Ice Cube - The Stool Pigeon
The biggest shit-talker in town is always squaring up for a fight.
Ice Cube needs to chill. He’s angry at not being taken seriously, fuming at having his credibility questioned. Clearly a career in Hollywood and a back-catalogue of classic hip hop have done nothing to ease his temper — or his need for controversy.
It began when Niggaz With Attitude outraged America in 1988. As the group’s main lyricist, Cube crafted a brutal vision of crack-ridden South Central LA. The resulting Straight Outta Compton revolutionised hardcore hip hop, attracted the attention of the FBI and incited a debate that hurtled gangsta rap into mainstream consciousness. Without any airplay or label resources, the album sold three million copies.
Financially frustrated by N.W.A.’s management, Cube left for a solo career that would earn him far more notoriety. The ferocious delivery of 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted acted as a siren from the streets of black America. Its manifesto was barbed with racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny and gratuitous violence — giving white suburbanites (80 per cent of Cube’s sales, according to his label) a vicarious taste of ghetto life.
One million pre-orders were sold for its follow-up, 1991’s Death Certificate, and Cube delivered more of the most anti-establishment, fist-pumping rhymes ever recorded, landing him on right-wing assassination lists.
Then a film role changed everything. Following a turn in John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, where he played an extension of the persona he projected in his music, Cube gradually turned to acting, screenwriting and producing. By 1993’s Lethal Injection, the bite was gone and Cube officially became a part-time MC, giving his best songs to film soundtracks and releasing just one solo album by the end of the decade.
With his sporadic output increasingly comprised of routine gangsta brags, Cube has become more concerned with his declining stature than the piercing social commentary he was known for. In the N.W.A. days, the sheer conviction of Cube’s flow meant that few doubted whether “the world’s most dangerous group” were really gangsters.
In reality, Cube (real name O’Shea Jackson) initially took a break from N.W.A. to study architectural drafting and his middle-class background was parodied in the 1993 rap mockumentary CB4. A string of family movies have continued to tarnish Cube’s image and his last album, 2008’s Raw Footage, was his first not to achieve at least gold status.
Today’s A-list rappers avoid beefs in fear of giving small-fry a platform or alienating a rival’s fan base. Not Ice Cube. In the run up to his ninth solo album, I Am The West, the 41-year-old has been venting frustration through his blog where his veiled baiting has drawn criticism from LA’s crop of ‘new West Coast’ rappers and his ‘diss then deny’ tactics have put hip hop veterans on edge.
After premiering ‘Drink the Kool-Aid’, the lines, “I ain’t the Doctor! This ain’t the patient! This ain’t that nigga always on vacation! This ain’t no white boy’s rehabilitation!” led former N.W.A. group-mate Dr. Dre to enquire if he was being dissed.
Though Cube assured him he wasn’t, Dre promptly stopped returning his calls. Whether or not such run-ins are enough to parry cries of ‘sell out’ and ‘spent force’, Cube is in snarling form, defending his rep with the same scowling intensity that kick-started his career.
You claim you are the West, but who’s challenging you for that title?
Then why say it?
Because every big dog gotta piss on the trees now and again… just to let everybody know you are the big dog. That’s why I said it.
Why the need to constantly reassess your status?
Our history on the West Coast is not being recognised and celebrated as I think it should. If nobody speaks up, it’s goin’ to be pushed more and more to the background. That’s why it’s put on the back of someone like me or Snoop to hold the West up and make sure it doesn’t dissipate.
I meant in terms of your personal reputation. Dr. Dre says it’s beneath him to speak out about minor rappers.
I don’t agree with that because someone will eventually take your spot. In the rap game, you’ve got to take all threats seriously. You can’t let nobody get away with nothin’, big or small. Ja Rule thought 50 Cent was a small-time rapper; he didn’t pay him enough attention. By the time he did, 50 was on top of him. Ain’t nobody gonna use me to launch themselves just ’cause I felt I’m too big to say something about it. I don’t agree with that philosophy. Dre’s more of a producer. I’m an MC.
Jay Rock says you have a responsibility to name names, rather than speak generally.
No, I don’t! No, I don’t. I can speak names when I choose to. No MC’s goin’ tell me what to do or how to do it. No MC. Or no writer! Nobody. These guys shot arrows across my bow first. I will name names… at the appropriate time. I’m addin’ names, I tell you that.
When’s the appropriate time?
When people feel offended by this record and they decide to say something directly on wax. I ain’t worried about what people say in the media ’cause that is what it is. Rhymes are a different thing.
What about when the wrong people get offended because you’re too vague?
I expect whoever gets upset to reach out. If they don’t, then that’s on them.
Do you think a rapper needs real street credibility to succeed?
Nah, I think you need talent. Don’t nobody care about [credibility]. The people who care about that are obviously not talented enough to do it themselves. You have to look at what you have to offer and be true to yourself. People respect an MC in the first place ’cause he’s a leader, not a follower. If MCs feel they need to follow the streets to be relevant or seem real, then that’s a whole nuther trip. That ain’t got nothin’ to do with makin’ records.
What if a fan finds out that someone’s been rapping about a life they never lived? Doesn’t that make it less authentic?
[Pauses] Well, a historian may not have lived during the time, but that don’t mean they don’t know what they’re talkin’ about. Another way to look at it is when you’re livin’ in a war zone, soldiers ain’t the only ones that are hard. The civilians are, too. Either you know what you’re talkin’ about or you don’t. If rappers only rapped about what they did, their career would probably be only one album long. It’s all about observin’ the world, hearin’ about it and having the talent to put that in rhyme; to put it to the right beat and make a hit out of it. If that wasn’t the case, everybody in prison should be triple platinum. It’s a ridiculous burden to put on any artist — that you’ve got to be Ernest Hemmingway to write. That’s bullshit. You rap what you feel. You’ve gotta have a style, a command of the language, you’ve gotta know what the people are feelin’ and be able to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Those are the ingredients to becoming a rap star. Not your criminal record. It’s a case of the media and the public askin’ for something that’s ridiculous and impossible to deliver.
Is it unreasonable that some would take your first-person accounts at face value?
I’m rhyming about conditions of a culture and a people. The rhymes are bigger than me and my life. When people start rapping about what they go through, that shit gets boring. When every artist comes out, they’ve got 19, 20 years of material. For the next record you’re expected to live a whole new life within one year [laughs]. So people’s records end up bein’ about fuckin’ airplanes, hotels, fancy cars, jewellery — shit they’re now into.
And then people don’t like it. They wanna hear what’s goin’ on in the streets — no matter how you cut it — and they want it delivered as a hit record. There’s grimy motherfuckers rappin’ all day, but nobody wanna buy the shit. There’s a million MCs in the penitentiary, but nobody wanna buy their music. Because it ain’t about that; that’s just one part of it. Anybody who grew up in a neighbourhood like I did is more than qualified to speak on what it is to be there. Nobody goin’ tell me that they’re not because everybody’s subjected to the same shit.
Can you still be a medium for life on the street when you’ve been living the good life for years?
Yeah, if you continue to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. The thing about the ’hood is it doesn’t change. That’s what’s fucked up about it. People in the ’hood don’t know we’re goin’ through a recession! It’s always a fuckin’ recession. Never stops. Dude, what other rappers aren’t rappin’ about what I was in ’89 or ’91? What’s different?
It’s more about materialism now.
Yeah, because people rarely want to hear about what’s goin’ on in the ’hood. They wanna talk about the glamour shit. The real records? Pfft. Man, please. Don’t nobody wanna hear those. They wanna hear the fluffy, sensationalised shit. Those motherfuckers who do real records are goin’ straight to the bottom.
Why don’t people want to hear it?
’Cause they livin’ through it. It’s too painful to hear. Music is supposed to be an escape, not a reminder. It’s cool for y’all on the outside lookin’ in, tryin’ to see who’s authentic, who can really speak on it and what new stories are comin’ out of the ghetto because it’s good art. People who are livin’ it wanna hear the fun parts of the ghetto: drinkin’, fuckin’, smokin’, cars, money, clothes. They don’t wanna hear about incest, rape, AIDS, police brutality, how schools are a haven for gang bangin’. Who wants to hear about healthcare? Nobody.
Was the music painful 20 years ago? It seemed to mean a lot to people .
People were just happy that the word was gettin’ out; that we weren’t goin’ through it alone and that there could be some understanding of what it takes to be black in America. But you realise years later that nobody cares. They were just lookin’ for sensational stories to entertain themselves with. Nobody wanted a real movement; just records they can dance to.
Rap has always been a young man’s game, by nature. How long can any middle-aged rapper expect to stay relevant?
Relevant to who?
To their audience.
To their audience? Or to the audience? Every rapper with more than two albums has a section of fans that will buy their record. Now is the mainstream goin’ to be all over them like when they first came out? Probably not; only if it’s relevant to mainstream media. But you’ll be relevant to your fans as long as you’re making music they like. It seems like the media has an ‘out with the old, in with the new’ mentality, whether it’s better or not. That said, every good artist has three years on top. The rest is tryin’ to maintain and not fall to the bottom.
Do your kids understand the sentiments behind Death Certificate?
I guess, to a degree. I tell them to keep it gangsta. To me, that’s livin’ life how you want to live it. Don’t listen to society; don’t even listen to the law. I don’t really sit them down and grill them on my old music. They discover it and get what they want out of it. My wife talks to them more about my career than I do.
You’ve been with your wife since N.W.A. How does she take all the talk of sleeping with bitches?
That’s just ego shit. Male machismo… whatever the fuck you wanna call it. You gotta understand that there are ingredients to making rap. Leaving out your ego is damn near like leavin’ the salt out of the dinner you’re cookin’. You gotta be the biggest shit-talker in town. People respond to sex. It’s part of the game we’re playin’.
So you consider yourself the Clint Eastwood of the rap game?
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I’m just doin’ what I love, man. Without over-analysing it too much, the worst thing I could do is repeat myself or do what everybody wants me to do. I’ve never done that. If I lose doin’ things my way, it’s better than winning the way somebody else wants me to do things. I just want to be my own man.