The Truth Behind Ice Cube's Legendary Brawl With Above the Law
The story of the 1990 New Music Seminar brawl has been whispered about for decades but never fully told—until now. This excerpt comes from Ben Westhoff's upcoming book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, which focuses on LA gangsta rap.
Ice Cube left N.W.A in 1989, alleging he hadn't been paid what he was worth. Considering Cube's songwriting chops and mammoth persona, it was a big loss for the group and its label, Ruthless Records.
The rapper Eazy-E, who owned Ruthless, hoped a recent signing would fill the void: the gangsta-rap group Above the Law. Hailing from Pomona, they were nearly as tough as their image.
Front man Greg Hutchinson is known as Cold 187um, referencing the California penal code for murder. (The "um" means "untouchable murder" and is also a pronunciation cue for the number 7, "sevum," similar to how, say, "5th" means "fifth.") The group was rounded out by DJ Total K-Oss and rapper/producer KMG the Illustrator.
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Cold 187um and Ice Cube were label mates briefly, and initially, they were tight. Cold 187um respected Cube's style. But there was a difference: If Cube were rapping stories of the ne'er-do-wells he observed growing up relatively middle-class in South Central, Cold 187um and his group mates were describing their own upbringings. "We created Above the Law with street money," Cold 187um told me.
With Cube and N.W.A now at odds, Above the Law sided firmly with the latter camp.
During the promotion of the group's debut, Livin' Like Hustlers, released in 1990, Above the Law escalated tensions with Cube. In a Los Angeles Times interview that April with Jonathan Gold, Go Mack questioned Cube's street credentials. He said Cube's rowdy first-person rhymes were actually about their lifestyles.
Cube shrugged off the criticism. "New jacks [poseurs] from Pomona should only talk about the 10 freeway," he responded, referencing the transportation artery that cuts through Above the Law's home base.
Upon the article's publication, Ruthless owner Eazy-E called up Cold 187um. "Did you read the paper?" Eazy asked him. "He trying to get his clown on."
"I'm gonna beat your boy up when I see him," Cold 187um responded.
"Don't do it, homie," cautioned Eazy.
Insisted Cold 187um, "I'mma beat his ass."
As it turned out, he would see Ice Cube that very night—April 7, 1990—at the Anaheim Celebrity Theatre, for a show headlined by Above the Law. The 2,500-seat venue was an important one for Ruthless acts, who had a hard time finding places to let them play. Cube was there backstage, doing a magazine interview, and he and Cold 187um exchanged words in the hallway. Initially, nothing came of it, but then Cube popped into Cold 187um's dressing room, addressing him from the doorway.
"I guess he tried to come to my dressing room to apologize to me, but I'm thinking he still wanna fight," Cold 187um remembered. "Soon as he stepped in my dressing room, he said, 'What's up?' and I give him a right. He tried to give me something, and I give him another left. And then security rushed us."
"They were throwing punches," said Krazy Dee, an early N.W.A affiliate who witnessed the altercation. "We grabbed Cube and said, 'This isn't the place.'"
Accounts of the damage vary. "Cube had a little scratch on him," said his friend J-Dee.
After leaving N.W.A, Cube recruited reinforcements: Da Lench Mob. The South Central-based crew were rappers, activists and tough dudes you shouldn't fuck with, all at the same time. The group consisted of Cube's high-school friend T-Bone, Cube's childhood rhyming partner J-Dee, and J-Dee's friend Shorty, who was initially brought on for security after release from Corcoran state prison on a robbery conviction. J-Dee and Shorty were tatted-up Crips, and the trio made for an intimidating presence.
They came with Cube to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for the 1990 New Music Seminar. The four-star hotel had no idea what was about to hit it.
That July some 7,000 music-industry types descended upon the annual conference to network and listen to speakers. Cube himself spoke on a panel about the ongoing media controversy over hip-hop lyrics.
Da Lench Mob were hoping to prevent a reprise of the Anaheim Celebrity Theatre fight. Their crew also included Cube's producer Sir Jinx, a not-yet-famous Coolio, 6.5-foot rapper King Sun, and numerous Sun affiliates from the hip-hop activist group Zulu Nation, who had joined them with the intention of providing moral support, not to rumble, "We didn't know it was going to be like West Side Story," said Sir Jinx.
Above the Law was also rolling deep at the seminar, with rapper Kokane and a large contingency of locally based affiliates. The majority of the seminar passed without incident. But just before the final panel, the two Los Angeles crews encountered each other.
"They were like, 'Wassup?'" remembered Cold 187um. "I was like, 'Nuthin', but if you want to make it something, we can make it something.'" The camps soon encountered each other again on the Marriott's escalators, one going up and one going down.
By this time, Cube had left to speak on the panel. "We sent Cube out. We told him disappear—we don't want you to get in no trouble; we got this," J-Dee said.
The parties agreed to fight in a bathroom, away from cameras. But they didn't make it, instead squaring off amid the terrified convention crowd, who scampered off. Shorty remembered tossing the first punch at Above the Law's Total K-Oss, and J-Dee took on KMG the Illustrator.
"Then the melee exploded," said J-Dee. Something like one of those old-timey saloon fights, chairs were flipped and furniture went flying. King Sun picked up a long banquet table—"like the Incredible Hulk," said Shorty—and smashed people with it. T-Bone lost his Air Jordans in a wrestling match.
At some point, Cube emerged from his panel to witness the chaos, but he didn't participate in the fight. The squabble continued until Ice-T and Afrika Bambaataa emerged and warned them that the police were coming, at which point everyone scattered. T-Bone cut out via a side door and found himself in the middle of Times Square, with only socks covering his feet.
When I talked to Cube about it, 25 years after the fact, the incident no longer felt so raw. "I was more upset that we came all the way to New York—finally getting the respect we deserve—and we fucking up their seminar," he said.
Who won the fight? "Da Lench Mob got they ass rolled up," Kokane told me. "Rolled up."
Not true, counters J-Dee, who maintains that Above the Law were "lumped up" and sought medical attention.
Shorty noted that Da Lench Mob's aggression had its intended effect: "After that, they left Cube alone."
Cold 187um chalked the whole thing up to young artists feeling the pressure. "We [were] kids," he said.
J-Dee said rapper WC quashed the beef at his listening party the next year. "[Cold 187um] and I shook hands and embraced each other. . . . He said they did that to show loyalty to Eazy," he said. Cold 187um added that he and Cube later performed together.
"I talked to KMG before he died," in 2012, reportedly of a heart attack, said J-Dee. "We laughed about this."
Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap by Ben Westhoff; Hachette Books, Sept. 13, 2016. Hardcover, 432 pages, $28.
Come to a live book reading by the author on Wednesday, September 14, 7 pm at Barnes & Noble, Carson & 605, Long Beach Towne Center, 7651 Carson St. Long Beach, CA 90808
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