The legacy of Ice Cube still resonates nearly 20 years after the shockwave began
Ice Cube, in his own words, is a “Brotha that’ll smotha your motha / And make your sister think I love her.” While I’m not sure if my sister was in love with Cube, she was in love with the gangsta rappers who came after and who were directly influenced by NWA. Thankfully, our generation’s parents lacked the soon-to-follow media warnings of this new and dangerous form of music, so we were able to sneak it into our households and digest it—at low volumes, of course.
Riding the bus in 1989, a friend nudged me and handed me his headphones with a smirk. There was no warning to the audio shock that would come with the first lines of “Fuck Tha Police.”
Though I was in junior high and had no real dealings with the po-po, it made me think: “Wait, maybe these people don’t have my best interest in mind!” While Dr. Dre’s G-funk soundscapes had a lot to do with the head nodding (or maybe that was the bus driver), it was the conviction in Cube’s words that started the train of thought on that bus.
Everyone who listened to rap in 1989 knows “Fuck Tha Police” by heart. It was our punk-rock, anti-authority manifesto. It was the wildfire in which NWA arrived: a metaphorical indictment against racial profiling and police brutality through street-gang imagery. NWA rapped about killing cops and somehow made the world seem like a better place because of it. The FBI took notice. Smartly, this was taken advantage of, and a simple letter of concern became a full fledged war of us vs. them.
Little did the listeners know that years later, after leaving NWA, Ice Cube had some questions to answer: Would he be forgotten? What was going to happen? Cube wrote most of the NWA lyrics, but how would he fare solo, without those amazing sonic collages provided by Dre (and supposedly DJ Yella, but no one was sure what he actually did, since there was a total of three scratches on Straight out of Compton)?
But to everyone’s surprise Cube laid his eyes to the east like a Muslim and teamed up with the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team), the East Coast’s pride and joy. Fusing overt political statements and gangsterisms, Cube quickly became the self-proclaimed “Nigga You Love to Hate” and, while guesting with Chuck D, had the torch passed to him to become the angriest man in popular music.
And he was popular. Some understood what was being talked about. Some just copped the Raiders gear and scowl. But at this point hip-hop’s power and influence in the mainstream were being denied only by the folks at the Grammys. It may not have been the “Gangsta’s Fairytale” that he was talking about on his records, but his power and influence were no work of fiction.
While hip-hop historians and purists almost always cite Slick Rick as the best example of storytelling, Cube was no slouch, and he rates among the best. NWA’s “Dopeman” and Cube’s solo “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” show attention to detail, character and drama. While the shock value is what grabs center stage, it takes more to become a classic emcee. The wordplay, stories and political statements all prove that he was here to stay—legend firmly established.
Years later, while riding my janky mountain bike back from The Wherehouse the day Death Certificate was released, my jaw once again dropped. But it wasn’t the supposed racism on the record or Cube’s new Muslim leanings, it was those biting words again—this time he took ex-band members from NWA to task and, in my mind, buried their credibility in the process. While the last NWA record has its moments, mostly in the music, the group has been broken and seems to be adrift without its anchor and strongest member—the one who’ll “swarm on any motherfucker in a blue uniform.”
It has to be said that there are negatives. There is bound to be at least one reader who is going to fire off a letter to the new editor for spotlighting a gangsta rapper. But let’s leave that to the scholars. For now, let’s just appreciate another side of popular music, one that I never knew would become “mainstream.”
While Cube’s later solo albums and his work with the West Coast super group Westside Connection have had shine and radio play and are important in their own way, the biggest change came with Boyz in the Hood—in particular, with Ice Cube as actor. After stealing scene after scene in John Singleton’s ghetto epic, coupled with his later music, his path was now clear. Though gradual evolution, full mainstream acceptance was there. The Friday movie series channeled the ghosts of Cheech and Chong and brought back the urban comedy. Barbershop, while ruffling a few feathers, was a huge hit. Cube directed a movie. He fought anacondas. He even filled in Vin Diesel’s XXX-sized shoes. Then it happened …
One day I was watching TV with my son and saw a commercial for the family comedy Are We There Yet starring Ice Cube. The scowl was gone, replaced by the smile of his character trying to play nice with the kids of his romantic interest. My son looked at me: “I wanna see that, Dad.”
It was official: A new generation was about to be introduced to Cube, but in a much different way. According to my son, Cube was “really funny.”
I couldn’t bring myself to go to the theater (thankfully, Grams and Gramps filled in), because I wanted to hold on to the Cube I knew, the one who shook me by the shoulders with words and made me listen. This is the same Cube, from what I’ve been told, that we’ll see at the Senator Theatre on April 26. Leading his gangsta congregation in his own revival, scowl intact.
In no way is this a bad thing. We all change. Perceptions change. As we get ready to don our black shirts and hats and relive the gangsta shit live in concert, we can have a whole new appreciation for the man behind the name, the one who changed with the times, stayed current and helped change our world view—at least for me.
Aye Jay! is a local artist and member of hip-hop crew The Becky Sagers. He also illustrated the Gangsta Rap Coloring Book and is a contributor to the CN&R.