O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson is the man.
Let’s not forget this.
This era is one in which a rapper can’t just be a rapper. These days they need to do it all. And let’s not forget the archetype. Let’s not forget who helped pioneer the idea that a rapper could express their art any which way they wanted. Ice Cube never dropped albums. He wrote and directed films that just happened to come in album form.
1991 Los Angeles is what we should be talking about. Cube, just 22 years old at the time, already had a platinum album with the Hip Hop equivalent of The Beatles, a platinum solo album even among their bloody split, received veiled threats from the FBI, had his image banned in select stores, and got his first starring role in a major motion picture. There was just something about LA at that time and Cube happened to be one of the few able to articulate it. Bubbling beneath the surface was some of the most prolific and influential sounds the genre has ever seen and one of the most catastrophic events in modern US history. What I’m saying is, before the LA Riots, there was Ice Cube and his art: vocalizing the day-to-day riot he and his city lived before it bubbled over and manifested itself in the form of fire and mass violence visible to the world.
Death Certificate is a movie. Rappers started incorporating skits, storylines, and other cinematic qualities in order to more properly convey a mood and Cube was one of those leading the charge. And it was effective. Just know that when suits talk about the dangers of “gangster rap”, the conversation essentially started with him. And while the label gangster rap devolved into a caricature of itself, it is important to understand the man behind it and the artistic genius it started with. He was on a mission. He had a picture to paint and Los Angeles was the color palette he had to work with. Prior to the riots, those colors looked like police brutality, mistrust in government officials, mistrust in one’s own community leaders, tensions among communities of color, an AIDS epidemic, a crack epidemic, a very palpable gang culture, and the growing prison industrial complex. He took those colors and clashed them with a new, more funky sound that would become a staple of the West Coast; not unlike the clash between the image of sunny California and the ugliness evidently below its surface. He spoke with an urgency, a youthful rage, and an old soul’s clarity. And thinking like a director, he couldn’t just leave it up to his words.
There are two characteristics of Hip Hop that keep it relevant and razor sharp in my eyes. This man excelled at both. For one, it is perhaps the last truly rebellious genre. Cube was one of its first rebels and going into this album from the way it was packaged to the way it was structured, his message is clear. From the get-go the cover features America laid dead in the morgue with Cube standing over it, a hand over his heart. Conceptually, the music itself comes with a storyline split into two chapters: the death side having to do with the above mentioned ills in America, and the life side having to do with what he saw as the solution. Though he didn’t do it politely, never held his tongue for even a second, and was never afraid to be imperfect. He embodied the menace that America created and was effective in getting America’s attention where others failed. The other characteristic of Hip Hop that keeps it thriving artistically is the fact that it has no boundaries. It can morph and bend into just about any form and while simultaneously releasing an album that sounds like a movie, Cube starred in Boyz N The Hood, a film that looked just like his music. Is he a rapper? Is he an actor? Cube helped make it so that those questions are irrelevant. He was just an artist giving a voice to the voiceless any way he could.
“Don’t wanna go out like Rodney King”, Cube rapped.
America has a lot of demons swept under the rug. Those demons often take the form of people, of words, or of actions and every once in awhile we get that clear glimpse. Before social media made it an everyday occurrence, racial injustice within the legal system all of a sudden had documented proof blind to no one. Yet it still made no difference, bursting the bubble of the American Dream on the world’s stage. Then in the early 90’s America’s demons took the form of the city of Los Angeles bursting into flames. However, before then, they came in the form of Ice Cube’s words, his sounds, his demeanor, and his imagery. He’s the man. And all I’m saying is some how, some way, that man managed to say what so many of us wish we could say out loud. Some how, some way, that man managed to use his art to call out the system and rigged it to where he made the system pay him for it.
Now that’s gangster.
Happy 26th Birthday, Death Certificate!