“Illegal Search”: Race, Personhood, and Policing

“Illegal Search”: Race, Personhood, and Policing


Gregory S. Parks and Frank Rudy Cooper



Roger Fairfax analyzes LL Cool J’s 1990 song, “Illegal Search,” as a precursor to later hip-hop critiques of policing. This song represented LL Cool J’s awakening to social consciousness in the 1990s. “Illegal Search” represented helped advance a narrative about policing that remains prominent in hip-hop to this day. “Illegal Search” might have been overlooked completely since the only track to follow is “Power of God,” a low-energy, spiritual offering that, while delivering a positive message, is perhaps the least familiar of the fourteen cuts on the album.“Illegal Search” surveys a number of discrete topics, including racial profiling, the manufacture and planting of evidence, police brutality, incarceration, and even seems to reference a specific case of police misconduct in New Jersey. The lyrics display the angst experienced by many African Americans who are subjected to law enforcement scrutiny simply because of their skin color. “Illegal Search,” with its literal, unobscured narrative, gives descriptive voice to the phenomenon we would later term “Driving While Black.”



Publication Date


Book Title

Fight the Power: Law and Policy through Hip-Hop Songs

First Page


Last Page



Cambridge University Press


Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Music, Music, US Law, Law


Book description

Taking inspiration from Public Enemy's lead vocalist Chuck D - who once declared that 'rap is the CNN of young Black America' - this volume brings together leading legal commentators to make sense of some of the most pressing law and policy issues in the context of hip-hop music and the ongoing struggle for Black equality. Contributors include MSNBC commentator Paul Butler, who grapples with race and policing through the lens of N.W.A.'s song 'Fuck tha Police', ACLU President Deborah Archer, who considers the 2014 uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and many other prominent scholars who speak of poverty, LGBTQ+ rights, mass incarceration, and other crucial topics of the day. Written to 'say it plain', this collection will be valuable not only to students and scholars of law, African-American studies, and hip-hop, but also to everyone who cares about creating a more just society.

“Illegal Search”: Race, Personhood, and Policing