The Original Gangsta: Ice Cube on 25 Years of ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,’ Kendrick Lamar, and Cops

The street-smart solo rapper and N.W.A. frontman dishes on his hip-hop career, which MCs he respects, police brutality, and why he’s still angry after all these years.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

In 1990, Ice Cube was standing at the crossroads of his still-young career. Money disputes had led to his departure from seminal rap group N.W.A., and it wasn’t as if all of hip-hop was expecting solo greatness from the raging young rapper. But what Cube ultimately delivered was one of the fiercest hip-hop albums ever made, a harsh glimpse into the experiences of a young, black man from Compton, California, set against a sonic backdrop of vicious beats and earsplitting funk.

N.W.A. had put Compton on the map two years earlier with their 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. But where that classic focused on hedonism and machismo, Cube’s solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, offered a more insightful and fully-developed portrait of a misunderstood and marginalized culture. Cube’s acclaimed and controversial first album is 25 now, and with a biopic about his legendary former group set to hit theaters this summer, Cube reflects on those days and admits that his time in N.W.A. was always a mixed blessing.

“The members of the group wasn’t as political as me,” he explains. “They didn’t really want to talk about all of these different angles that we were faced with. They wanted to just talk about street shit. Street shit is cool, but you’ve gotta understand why you’re street. You’ve got to understand where it’s coming from. Why do we act the way that we act? There’s a source for that. I was a big fan of Public Enemy, who explored all of that. I wanted to do the same thing.”

All this time later, Cube has love for his former bandmates (“A lot of people don’t understand that this was a brotherhood. It was more than a group.”), but it’s well-documented why he had to go his own way. As almost any hip-hop fan knows, Cube was the primary writer for N.W.A. and solo star Eazy E, but he received meager compensation for his work on two multiplatinum albums, the aforementioned …Compton and Eazy’s Eazy-Duz-It. His grievances led to a refusal to sign a new contract with Ruthless Records founders Eazy and Jerry Heller (also the group’s manager.)

Cube broke from N.W.A. shortly thereafter, but was shocked to learn that there was animosity towards him from his former bandmates and friends. He realized how deep the rift was immediately after he’d signed a solo deal with Priority Records and started planning his first album.

“There was definitely pressure,” says Cube. “I’d just left N.W.A. and a lot of people didn’t think I’d made the right decision. There wasn’t even a guarantee that [Priority] wanted me to do a solo record. But once I locked that in, it was all about finding the producers.”

His first choice? His longtime friend and former N.W.A. bandmate Dr. Dre.

“I wanted Dre to do the record, but he got vetoed by Ruthless. Jerry and Eazy was not feeling that. So I had to stop and rethink it,” he shares. Cube goes on to say that, despite the split, he initially didn’t think Dre would distance himself just because of Cube’s problems with Ruthless Records.

“My problem was with Jerry and Eazy. Me and Dre was still friends, still cool, and we’d started off together. He was still the best producer I knew. I didn’t think the business part would even have anything to do with the music. I thought our friendship was going to continue and we were going to keep doing music. But that wasn’t the case.”

N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton"

Cube wound up flying to New York at the behest of Def Jam’s Lyor Cohen, who’d set up a meeting with producer Sam Sever. Sever was coming off of success with Def Jam stars 3rd Bass—he’d produced the bulk of their debut, The Cactus Album—and Cohen believed Sever would be great for Ice Cube. Sever flaked on the meeting, however, and as a dejected Cube was getting ready to head back to the West Coast, he ran into Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. “Chuck told me he was working on a song called ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ with Big Daddy Kane and [asked] would I jump on it,” Cube says. “And when I did that, I was able to talk to the Bomb Squad.”

The Bomb Squad was the legendary production team behind P.E.’s lauded first three albums, and they wound up handling the bulk of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.

Released in May 1990, Cube’s solo debut became a critical and commercial success, turning him into hip-hop’s most outspoken and controversial voice as a new decade dawned. The rage in Cube’s perspective was matched by his wit, storytelling, and knack for commentary, with the album supplying some much-needed context for the gangsta posturing that had become associated with West Coast hip-hop at the time. He mixed breakdowns of street life (“Once Upon A Time In the Projects”) with takedowns of racist police (“Endangered Species”), often with staggering insight or glimpses of dark humor. Despite Ice Cube having become a star in N.W.A., AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted announced his ascendance as a force in the culture.

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From there, he continued to deliver ambitious and compelling LPs like the uber-classic Death Certificate (recorded after Cube’s conversion to Islam in 1991) and his best-seller The Predator (recorded in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and 1992 L.A. riots), eventually charting crossover hits like “Check Yo Self” and the ever-present “It Was A Good Day.” Cube’s commentary covered a wide range of social ills plaguing black communities—from the racism of non-black grocery owners in the hood to the racism that created a “hood” in the first place.

Cube’s music was angry and analytical—and sometimes alienating. At times empowering of community or slamming racist and corrupt institutions, his lyrics could also be deeply misogynistic and homophobic in even his best-known songs, like “You Can’t Fade Me” or “Check Yo Self.” He eventually lapsed into late ’90s rap indulges such as an ill-suited party music phase that yielded empty radio hits like “We Be Clubbin’” and “You Can Do It.”

Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day"

As his focus shifted in the mid-’90s to Hollywood and his gangsta supergroup Westside Connection, he was supplanted in notoriety and influence by contemporaries like 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. But his visibility never waned; he became more globally famous on the heels of hit movies and high-profile commercial endorsements. The music documented much of his evolution—from street-smart gangsta signifier to Islamic convert to multimedia brand-builder. He’s a hip-hop elder statesman now, and with all that he’s done and written about, Cube’s view on the current racial unrest in America is fairly pragmatic.

“I understand how America works, how capitalism works,” he says. “It’s a pyramid system. And we’re relegated to the bottom of that system. So being that, they think they can do and treat us any kind of way. It’s really up to us to stand up for our own rights and dig ourselves off that bottom. I’m not surprised that we’re dealing with the same situations because I know that the enemy that we’re dealing with is the same one that we dealt with in 1990 or 1991 or 1985. I’m not surprised at all.”

And Cube is encouraged by those artists who have taken up the torch for outspoken, thoughtful hip-hop.

“People love artists who put more than rap into their music—they put thoughts, knowledge, reality, suggestions,” he says. “People respond to those artists the most, more than the ones with the pop hits. The pop hits are cool but people want that real shit. People want that good shit. That to me is the most important thing. With Kendrick [Lamar], he’s really displaying that. He’s showing that, even though he has the pop hits, he’s a much deeper artist with much deeper intellect than the norm. And that’s why he’s extraordinary.”

“And I love Killer Mike,” Cube adds succinctly. “Killer Mike is the realest emcee that hip-hop has got right now. He never wavered.”

Now, with a bevy of hit movies, TV shows, and endorsement deals, Cube is a firmly established institution in the world of entertainment. He’s never stopped making music, and a lot of that music is still angry and critical—even though to younger music fans, he’s known more as a mogul than the incendiary rapper that helped define a generation. But Ice Cube doesn’t believe he has to choose between being one or the other. And fuck anyone who asks him to.

“They stupid,” is his response to critics who claim a multimillionaire entrepreneur can’t be angry anymore. “Why? I’m still black. I don’t get it no better than nobody else. I still got shit that hurts—it hurts my soul, it hurts my identity. And I need to make music about it. So just because you’ve got money—hell, dope dealers are rich—that don’t mean you don’t have the same passion.”