincinnati, local police still found a way to “get” the group. Though many local government officials were in favor of keeping N.W.A from performing in Cincinnati, former Bengals linebacker and then-city councilmember Reggie Williams reportedly smoothed things over between the warring factions and the show went on as planned… with a seemingly inevitable hiccup (this was "Censornati," after all) coming after the show.
According to an Associated Press report, N.W.A’s MC Ren and Ice Cube — as well as opener Too Short — were cited for disorderly conduct after allegedly asking, from the stage, if the women in the audience would like to have sex with Eazy E. But police captain Robin Hochstrasser reportedly told The Enquirer that the citations were due to the “profane” language used in their songs. Councilmember Paul Booth told the paper that the language “went beyond suggestive (and) left no holds barred.”
A judge convicted all three MCs and they were each fined $100, but noted local First Amendment lawyer H. Louis Sirkin argued the case on appeal (around the same time, Sirkin was successfully defending the Contemporary Arts Center on obscenity charges over its Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit). A judge threw out the rappers’ charges, but not because of First Amendment issues. Based on the evidence, the judge felt that the incident didn’t rise to Ohio law’s definition of disorderly conduct, in that it didn’t “recklessly cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.”
The next night of the 1989 tour in Detroit, though again explicitly warned not to, N.W.A did at least start performing “Fuck Tha Police.” But amid the rising tension, they were quickly hustled out of the arena and then later arrested. Several crowd members were also arrested during the unrest following the concert’s abrupt ending.
The Straight Outta Compton biopic recreated the Detroit “Fuck Tha Police” moment, but it showed the musicians being chased from the arena and then captured and arrested.
When Ice Cube came to Cincinnati in 2016 to perform at the Bunbury Music Festival, he referenced the 1989 controversy on stage. Cube said he had not been back to Cincinnati “since 1989 when the police chased me and the other members of N.W.A off the motherfuckin’ stage."
He later performed “Fuck Tha Police” live for the first time ever in Cincinnati.