The Architect of Gangsta Rap
Ice Cube draws on ‘strength of street knowledge’ for both his R-rated rhymes and his G-rated movies
Rapper. Actor. Architect? Most people don’t know Ice Cube earned a certificate in architecture from the Phoenix Institute of Technology. Y’know, just in case the genre-creating music thing didn’t work out. Those classes he took in 1987 taught Cube you need a detailed plan to build anything—be it a skyscraper or a gangsta-rap anthem like “Straight Outta Compton.”
“You can’t show up to a construction site without any plans,” he says. “I realized then that you have to calculate your moves and not just be willy-nilly about how you approach anything.”
Born O’Shea Jackson in 1969, Ice Cube derived his moniker from the pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim. Characters such as Slim were common in the treacherous South-Central hood Cube once called home.
“It is the same story that most youngsters have growing up in a bad situation,” the rap icon says. “The people who make it are the ones who have hope in a situation that looks hopeless. And that is the key to getting out and being successful.
“You can’t let the surroundings beat you down and erode your character and spirit,” Cube continues. “You know, I might be living in the mud, but I refuse to get dirty. It’s about using your brain and not your back.”
A dismal economy, racial-profiling police and feuding inner-city youths made the late 1980s unruly times in Los Angeles. Cube was one of the pioneers of gangsta rap, chronicling the corruption and chaos he witnessed first-hand. This gritty, graphic, West Coast style of hip-hop proved more violent and explicit than anything previously heard in popular music.
Cube joined Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and MC Ren to form the Compton-based N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude) in 1986. Evoking the crime-infested streets of his upbringing, a menacing young Cube spit rhymes more imposing than anything issued by the rap godfathers who birthed the genre in the Bronx. The infamous N.W.A title “Fuck Tha Police” sums up their view of lawmen. On other numbers, the rappers glorify drug dealing, gunplay and misogyny, creating the template for a genre carried on today most famously by 50 Cent.
N.W.A’s most celebrated rhyme-writer left the group to release the potent solo CDs AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990) and Death Certificate (’92), cementing Cube’s place as one of rap’s most socially aware and confrontational artists. LA’s notorious 1992 riots prompted further division between Cube and the cops.
“The riots were a buildup of the things going wrong with the policies of the LAPD and the rest of the Southern California law enforcement,” he says. “Before [‘Fuck Tha Police’], the police really could do no wrong. The exclamation point here is that there was a lot of injustice going on, and black people got fed up and decided to aim that injustice back at the police.”
After casting himself as a cop-hating, indo-smoking thug, Cube has built a second career as an actor (who has starred in kid-friendly flicks such as 2005’s Are We There Yet?), screenwriter and record producer.
The 40-year-old multihyphenate also controls the business aspects of his music. When he got frustrated with the major-label system, he started distributing his own records. He maintains that company executives don’t understand “street marketing and how to get [my] records down into the neighborhoods.”
“So I got tired of it and decided to put my money where my mouth was,” he says. “Now I can drop records when I want to. I have taken matters back into my own hands.”
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Those hands are still making hard-hitting music with minimalist beats, body-dropping hooks and witty lyrics. Cube, who cites George Clinton, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and Chuck D. as influences, crafted a heavy dose of thoughtful darkness on his most recent record, Raw Footage. On the lead single, “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It”—hailed by MTV as “the first great rap song of 2008”—he backhandedly dissed those who blame gangsta rap for tragic world events. When asked about the thought process behind the single, Cube says, “I’ve always wondered how you can expect to get the Crips and Bloods to stop fighting when you can’t get the Jews and Palestinians to quit fighting.
“People can hate each other over gangsta rap or religion,” he continues. “There’s really very little difference. I wanted to do a record that people can feel and not just hear, one that talks about solutions, not just problems.”
The veteran’s desire for said solutions is apparent on Raw Footage’s soulful, Mayfield-inspired “Stand Tall.” The track finds Cube encouraging listeners to hold onto their dreams. With more than 15 million records sold to date, Ice Cube has realized his own dreams by engineering a multifaceted empire that’s still standing strong.
Ice Cube at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Sun., 8 p.m. $36.