‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’s’ Sterling K. Brown Knows His ’90s Hip-Hop But Listens to KIDZ BOP Nowadays
The actor, who plays Chris Darden on the hit show, spoke to SPIN about the charged and changing feelings about the trial
The 1990s will forever seem like they weren’t all that long ago, but as the years go by, reenacting the decade has become more involved — less engaging in simple nostalgia and more putting on a bona fide period piece. The inexorable march of time is clear in the FX series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST), which dramatizes the infamous trial that captivated a nation, from the white Bronco chase to Simpson’s eventual acquittal.
Sure, most of the fashion choices from the era have aged like a fine milk, but the musical cues certainly hold up. During one crucial moment, the introduction of the “Dream Team” defending Simpson, the show calls on Above the Law’s “Black Superman” in an amazing (if on-the-nose) montage. The larger themes of The People v. O.J., and the music that helps score the show, aren’t mere relics of the ’90s, though; the program constantly notes the similarities between the complex, racially charged trial and today’s cultural climate. It’s a fascinating look back at a familiar time — in more ways than one.
Actor Sterling K. Brown plays Christopher Darden, one of the prosecutors during the Simpson trial, who was heavily criticized at the time for being a black man seemingly out to get one of his own, and for teeing up defense attorney Johnny Cochran’s infamous “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit” zinger. Brown, who has also appeared in Army Wives and Supernatural, was a college student in Northern California back when the trial took place, and remembers what it was like living through such an iconic moment in history — and how the culture has and hasn’t changed since. SPIN got on the phone with Brown to discuss his role on The People v. O.J. Simpson, the trial’s effect on American culture, the albums he was listening to back in the ’90s, and why he doesn’t really get the chance to listen to new music today.
What was the first album you ever bought?
Ah, oh my goodness. It’s probably Michael Jackson. Maybe Off the Wall or Thriller. Michael Jackson was a king and reigned supreme throughout the ’80s, so it has to be one of those two albums.
How old were you during the O.J. trial?
It lasted over, like, 15 months, so 18 to 19 years old.
What were you listening to back then?
I was at Stanford University up in the West Coast Bay Area, so the biggest song of my freshman year was “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz, and the “I Got 5 on It” remix was the joint that everybody was jamming constantly. And then it was also at that particular time that I became a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan. [Their debut album] 36 Chambers was ridiculous — Method Man, Tical; Cuban Linx, Raekwon. But that came out, along with Luniz, and then there was Rappin’ 4-Tay, whose hit was “Playaz Club.” A couple other artists got played during my freshman year of college, but Wu-Tang still endures to me.
What do you think the real Chris Darden was listening to back then? I know you never got a chance to actually meet with him.
[Laughs.] I don’t think Chris Darden was listening to Wu-Tang Clan, I’ll tell you that much. Definitely, like, Motown, oldies. We played a little bit of the Isley Brothers on the show; Isley Brothers seems like it would be right up his alley. But yeah, his brother had a lot of wax from the ’60s and ’70s that he grew up listening to himself.
Has working on The People v. O.J. Simpson changed the way you remember the ’90s?
It’s so interesting thinking about the ’90s as a period piece and doing it, I didn’t realize my suit was just that baggy. Ties were very colorful. We were making a statement with what we wore around our necks. But I look back at the ’90s fondly. I think it was a coming-of-age sort of time for me personally and doing the show is interesting to be back in that time and that place.
What are you listening to now?
Right now, I got a 4-and-a-half-year-old and I got a 6-month-old. Two boys. Any time I have Sirius radio on, or any time I try to listen to the throwback station and whatnot, the profanity comes on and I have to change the channel. So I’ve been listening to a lot of KIDZ BOP lately. Although, when I go to the gym and I’m working out, I like to rock out to Pharrell radio, I like to listen to Kanye and Bey. I love me some Kendrick Lamar, love J. Cole. But other than that, it’s kids’ covers of popular music.
How do you think that pop culture today would respond to the O.J. trial if it happened now? It’d be really interesting to see Kanye, Kendrick, or Run the Jewels tackle such a charged, touchstone event.
It’s so interesting, man, because I feel like what happened with the trial in ‘94 — two years after the Rodney King beating, the level of unrest that black Los Angelenos had with law enforcement, etc. — really set the tone for the show. It was a situation where I think the right message was being delivered with the wrong messenger. There were crooked cops, there was a lot of unrest, and the way in which black America experiences law enforcement in general is very different than mainstream America.
I would hope that if the trial were to come up today, the way in which pop culture would respond would be able to distinguish the difference between the trial itself — O.J. Simpson’s role or possible role in the double-homicide with Nicole and Ron — and the level of police unrest that’s running wild throughout the country. Because a lot of black men have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement, especially over the last two years where we’ve had the ocular proof of all that loss of life. And so I know people would be speaking about that and have been speaking about that very strongly. I would hope that the case itself wouldn’t be pulled again into that particular context.
Do you think there was a reason why that didn’t happen back in ’94, ’95?
Well, I think O.J. Simpson was a very prominent figure in the African-American community. He was sort of a manifestation of the American dream: “If it can happen for him, it can happen for me.” So the level of possessiveness and the care that I think that black folks take with regards to their idols — people that they look up to — is very, very strong. And the idea of someone trying to tear him down and make him guilty is something that they weren’t ready to see.
I have one more question, but before I get to it, is there anything else that you want to say about playing Chris Darden, or the trial, or the show?
I’ll say this: Sarah Paulson and Marcia Clark have a relationship with one another; they got a chance to meet throughout the course of the show. I was thinking something like that might be possible for me and Chris Darden but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen and I’ve made my peace with that. I hope maybe when it’s all said and done, he would like to break bread or grab a beverage with the guy who played him on the TV show. So I’m just saying: Chris, if you’re open to it, I’m available.
Well, my last question kind of plays off of that. Would you say it’s fair to say you ship Darden and Marcia Clark?
Do I ship them? [Laughs.] I mean, look, the history of what it is, they didn’t ultimately wind up with one another. Although they care about one another. Still to this day, when I talked to Marcia Clark, she said she couldn’t have made it through that process without Darden by her side. And I’ve gotten a lot of stuff on Twitter about “I ship Marcia and Chris.” And I think Sarah and I kind of came up with “Darcia” as our celebrity couple name.
I love Sarah Paulson and I love having the opportunity to work with her. If we do ship them, then hopefully I get a chance to work with Sarah again. I’ll go ahead and say yes just so I can work with Paulson one more time.
— Sterling K Brown (@sterlingkb1) March 16, 2016