Monday, June 18, 2007

Q&A: Ice Cube (pt. 1)

No doubt about it, one of the most influential albums of the last 20 years was N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.”

American pop culture is still bedeviled by the commodification of the word “nigga,” and the glamorization of an insanely violent street-gang lifestyle, pioneered by this one rap group.

Meanwhile, N.W.A.’s standout lyricist and rapper – Ice Cube – has moved on to a prosperous Hollywood career as an actor, producer and screenwriter. Who would’ve guessed?

I interviewed Ice Cube by phone in August of 1989, and I was kind of impressed with the young man. I’m happy to present that conversation here, for whatever historical value it may have.
DAVID MILLS: I talked to the head of the national Fraternal Order of Police. They passed a resolution at their convention condemning and boycotting any band that advocates assaults on the police. It originally was aimed at N.W.A. because of “Fuck tha Police.”

The head of that group – he’s a white guy – said: What if he went around saying “Fuck niggers” or stuff about black people that you say about cops? He said that would be crazy, and nobody would stand for it. Is that the way you look at it?

ICE CUBE: Well, black people aren’t public figures like police. Black people aren’t here to serve and protect. So when you get some police out there – We’re not talking about all police, you know. So you’ve got to get that right. We’re not talking about all police.

But there are some police that just don’t give a fuck. They figure they got a gun and a badge and they can treat you any kind of way.

MILLS: But do you make that distinction in the song? Cops think the song advocates assaulting any police officer.

CUBE: Okay, you got to look at the kids now. Just because a kid hears a song, that don’t mean he’s going to take action. A song is a song. Just like if I made a song called, uh, “Fuck Your Mother.” You think the kids are gonna go out and beat up their mother? For a rap song?

MILLS: Uhhh...

CUBE: Kids and police don’t always get along, you know. ’Cause police feel that, since you’re a kid, you don’t know your rights, and they feel like they can treat you, if you’re in a certain neighborhood, any kind of way.

MILLS: What about when it comes to shootin’ ’em?

CUBE: Shootin’ ’em?

MILLS: When Eazy-E says, “Without a gun and a badge, what do you got? A sucker in a uniform waitin’ to get shot by me or another nigger. And with a gat it don’t matter if he’s smaller or bigger.” How does that not make it sound cool to shoot a cop, or to think about shooting cops?

CUBE: Everybody has thought about doing something crazy in their life. Everybody’s been standing in a bank one day and said, “Damn, if I robbed this bank, boy, I’d have a hell of a lot of money.” That got to go through people’s mind. It’s just like getting steam off your chest type of thing.

MILLS: I see. Things that go through your mind, basically.

CUBE: Yeah. It’s like if your girl is messing up. You say, “Man, I’mo kill that bitch.” You’re just saying it. You wouldn’t go out and do it. We’re just talking about how we feel sometimes when we be getting treated a certain way.

Like when we get slammed on the ground – this still happens – get slammed on the ground by a police half your size, and the only thing he got is a gun and a badge. That’s the only thing that’s keeping you from whipping this motherfucker’s ass....

MILLS: But why is he throwing you on the pavement?

CUBE: For the simple fact you won’t let him talk to you any kind of way. ’Cause see, when police talk to me crazy, I talk to ’em crazy right back. I’m like, “Yo, man, all you got is this badge and this gun. And yo, I know what rights I got. Why don’t you just talk to me right and I’ll talk to you right?”

“Oh, you’re a smart-ass, huh?” Then they get you and they try to muscle you. Fuck that.

If something happened in this neighborhood right here that I’m living in, the last person people would call is the police, if they think they’re going to get something done. If somebody got shot around here, the only way they’d call the police is to get a report, because the police ain’t gonna do shit.

MILLS: How come?

CUBE: They don’t give a fuck! They don’t care if niggers kill niggers. They could care less.

MILLS: Well, by listening to your lyrics like “Gangsta, Gangsta,” some people probably think you’re the one who doesn’t give a fuck if niggers kill niggers.

CUBE: No, that’s not the case. I just call it how I see it. If these motherfuckers want to kill up each other, yo, as long as they don’t fuck with me. That’s how I think. Because the shit that’s happening out here is stupid shit. But if you sit up there and say, “Don’t do this” –

See, kids tend to shy away from somebody who’s chastising ’em or telling ’em what to do. They feel like they’re old enough or they’re individuals. You know, their momma tell ’em what to do, teachers tell ’em what to do, people in the community tell ’em what to do, police tell ’em what to do. So when they go to party, they don’t want somebody saying what they already done heard a million times.

So that’s why we don’t take a stand as “Stop the Violence” or “Start the Violence.” We just call ’em like we see ’em. Like in “Gangsta, Gangsta.” Since nobody showed this gang problem from the right point of view, we did the song from the gang member’s point of view.

MILLS: But do you blame people for being upset – adults, parents, community leaders, ministers – for freaking out when they hear that?

CUBE: No, because those type of people, they like to sweep shit under the rug and pretend that shit’s not happening. If nobody talks about it, what is it gonna do, go away?

Like the people of the city of Compton ask us, “Why you guys never say nothing good about Compton?”

MILLS: And what do you say?

CUBE: I say, “Uh, you tell me something good about Compton.” Then they say, “Well, there’s nice residences and nice areas in here.”

Any area is subject to get hit at any time. I call it Vietnam. Any time you stand outside talking to your buddies at night, you’re taking a chance of some fool rolling through and shooting at you.

MILLS: So if that’s the case, and you as a writer – as a creative person and a thinking person – you don’t feel a responsibility to not just tell the story, but to put it in a sort of context so that people know what to do to solve the problem or to deal with the problem?

CUBE: I’m not no crusader here. They always think that if you’re a rapper and you’re a writer, you’ve got the answers. We call ourselves underground street reporters. We just tell it how we see it, nothing more, nothing less.

Here’s why we tell it like it is, with no shorts. ’Cause if the kids see it on the street, it ain’t nobody there to jump in front of them and say, “Wait. That wasn’t the right way to happen.” If a kid is standing outside, some fools roll by and shoot somebody he know, that’s all he see. It ain’t nobody there to justify it or to water that down. That’s what you see.

And if I teach you something you don’t know, I feel that’s positive. ...

MILLS: I still don’t quite know where you’re coming from. Are you guys gangsters? Are you celebrating gangsterism?

CUBE: Naw, that ain’t the case. We just tell the raw facts. They talk about N.W.A. glorifying gangsters when Hollywood’s been doing that for years. But they don’t come down on nothing like that because that’s millions of dollars. When you got a movie like “Scarface,” or a movie talking about Al Capone, and how they glorify them people –

MILLS: But they always get killed in the end. Good always triumphs.

CUBE: You know that don’t always happen. If everybody did records and all we talked about was the joys of life, and on TV all they showed was rainbows and pastel colors and some shit, kid go out and get his head blown off and don’t know why.

It’s a hard life out there, I’m sorry to say. I ain’t the one that made it hard, but I’m the one that lived it. I’m the one that saw or heard about half the shit I’m talking about.

MILLS: So give me an example of some lyrics you wrote that didn’t just tell what was happening but provided some understanding of why it happened. Instead of just saying, “Hey, Ren, let’s start some shit,” and then a fight breaks out because somebody bumps into somebody.

CUBE: See, sometimes I take the raps I do into the first person and just say “me,” because people can relate to it if I say “me” instead of if I say “John Doe”; then, people be like, “How do you know?”

So it’s just how some brothers think out there. They don’t give a fuck. They don’t give a fuck. You gotta watch yourself. That’s why, in the beginning of “Gangsta, Gangsta,” you hear somebody saying, “I wonder what these gangsters are up to now?” Being nosy got his ass shot. “I wonder who they’re fuckin’ with now?” They stop: “You, motherfucker.” (machine-gun noise)

MILLS: And how is the listener supposed to react?

CUBE: The listeners? They’re supposed to listen and like the shit for the simple fact that they see that type of shit all the time.

You know what you got to do? Come down and live in L.A.’s Nickerson Gardens in Watts for one month. If you did that, you would understand all my records. If you lived in Cabrini-Green in Chicago, you would understand all my records. If you lived in Harlem or Brooklyn or the Bronx, you would understand all my records.

MILLS: But when you sell a million records, you’re not just selling to people in Cabrini-Green or Nickerson Gardens. I just had somebody tell me today – she goes to college in Pomona, and white kids will have “Gangsta, Gangsta” pumping out of their dormitory windows.

CUBE: Here’s what kicks in on that. If you watch TV and they say “Iran is fighting Iraq” or “There’s a bombing in Lebanon,” you don’t live there, but you want to know what’s going on.

[Our white fans] might not live it, but they want to know what’s going on, because they’re always told, “Hey, don’t go on this side of town.” “Why?” “They’ll kill you over there.”

So it’s like a fuckin’ docudrama or something. Audio docudrama, that’s what it is.



Bryan Wilhite said...

Ice Cube lived in the projects? Do you have photographs of that? My understanding is that he is an actor and his father still works at UCLA.

Undercover Black Man said...

Hey Bryan. He said he was living in Nickerson Gardens, which is a rough one. But if he was bullshitting me, I wouldn't be too shocked.

SJ said...

Here's what his Wikipedia page says:

"Ice Cube was born as O'Shea Jackson to Doris Benjamin, a hospital clerk, and Andrew Jackson, a machinist and groundskeeper, both of whom came from the South. He was raised in South Central Los Angeles. At sixteen, he developed an interest in hip hop music, and began writing raps while attending school at Taft High School. He attended the Phoenix Institute of Technology in the fall of 1987, and studied Architectural Drafting"

I wonder how "gangsta" this guy really is.


Undercover Black Man said...

^ He's un-"gangsta" enough to prosper in the straight world, and I bow down to him for that. Fuck the gangsta shit.

Eric said...

I blame NWA for ruining rap. (I know, it's unfair, but that's how I feel.) Gangsta rap's been creatively spent for at least 10 years, but it's continued dominance has sucked the oxygen out of hip-hop and the rest of the music industry.

And while Eazy-E was my least favorite member of NWA, I blame Ice Cube for personally ruining "Burn Hollywood Burn."

Undercover Black Man said...

You're totally right, Eric, in terms of sucking oxygen out of the room. Hip-hop had so much going on between, like, '88 and '93... Remember Das-EFX? Arrested Development? Poor Righteous Teachers? Digital Underground? Grand Puba? MC Lyte? Jungle Brothers?

"Straight Outta Compton" may have been the first crippling body shot, but Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" was the powerful right hook that put the Golden Age of Hip-Hop down for the count.

justjudith said...

^i personally miss a tribe called quest and public enemy. i never was into nwa although i liked cube's solo work. since we're questioning gangsta cred -- how much of a gangsta was tupac? he was in a performing arts school in baltimore as was big boi when he was in high school in georgia. you have to wonder how many of these cats are frontin' -- but what does that make us for buying it? maybe more rappers are storytellers and we just need them to be these roles in order to make ourselves more comfortable listening. i know i'm digressing...blame it on the herbal tea.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ I definitely should've mentioned Tribe and PE. Dang, we don't know what we got until it's gone... Hip-hop was thrilling in those days!

The whole "street cred" issue is what's so psychologically poisonous about gangsta-ism as entertainment. You get people trying to prove a point, or beefing over bullshit... when it's all supposed to be about show business.

itainteazy said...

I don't really want to blame NWA for the decline of hip-hop, I just treat it as just another relevant facet of the genre back in the day, whether you like it or not. But as you all said, white kids started listening, and the record executives saw a type of rap that will get them money, and the rest is history.

steve said...

First of FUcking all tupac was crazy rap would be diffrent if he was still alive today he got shot 5 times n lived ... and he was a crazy rapper Noone could do wat tupac did .. n NWA was crazy dont even talk shit n like wtf u think they carry cameras around with them why the fuck would they lie about where they grew up

Undercover Black Man said...

Bryan, you know what? After reading closely what Ice Cube said, I think it might've been wrong all these years... I might've jumped to a conclusion. He doesn't say he was living in Nickerson Garders. I kind of conflated two different quotes together in my minds...

So, forget what I said above. I'll go in and take that out of the blog post too.