Ice Cube has traveled a long, strange road from incendiary controversy magnet to kiddie favorite, from Straight Outta Compton to Are We Done Yet? While still in his teens, he forever changed pop music as a core member of N.W.A. 1989's Straight Outta Compton instantly transformed the group into icons, but after a falling out with Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller over money, Cube left N.W.A. to go solo. He subsequently hooked up with The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's production team, and released AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, the first of a series of provocative, controversial classic solo albums he released before shifting his focus to film in the mid-'90s.
Cube paved the way for an entire generation of rappers-turned-actors with a critically acclaimed performance in John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood. In 1995, he co-wrote the stoner classic Friday, which launched Chris Tucker's career and spawned two sequels. Ice Cube continues to act, produce, and write films, while releasing albums independently. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the venerable hip-hop veteran about mellowing out, the N.W.A. reunion, mainstream acceptance, and whether he's still one of AmeriKKKa's most wanted.
The A.V. Club: Does it make you feel old when people say "I grew up listening to your music"?
Ice Cube: In a way, yeah. You know what I'm saying? But I grew up listening to my music. I know I ain't too old. I always think of my fans about 10 years older and 10 years younger than me.
AVC: What's it like to win multiple lifetime achievement awards when you're still in your 30s?
IC: Well, you know, that's strange too, and I always tell 'em, "I hope you all give out two of these. I'll take this one now and the next one later."
AVC: Your new film hasn't screened for critics yet. What can you say about it?
IC: Basically, it's me and Tracy Morgan being crazy enough to rob a church. You know what I'm saying? And that's kind of where the laughs come, but it also switches tones in a lot of ways, with social commentary and all. What does the church owe the community, and what does the community owe to the church? It raises a lot of questions about money, and going and trying to be a bigger church, and staying in the neighborhood that built you. So it starts talking about things like that too, and it's wrapped up in all these hilarious characters, like Katt Williams. So me, Tracy, and Katt just kind of wrap this whole thing up and make it fun, but also say things that need to be said.
AVC: Do you think the church exploits the poor?
IC: I think there's always skepticism about everybody's motives. You know, are they helping the poor, or are they poverty pimps? The church is there to uplift the community, to uplift the spirits of a down community, and people pay for that, you know? To have their spirits uplifted. People shouldn't take advantage of that.
AVC: In the pre-Civil-War days, religion was used to reinforce the morality of slavery. So there is a very long, complicated history of mixed messages from the church.
IC: These are questions people have in the back of they minds, you know, even maybe about their own church. So we were able to raise these questions but have fun with it, and not make it a drag.
AVC: You were one of the first rappers to produce, direct, and write your own films. Do you think that was to some degree a reaction to the things you went through with Jerry Heller and N.W.A., of feeling like you didn't have control?
IC: No. I mean, I was fine with that, I had Dr. Dre producing. Who wants to take control from him in the studio? He was a smart businessman. The dumbest move we made was trusting Jerry Heller. So I wasn't worried about that, I was just worried about fair play. I was concerned with getting what I'm owed. Nothing more, nothing less. When I got into Hollywood, what I realized was, there weren't many people out here like me that's making movies. So I pretty much wasn't going to be able to get them movies I wanted made unless I tried to make them myself.
AVC: You didn't want to wait for roles to come to you.
IC: Yeah. Most actors have to sit by the phone and wait for somebody to call them up to audition and stuff. I don't think I can exist in Hollywood just on that. I think I need to be proactive and making sure that things I really want to do are being developed to the point where somebody wants to make them? As well as doing movies like XXX or Three Kings. Something that my company had nothing to do with but I still like the material. As an actor, I was able to jump into it.
AVC: What happened with the N.W.A. reunion?
IC: Once we started working on that, we all went on the Up In Smoke Tour. You know, right after that, Dre got involved with 50 Cent, and that whole movement kind of blew up. He just wasn't going to take his eyes off that prize and re-focus. So we ain't really need to talk about that after that, because you get hooked up with Eminem and 50 Cent, you really don't need to try to do nothing else, until all that tapers off a little bit. So we just ain't never really got back to it. It's really on him, because he has to produce this music, or nobody's really gonna care, you know? His heart gotta be in it.
AVC: What happened with Helter Skelter? That was supposed to be your album with Dr. Dre back in the mid-'90s.
IC: I think it was the same situation. We was about to do that record, and he had found Eminem, and that whole movement jumped off, and you know Dre… One thing about him is that he's not gonna take his focus off of what's winning. These are two things that he probably didn't expect to take all his attention, but they both blew up, and he kept his eye on the prize.
AVC: One of my favorite projects that you were involved with, though people don't really associate you with it much, was Del Tha Funkee Homosapien's first album. What it was like making that?
IC: Well, a lot of people don't know that Del's my cousin, so he's lived in Oakland, and I've been in L.A. and we used to see each other a lot as kids, and we started rhyming and wanted to do a record. That album was as commercial a record as Del would ever do. He hates everything about commercial rap. Everything that's loved by the masses. He really writes to people that's true music lovers, true heads in the game. So working on that first record was fun, because I had him when he was young, fresh, and full of stories. I was tryin' to hook him up with the whole George Clinton P-Funk flavor to give him a new fun direction and kinda open our minds up to West Coast hip-hop that it wasn't all just hardcore? It was creative. He had big influences like A Tribe Called Quest and things like that that he wanted to express. Being from Oakland, he just had a different thought on that anyway. More artistic.
AVC: Was it liberating working on something that had nothing to do with gangsta rap?
IC: Yeah, because that ain't everything I'm about. I do a wide range of creative things, and that's really what drove me. It wasn't about trying to be the best gangsta rapper in the word. It was about being creative, man.
IC: What attracted you to the Bomb Squad back when you made AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted?
IC: Well back then, it was all about—I was a big fan of Public Enemy. And their production is still… I don't think anyone used samples better than the Bomb Squad. So what they was doin' was like mad-scientist stuff to me. The way they was putting that stuff together and the sounds they was gettin' and the noises they was gettin' out of that stuff was mind-bogglin', so when I learned that Dre wasn't going to be able to work on my solo record, which I always reached out for him to do, I said, "If I can't get the best producers on the West, I'll get the best producers on the East." And me and Chuck D had a good rapport, because we had toured together with N.W.A. And he told me, "Come on out to New York and sit with Hank Shocklee." We did that, and it was magic from there on out.
AVC: Was it a political statement, making an album with someone so closely associated with political hip-hop, with Public Enemy, with the East Coast? Was it something more than just the sound?
IC: Yeah. The sound is what attracted me, because I knew I would be doin' what I do, but like I said, Public Enemy was a big influence on me, so I was waiting for Chuck D, to see what he brought to the table in terms of my style—the street knowledge and political hip-hop. I was anxious to see what it was gonna turn out to be, and it was organic how it all came together.
IC: Your new single addresses the way gangsta rap gets scapegoated. Why do you think it's remained such a popular cultural villain for all these years?
IC: It's the easy target. Rarely censored. It's censored once it goes through the filter of television, newspaper, magazines, whatever, but for the most part, it's about these youngsters having a voice—these people sayin' what they feel, you know? Gangsta rap has not been used in the last 10 years as a political vehicle, but it's still the voice of the voiceless. People don't like kids to have that kind of control. It's an easy scapegoat. "Gangsta rap made me do it"—it reminds me of that old Flip Wilson thing: "The devil made me do it." You can do anything in the world if you say "Hey man, don't blame me, the devil made me do it. It's an easy way to escape responsibility."
AVC: Have you mellowed with age?
IC: Um, I don't think so. I've just got more of an understanding as to how things go, how things work. Same stuff that bothered me then, bothers me now. As far as society and things goin' on in the world. So I don't feel that I've backtracked or back-pedaled on anything.
AVC: It seems like you know how to play the system in terms of getting films made.
IC: Ultimately, the movies make money, and that's why I make more of 'em. I don't know if there's anything other than that that I'm doing that makes this work. But Cube Vision has never lost money on a movie, and people recognize that.
AVC: After the Are We There Yet? And Barbershop movies, do you feel like the mainstream has accepted you on some level?
IC: Probably so. Because it's not just one-sided. They see more than meets the eye. And I guess they respect the fact that they can't judge a book by its cover.
AVC: One of Cube Vision's projects was the Black. White. reality show, where a black and white family switched races. As a rapper and one of the show's producers, what did you think of the "Middle-Aged Rap"? [The white dad performed a much-maligned song that exploited stereotypes about hip-hop culture. —ed.]
IC: That shows where the divide is between people like us and people like him. That shows the problem is, he's thinking a rap like that is helping, and is cool and informative. He don't understand how twisted he is with that theory. If you born in the mud, you gonna be dirty, and people don't understand that. Pull yourself up, do this, organize… But it's just not that easy to come clean coming out of some of the environments that we come from.
AVC: It seemed indicative of a lot of people who just misunderstand rap and the whole culture of hip-hop.
IC: Of course. People that attack rap are the people who can't dissect or differentiate between gangsta rap that's kind of like a comic book, and gangsta rap that's like U.S.A. Today. They can't decipher the difference. They're scared of it. And usually people who attack the rap are people who aren't even fans.
IC: One of the smartest things I've heard about gangsta rap is that if you don't understand the humor, then it becomes frightening, but if you do understand the humor, it's another thing entirely.
IC: You take a little bit of Muhammad Ali, a little bit of Richard Pryor, you take a lot of the '80s and what was goin' on, and out comes gangsta rap. People gotta understand its ingredients, and if you don't have those ingredients of humor and command of the language and of course rhyming, bravado, you gotta bring a little ego wit' you, you know what I mean? The ingredients of bein' a great rapper. That is the key—these are the things you have to have to even be in the game, so that's a lot of people's startin' point.
AVC: You've been very critical of the music industry for a long time. Do you think major-label hip-hop has a future?
IC: I'm not sure. I'm not sure if music got a future. We have all these electronic ways to download and steal music and get music, but there's no money in makin' music. That money's startin' to dry up. So what's gonna happen in 20 years, 25 years, when the new artists of the day are all "There ain't no money in music, so I'ma go use my creative talents to do something else"? World never hears of great talent, because it's all dried up. Now what are you gonna put on your iPod? Now what are you gonna download, when there's nobody making music?
AVC: You were ahead of the game when you branched out into a bunch of different fields. So if the recording industry suddenly doesn't exist any more, you've got a bunch of other things you can do.
IC: I love makin' music, so whether I'ma make money at it or not, I'ma still do it. The thing is, I've gotten to a point where I don't have to use music to make a livin', so I can do it for fun like I used to when I was young.
AVC: Do you still feel as passionately about music as you did in the early '90s?
IC: Of course. Even more now that I'm independent and don't have to worry about the commercial success of the record. I can just do the record for the pure intelligent hardcore hip-hop fans, and not worry about if a program director like it, or if I have a thousand urban spins so I can get it on MTV. All that bullshit the major record label put on you, "Come up with a single" and all that shit, it stunts your creativity. Because now you have an exec running into the studio sayin', "I just heard Jay-Z's record on the radio. Do one like that!" That's bullshit, but that happens more than people would know. And that's why some artists' albums sound like garbage, because they're just worried about makin' a single, they're not worried about makin' a record.
AVC: What rappers do you listen to these days?
IC: Not too many. It's a short list. I like 50, I like some of Kanye's stuff, of course Dub-C, Snoop, not too many.
AVC: Do you listen to your old stuff?
IC: Yeah. Not all day every day, but I might pop it in to see if it will hold up.
AVC: One of your signature songs—one I think almost everyone in my generation has memorized—is "It Was A Good Day." What do you think is a good day for Ice Cube in 2008?
IC: Not havin' nothin' to do. Not havin' nothin' to worry about. That's a good day.
AVC: Not having to use your AK?
IC: [Laughs.] Hell yeah. That's a great day. The day I use that boy, that's gonna fuck somebody up. That's gonna be a bad day for someone else.
AVC: Do you still consider yourself a member of AmeriKKKa's most wanted?
IC: Yeah, of course. Ain't too much changed, man. Things have changed with me personally. It's all about people from my old community and people who ain't got it like me, who ain't been as blessed as me. That's who I'm rapping for, because if it was all about me, I'd be just rappin' about having good things, but that ain't what it's all about, man. It's about everybody.