Twenty years ago, racial tensions were running high in this country after white Los Angeles cops brutalized a black man named Rodney King on grainy video then walked free, inspiring forceful, and ultimately fiery, protests.
The King beating inspired a wide swath of art, but none has endured like the response of an intense young rapper named Ice Cube.
The three Cube albums released after the King beating—Death Certificate, The Predator and Lethal Injection—make the case for a new militant Black Power movement. The records blend the gangsta ethos of Cube's earliest work with the explosive politics of Louis Farrakhan and harsh commentary on an ongoing national drama into a Molotov cocktail we haven't seen before or since. Even today, you'd be hard-pressed to find music that can match the raw fury.
Because American history tends to repeat itself, these artifacts of the Crystal Pepsi era have seemed increasingly relevant since the Michael Brown homicide. Which is why we're so excited to see Cube perform on the waterfront this weekend.
To tell the story of how Ice Cube grew from a teenager writing "reality raps" for N.W.A. into a feared and respected political figure marching through Lollapalooza surrounded by bow-tied bodyguards, we looked to an upcoming book about the history of West Coast gangsta rap by former LA Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff, titled Original Gangstas. In the section excerpted below, Westhoff looks at Cube's first years after leaving N.W.A., establishing himself as not just a solo star, but an unorthodox voice of African-American protest. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Ice Cube wasn't your standard civil rights activist. He started off as a bratty kid who said things to provoke a reaction out of people, like when he performed naughty cover songs at Skateland, a Compton skating rink. But calling out racist attitudes on tracks like "Fuck tha Police" got attention, too, and had itself become marketable, as evidenced by the millions of records he was selling. Amerikkka's Most Wanted, his 1990 solo debut after leaving N.W.A., cemented the idea that it was possible to be successful while simultaneously fighting for what he believed in.
Many members of the Los Angeles hip-hop community expressed their anger or made songs in response to the Rodney King beating in 1991, but Cube was particularly methodical about expressing his outrage. Some of his older siblings had been involved in protests surrounding the Watts riots in 1965, he said, and activism ran in his veins. "All black people are going to be faced with things like that, until we are where we are supposed to be in this society," he said. "So every few generations are going to look to protests in that manner, if things don't change."
He also understood the philosophical divide between two forms of protest: the nonviolent, epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr., and the "by any means necessary" approach popularized by Malcolm X. Cube made it clear which side he came down on. "I saw pictures of my family in the streets with picket signs—'Nonviolent Movement'—getting beat and getting wet with a water hose and getting lynched. Now, a nonviolent movement, that's as peaceful as you can get and this country did that to them," he told Creem.
Despite continuing their anti-police rhetoric in his absence, N.W.A. became even more apolitical after Cube left. Its members wanted little to do with the ideals of black empowerment. Cube's new affiliates Da Lench Mob, however, walked in lockstep with him. The South Central-based crew chose their name hoping it could serve a dual purpose—both to intimidate and appropriate a term describing violent atrocities committed against black Americans. They were rappers, activists, and tough dudes you shouldn't fuck with, all at the same time.
The original crew had more than a dozen members. Eventually Da Lench Mob gelled as a three-person group, consisting of Cube's childhood 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. T‑Bone was a graphic artist who'd gone to school in the Valley with Cube, but J‑Dee and Shorty were tatted‑up Crips. The trio made for an intimidating presence.
They got shouted out on "Jackin' for Beats," a 1990 track from Cube's Kill at Will EP. Produced by Chilly Chill, the song features Cube rapping over hot instrumentals from the era, including Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance." The EP saw Cube's songwriting skills continue to advance, particularly on the atmospheric "Dead Homiez," about the funeral of a murdered former classmate. Why is that the only time black folks get to ride in a limo?… A single file line about fifty cars long / All driving slow with they lights on.
After leaving N.W.A., Cube started his own production outfit, Street Knowledge Records. Masterminded along with Patricia Charbonnet, its goal was to release his music and that of new artists. Headquarters were a drab South Central building in the heart of Rollin' 60s gang territory. Inside was quite comfortable, with a big television, a top-of-the-line preproduction studio, and Cube's office. Label affiliates would come and go at all hours of the day and night, either to brainstorm ideas, or simply because the streets got too hot. "That was like our fortress," Shorty said. Cube fostered a stable of artists, including Yo‑Yo, who founded an activist group called Intelligent Black Women's Coalition, which challenged hip‑hop sexism.
On Cube's roster was Watts rapper Kam, who combined a street mentality with a Muslim's discipline. He developed an interest in the Nation of Islam through the music of Public Enemy and Trenton, N.J., group Poor Righteous Teachers. "I never heard anybody rap like that," J‑Dee said. "I stopped eating red meat and pork because of Kam."
Cube grew up in the Baptist church, but he took to the Nation's teachings, particularly the idea that it was up to blacks to take back their power and dignity from white suppressors. He was introduced to Farrakhan's teachings from a Public Enemy affiliate called Drew. One Saviours' Day—when Nation members celebrate the birthday of founder Wallace Fard—he flew into Chicago to watch Farrakhan speak, and Farrakhan invited him to dinner afterward at his Hyde Park home, which is called "the Palace" and is the former residence of deceased Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. It's not far from the Nation's headquarters, called Mosque Maryam, a grand complex topped by the star and crescent symbol, which was purchased in the eighties with a multimillion-dollar loan from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Cube began speaking publicly on the Nation's ideals and, on his twenty‑second birthday, in 1991, Kam performed a symbolic baptism of sorts, exorcising Cube of the "toxins" in his hair, following in the advice of black pride advocates like Marcus Garvey. Aided by Nation captain Shaheed Muhammad, he cut off Cube's Jheri curl.
Still, you never saw Cube in a bow tie. He never officially joined the Nation. Though Cube still professes love for Islam—Me and Allah go back like cronies / I don't got to be fake, 'cause he is my homie, he rapped in 2008—religion is not his thing. "All I know is, it's one God," Cube told me. "Religion is man-made, it's flawed. I don't follow nobody. I follow my own conscience."
The first years of the nineties were extraordinarily action-packed and consequential for Cube. It wasn't just music. In February 1991 he and Kim Woodruff had their first child—O'Shea Jr., who would portray his father twenty‑four years later in the film Straight Outta Compton.
Owing to the glacial speed of royalty payments, Cube wasn't seeing sufficient money coming in. Preparing for his Kill at Will EP, he was counting on an advance from Priority to buy his family a house, but instead received a "bullshit excuse."
And so, Cube did what we'd all like to do when our bosses jerk us around. Just a few days after his son's birth, he grabbed a baseball bat and his fearsome associates J‑Dee and Shorty. They headed over to Priority's offices in Hollywood.
Cube smashed an old television and other items. "I had an aluminum bat," Cube said on Behind the Music. "It was bent when I left." Cube and his crew soon stormed out, but not before smashing gold and platinum plaques in the lobby.
It wasn't, perhaps, as terrorizing as it seems. "I swear to God, man, I remember him looking around the room trying to look for something to break that wasn't too expensive," Priority Records cofounder Bryan Turner told Rolling Stone.
In the end, Cube's outburst had its intended effect: He got his money, and was able to buy a home in Baldwin Hills.
Ice Cube toured regularly in the early nineties, and his shows from this era featured giant images of nooses, twirling electric chairs, and, at his Lollapalooza dates in 1992, pointed disses of then-President George H. W. Bush. Members of the Nation of Islam's paramilitary arm, Fruit of Islam, were often on hand to keep order. Cube already had a robust security team—guys with names like Big Tom, Zulu Ed, and Big Cal—but he couldn't be too safe, considering that everyone from the federal government to his former labelmates had it in for him. T‑Bone and Shorty both say their crew fielded death threats.
Tour stops would go something like this: Cube and his partners would arrive in town, and then head over to the local mosque, where they were treated like royalty. The city's Nation of Islam members would arrange for them to get some food, either at a local restaurant or a nice home-cooked meal at one of the sisters' homes.
A security detail would be organized, involving either plainclothes bodyguards or Fruit of Islam members wearing suits and steel-toe boots, or both. Starting at soundcheck the team would be on hand, and while the concert was going on the plainclothes team might be spread out secretly among the audience. "They would have the free run of the building," said Sir Jinx, a close friend of Cube's who produced many of his albums. "They moved like the military—they were not playing."
Afterward, while the performers went from the venue to the tour bus, the Fruit of Islam made a diamond shape around them; four men on each diagonal slant, with Cube, Da Lench Mob, and their associates in the middle. "That shit looked militant," J‑Dee said. "You might have thought they were escorting Farrakhan himself."
While on tour, Cube also functioned as something of a disciplinarian and study-group leader. During their free time he helmed sessions about Nation-endorsed texts like Elijah Muhammad's Message to the Blackman in America and Carter Woodson's The Mis-Education of the Negro, or listen to audio of Saviours' Day speeches given by Farrakhan. Cube also had a strict rule: No drinking before shows, though afterward they might have some St. Ides and talk about how to improve the next concert.
As for the Muslim prohibition on drinking alcohol? The devout Shorty had a crisis of conscience after Da Lench Mob signed on for a St. Ides commercial, for the rate of $30,000. He opted not to do the spot, but his colleagues cut him in for $4,000 of the money anyway, which he gave to the Nation.
The idea of a corporation co-opting the cool new black artform to sell swill to the inner cities upset more than a few people. On Public Enemy's 1991 song "1 Million Bottlebags" Chuck D rhymed: Watch shorty get sicker / Year after year, while he's thinkin' it's beer / But it's not he got it in his gut. That same year Chuck D filed a lawsuit against McKenzie River, after a St. Ides ad sampled his voice from the group's song "Bring the Noise." (In response the company—claiming they hadn't realized Chuck D's voice was being used, since the commercial was produced independently—promptly pulled it.)
That same spot featured Cube's voice. He, more than anyone else, had become the face of the malt liquor; his character Doughboy gives it serious product placement in Boyz n the Hood, as well. As Cube told The Source in 1991, he spoke to Nation of Islam minister Khalid Muhammad about the issue, who agreed that the whole enterprise was against their values. "But we gotta use them as a stepping-stone, we gotta use them to build our nation," Cube said they concluded. It helped that McKenzie River agreed to donate $100,000 to community projects of his choosing. "How else could the black community come up with $100,000 to help an organization?"
This thinking represents Cube in a nutshell: always doing bad in order to do good.
Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap is out September 13 through Hatchette Books.
Ice Cube plays Saturday at 8:10 pm.
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