In 1985, Compton-based rapper Toddy Tee released “Batterram,” a song about the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of a modified ex-military tank in the battle against crack dealers in the city. The ominous-looking vehicle was officially known as the V-100 Batterram, and resembled a tank with an oversized battering ram attached to the front. The tool was used to break down the doors of suspected crack houses—although critics point out that it was also more than capable of demolishing entire houses that had no part in the drug trade.
Produced by the ‘70s soul singer Leon Haywood, the song features Toddy dropping four verses that shed light on the infamous policing tool from various viewpoints. He opens with a warning to neighborhood drug dealers that flushing their stash down a toilet is no longer going to be enough to evade the law. “Yeah, rockman, you’ll see it soon / And you won’t hear a snatch, you’ll hear a boom,” he warns, referring to the Batterram’s destructive capabilities.
In the song’s second verse, Toddy conjures an image of a fiend who’s so blitzed he “didn’t even notice the Batterram lights.” Next, Toddy plays an earnest nine-to-fiver who’s sitting down to dinner at home after work while his kids are watching a Mighty Mouse cartoon. A knock at the door turns out to be an undercover cop “mistaking my pad for a rock house.”
Finally, the origins of the Batterram are linked back to the city’s mayor and its Chief of Police, Daryl Gates. “And the Chief of Police says he just might/ Flatten out every house he sees on sight,” seethes Toddy in what proved to be a prescient warning and apt characterization of Gates, who would eventually be forced to retire after the LA riots in 1992.
“Batterram” holds an important and intriguing place in the history of LA hip-hop. The track arrived at a time when many of the area’s artists were transitioning from a local party-focused and electro-inspired scene to finding a voice that would speak on the blighted socio-economic environment around them. After originally circulating locally as a tape cassette, “Batterram” was picked up for official release by Leon Haywood’s Evejim Records. (Haywood’s links to the hip-hop scene would peak a few years later when Dr. Dre sampled his sultry, synth-infused ‘70s hit “I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You” for the basis of his own “Nothing But A G-Thang.”) In 1986, Ice-T would quickly follow Toddy Tee’s cue and talk about the V-100 Batterram on his break-through “6 In The Mornin’,” a song that’s credited with birthing gangsta rap in tandem with Schoolly D’s efforts over in Philadelphia. (Approached to speak on the impact of “Batterram,” Toddy Tee politely turned down an interview request.)
Earlier this year, “Batterram” was given a new lease of life when the upstate New York hip-hop duo the Doppelgangaz joined up with Your Old Droog to rap over the beat on a song they called “Batterram (Doppstyle).” According to group member EP, they were introduced to Toddy Tee’s track years ago and kept it in rotation throughout a European tour. “When those chords kick in, it straight touched our soul,” says EP of the song’s curiously uplifting synth hook.
“We were meaning to rap over it for a while but never got around to it,” explains EP. “Finally we did and it kind of made sense without us realizing it to put it out, especially in today’s climate with the abundance of documented police brutality.
“In LA, the police were just busting through people’s homes with the Batterram,” he continues. “Toddy was speaking on this subject matter back then so it’s cool to shed light on his message even though our version is pure fuckery with zero substance. There was no political agenda behind our version, but in hindsight the timing was actually pretty fitting.”
Recent protests against cases of police brutality in the African-American community have attracted a similarly militaristic response. This summer, a photograph of a protester in Baton Rogue went viral after it showed a civilian woman being confronted by two policemen in full riot gear. This week, during protests in Charlotte, North Carolina over the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, police wearing riot gear fired tear gas into the crowds and SWAT teams were deployed to the scene. As EP says, the resurfacing of “Batterram” is a timely reminder about the parameters of police response tactics and trends towards militarization.
The Batterram’s history underscores this link. According to Bob Baker, the vice chair of the Los Angeles Police Museum, the V-100 Batterram was acquired from the military by members of the LAPD’s SWAT team. “The V-100 was a Vietnam era vehicle used in the ‘70s and later modified by the military during the ‘80s,” he says. “The one acquired by SWAT was a salvage vehicle. It was transported from Texas to the LAPD’s Motor Transport Division where it was maintained.”
During this time, detective Mike Rothmiller was part of the LAPD’s Organized Crime Intelligence division. His 1992 exposé, LA Secret Police: Inside the LAPD Elite Spy Network, became a New York Times bestseller. He recalls hearing about the Batterram from a close friend who worked in the Advance Planning department.
“They came up with ideas they thought Gates would go for or they thought would be beneficial,” he recalls, adding that there was “no limit” to their brainstorming ambit. “At first, they called it the Tank and they also looked at giving it an artillery piece, so it was like a mobile artillery unit they could just fire into a structure with a certain type of explosive device.”
Other ideas Rothmiller says were muted during the crack era included Gates’ dream of a stationary satellite constantly monitoring all of Los Angeles, a miniature submarine to patrol the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for smugglers and narcotics shipments, and a “laser eavesdropping system” to be procured from the CIA.
Rothmiller calls these devices and ideas “Gates’s fantasies,” but the V-100 Batterram became a reality. It was a heavy duty response to the crack epidemic taking root in places like South Central Los Angeles. “At some of the crack houses, they would put sandbags up around the door and the windows if anybody was firing in,” he explains. “But [the drug dealers] weren’t worried about the police units — they were worried about somebody else ripping them off and being attacked by other drug dealers. They basically wanted a safety wall they could hide behind when the house was being shot up.”
Confronted with crack houses that were reinforced like small fortresses, Rothmiller says a standard hand-held battering ram wouldn’t be effective: “While they were doing that somebody might be firing through the windows. With the Batterram, they could go up and have enough power behind it to knock down the wall of a house and do all sorts of damage and make a big hole in the house where nobody would be exposed to gunfire.
“Part of that is logical and sensible,” he says, before adding a disclaimer: “But once again we’re talking about Gates. I saw the Batterram going out one time and they had the words “LAPD Rescue Vehicle” painted on it. I thought, “That’s pretty funny, they’re just rescuing a house from its foundations!”
Beyond arguments about the ethics of considering the Batterram as an appropriate response to the ‘80s drug war, control of the vehicle was also prone to human errors: Sometimes, the wrong house would end up being bulldozed as innocent people were subjected to the Batterram’s uninvited intrusion.
The 2008 NWA documentary, The World’s Most Dangerous Group, includes archived footage from the late-‘80s showing Nancy Reagan accompanying a SWAT team raid with the Batterram. The scene begins with a newscaster stating, “In Los Angeles, the war on drugs has so escalated that police last night began using a tank.”
After the side of a house is demolished, viewers are told, “Last night no rock cocaine was found, but undercover agents had bought it here earlier.”
Former NWA member Ice Cube, appearing as a talking head, comments that the Batterram wasn’t immune to “mistaken identities in some cases, so you never knew when they was gonna roll the Batterram up in your momma’s house.” An elderly neighbor adds, “It’s horrible, those kids was in there, they could have been killed.”
(When asked what would happen following a mistaken Batterram incident, Rothmiller says the LAPD would end up paying for the damage. He adds that if anyone was “physically harmed or handcuffed or humiliated in any way,” a civil settlement would be offered “for them to go away.” In today’s terms, he estimates it to be between $50,000-$200,000.)
The introduction of the Batterram came from the Chief of Police, but day-to-day cop culture also affected its misuse. Rothmiller remembers that while some members of the LAPD might have had reservations against using it, the officers directly in charge of the Batterram came from the Metro and SWAT departments and possessed “a little different make-up from the average guy.” Their instinct was to charge towards danger — to storm a crack house even if being fired upon — rather than adopt a more cautious approach. “Their mentality was a bit different,” he says, “and, for want of a better term, they just enjoyed that sort of stuff.”
Broader institutional problems also affected the Batterram. “Here’s the problem,” says Rothmiller, “any time a police department gets a new toy like that, they want to use it. They have to use it to justify the expense. Whatever it may be, whether it’s a new helicopter or a new robotic thing, they’re going to use it so they can justify it.”
Just like its namesake song, the V-100 Batterram holds a brief but importance place in LA history. In terms that mirror the song’s closing verse, Rothmiller suspects it was retired from use due to a combination of liability issues and public outcry. “The order certainly would not have come out of the Chief of Police,” he says. “It would have been the mayor’s office or city council. Being politicians, they will bend whatever way the wind is blowing.” Or as Toddy Tee put it: “Mayor of the city, what you’re trying to do?/ They say they voted you in, in ‘82/ But on the next term, without no doubt/ They say they gon’ vote your jack ass out/ Because you must’a been crazy or half-way wack/ To legalize something that works like that.”
(Today, a V-100 Batterram is on display at the Los Angeles Police Museum. Two emails to the LAPD requesting an interview were not returned.)