When you're one of the creators of gangsta rap, there's always a story to tell. Nearly 25 years into his career, Ice Cube is feeling cocky. And why not? His contributions to hip-hop are mammoth. From his groundbreaking days as a founding member of “the world’s most dangerous group” N.W.A. to his fire-and-brimstone politically-charged solo statements, Cube is indespensible when dissecting the evolution of rap. Yes, there are critics who will point out that the influential visionary lost his sneering bite during his impressive turn as a major Hollywood player, starring, directing and producing in films like Friday, The Players Club, Are We There Yet?, Barbershop and Lottery Ticket. But the grizzled West Coast vet is not about to put down the mic anytime soon. With a new album, I Am The West, in stores, a defiant Cube breaks down his indelible musical career one song and album at a time. He’s not going anywhere, folks.
"My Posse” (1987)—C.I.A.
I first met Dr. Dre in 1983 going into ’84. He was the most famous person I knew at that time [laughs]. He was in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru who just dropped a record called “Surgery.” Dre was the only person I knew who actually released an album, so I was excited to meet him. When he heard me flow, he took me under his wing. He would be at the house making records and I would help him write whatever I could to just get in where I fit in. Before N.W.A., we were in a group called C.I.A. We were on Epic Records and we had a song called “She’s A Scag,” which Dre used the Tears For Fears track “Shout.” It was a cool little song, but it wasn’t particularly hot, so we ended getting dropped from the label. Then we got on Crew Cut Records and changed our name to C.I.A., which stood for Criminals In Action. But the label didn’t want us having the word ‘criminals’ on our record [laughs]. So they made us change it to Crew In Action and needless to say we were mad about that shit!’
That’s when we came out with “My Posse.” We recorded that record six or seven days after the Beastie Boys’ License To Ill came out. And Dre was like, ‘Y’all gotta rap like these dudes…real loud and screaming and shit.’ We thought, ‘Man, this style is kind of crazy.’ Dre had us on “My Posse” fucking screaming our heads off like we were Adrock because that was the new sound; the new style. We were a little bit out of character on that song [laughs]."
N.W.A. and the Posse (1987)
Before we even started this album, Eazy-E commissioned the song “Boyz-n-the-Hood” from me. Dre and me were doing these swap meet mixtapes clowning on those songs and talking about the shit that was happening in the neighborhood. We knew it wasn’t going to be a record that would get played on the radio, so we were going all out. But Eazy kept saying, ‘That’s exactly the style that I want! That’s what I want you to write for my group.’ That’s when I wrote “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” I knew the song was ill, but it was no iller than Ice T’s “6 In The Mornin’.” I saw the shit that was going on in the streets. It was an underground hardcore record and I wanted it to be visual. That was N.W.A.’s style…to be graphic with it."
Straight Outta Compton (1988)—N.W.A.
I’m not going to take all the credit for the gangsta style of Straight Outta Compton. Everybody contributed something. But there are certain moments that stand out. A song like “Fuck The Police” took N.W.A. from just being a hardcore group from L.A. to the world’s most dangerous group. That one song alone was just as political as anything that had come out before it. I don’t know if a song has ever peaked that kind of political vibe all over the world. It hit a chord with people globally who were sick of [unjust] authority. To me, that song is the essence of what the group had become.
To tell you truth, I wasn’t shook when the F.B.I. sent us that letter [condemning us for “Fuck The Police”]. I was naïve. Being that young, I didn’t really care about the F.B.I. [laughs]. They didn’t mean as much to me as the LAPD. I actually saw the cops in L.A. fuck with people for no reason. They would fuck with me and the homies for just doing nothing; We were used to putting our hands on the hood of a cop car and all that bullshit. That same year Eazy released Eazy-Duz-It. With Eazy’s record, a lot of people pitched in—the D.O.C., MC Ren, and myself. We all put a lot of effort to get that record done, but at the end of the day writers were not considered producers. No matter what you contributed to the record, style wise, you were not considered a producer unless you did beats. And to me, that was bullshit.
That’s when I started to have issues with the way business was being done. I was the one that told Dr. Dre to go ‘Gangsta, gangsta, that’s what they yelling, it’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality.’ Me bringing those records to the studio and telling Dre to use them is producing just as much as Yela rewinding the tape and making sure the drum machine is working. That was my main problem. I thought we should all get paid as producers. And Eazy didn’t see it that way."
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)—Ice Cube
When I left N.W.A., I got the chance to rap on the Bomb Squad’s beats. I always loved their work on those Public Enemy records. On AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted I thought I was getting the chance to do something that not too many people had done: bridge the gap between the East and West with just one record. These motherfuckers were mad scientist when it came to sampling and layering beats. I was on cloud nine. You had the Eric Sadler on the bottom beats; Chuck D on the scratching and anything that you heard flying in and out; and Hank and Keith Shocklee were just adding and stacking sounds. I knew I was going to have a great record, despite all the shit that the guys from N.W.A. were talking about how my album was going to be trash. All I heard was, ‘You going out to New York to work on your record? That’s dumb!’ All that shit they hit me with, I was like, ‘Whatever…watch this.’ Me and Sir Jinx put together our preliminary plan and had some songs we took with us to New York. Jinx produced “Once Upon A Time In The Projects,” “You Can’t Fade Me,” and helped put together those skits. I call Jinx my crazy producer [laughs]. He’s a mad scientist his damn self.
I think “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” was the perfect opening song. But originally it caused a huge argument in the studio. The crew thought that I was dissing myself on that track. No rapper had ever told the listener to literally tell them, ‘Fuck you.’ But I explained to them that because the song is called “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” that means it was about the hate I was receiving because of the dope shit I was giving to the [masses]. It was back and forth until I let the guys feel what I was trying to do—they just bit into it totally. That’s how we knew we were making a record that was beyond the boundaries of anything that was done.
And then you have a song like “Endangered Species,” which was extremely powerful. For one thing, Chuck is rhyming on the track with me, which was just incredible. To me it’s a straight Public Enemy beat. We had some crazy ass distortion going through that song. It actually pierces your ears. And the end of the song is equally powerful. The whole chase down by the police dogs. Every black person that hears that can feel it in their chromosomes like it was happening to them. It was just a great record."
Kill At Will (1990)—Ice Cube
The track “Jackin’ For Beats” was my idea. In 1990, everybody’s beats were crazy from D-Nice and Digital Underground to P.E. and EPMD…everybody’s beat was damn near better than the next! So I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could rap on all this shit that’s out right now. And then I thought about it: why can’t I? I got with Chilly Chill and started building the record. But Chilly could only take it so far, so then I had Jinx to come in and put the finishing touches on it. All of the songs on “Jackin’ For Beats” got cleared, but when you do something as ambitious as that it can get pretty expensive. D-Nice had sampled “Call Me D-Nice from somebody, so we ended up having to pay D-Nice and the person he sampled from. Now just imagine having eight or nine different people’s songs in an actual track like that. That’s why I didn’t do a “Jackin’ For Beats 2” because that song was just way too expensive. It didn’t make good business sense to do a song like that [laughs].
I was moved to write “Dead Homiez” because one of my homies named T-Bone got smoked and he was a good dude. That whole thing fucked me up. I wrote that song in one hour because I was just feeling it. Jinx had this slow ass beat that I didn’t know what to do with, but it was perfect for “Dead Homiez.” Around the same time I started filming Boyz In The Hood. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even interested in acting or the movies. I had never been to acting school. I was like, ‘Who would want to put me in a movie?’ I met John Singleton around the same time when I was upset with Arsenio Hall because he had 2 Live Crew on his show, but never let N.W.A . come on. And that show was taped right in L.A.! So John walks up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, you’re Ice Cube from N.W.A.’ He told me he was going to USC and writing a movie and he wanted me in it. I was like, ‘Yeah right.’ I just blew him off, but I kept running into him. I ran into him at a P.E. concert. I saw him at a Farrakhan event.
John kept telling me the same thing. When I read the script, I took him seriously, but I was wack at my [screen test]. John was like, ‘Okay, I’ll give you another shot, but if you are wack again I’m going to get somebody else.’ So I took it seriously after that. Boyz In The Hood was very real. It was like, ‘Damn, this movie is actually about how we grew up. They are making a movie about this shit?’ I couldn’t believe it. Most people come into the movie game with cameo roles. But they usually don’t get something as powerful as a role like Doughboy. By me playing that role and being able to deliver on it I think people took me seriously as an actor. To this day, Boyz In The Hood made it possible for me to have a film career."
Death Certificate (1991)—Ice Cube
Working with Public Enemy you can’t help but learn about who you are. After spending time with them, I started getting into the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I started getting his point of view of what was going on with us in America; why we were in the condition that we were in. And I was really angry about it because I felt like we were being sabotaged in America. To this day, there’s still sabotage going on. But at that time, I was really ferocious, so I felt the best thing I could do is put that anger in rhyme form. I came up with the concept for the album cover. What the dead white body covered in the American flag represented was old ideas. Ideas of what a country should be. You have to kill that shit and start anew. There’s a lot that’s great things about America, but we have a long way to go. I thought that was the best way to get that point across.
I don’t have any regrets with recording “Black Korea.” I think in life you should only regret what you don’t do. But the song was as ugly as the situation was. When that girl Latasha [Harlins] was shot in the head, that was crazy. (On March 16, 1991, a defenseless Harlins was shot and killed by an L.A. Korean-store owner who accused the 15-year-old of stealing a bottle of orange juice. The incident gained worldwide attention and drew outrage from the black community. In response, Cube wrote the scathing “Black Korea,” a controversial song that some critics denounced as racist.) This was done even before the LA riots. “Black Korea” was a song that was trying to speak out at our frustration with our relationship with Koreans.
To me the best thing to do is to be honest about it and not pussy foot around it, especially in a rap song. You can pussy foot around it in an interview, but in a rap song you have to go all out and give the true pulse of what you are feeling. So I don’t have any regrets. If I hurt anybody’s feelings, I’m sorry about that. But there are people out there who felt a lot harsher than that record."
The Predator (1992)—Ice Cube
The Predator record was a change of pace for me. Songs like “It Was A Good Day” were less political because we had been so political to the point where people didn’t even think I could rap anymore. People didn’t think I was an MC! They were trying to turn me into some political figure. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, hold on…we are doing music. I’m just injecting what I feel is the truth in my music.’ So I wanted to get back to the music. And then in another way I felt Damn, we can’t get a song in rotation, but the [non-political] form of gangsta rap was getting played all day. I knew there was a difference. The music I was making was institutionalized-breaking shit.
The shit that me, Public Enemy, Ice T, and KRS-One were doing was not the status quo. We were making highly charged political arena shit. So, if I was MTV or any of the radio stations, I would make it my business to get us off of that political tip. And if I was a fan I would think, Man, President Clinton is in office. It’s time to party. No more Reaganomics…it’s time to let loose, man! Let’s hit the club…let’s get some weed, get a car, and get some pussy like Bill. Fuck all that political shit. We won. That’s when escapism rap became the standard. It was time to indulge.
I decided to use the track from [Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s] “The Message” for “Check Yo Self.” Those beats back then, even the shit Whodini was doing, that wasn’t sampling. Those were motherfuckers in the studio making real music. Every time I heard the music for “The Message” it made me feel a certain way. It made me feel like I had to do a hip-hop B-boy rhyme off that. I had released “Jackin’ For Beats,” but this time I wanted to push the envelope. Instead of sampling R&B, jazz and rock all the time, let’s sample hip-hop too. But thinking back, the whole gangsta rap style of the early ‘90s kicked off the Mafioso style that Biggie and them were doing. After that was the ice age with Cash Money. Now we are in the 2000’s with the same escapism shit."
Lethal Injection (1993)—Ice Cube
At the time when I started recording Lethal Injection, I was in a juggling act. I was trying to juggle movies and music and I didn’t know how to do both at the same time. I would leave the film set and go do records and you don’t ever do that dumb shit [laughs]. So because of that, the music suffered. The records were not as good as they could have been. But there are some [solid moments]. On “You Know How We Do It” you can hear that I learned a lot from what Dre did on The Chronic. That song didn’t have the same style of sampling of my past work. I just felt that we needed to be good enough to start making our own music and sounds. If we always have to sample past artists’ music to make hits we are not going to be here too long. So I started pushing it upon the producers to not just use samples. I just wanted to create some original music."
“Natural Born Killaz” (1994)—Dr. Dre & Ice Cube
Dr. Dre invited me to the studio after being out each other’s lives. He had gone through the same thing I went through with Eazy. And then Eazy died, which was just crazy. So we just felt, man, we can’t be beefing over bullshit. So we started connecting again and Dre played me this beat that he was doing for Sam Sneed, which would later become “Natural Born Killaz.” That beat was insane. I told Dre, ‘Nigga, I want to be on this motherfucker.’ Something happened with the Sam Sneed record to where it didn’t jump off. So Dre called me up and asked if I wanted to be on song. I jumped on it and it was huge.
We were planning on doing an entire Dr. Dre-Ice Cube album, but as soon as we started to think seriously about that project, Dre runs across this kid named Eminem freestyling on the radio. He gets the kid and starts working with him and they make an amazing record. So Dre had to focus all his attentions towards that. Then soon as Eminem got to the point where he was doing his own shit, Dre and I were set to finally hit the studio again. But Eminem brought him 50 Cent and Dre was like, ‘Hold on…’ The album got pushed back again. Dre had to pay 110 percent attention to 50’s album, but I never tripped as much as other people tripped off it. I would have done the same thing."
Bow Down (1996)—Westside Connection
I made that Westside Connection record because of the Mecca of hip-hop, New York. Of course all the artists on the West Coast at one time were looking for the stamp of approval from the New York hip-hop kings. And we got it. We got it with Straight Outta Compton, we got it with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, Kill At Will…it was nothing but love. And then Dre and Snoop Dogg came out. But really, it kind of started with that Tim Dog record “Fuck Compton.” That to me was the first smack. Now most of the New York industry dudes didn’t support that Tim Dog shit. They knew it was foul. But then you started hearing the term ‘keep it real,’ which came out the fact that the East Coast thought the music the West Coast was making wasn’t real hip-hop. We would hear stuff like, ‘We sick of this jheri curl shit.’ It started to escalate to the point where I felt that no one from the West Coast was standing up for what we believed in and our contributions to hip-hop.
I remember Masta Ace making a song called “SlaughterHouse” on which he said all our records were just blood dripping bullshit. So that was the last straw for me. It had built up so much where we thought we needed to do a “Westside Slaughterhouse” and let them know how it really is. So we did that record on Mack 10’s album and our Coast rallied around it. It was like, ‘Yeah, man…somebody is finally standing up for the West Coast!’ I felt like I should have been the one to do it because I got respect from both coasts. That’s when Mack, myself and WC decided to do the Westside Connection album Bow Down and I was really happy with the results. I didn’t feel like we were starting shit. We were just defending ourselves because the West Coast was starting to feel repercussions from our success. That record was basically saying that there was a line in the sand. Without that album the industry would have stopped the West Coast long before that. We were getting the doors shut on us, and they are still shut on us today. That’s why I named my new album I Am The West. It’s still an uphill battle."
War & Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc) (1998); Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc) (2000)—Ice Cube
I wanted to do something different because you can get tired of the hip-hop label routine of doing things. You have to do things to keep yourself interested and motivated. War and Peace was an epic ass project—two separate albums. I wanted to make a dark record and a fun, summer record. Each record takes on its own personality. I would do a song and think, ‘That record sounds like it should be on the War side,’ and then I would do another song and say, ‘This can go on the Peace record.’ One of the songs I recorded for the Peace album was “Hello” (featuring former N.W.A. members MC Ren and Dr. Dre).
It was cool to be in the studio with those guys again, even though I felt like the song was rushed. We didn’t have time to really record together like we did when we made Straight Outta Compton. We would be in the studio three days straight back then just thinking of whatever we could to make a record better. But now it’s like everybody was in a rush. The reason why there has never been a [full-length] N.W.A. reunion project is because there is other shit that we got going on that needs our full attention. This is just some side shit. It’s not like we didn’t want to do the record. But is it worth our full-attention at the same time for that long? Because a new N.W.A. record has to be a great record. It just can’t be a good record"
Laugh Now, Cry Later (2006)—Ice Cube
Releasing Laugh Now, Cry Later on my on label Lynch Mob Records was a challenge. This time around, we were the record company. So I put six of the smartest motherfuckers I knew that dealt with all types of business from record distribution and marketing and then we went to work. I went in and did the record I wanted to do. I wasn’t thinking about nothing but hip-hop…beats and rhymes. It was just fun."
Raw Footage (2008)—Ice Cube
I ‘m really proud of this record. When I go in the studio and make a song like “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” I feel good about the work. To me, if you are a B-Boy you love these kind of [conceptual] records. If you are just a rap fan, this shit is probably going to get on your nerves [laughs]. I’m staying down with the B-Boys, man, because at the end of the day they are the only ones who are going to be left. Everybody else is going to chase the next hit or the next trend. The B-Boy’s are going to be here forever. So I decided to do records for them. I felt because it was a political year that I needed to make a political album. This was 2008. We didn’t know who was going to be the next President. We had just seen Bush break the country. It was a time to figure out how Obama could be President. Even today, with Obama in office, nobody knows if they will keep their house. It wasn’t the time to party and bullshit. So I basically had that attitude. I just wanted to make a record that examined where we are."
I Am The West (2010)—Ice Cube
I thought this record was going to come out in July, in the heart of summer. I wanted to have fun with this one and not be so heavily political because I felt like if you wanted a heavily political record, go listen to Raw Footage. This to me was a record where I could just rhyme and do what was required of the music. Being able to put my sons [OMG and Doughboy] on my [latest single] “She Couldn’t Make It On Her Own”…to me they were good enough to be on the record, which was important to me. I didn’t want to give out a charity case. I told them both, ‘Yo, y’all got to impress me as MC’s.’ They had to show me as MC’s that they were true to it; that they wasn’t just doing it because they were my sons, but because they love hip-hop. We had fun shooting the video. Everybody has a silly side; life is too short. I have a dark ass sense of humor.
To me the song is just a fun record…it doesn’t tell a woman, ‘Girl you need a motherfucking pimp in your life…’ [laughs] It’s more like you need a fly motherfucker in your life. So I just wanted to make sure people understood that we are having fun with this. We ain’t trying to send females back 100 years and turn them into hoes. This record is all about celebrating the West Coast instead of putting a line in the sand like we did with Bow Down. I can do this forever. Stevie Wonder is still here. Why not me? People that have been doing what they do for a long time, if you are true to your art, there’s not a reason for you to go away. This ain’t sports…this aint the NFL or the NBA. My tongue won’t get an ACL. My flow is not going anywhere. I can rap like this until my teeth fall out, so people need to relax on that. It’s not about how old you are. It’s about what you are spitting. People are so caught up in everything except what’s coming out the speaker. And that’s all that matters."