When he was a teenager back in the mid-1980s, O’Shea Jackson split his time between playing football for William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills, and writing his earliest rhymes as a South L.A. rapper named Ice Cube. He didn’t yet have a car, and his bus route to school involved making a pit stop on Hollywood Boulevard, where the now-storied rapper-actor will receive a star on the Walk of Fame on June 12.
“I had to catch the 210 bus down Crenshaw, then you would change buses in Hollywood,” Cube remembers. “And it’s dope, because I walked through Hollywood as a kid, trying to catch a bus to the Valley on my way to football practice. Now I’m gonna have a star there, and some kid like me, on his way to practice or whatever, is gonna see my name down there, and have hopes and dreams of getting theirs down there too.”
At 47, Cube insists “I still feel like a young man,” but his time in the business has stretched on for long enough that he can spend equal time taking stock of his career and chasing new ventures. It was roughly 30 years ago, after all, that the teenage Cube wrote “Boyz-n-the-Hood” for a first-time rapper named Eazy-E, planting the seeds for N.W.A. — a group that remains vital enough to have been the subject of a $202 million-grossing biopic two years ago, while also having become enough of an historical touchstone to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even as he’s seen his own life play out onscreen, he continues to be a regular presence in cinemas, having just signed on to star in “Before I Disappear,” from “Patriots Day” writer Josh Zetumer. A longtime sports nut who directed an ESPN “30 for 30” segment inspired by his love of the L.A. Raiders, Cube will also now attempt to dip his toes into sports moguldom later this month with the launch of Big 3, his nascent professional three-on-three basketball league (see sidebar).
And just last month, Cube announced the first major label music deal of his career, signing to Interscope Records. The deal was inaugurated last Friday with a re-release of Cube’s 1991 solo album, “Death Certificate.”
“It makes sense for a lot of reasons,” Cube says of the Interscope pact, after years of releasing albums through his indie imprint Lench Mob Records. “Interscope has always been on the cutting edge of what’s hot in music, so it’s cool to be associated with a label that’s done so much in hip-hop. And Interscope is in charge of a lot of my catalog masters, so to work closer made sense.
“As for Lench Mob, we still run it like an independent label, so it’s cool now to have dough from the big boys to get some of these new ideas out to the public.”
For anyone who knows Cube primarily through his film career and “It Was a Good Day,” discovering “Death Certificate” upon its re-release should offer a sharp shock to the system. Among the most controversial albums ever released, “Death Certificate” was recorded in the uneasy interim between the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots that followed, and saw Cube take on virtually all of the era’s most delicate issues with bomb-throwing indelicacy. The reissue includes three new songs, which Cube says “feel like they could’ve been made at the same time as the album; they have the same sonic vision and message.”
One of the few products of the gangsta rap boom that remains just as boundary-pushing as when it was first released, the racially charged “Death Certificate” is a complicated masterpiece. The nuanced social-ills screeds “A Bird in the Hand” and “Alive on Arrival” could apply just as powerfully to Donald Trump’s America as they did to Darryl Gates’ Los Angeles. “My Summer Vacation” is arguably the most vivid in Cube’s long catalog of story-songs, and “Steady Mobbin’” remains one of his most irreducible anthems. But then there’s the disturbingly vicious “Black Korea” and the nuclear-option diss track “No Vaseline” — songs for which the modern catchall term “problematic” seems hopelessly inadequate, and which at the time of the album’s release inspired widespread boycotts and bans everywhere from Billboard magazine to the entire state of Oregon.
“Oh, it’s raw,” Cube says with a small laugh. “But that’s what I love about that record. It criticizes all races, for the most part.”
He goes on to note: “I would hope a record like ‘Death Certificate’ has helped to enlighten people about how a lot of people felt when I released it in ’91, and understand about how some of the most militant in [the black] community still feel and why. The record is really meant to build understanding in a lot of ways, even though it’s pretty hardcore. So to see that we’re still going through some of these same issues, and to think that the record is probably going to piss off just as many people as it did when it was first released, that just lets you know where are as a society.
“‘Straight Outta Compton’ did the same thing,” he continues. “That record was talking about the ’80s, but with Ferguson and all the other protests and riots that happened, it feels so present. It’s not ancient history, it’s not even recent history. It’s today. And that’s an indictment on society, not the record.”
Asked if he looks back with any regret on some of his more incendiary rhymes from the album, Cube declines to second-guess his 22-year-old self.
“I always look at records as time capsules,” he says. “Everybody can look at a birthday cake and say ‘man, you went too far with the goddamn icing and candles and s–t.’ I don’t ever really look at it like that. It’s a piece of art, take it any way you feel. If you think I went too far, then I went too far. If you think I’m right on time, I’m right on time. If you feel like this is old news, it’s old news. It’s always subjective.”
The record certainly doesn’t feel like old news to L.A.’s new guard of MCs, especially Kendrick Lamar, whose anthem “Alright” has taken a place alongside N.W.A’s “F–k tha Police” at protest marches, and whose debut album’s centerpiece “m.A.A.d. City” saw the rapper — still in diapers when “Straight Outta Compton” was released — interpolate some key lines from “Death Certificate.” For his part, Cube is eager to co-sign some of his young heirs, whom he sees doing their part to return mainstream hip-hop to the socially engaged focus it once held.
“I love Kendrick and Schoolboy Q,” he says. “I think [their success] is really a sign of the times in some ways, about what kind of hip-hop is gonna be highlighted. When I came along, the founders of political rap were at the top of the heap. And then around ’94, it seemed like there was a conscious effort to bury conscious rap, in favor of escapism. It took on many forms, and it lasted a long time, like two decades. So I think people now are looking at it different.
“I think it actually started with Kanye doing a record like ‘Jesus Walks’ at the time he did, and as big as he got at the time. I think that was a significant record to let people know the content doesn’t have to be stuck in clubs, money, drinking, jewelry, excess. I think he did a lot to really get people to start thinking back to the essence of the game, which is trying to make sense of this crazy fucking planet.”
Cube, of course, has never seemed constrained by any sort of strict conscious-escapist dichotomy, moving from the furious yet essentially youthful mischief of N.W.A to the dead-serious political bellicosity of his early solo work, to the more club-friendly crossover songs and Westside Connection anthems that followed. Yet he knows on which side of that divide his legacy rests.
“You don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” he says, “but the stuff that’s more provocative usually lasts longer in your system than ‘We Be Clubbin’. The things that are talking about social issues, that hit home, are gonna be the records that endear people the most. It’s why people love Bob Marley. He has his love songs too, but I don’t think he’s Bob Marley because of that. Like I don’t think I’d be Ice Cube because I said ‘you can do it, put your back into it.’”
|“Even a movie like ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ has to be independently done. It’s a shame studios never see the value in doing those movies until after they’re done, when it blows up at some f–king festival.”|
As a Hollywood figure, the disparity between Cube’s lyrical content and his increasingly kid-friendly film roles has always raised eyebrows, but his film career evolved as an illustrative mirror image of his music career: Much like his development as a lyricist, he pursued movies without an obvious model, and without waiting for permission.
When he started writing rhymes, there was little precedent for a teenager from South L.A. breaking into the cliquish, New York-dominated hip-hop world. There was even less precedent for an uber-controversial MC writing and producing feature films, but after a nudge from John Singleton — who had cast Cube as Doughboy in his “Boyz n the Hood” — Cube bought a computer and started trying to write a screenplay. His first two attempts were nonstarters, but his third, a comedy written alongside hip-hop producer DJ Pooh, had potential. He recruited F. Gary Gray, who’d recently shot his “It Was a Good Day” video, as a director, and after selling the concept to New Line, these green, early-twentysomething filmmakers were given a small budget and free rein to make the film as they saw fit. The result was “Friday,” which grossed nearly eight times its budget in 1995, and set both men off on their respective Hollywood careers.
“Friday” spawned two sequels, the first of four franchises that Cube originated — along with the “Barbershop,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Ride Along” films — and he’s already prepping a third.
“I’ve been meeting with DJ Pooh, and we’re just getting ideas in a row, then we’ll start contacting actors and really start to see who’s down to do it,” he says. “And then we’ll start writing. It’s a process, but at least we’re starting the process, and New Line is into it and ready to go.”
Nonetheless, he can’t help but bemoan the comparably limited opportunities for untested filmmakers to sell outside-the-box projects today. He offers praise for such producers as Joe Roth and Universal chief Donna Langley — who shepherded “Compton,” and whom he referred to as “the sixth member of N.W.A” at the film’s world premiere — but otherwise sees a risk-averse Hollywood landscape, with studios content to leave interesting projects on the table.
“We’re in such a crazy time right now, because all everybody wants to do is hit a home run,” he says. “Doubles, even doubles that can turn into triples, don’t count so much anymore in Hollywood, and it’s a shame, because we’re here to entertain the people and give them what they want. Everybody don’t like superheroes, and comic books, and monsters. Some people want real stories about real people doing real things. And we’re losing the ability to do that in a major way.
“That’s why I’m glad ‘Straight Outta Compton’ performed, because it’s a real movie about real people, doing incredible things. It takes passionate people to keep trying to push those kinds of movies to get them over. Because even a movie like ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ that kind of movie has to be independently done. It’s a shame studios never see the value in doing those movies until after they’re done, when it blows up at some f–king festival.”
As an actor, Cube has tried his hand at arthouse pics (David O. Russell’s “Three Kings”) and off-the-wall action (“xXx: State of the Union”), but he’s found his greatest success in comedy. That doesn’t mean he isn’t looking to stretch, however, and he reveals he still has a few white whale roles he’s chasing as a movie star.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for that Charles Bronson ‘Death Wish’ kinda action-drama role,” he says. “But as a black actor, I feel like you have to follow your trajectory. If you’re doing good in comedy, you gotta do a few of them before you switch it up. Especially if you’re trying to be a lead actor. I’ll still support, but I’m not trying to be a support in every damn movie I do. I feel like I’m a lead actor, and sometimes you gotta wait for your spot.”