Notorious Ice Cube : Still the ‘Most Wanted’

Ice Cube, the most notorious figure in West Coast rap, didn’t have to look far to find a backdrop for a photograph that reflected the stark environment described in his explosive new solo album, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.”

The 20-year-old rapper merely walked out of his manager’s office, which is located a few miles east of the Forum in South Los Angeles.

The streets in the industrial/residential neighborhood have the feel of a fortress. There’s barbed wire on top of an iron fence that protects a warehouse across the street, while bars front the doors and windows of almost every house on adjoining streets.

“Where do you want me to stand?” Ice Cube asked the photographer, gazing at the the broken glass in the street and the trash scattered on the sidewalk. He liked one suggestion about standing by a danger sign next to the railroad track.


It fits the tone of his album, a mostly angry look at such issues as drugs, crime, racism, poverty and police relations--and their affect on what he sees as an endangered species: black teen-agers.

Ice Cube--who gained national attention last year for his writing and rapping on N.W.A’s controversial “Straight Outta Compton” album--likes to think of his music as documenting life in the combat zone.

“This is not just dance music,” he said, explaining the starkness of his album. “It’s about knowing yourself, knowing who you are and knowing who is against you and who is trying to bring you down. I want people to listen to the words.”

The reason Ice Cube can be called notorious is that a lot of people, indeed, have been listening to what the rapper said on N.W.A’s album and many weren’t pleased.

Critics were divided by the foul language, sexism, violence and what some saw as the glorification of gang life expressed in “Straight Outta Compton.”

The debate centered on the question: Was it legitimate social comment or pop exploitation?

Though the collection, which sold more than 1 million copies, was named the sixth best album of 1989 in a Village Voice poll of the nation’s leading pop critics, Newsweek called N.W.A’s music “appalling” in a March cover story on rap.

The most dramatic response was when an FBI official wrote a letter to Priority Records, which distributed the N.W.A album, saying he felt one of the album’s songs “encourages violence against and disrespect for the law-enforcement officer.”

The new “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ may well start more controversy. (See accompanying reviews on Page 66.) There’s more violence, rage and raw language. And also sexism--the word “bitch,” by one count, is used 82 times and none in an ironic or humorous sense.

Ice Cube shrugs off the old criticism and that which is sure to come.

“People sometimes act as if we are making up the stuff we talk about on the records . . . that we are trying to be controversial and shocking,” the rapper said. “It is controversial and shocking, but it’s also real . . . not the kind of (polite) stuff you (usually) hear on TV or the radio. “We’re speaking in the language of the neighborhood. The homeboys know exactly what we’re saying. Most (whites) don’t know what goes on in this world. They don’t even see these streets. The record will be as close as most people get to us.”

Who could ever imagine that West coast rap’s renegade got his start in something as conventional as . . . ninth grade typing class?

Oshea Jackson--Ice Cube’s real name--said he was born in South-Central Los Angeles and went to high school there until he switched to a West San Fernando Valley High School, where he was bused with some friends.

Ice Cube was sitting in typing class one day when a friend suggested they try to write a rap song. Ice Cube ended up typing a whole page. He was surprised at how easy it was for him and he enjoyed the attention it brought him when he showed the rhymes to friends.

In the interview in Ice Cube’s manager’s office, it was revealing to hear the rapper talk about his early attachment to rap because there has been so little attention focused on rap’s most volatile figures as people rather than subjects of debate.

Most articles on artists such as Ice Cube and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. center so heavily on the controversy and rage of rap that there is little sense of the evolution of their music.

The artists themselves contribute to the harsh image. Ice Cube has a cold, menacing stare on the cover of the new album and he assumed that same stance when posing for the photographer outside the manager’s office.

In the interview afterwards, however, Ice Cube was more relaxed. The anger expressed in the photos and in the music is real, he said, but no one is angry 24 hours a day.

Most of Ice Cube’s early, school-boy raps contained little outrage. They were generally boastful, in keeping with the rap style of the day.

With a friend, he eventually put the rap to music. Dr. Dre, whom he would later join in N.W.A, liked the tape and invited Ice Cube to do the rap live at a skating rink where Dre was working some nights as a deejay.

Dre advised the young rapper that the best way to catch the crowd’s attention was to do a parody of a well-known rap song. “He said make your version funny and . . . don’t worry, you can cuss in it and everything.”

Ice came up with “Diane, Diane,” a take-off on U.T.F.O.'s hit “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and the crowd loved it, he said. “It was a thrill because it was our first time on stage ever.”

Shortly afterward, Ice Cube met Eric Wright, who as Eazy-E would be the leader of N.W.A, and Ice wrote a couple of raps for him.

“Most of the rap records at the time avoided cuss words and stuff like that because they wanted to get on the radio,” Ice Cube said, reflecting on that period. “But we were just trying to appeal to our own crowd . . . the homeboys down the street. We weren’t thinking about getting on the radio. So, we felt we could say what we wanted on the record.

“Everybody and their mother was selling drugs so we thought we’d do a song called ‘Dopeman.’ I wrote it and it was kind of funny, but it was also hard and serious. When people took to that, we knew that was our avenue . . . the way we needed to make records. We needed to talk about stuff that other people are scared to talk about.”

They did eventually make some “clean” versions of certain songs for radio, but it was the hard-core version that caught on with rap fans. Ice Cube spent a year in Phoenix, studying architectural drafting at a trade school, before committing himself full-time to music. “I wanted to have something to lean back on,” he said.

By mid-1989, Ice Cube and N.W.A were not only on the best-seller list, but were also under attack from the FBI official.

Ice Cube called the FBI letter to Priority Records “kind of funny.”

Sitting at a desk beneath a poster for the new “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” album, he said: “There was a fuss in a lot of cities . . . people saying there was going to be trouble at the concerts. I remember in Cincinnati, I had to go there a day before the concert to have a press conference.

“Me and Ren (another member of N.W.A) would come out of the hotel room and there would be all these cameras waiting. And we’d say, ‘Yo, if we was in L.A., there wouldn’t be none of this. There must be bigger news out there in your city than this concert. Go take a look at that.’ ”

But there were also tensions developing within N.W.A. Ice Cube, who wrote most of the group’s key raps and was emerging in interviews as the main spokesman, felt he wasn’t being fairly compensated.

“At the end of the day, after everybody stops screaming N.W.A, I had to look at my bank account and I was still putting up gold and platinum records at home . . . living with my parents.”

After leaving the group in December, Ice Cube went to New York to work on his solo album with the production team that also produced Public Enemy’s new “Fear of a Black Planet” album. Jinx, a friend from Los Angeles, also helped produce some tracks.

There are more than production ties that connects Public Enemy and “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.” There are also the themes. Many deal with the evils of drugs in the ghetto, drive-by crime and police attitudes.

While expletives and racial epithets pop up more often than a guitar solo in a heavy-metal album, the word that may cause the most debate is bitch .

Ice Cube says he uses the word to talk about a specific type of woman, not women in general.

“The reason young men today do a lot of the stuff they do--as far as selling drugs, stealing, robbing, taking people’s cars--is for this female over here who says, ‘You can’t have me unless you’ve got something.’

“Some guys hear that and they think, ‘Yo, if I can get this Benz, I can get all the girls I want. . . .’ Do you know what I mean? This is a bitch to me and a lot of penitentiaries are filling up because of that.”

But why are all the women in “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” portrayed that way? Doesn’t that suggest misogynistic feelings or, at least, a view that encourages young men to think of women in a bad light?

“I don’t write about other women because they aren’t a problem,” Ice Cube responded. “The album is about things that need changing. The radio is full of records about how good everything is. What does that do?

“I think people can see what I’m saying and decide if the shoe fits--boys and girls. I’ve seen it happen. I wrote a song on the N.W.A album called ‘I Ain’t Tha 1,’ that said if you feel you have to do this and that to get her, then tell her, ‘I ain’t the one.’

“And it turned a lot of females and a lot of males around. The record got all kind of play on KDAY. It was a big song for the black community. I’ve seen kids with ‘I Ain’t Tha 1' on their hats and on their cars.”

Ice Cube explores sexual stereotypes in a playful, but noteworthy track on the new album. Using James Brown’s classic “It’s a Man’s World” as a starting point, Ice Cube shares the microphone with Yo Yo, a female rapper from Los Angeles who challenges some of Ice Cube’s views.

In a separate interview, Yo Yo (real name: Yolanda Whitaker) said one of the reasons she wanted to get into rap was that she was tired of so many rappers’ “downing” women. “I told myself, ‘Hey, I’m a lady with attitude. I can make some positive stuff for the ladies to let them know the other side.”

Referring to “Girl Don’t Be No Fool,” a song on her upcoming album, Yo Yo, 18, added, “It’s like saying, ‘Hey, don’t ever let a guy hit on you. You are black and intelligent. Stand up for your rights.’ ” Ice Cube is co-producing the album.

Yo Yo said she had done a lot of rapping at high school shows and community events before she met Ice Cube last summer. “I had no contract or deal or anything, but he liked my attitude. He wanted me to be on his record. I think he believes by bringing me into the album that he will get more women to listen to it . . . by letting them know that he isn’t just downing women . . .”

How does Yo Yo, who describes herself as a feminist, feel about the constant use of “bitch” on the Ice Cube album?

“If you don’t know where he is coming from and you get in on the end of the scoop, you might be offended,” she said. “But since I have worked with him and know where he is coming from, it’s not a problem. But if I wasn’t working with him, I’d think, ‘Damn, he sure uses bitch a lot.’ ”

Ice Cube repeatedly insisted in interviews after the release last year of “Straight Outta Compton” that he didn’t want to be viewed as a role model. He didn’t want to ever appear to be lecturing to kids.

Yet he seemed to be lecturing near the end of the interview as he paced back and forth in the room, much like a teacher in front of a blackboard.

He was defending hard-core rap, with its emphasis on confrontation and anger, against charges that it has a negative influence on young people.

“That’s wrong,” he said. “Rap is the most positive thing for black kids. It’s positive because it gives you information. It tells you about what you’re up against in society and something of your history.

“People say sports is positive, but what does it tell you?” he asked, still pacing.

Holding an imaginary microphone in his hand as if interviewing a basketball star, he continued: “So, you scored 37 points and got 16 rebounds and 13 assists tonight. How do you feel?’ ‘

Taking the role of the player, Ice Cube continued the skit, “I feel good. . . . The team is trying to get to the championship. Hopefully, we’ll be there next year.’ ”

Dropping the imaginary microphone, he summarized, “That’s all you learn from sports.

“Rap gives us information. It’s the way we can talk to each other on the level we understand. It helps you understand what’s going on a bit more--and it shows you are not alone.”