Ice Cube was the first member of the seminal California rap group N.W.A. to leave, and he quickly established himself as one of hip-hop’s best and most controversial artists. From the outset of his career, he courted controversy, since his rhymes were profane and political. As a solo artist, his politics and social commentary sharpened substantially, and his first two records, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, were equally praised and reviled for their lyrical stance, which happened to be considerably more articulate than many of his gangsta peers. As his career progressed, Cube’s influence began to decline, particularly as he tried to incorporate elements of contemporary groups like Cypress Hill into his sound, but his stature never diminished, and he remained one of the biggest rap stars throughout the ’90s.
For such a revolutionary figure, Cube (born O’Shea Jackson) came from a surprisingly straight background. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, where both of his parents had jobs at UCLA, Cube didn’t become involved with b-boy culture until his late teens. He began writing raps while in high school, including ‘Boyz-n-the Hood’. With his partner Sir Jinx, Cube began rapping in a duo called CIA at parties hosted by Dr. Dre, and he eventually met Eazy-E, then leading a group called HBO, through Dre. Eazy asked Cube to write a rap, and he presented them with ‘Boyz-n-the Hood’, which was rejected. Eazy decided to leave CIA, and he, Cube, and Dre formed the first incarnation of N.W.A. Cube left to study architectural drafting at Phoenix, AZ, in 1987, returning the following year after he obtained a one-year degree. He arrived just in time for N.W.A.’s breakthrough album, Straight Outta Compton. Released late in 1988, Straight Outta Compton became an underground hit over the course of 1989, and its extreme lyrical content — which was over-the-top both lyrically and politically — attracted criticism, most notably from the FBI.
N.W.A. may have been rivalling Public Enemy as the most notorious group in hip-hop, but Cube was having deep conflicts with their management, resulting in him leaving the band in late 1989. He went to New York with his new posse, da Lench Mob, and recorded his first solo album with Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad. Released in the spring of 1990, his debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was an instant hit, going gold within its first two weeks of release. While the record’s production and Cube’s rhythmic skills were praised, his often violent, homophobic, and misogynist lyrics were criticized, particularly by the rock press and moral watchdogs. Even amid such controversy, the album was hailed as a groundbreaking classic within hip-hop, and it established Cube as an individual force.
He began his own corporation, which was run by a woman, and he produced the debut album from his female protégé, Yo-Yo. At the end of 1990, he released the EP Kill at Will, which was followed in the spring by Yo-Yo’s debut, Make Way for the Motherlode. That summer, his acting debut in John Singleton’s acclaimed urban drama Boyz ‘n the Hood was widely praised.
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted may have been controversial, but it paled next the furore surrounding Cube’s second album, Death Certificate. Released late in 1991, Death Certificate was simultaneously more political and vulgar than its predecessor, causing more outrage. In particular, ‘No Vaseline’, a vicious attack on N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, was perceived as anti-Semitic, and ‘Black Korea’ was taken as a racist invocation to burn down all Korean-owned grocery stores. The songs provoked a public condemnation from the trade publication Billboard. It was the first time an artist had been singled out by the magazine. The furore over Death Certificate didn’t prevent it from reaching number two and going platinum. During 1992, he toured with the second Lollapalooza tour in a successful attempt to consolidate his white rock audience. He also converted to the Nation of Islam during 1992, which was evident on his next album, The Predator. Upon its release in December of 1992, The Predator became the first album to debut at number one on both the pop and R&B charts. The steady-rolling single ‘It Was a Good Day’ and the Das EFX collaboration ‘Check Yo Self’ made the album Cube’s most popular.
However, Cube’s hold on the mass rap audience was beginning to slip. His former colleague, Dre, was dominating hip-hop with his stoned G-funk, and Cube tried to keep pace with 1993’s Lethal Injection. While the album debuted at number five and went platinum, its funkier sound wasn’t well-received. Lethal Injection was Cube’s last official album for several years. In 1994, he wrote and produced da Lench Mob’s debut, Guerillas in tha Mist, and produced Kam’s debut, Neva Again, releasing a remix and rarities collection Bootlegs & B-Sides at the end of the year. In 1995, he kept quiet, appearing in Singleton’s film Higher Learning and making amends with Dre on their duet ‘Natural Born Killaz’. The following year, he acted in the comedy Friday, which he wrote himself. He also formed Westside Connection with Mack 10 and WC, releasing their debut album, Bow Down, at the end of the year. It went gold within its first month of release. In the spring of 1997, Cube starred in the surprise hit horror film Anaconda. War & Peace, Vol. 1 (The War Disc) followed in 1998; its sequel, The Peace Disc, followed two years later.
Cube spent the next few years devoting his time to film. Three Kings, Ghosts of Mars, and the big hit Barbershopall appeared in theatres before the rapper returned to music with Westside Connection’s sophomore effort, Terrorist Threats, which appeared in 2003. Three years later he revived his barely used Lench Mobb label for his solo comeback album, Laugh Now, Cry Later. In the Movies, a compilation of soundtrack cuts was put together for a 2007 release. A year later he returned with Raw Footage, an album filled with Cube’s observations on politics along with the single ‘I Got My Locs On’ featuring special guest Young Jeezy. His 2010 effort I Am the West was a family affair, with his sons Doughboy and OMG making guest appearances.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine