Ice Cube: Ghost In The Machine
Cube talks all things West Coast, including why "Are We There Yet" is more powerful than "Burn Hollywood Burn."
What can you say about Ice Cube that hasn’t already been said? If Gangsta Rap had a Mount Rushmore, you’d expect O’Shea Jackson’s infamous scowl to be chiseled on it somewhere. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the likes of Chris Tucker, Bernie Mac, and Eva Mendez all owe Cube a debt of gratitude for getting their initial big screen buzz courtesy of a CubeVision project.
Musically, people want another Kill At Will or another Death Certificate, but once you go to verbal war with the LAPD chief of police, chin check some of the most high-profile emcees of the era and catch the attention of the FBI, how much more do you have to prove? It’s almost as if Cube wrote “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate” two decades too soon.
Ice Cube could have easily sat back, and played it safe on his albums. Instead he’s still kicking up dust—laughing at newcomers who feel entitled to his endorsement and discussing Hip Hop, Hollywood and race in candid terms while the country is divided between party and bullshit and Tea Party anger. Having just released his eighth album, Cube explained how “Are We There Yet?” and I Am The West can both be weapons in the same fight. Both should give people plenty to say, and as usual, that’s just means everything is working as planned.
HipHopDX: Your movie career and the transition to being an independent artist set the tone for your last two albums. How did your Internet presence, especially your blog, do that going into this album?
Ice Cube: To be honest, there still isn’t that guaranteed connection between the people you reach on the Internet and those who are going to support the project. Everybody’s really trying to figure out how the computer helps you in the long run and if you can really measure it. You never really know how much time to put into it or how much to push it to get maximum awareness. I think all you can ask for now is maximum awareness. But it did pretty good, I guess.
DX: I Am The West and Raw Footage were released within two years of each other, while Laugh Now Cry Later came after a six-year layoff. Do you have a preference on how often the projects are released?
Ice Cube: Nah, I just do it how I feel it. I’ll tour off this record for a little while, then I’ll get to a point where I feel it’s time to start recording. When I do start recording, I never really put a time limit on myself, because that always makes you go kind of crazy. If you start working on a record and you go, “Oh, it’s coming out in May,” that puts you on this time clock and you start to press.
I always just start working on the [album], and once I get enough records to feel like things are coming together, I pick a date. It makes it easier to complete the record and meet the release date.
DX: How much does you being in control of the label and being independent factor into all of that?
Ice Cube: A lot. When people give you money to do something, they want it done as soon as possible. If I was on a [major] label, the record would probably come out a little faster, but the music would probably suffer too. It wouldn’t be coming out in a natural time frame. Everything has its natural time to get done—I don’t care if you’re cutting a lawn or fucking washing dishes. Everything takes as long as it takes, and if you rush it, the work is gonna suffer. An album is more critical on letting the music dictate to you when it will come out, not putting a date on it and saying, “This motherfucker is gonna be fresh by March 3. It’s gonna be done no matter what.”
DX: Getting deeper into this particular album, you had an interesting line on “No Country For Young Men” where you said, “Half-black is the new black can’t you tell / It was blue black like Wesley Snipes in New Jack / Now you gotta have a white mama just to do that / Tiger Woods he used to be a safe nigga / Go ahead and let your daughter have a date with em / He mate with her probably in a wife beater / Tiger bout to change his name to Cheetah”
Ice Cube: Oh yeah.
DX: You’re in a position where you have partnerships with TBS, ESPN and other corporations. While other people in your shoes are making safe, non-offensive albums, why even take the risk?
Ice Cube: I think when you’re doing Hip Hop you have to be courageous. You can’t be a safe rapper, because that defeats the purpose. If you can’t be honest and let the chips fall where they may, you shouldn’t even be doing the music. If I’m scared to say certain lines, I need to get out and be done with the music.
People can always find reasons not to work with you. But always notice, people will find those same excuses to work with you and look the other way when there’s money involved. I don’t want to scare myself into not saying some shit I need to say, because I think another situation will fall through on me.
DX: After Death Certificate, you specifically took a lot of community leaders and Hip Hop magazines to task for asking you to address those kinds of topics in a similar fashion and not having your back after you did.
Ice Cube: Yeah, you do a record like that, and you go out on a limb and get attacked. I got attacked by the Korean Community and the Jewish Community—and you don’t feel nobody coming to your rescue. It wasn’t even about being rescued; nobody had my back. Everybody just kind of sidesteps you and goes, “Man, you know you shouldn’t have said that shit.” And it makes you feel like, “Man, should I be sticking my neck out like this for nothing if people are just going to let it get cut off?” So, everybody’s out here on their own, and it’s up to you to say what you have to say after you realize that.
DX: In line with that, you had a great quote in Vanity Fair that I want to bring up, because I don’t think there’s a lot of crossover between their readership and ours. You said, “Tearing down the system ain’t what it’s all about. It’s about rebuilding what’s here so it works for everybody. And that’s what you learn when you grow. Attitude don’t change. It’s not like things are better. Things are better probably for me, but I’m only one individual, and if I was just thinking about myself, I wouldn’t even make them kind of records.”
Ice Cube: Well, people want me to make records like “Burn Hollywood Burn” for instance. When I did that record I wouldn’t have minded going to Warner Brothers with a cocktail or something and actually burning that motherfucker down. But as you grow, you realize, “If I burn this down, we’ll never benefit from this shit at all. And we need to benefit from it.” Our people like movies, our people like to act and our people like to be stars. So how do I burn this thing down without burning it down. You go in and change it. Carve a niche and fight the good fight. The way I burn Hollywood now, people can benefit from it. People get jobs and they can become stars, be seen and get things done.
So it’s just a different philosophy. Fuck burning shit down with a cocktail, go in and burn the philosophy of the place down. Burn the tradition down, and implement a new philosophy where your people can benefit instead of burning it down and nobody beneifts.
DX: Right. Getting back to this album, you mention the notion of being "Too West Coast." You have a traditional west coast sound, but you’ve also supported artists like Del The Funky Homosapien and Anotha Level who didn’t have the traditional sound…
Ice Cube: I think there’s just a jacket that’s been put on us because of the success that we’ve had with Gangsta Rap. But the Black Eyed Peas come out of L.A., and that’s never punked as far as having a West Coast Sound. They don’t look at anything we do as legitimate unless it’s Gangsta Rap. And when I say “they” I’m talking about the Rap industry in general. You’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you do a traditional, West Coast, hardcore, gangsta record, people will say, “Ah, that sounds too west coast. It’s too much on that same tip.” Or if you try to do something new and different, people will say, “What happened to that old Cube? Where’s that shit you used to do?” If I do something a little out of the box, I’m trying to sound south, or I’m trying to be too different. If I do some shit that sounds like the old Cube, niggas gonna say, “Damn that shit sounds old.” So the thing I do is say, “Fuck the industry,” and just go for Ice Cube fans. There are people who I know will look forward to my records, and that’s who I do them for.
DX: True. You’ve always had some pretty strong opinions about what’s being played on the radio. Since you had a partnership with DJ Skee, who also works at KIIS FM, and Sirius, did the topic of radio play come up at all?
Ice Cube: Not at all, because I know he ain’t got anything to do with the politics of radio. He’s just a deejay basically getting paid like everybody else to play what they tell him to play…what’s on the list. There’s really nothing to discuss there. The thing about radio is they want to criticize Rap and what we’re saying, but at the same time they’re playing it and promoting it. They’ll say they need more positive songs, but you give them a positive song and they never play it. But they will play the booty-shaking shit, then pretend they’re not part of the problem. They make it sound like they’re looking for a solution when the deejay comes on and says, “Man, if these rappers would say something a little more positive, people wouldn’t be acting like this.” But then right after that, the next song in rotation is talking about, “Hey, pop that coochie!”
It’s like radio is doing it’s own self in by not having the courage to let the deejays be tastemakers. Deejays used to be original and actually play what they thought was dope. I’m not talking about a mix deejay or no “New at Two” shit. This was in the middle of the morning like, “This shit ain’t in rotation. I just found it last night and it’s dope, so I’m playing it.” Them days are over. If a motherfucker does that, he’s getting fired. You have to play what’s on that list. So thank God for the iPod, so you can listen to what you want.
DX: Well, since you own a label, if two companies control everything on the radio and most people don’t want to pay for an album, how are artists going to make money?
Ice Cube: It’s a war on music. The whole key is to run this shit into the ground to where no new music is coming out—that’s where we’re headed. From a big picture, if you don’t own a TV station, newspaper, radio station, movie company or a record company, your only way to have a voice is through a song. Without any of those, music is the only way to touch people on a mass level. You could be a motivational speaker, but you still wouldn’t touch as many people as you can with a song. That’s a lot of power for these ghetto kids to say what they want to say without any control over them. The easiest way to take that power away is to take everything that’s sexy about music and remove it. Make sure there’s no money to be made. Make sure there’s no way for your video to be seen. Take music out of schools. All of those things start to erode a citizen’s power to say what they want to say.
If you fast-forward 30-40 years from now, where are the new artists going to come from if everyone thinks music is free? If you ain’t paying for it, a motherfucker won’t be doing it. And you won’t see the next N.W.A. or the next Ice Cube. You won’t see the next Jay-Z come up, because if there’s no money in it, nobody’s going to want to do it. So there’s kind of a war on the first amendment, but it started with music in the late ‘90s when they figured they didn’t have any control over this shit.
DX: As you mention the next N.W.A., I’m curious as to what you think Hip Hop would be like if there was no N.W.A. in the first place?
Ice Cube: I think it would be as strong as it is now. I don’t think N.W.A. made Hip Hop grow bigger or at a rate it wasn’t moving at. But I do think the whole world would be a little different; it wouldn’t be as honest with itself. You’d still have a motherfucker like Ike Turner doing his music and TV showing that he was a good guy. Every artist would have that façade on that they were good guys.
With N.W.A. in the picture, people could be themselves. You didn’t have to be squeaky clean to sell a lot of records and be famous anymore. I think that opened it up for all artists. I think after us, a lot of people said, “I don’t have to pretend to be squeaky clean when I’m really a motherfucker off-stage.” Squeaky clean artists can still be that, but these gutter artists can still be gutter too.
DX: There’s a story that you wrote “Boyz N The Hood” on the bus to a magnet school. If it’s true what are the parallels to that and being that person who can make Hollywood deals happening while still chilling with WC?
Ice Cube: Coming out of the hood and going to Woodland Hills High School in the valley, wasn’t like I was the only black person at the damn school. You got busses coming out of the hood like slaveships, so the schools are still packed with blacks, Mexicans and other minorities in here with these white students. What I learned was that it was two different worlds out here—the hood and the world. You have to learn how to live in both of them. I couldn’t live in the white world and keep it all the way hood and expect to succeed. I had to learn to maneuver and succeed in this place without losing myself. I couldn’t turn into no "Oreo" and lose who I was. But I had to learn to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. So that does help me maneuver between the corporate world and in the world I come from easily. It’s seamless.
DX: You cant really broach that subject in Hip Hop without bringing up Barack Obama. Since you were here when the FBI was sending out notices for “Fuck The Police” and when Eazy-E went to the White House, what do you make of President Obama recently shouting out Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Nas?
Ice Cube: That’s cool. To me, that what you’re making music for. When I first came out, it was all about pumping up street knowledge. To me, street knowledge is putting the hood up on what the government is out to do to you. And it’s also about letting the government know, what the hood thinks of them. Hopefully there’s some kind of understanding in between all of that. By the President listening to Lil Wayne or Jay-Z, I know he has an inkling of understanding about what people are going through in the hood. You’ve got to get a little more understanding of what’s going on in the hood after listening to Rap.
DX: Let’s end things on a lighter note. I know you’re a fellow Raiders fan, but you’re also the head of a few companies. Is it time for Al Davis to step to the side so the team can improve?
Ice Cube: Nah, I don’t think so, because there are other losing teams. Nobody’s asking the Cincinnati Bengals’ owner to step to the side. Nobody’s asking the [Detroit] Lions’ owners to step off. So it’s kind of ridiculous to ask this owner to step off just because people don’t like his draft picks or how he’s running the team. But ultimately, the man has three [Super Bowl] rings. There are some franchises doing it corporate, by the book, with the best people on paper handling personnel and they don’t have any rings. So to me, you don’t touch the old man. Leave his ass right where he is, and shit will happen. We were in the Super Bowl this decade, so you just have to be patient.