In Conversation: Ice Cube Is Still Steady Mobbin’
Twenty-five years after he released one of the most controversial records in hip-hop history, the LA rapper-turned–family man has regrets—but not many.
Some rappers, this summer, hold sway over the charts, while others court controversy worrying about their bills. Ice Cube, however, is chilling: He’s received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, coolly chided Bill Maher for the Real Time host’s use of racist language, and launched BIG3, his own 3-on-3 basketball league. Most importantly, however, Cube’s also thrown himself back into the record-slinging ring with the twenty-fifth anniversary reissue of the incendiary Death Certificate.
His second solo album after leaving the legendary N.W.A, Death Certificate—which is being reissued with a trio of new tracks—portrays the life, loss, prosperity, poverty, love, violence, honor, and humor of life in South Central Los Angeles, all in varying shades of light and dark. Not bad for a reformed family man.
I am not dissing one Ice Cube over another Ice Cube, but you have certainly moved on from your gangsta rap start to family film and television fare. How do you reconcile the Cube of Death Certificate with all that’s come since?
Whatever I’m doing is like you’re looking at a snapshot—mentally, socially, especially where my records are concerned. You’re looking at a moment in my life. Now at a certain point, too, you’d like to be respected, and you realize that when you have to stand up for a certain thing, that people might not like it. You have to stand in the political crosshairs. You grow up real fast, [and] sometimes you come out harsher than intended. By the time I recorded Death Certificate, I was feeling a lot of different emotions. I was trying to transform my way of thinking—who I was—and I was making a record on a deadline at the same time. I’d say that speaks to everything I do.
You said something about being respected. Did you crave that coming up or even believe such respect was accessible?
I never craved it as an artist, but I did crave it as a boy growing up, as a young man, and even as a grown man. I wanted that respect because I knew that it had to be earned—I’m not afraid of hard work—and that once you got it, you couldn’t let anyone take that away from you. It takes a long time to earn it and short time to lose it—so you’re protective of it, which I am. That’s just how I’m made. My father is that way, his father was, my brother is, my neighborhood was. It’s the way I grew up. You place respect over a lot of other things in the world, especially material things and social status. You got to be a man. You can’t ever sell your soul for anything.
Other than a few twists for the present day, the new songs sound like they belong on Death Certificate. Is that the game plan going forward—find sympathetic new songs for the reissues rather than an album of new material?
Yeah, I want to keep the old albums in perspective while bringing new fans to the table. Three songs is cool, easy to digest. Too many more and they start falling through the cracks. I got all sorts of ideas that would make sense for [a reissue of 1992’s] The Predator.
I’m not picking on Irvine, per se. The song is about something that makes you feel uncomfortable—a place where the law does not welcome you. There are a lot of places like that.
“Good Cop Bad Cop” is a thematic departure from N.W.A and “Fuck tha Police.” You sound as if you have solid solutions to a definitive problem.
“Fuck tha Police” was more incendiary because revenge is the point of that song. This new one wants an answer, [and it] has a solution. We’re trying to appeal to the good cops to work it out with the bad cops. We know they’re there, protecting what’s right. Good cops are the first and best line of defense, and they understand that it’s the bad friends on the force who are the problem. There’s a lot of good cops who have died trying to fix this.
Going back to the original Death Certificate: You had just come off AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which was you getting out of N.W.A. Did you know, going forward from that first solo album, what you wanted to accentuate, what you wanted to jettison? Was it all an organic process or more calculated?
It was definitely more calculated. I had really learned a lot working with Chuck D, the Bomb Squad, and the rest of Public Enemy on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. They showed me how to put a whole record together, how to handle a concept album. Even with N.W.A, we did some great things, but I felt like I could do better. Working with Chuck D, I learned how to hold an audience’s attention through a whole album.
Bringing consistency, pace, dramatic arcs.
Exactly. And I wanted to build off that, be that way with everything going forward—not just string songs along, but have them hold together with a concept. It was calculated, yes, but I wanted to show off what I learned from the PE guys.
Let’s talk about the lyrics to “Alive on Arrival.” Twenty-five years later and there’s not much change. You surprised?
No, I’m not surprised—and that’s not good. Until we get real with each other, fair with and share with each other, you’re always going to have have this same story.
When you do a record like that, where you’re trying to gain some understanding—when you have name-calling in there, it fouls your message up. Now, I don’t regret the premise of the song, but I do regret the name calling. The point that “Black Korea” was trying to make was that in our neighborhood, some people don’t fit. We’re like any other community: We have great people, we have not-so-great, familiar and unfamiliar. You can’t judge by just the not-so-great or hold it against the greats. That’s all that record was trying to say, but it got lost in the language.
Yeah, it does, because I wasn’t right to N.W.A. I wasn’t right to [onetime N.W.A manager] Jerry Heller, even though I don’t think he was ever looking out for me; he was looking out for the group. Look, we were a diverse group of young men, with outside forces influencing each of us. I wasn’t immune. That was all about being together, you know—breakup to make up.
One thing, though, for all the violence and dissing, people don’t give you credit for a wicked sense of humor and a keen sense of nostalgia. Would you like to see audiences old and new getting that fact?
Oh yeah, there’s comedy all through Death Certificate. Comedy was a big part of our entire neighborhood growing up, just as much as the bad stuff was. There was a lot of laughing in the hood, a lot of dark humor. That’s part of me. That’s how I got to doing the movies, you know.
Looking at Death Certificate now, through the lens of maturity and adulthood, what was it all about?
Me just trying to be truthful and honest without holding back, without being afraid to be real. The record is also a record of sacrifice in a lot of ways.
That’s an interesting point—how so?
Well, you know, with a record like that, you lose a lot of opportunities to speak because so many people had [their] minds made up about one thing or another in regards to who I was at that point. Some people don’t want to see things as they really are, or at least not from somebody else’s point of view. For me, that’s where things were. Ultimately, you grow, you think, you come at things differently. You understand more. A lot of people were looking at me and my career then. Death Certificate was a real turning point. FL