A Look Back At The Decade’s Most (Unfairly) Underplayed Protest Song

heems_in_atlanta_2011

Heems performing at The Vinyl in Atlanta, GA in 2011, courtesy of N-k

by Aidan Connelly

Exactly seven months before George Zimmerman shot down seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin, the most powerful song about police brutality of the past five years popped up as a black sheep one-off entry on an indie-rock tribute album. Not To Pimp A Butterfly, Black Messiah, or Lemonade, but Stroked: A Tribute to [The Strokes’ 2001 album] Is This It– which might explain why you still haven’t heard it.

Right from the first growling, distorted bursts of sound, “NYC Cops,” the song by Queens based rapper Heems, plays like a soundtrack for police to bust down doors to with battering rams– “aggressive” is probably the word. But “NYC Cops” rejects its namesake PD and instead brings us a deadpan and blistering critique of police brutality, one that’s undoubtedly worth more than 37,000 views.

“NYC Cops” could technically pass as a cover, arriving on music blog Stereogum’s 10-years-of- the-Strokes anniversary project. Eleven bands and artists recorded covers for the album’s eleven songs. There, wedged between Canadian pop-composer Owen Pallett and someone named Deradoorian was a rapper from Das Racist, the group who did that one song about a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Yes, “NYC Cops” uses the original Strokes song for its instrumental, and yes, it maintains a generally anti-police sentiment. But heavy compression and looping render the original nearly unrecognizable, and thematically, “NYC Cops” builds upon the original song’s message thirty-fold. Over the course of four minutes, Heems stays uncharacteristically focused, reciting depictions of thuggish cops and charging, name by name, through a seemingly endless list of unlitigated police killings.

Rather than interpret the original, “NYC Cops” instead builds on its predecessor, warping and stretching it to dramatic heights. Instrumentally, the song is abrasive. Julian Casablancas’ initial off-the- cuff shriek gets warped to a low and predatory howl, like the sound a robot tiger might make before ripping into its prey. Single guitar notes get pitch adjusted and looped ad nauseum until they sound, depending on your interpretation, either like the flatline beep of heart monitor, or the dissonant sound of church bells ringing out the apocalypse. Still, through the chaos Heems clearly has a method in mind– the initial Strokes chorus maintains its hook quality in spite of manipulation, though here it sparkles like tinsel on a Christmas tree. When Heems calls out the names and stories of victims during these moments, it feels like a subtle tribute to innocence lost at the hands of police violence. But while glimmers are infrequency, Heems doesn’t listeners with any hope for resolution. Ripping back and forth between samples before the abrupt cut off at the end, listening to “NYC Cops” feels like being thrown from speeding car and getting left in the dust.

Lyrically, the utter relentlessness of the message in “NYC Cops” can’t be overstated. NYPD no longer stands for New York City Police Department, but “New York Pricks and Dicks.” New York’s finest become “New York’s spineless,” as well as “power hungry idiots,” serving none other than “Grand Wizard Giuliani.” But the bulk of the strength within “NYC Cops” comes not from name-calling, but Heems’ ability to confront his audience with the weight of lives lost. He subjects his audience to a barrage of cases of unjust beatings and killings at the hands of New York police, including those on Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Alberta Spruill, Timothy Stansbury, Abner Louima, Sean Bell, Ousmane Zongo, Randolph Evans, Anthony Baez, Clifford Glover, and Fermin Arzou. Redundancy shifts quickly to necessity, compounding the impact of the song’s message. Heems confronts the issue from nearly every angle, with a flow that gradually dissolves to a weary monotone. By the time he gets to Clifford Glover his voice sounds on the verge of cracking– “he wasn’t even a teen.”

Understanding the subtler dig within Heems’ version of “NYC Cops” requires some context. The Strokes, while an equal parts wonderful and influential band within the world of modern guitar-based music, consist entirely of white men coming from mostly wealthy upbringings. In the early 2000’s, they wrote a (pretty good) song about police with a chorus where the words “New York City cops, they ain’t too smart” get repeated ad nauseum. By showing up on a tribute album with a cover that sounds as foreign to its original as “NYC Cops” does, Heems dismisses the Strokes’ phoney, upper-class, white perspective on the pains of dealing with New York police. He’d later tweet, explicitly, his inspiration for the song:

As a Strokes cover on a Strokes cover album, Heems knew what kind of response he’d get. The (mostly white) Strokes fanbase flocked to comment sections to express their outrage at the bastardization of the original– one commenter called it “a bloody insult to the song and any living human being unfortunate enough to listen to it.” But that sort of petty outrage only adds weight to the Heems’ sentiment.

It’s a rare instance where a song’s audience matters as much to the message as the song itself. “NYC Cops” matters because cut through a curtain of unearned nostalgia to bring a largely un-discussed social issue to the forefront of a largely silly tribute album.

The Black Lives Matter movement has managed to get people, once more, talking about the wide impact of police brutality. It’s also inspired a lot of compelling music for us to cherish and enjoy. And where lots of those songs were made with the intent of landing in the pockets of people protesting– “NYC Cops” was, importantly, not. Its instrumentals are ear-grating, and Heems’ flow loses most of its finesse by the second verse– but all that’s beside the point. In a world where you can skim through an infinite realm of forgettable songs, “NYC Cops” grabs its audience by the throat, looks them dead in the eyes and refuses to let go.

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