No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.
“I didn’t join the force to kill people,” declares Bronx beat cop Deke DaSilva in the 1981 film Nighthawks. DaSilva is addressing his superior, Peter Hartman, an Interpol agent teaching counter-terrorism tactics to an NYPD task force. “To combat violence you need greater violence,” Hartman responds. On Nighthawks, the collaborative album by Camu Tao and Cage, DaSilva doesn’t need convincing. Rewritten by Cage and Camu as inveterate dirty cops, DaSilva and his partner Matt Fox are cops on a rampage, the violence never great enough.
The album is replete with car chases, robberies, extortions, planted evidence, bribes, and harassment, all perpetrated, and covered up, by the cops. It’s a thrilling and horrible listen, a product of vivid imaginations, close encounters, and dedicated reading of the NYT crime pages. Unmoored to a narrative, the album consists of scattered vignettes and skits, following DaSilva and Fox as they stalk the streets. Nighthawks is easy to file away as seedy horrorcore or Freaky Friday gangster rap (“What’s more gangster than dirty cops?” a friend asked me when he introduced the album to me), but the album’s real treat is its sly critique of super cops.
Central to this critique are the rote facts of the movie. The film is about two NYPD cops who learn firsthand that terrorists differ from street criminals. Billy Dee Williams and Sylvester Stallone play Fox and DaSilva as gritty but straight, unorthodox but still in line. The focus of the film is how far Fox and DaSilva must bend as they face the reality of terrorism. On the album, the focus is how bent Fox and DaSilva already are and how committed they are to abusing their power. The contrast is stark, but it’s just the beginning.
Camu and Cage dwell on the excitement of policing, stuffing their lines with abuse after abuse. “Hit the street, then the dough hit my fist / And if the b*tch don’t hit the street, then I hit the b*tch,” Cage sneers on “Keep The City Up,” the pimping too easy. “Order up a jack and coke then start jacking coats / Putting coke in ‘em, then start harassing hoes,” Camu raps on “Night Hawks,” knowing he can get away with it. Most police work is boring, droll stuff — directing traffic, issuing tickets, patrolling, monitoring — but portrayals of policing tend to edit it out, highlighting the action: danger, pursuit, and violence. Cage and Camu mock that slippage by turning the highlight reel into the full-length feature. The effect is wearying, like reading a comic book composed entirely of wordless splash pages, but that’s the point. You can’t hate the Nighthawks and love Dirty Harry.
Cage and Camu chose an ’80s movie as their muse, but Nighthawks is essentially a reaction to the cop worship that swept through New York City after 9/11. “I kinda feel since 9/11, they really tried to use that to make us really forget all the horrible things that NYPD has done,” Cage told Indy Week in 2002. Nighthawks is a line-by-line reading of that long rap sheet, delivered with a leer.
It’s debatable whether satirical hardcore rap is the best vehicle for a takedown of the NYPD and its boosters, but Nighthawks succeeds on the strength of its audacity, especially when compared to other works about overzealous cops. Just looking at Sylvester Stallone’s cop movies, for example, there’s a throughline of skepticism regarding cop authority. Demolition Man, Cop Land, and Judge Dredd all explore the dangers of giving cops too much power. But in all those movies, the focus is ultimately on how that power misrepresents police themselves. The threats in those movies aren’t power itself, but what power must grow to be when cops face exceptionally ruthless criminals. These cops combat violence with greater violence, because, as justified by their criminals, they have to. Nighthawks has no convenient foils. The album’s cover mirrors the movie’s promotional poster, but instead of juxtaposing DaDilva and Wolfgar, the movie’s villain, it’s an image of Camu and Cage. Nighthawks is about power in metastasis, spiraling out of control just because it can.
Senseless violence isn’t supposed to be this smart.
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