In June of 2020, N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” serves as something a unifying rally cry against the disease of racial injustice, but 30 years ago, it also served as a sore point for Australia’s national broadcaster.
Released in 1988 as the second track on their Straight Outta Compton debut, “Fuck tha Police” soon became the defining track for the Los Angeles hip-hip hop outfit, whose real-life experiences inspired the content found within the record’s grooves.
With lyrics that specifically targeted police brutality and the widespread racial profiling of police officers, “Fuck tha Police” was equal parts controversial and influential, with N.W.A’s label receiving a strongly-worded letter from the FBI protesting the track, while it was later named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Of course, with lyrics so explicit and confronting, it follows that very few – if any – radio stations in the world would have played the track. However, there was one notable exception; Australia’s own triple j.
According to lore, Australia’s public broadcaster were the only station to have had the courage to play the track, with the song being present on playlists for close to six months.
However, following a campaign by a South Australian Liberal Senator, the song’s controversial nature was made clear to management, with ABC radio head Malcolm Long reportedly ordering the track be given “a rest”.
According to a report by the Sydney Morning Herald in May of 1990, acting news editor Nick Franklin soon breached these demands, playing 22 seconds of the track during a brief documentary which, ironically, focused on bad language, and featured a snippet of the banned track as an example of offensive content.
Network brass soon issued a week-long suspension for Franklin, raising the ire of fellow staff at the station in the process, and kicking off one of the most iconic protests in modern broadcasting history.
In response to the suspension, triple j’s on-air team replaced every song on the playlist for May 7th, 1990 with N.W.A’s “Express Yourself”, which is notably the only song on Straight Outta Compton to lack any kind of profanity.
While the story goes that staff played the track 360 times across a full 24 hours, the Sydney Morning Herald’s report at the time claimed that the airwaves were only filled with the track from 9am to 6pm, with the tune repeating for a total of 82 times amidst reminders of a broadcast interruption due to industrial action.
Ultimately, the protest was successful, with management eventually backing down and reversing their decision of Franklin’s suspension. However, the memory of the event lingered, with discussions soon focusing on triple j’s editorial responsibilities moving forward.
Notably, the protest’s influence seemed to have been so ingrained within the psyche of listeners that when the station held their annual Hottest 100 countdown, “Fuck tha Police” was voted into the #33 position.
While brief mention of the notorious 1990 event is made from time to time on triple j, a constant reminder takes place each hour, with the station’s news theme incorporating a small sample of “Express Yourself” deep in the mix.
Though there’s been no similar action taken by the station in the following 30 years (though controversy did arise thanks to the banning of Pauline Pantsdown’s controversial “Back Door Man”), the event remains one of the most iconic moments in the station’s history, and to this day remains a reminder of their integrity in the face of censorship.