No Country For Old Men: Ice Cube vs. The New West
“Things just ain’t the same for gangstas / Times is changing, young niggas is aging / Becoming old G’s in the game and changing,” rapped Dr. Dre on the unknowingly prophetic “The Watcher.”
Wise words from an aged, wise man. Old gangstas are in a tight position, regardless of whether or not their importance to the game is maximal. Consumerist attention spans have been cut short by the broadband pace of the digital world, and pretty much any artist these days can carve a name for themselves by over-saturating the market and shoving their music down the public’s throats - even if their product is inferior.
And it’s precisely this reason that rappers from the olden days of yore are taking extreme measures to maintain the public’s interest. Flipping on the radio will give you a good sense of what’s popping these days, if you don’t already have your finger on the pulse of the blogosphere. Rappers with flimsy lyrics (but who are perfectly capable of slurring out catchy hooks) are about as omnipresent and consistently nagging as a new Gucci Mane mixtape. OG’s are at a turning point where they can either take the Ice-T and LL Cool J route by flexing their acting chops, or they can try to salvage the glory of the pre-Internet game, embrace digital and persevere (see: Jay-Z, Nas or even Common, who’s really managed to do both).
Falling into the latter group (specifically the Common branch) is Ice Cube, founding member of one of the most revolutionary, game-changing groups to ever do it. Not only has O’Shea Jackson had a fruitful acting career (if you consider Are We There Yet? fruitful), but he’s managed to spin off his stint as an N.W.A. soldier into having a brutally-successful solo career. Eight solo studio albums later and Cube’s got six albums that have gone platinum (in two cases, double platinum) and one that’s gone gold. But his first album that didn’t reach the gold mark was his last album, 2008’s Raw Footage, an effort hailed by critics but considered a commercial failure – at least by Cube’s standards.
Like most O.G.’s in the game, strategy at this point is everything. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Cube, no longer backed by the muscle of a major, has to learn to strategize on his own. Given the current state of the music industry, firing up ye ol’ laptop seems like the right idea for 90% of artists. But when you’re Ice Cube and sorely lack a connection to the online world, how do you get people to pay attention? Post haikus about working with Bow Wow on the upcoming film Lottery Ticket? Throw up pics from your 13th annual family reunion? Hell no. Ice Cube ain’t no sucka, and he knows how to make the public listen.
And so it all began with a blog post on Ice Cube’s official website (www.icecube.com), a sentence that, in itself, needs unpacking. Because let’s keep it real here: who actually frequents Ice Cube’s website on the regular? Is his site’s RSS feed included in your Google reader? Do you keep your finger on the west coast pulse by frequenting Cube’s site, bursting with pertinent info, on a daily basis? The choice for an established artist like Ice Cube to air his grievances with the Rap game on his blog, while an important publicity strategy, is in and of itself bizarre. It’s creepy to think of anyone over the age of 40 (Cube is a ripe 40 years old) knowing how to operate something with an LCD screen. But we’re living in a digital age, and ever since my dad got a friend request on Facebook from his father a few weeks back, I’ve learned to accept the fact that anyone with a functioning brain can Tweet their heart out.
So on February 24th, Cube dusted off the ol’ paperweight and cracked the jawn open, logging onto his website to write a two paragraph post about his upcoming ninth (!) album I Am the West. The post was brief and succinct, but packed a venomous punch. “I AM THE WEST…is the name of my new record,” he wrote. “This shit is cocky, no apologies, West Coast gangsta shit. I can’t help it. That’s what I do.” Cube went on to reflect on the state of west coast affairs, throwing empty, easily misinterpretable shots at left coast rappers who “do music that appeals to the South and Mid=west.” “We lost our way,” he knowingly pattered away on his keyboard. “Thank God for b-boys like Snoop [Dogg], The Game & WC for keeping the West alive, but we were all guilty of overreaching. No more. […] Radio fucked us up. I hate the politics at radio. I don’t know who to pay to get my shit played. Having a hot song is not enough. Ridiculous.”
Yes, it’s ridiculous. But radio politricks aren’t really an issue for Cube, who has continued to sell hundreds of thousands of albums over the past few years without the tiniest semblance of a mainstream hit (Raw Footage, sold upwards of 300,000 – go ahead and name more than one official single off the joint without using Wikipedia, I’ll wait). So then what exactly does move units? Fiery beats and rhymes, a likeable personality and, most of all, controversy. And Ice Cube, of all people, knows that. As a member of N.W.A., Cube spouted some of the most anti-establishment, pig-loathing, fist-raising rhymes to ever grace wax, and the public ate it up with smug satisfaction. Controversy is as sexy as any given pr0n site, and anything worth inciting debate is bound to perk up a few ears.
But again, this isn’t 1987. No longer do the soft minds of the public yearn to hear politically saddled, damn-the-Man rhymes. We like our rappers mean, and we like ‘em beefing. In a world where a rapper who’s built his career on moving that white is exposed as a C.O. with a perfect attendance record, yet he continues to ship hundreds of thousands of records thanks to the publicity of his rival, rap fans still salivate the most at the prospect of the Battle - especially in a digital age where thinly veiled potshots are as simple to make as, say, setting up your own website and writing blog posts when it’s time to promote a new project.
And Cube’s got an album to sell. He’s also got a family to feed. Why shouldn’t he make statements the numbly dig at the new jacks if he knows it’s going to fuel the promotional fire? He’s earned the privilege; his track record backs his bark. In a follow-up addendum to his first post, he made the blanket statement, “[I]f you didn’t have a record out before 1986…you probably can’t tell me shit.” And he’s right. Who are you to tell this man that he isn’t the embodiment of an entire movement, the Captain Ahab of this ship? What right does the younger generation have to spray word bullets at the O.G.’s? Blind respect is mandatory for any new cat thinking he can spit a hot 16. If Cube isn’t in your list of influences from the start of your career, then you need to crack that pen right in half and flip through Ma Duke’s tape collection faster than a Detox release date rumor coming and going.
But Cube knew what he was getting at. That’s what years in the game will teach you. The power of a few keystrokes can send shockwaves through the internet and beyond in the matter of hours, and no matter if you’re an up-and-coming rapper with “N.W.A.” tatted across the back or can barely recall how many members were actually in the group, you’re going to have an opinion about whatever blithe statement has been made by any given rapper on his or her website.
Like any fish hungry for a bite, a few “new” west coast rappers took the bait. Whether it was for their own publicity or to actually fire back, the new kids weren’t happy. Jay Rock took it to the populist-CNN (a/k/a Twitter) to air his grievances about Ice Cube flaming the next generation. “WATTS UP WIT ICE CUBE TALKIN KRAZY ABOUT NEW WEST NIGGAS,” he tweeted. “IF HE GOT A PROB WIT 1 OF US HE SHUD SAY R NAME N STOP BN SCARED 2 CALL A NIGGA OUT. […] ON SOME REAL STUFF I AINT NEVER HAD A PROBLEM WITH CUBE OR NONE OF THE OG NIGGAS. BUT IF HE SAY NEW WEST IM APART OF THAT[.] TO ME HE TALKIN BOUT ALL OF US IF HE DIDNT SAY A NAME. THATS HOW THE WEST GOT FUCKED UP IN THE FIRST PLACE.”
Nipsey Hussle had some words to share, too. “I talked to Ice Cube personally at the BET Awards. He said, 'I got 16 [bars] for you when you're ready,' so I figured it wasn't directed toward me,” he said in an interview with Hip Hop Beef. “But if a nigga thought it was, guess they were supposed to do what Jay Rock did, speak his mind and do what men do and get it off they chest."
And just like that, Ice Cube got the Rap game talking. All it took was a few minutes of typing, perhaps a break to sip at his ginger-infused chamomile tea, and he incited a riot. And it’s exactly why Cube has remained so relevant over the years. With N.W.A and his subsequent slab of solo records, Cube learned how to push America’s buttons with a four-minute song, folding in enough fire to elicit a response from anyone with the platform to respond on a national level.
And he’s clearly privy to the ways of the Internet and how easy it is to bait anyone who wanders across his site (or any of the septillion Rap blogs that picked up the story). All he’s got to do is fire a few blanks into the dark and the young jacks will take his words and twist ‘em. In retaliation to such claims, Cube can backtrack at any given point, stating that he wasn’t directing his comments at one particular person, but that he’s more disgruntled with the game as a whole and how the spotlight has swung off of the west, where it once so prominently shined.
Lest we not forget that Ice Cube has always been one to pave the way for rappers on the rise. Reflecting on his track record, Cube has helped propel the once white-hot (Okay, maybe not white-hot, but at least lukewarm) careers of Kam, Mack 10, Da Lench Mob, WC & The Maad Circle and Yo-Yo. He was cousin to Del The Funkee Homosapien, and instrumental in Del's 1991 debut I Wish My Brother George Was Here. His co-sign has stamped the careers of a half-dozen artists, and it’s a foolproof defense mechanism to apply when artists like Jay Rock and Nipsey claim that he isn’t doing anything to help any new artists. Sure, he may not be appearing in the video with the next generation in this day and age, but he’s got his reasons – which he eloquently chose to verbalize on another blog post on March 25th.
“Why don't I produce up and coming rappers like I use to?” he typed. “I got burnt out. Niggas couldn't take the baton and run wit it. I was sick of babysitting grown ass men and walking them through the industry. I felt like Dr. Frankinstein [sic] building uncontrollable monsters. How? If you DON'T make'em a star, they blame you. If you DO make'em a star, they leave you. I got sick of that ungrateful shit.”
Durr! Just because Cube earned his spot as one of Hip Hop’s godfathers doesn’t mean he has to lend his star power out to every kid that shows promise. Just took at Jigga man’s business model: sign a hungry rapper (J. Cole, Freeway, Kanye West), let them build their own movement (maybe give them a Roc-A-Fella chain, tell them to throw up the diamond sign every now and again) and then ride that momentum right to the bank – that is, if it pays off (nine out of 10 times it doesn’t, but you still can’t knock the hustle).
Looking at his resume, Cube didn’t really bode well with cultivating his own artists (“Why is WC underrated?” he wrote in the same March 25th post. “Who knows. Skills don't mean as much as they use to. But he's a true MC. Fame is overrated”). So why should he waste any energy trying to lift a new artist off the ground when he’s still trying to maintain his own relevance? It’s a conflict that’s plagued everyone from Dr. Dre to Timbaland, and the success stories are few and far between.
Of course, with a bid like this for publicity (bait ‘em, followed by deny, deny, deny), there’s some unintended backlash that’s not very conducive to the cause. Isn’t referring to your demographic as “old” a detracting claim? Hip Hop isn’t an old man’s sport – the exceptions for artists who’ve crossed the 40-yard line are usually relegated to those who’ve somehow transcended it. Highlighting the fact that you’re part of a canonized, older demographic (i.e. the constant use of the term “Old West”) doesn’t necessarily help your cause. Substantiating an entire grievance with the state of the rap game by pinning it onto your age isn’t a good look for someone flaming the new blood, especially when your music career is at a crossroads where, if you push the line enough times, you’ll start looking like that old guy scolding all those damned kids smoking marijuana cigarettes with your free hand and brandishing a cigar in the other.
Because beyond the theatricality, beyond all the promotional games and petty feuds and misguided distinctions between “old” and “new,” there’s an underlying issue at hand that truly threatens the integrity of any legacy rapper. Hip Hop is so young and relatively “new” in the scope of recorded music’s history that the older generation is being forced to come to terms with their thrones being threatened by a new generation. The rap game has always been a culture meant to lend power to anyone with a sharpened pencil, but every tip grows dull after years and years of wear. And it isn’t always because that rapper’s rhymes and lyrical bite have flatlined. It’s a matter of the listening public becoming bored with the message and/or the style that the emcee has to offer. No matter what approach Ice Cube takes to combating the inevitable, he’s got a looming issue to deal with that he might just be getting too old for this young man’s game. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and you can either shuffle yourself into the alternative (living it up on the big screen, which Cube has proven fully capable of doing) or fall into obscurity. The choice is clear, and to be fair and honest, no one really wants to hear someone past middle age getting dirty on the mic.
So you can’t really blame Cube for making this bid for publicity. Sure, it may not be the most honorable way to demand respect and attention on a mass scale, but it unconscionably pulls that spotlight right back to him. His most recent blog post even takes it to the O.G. level, with Cube describing how he linked up in the studio with Dr. Dre, only to have the Good Doctor ask him if he fired shots at him on a new joint “Drink the Kool-Aid.” “No disses. Just style and grace,” he wroten in reference to the same man who brought the plight of the O.G. to light on “The Watcher.” An opportunity to post new lyrics, discuss his new single “I Rep That West” and reveal a new collabo with Jayo Felony and WC. Oh, and in case you already forgot, I Am the West hits stores July 13th.
The views and opinions expressed in the following feature editorial are those expressly of the writer of this piece and do not necessarily reflect those of HipHopDX.