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"My kids have heard every record," he says during an early September teleconference. "They sing to it, they rap to it, and they know it's just songs, just like they know a movie is a movie and a magazine is a magazine. They know what's real and what's fake, too, and I sit down and explain to them what's real and what's fake. I ask, 'Do you know what a Glock is?' And then I explain it to them. Or I ask, 'Do you know what a pimp is? Well, here's what he does.' And they might say, 'That's not cool,' and they might say, 'He is cool.' But they're always going to have a perfect understanding. I was never shielded from anything, and I don't believe in shielding my kids from anything this world has to offer."
If multiplatinum sales and movie stardom have mellowed Cube, he's trying his best not to let on. He's currently on the cheekily titled Family Values tour with Korn, the hugely popular metal-rap act whose new album, Follow the Leader, features "Children of the Korn," a frequently profane bark-off with the Ice man. He also has not one, but two discs of his own set to drop. War, which he describes as "dark--really dark," hits stores in November, while a companion CD, Peace, is slated to come out in summer 1999.
"Peace has a whole different vibe from War," he says. "It's more of a look at how could we--how should we. But it's not a soft record. It's still hard-core hip-hop to me."
That Cube is even interested in rhyming these days may come as a surprise to folks plugged into the hip-hop grapevine. Rumors that he's been planning to stop rapping in order to concentrate on his film career have been buzzing for most of the year. But he insists he's still committed to music. "Everybody screams that I'm about to retire, I'm about to retire, and I'm not," he says. "I still think I can rap as good as anybody. I figure, why should I quit? Why should I stop? These records have the potential of being my biggest records ever. They're my best records in years, because I set aside everything to focus on me, my record, what I want to do. For the last year and a half, this has been it."
Has it? Further into the conversation, Cube says he began working on tracks that would wind up on War and Peace in 1995, before stopping to make Bow Down, by Westside Connection, a trio featuring Cube, Mack 10 and W.C. And in the less than two years that have passed since Bow Down bowed, Cube has toured with Westside Connection, contributed to the soundtracks of Dangerous Ground and I Got the Hook-Up, appeared on albums by Ant Banks, Mack 10 and W.C., co-starred in the so-bad-it's-hilarious flick Anaconda, and produced, wrote and acted in The Players Club, a gritty look at the life of a stripper that earned mixed reviews and theatrical receipts that fell far short of Spielberg territory. Not that Cube is complaining.
"Players Club did exactly what everybody expected. It did $24 million, and nobody expected more because everybody knew what New Line [the studio that released it] would put behind this kind of movie. But with the budget we had, after we did $12 million at the box office, everybody was smiling. And the video sales are going to be out the roof."
To put it mildly, Cube is prone to contradicting himself, and during the conversation, he does so often. He contends that the idea of juxtaposing War with Peace is unlike anything he's ever done, then acknowledged that it mirrors the format of his 1991 aural fusillade, Death Certificate, which was split between a "Death Side" and a "Life Side." He maintains that his pairing with Korn is a fresh concept, only to subsequently concede that it was predated by Public Enemy's collaboration with Anthrax, Rage Against the Machine's aborted tour with the Wu-Tang Clan and his own participation in the 1992 Lollapalooza festival.
"Hard-core hip-hop fans don't like nothing that's above the street level, and I can't really concern myself with that," he announces a few minutes later--but before long, he's offering reassurances to such supporters that he really hasn't changed that much after all. "People are always asking me, 'When are you coming out with another hard-core record?'" he says. "Well, here it is. I'm giving them what they want--and I know it's good, because I'm the definition of hard-core."
Coming from anyone else, this boast might provoke an argument--but Cube has a point. He was raised in South Central Los Angeles, and by the time he was 15, he was already in his first rap group, C.I.A., with locals K-Dee and Sir Jinx. Two years later, Jinx's cousin Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre, recruited Cube to join him and comrade Eazy-E in a crew called N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude). By 1988, the group (supplemented by DJ Yella and MC Ren) had sold enough independently pressed copies of the Cube compositions "Boyz-n-the-Hood," "Dopeman" and "8 Ball" to get the attention of Priority Records.
N.W.A's first release for Priority--Straight Outta Compton--changed the rap world in one fell swoop. It wasn't the first long-player to offer up amoral tales of life in the ghetto: Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded predated it by a year. But whereas Criminal Minded, highlighted by the ultra-rugged vocals of KRS-One, remained a primarily underground phenomenon, Compton became a blockbuster big enough to get the attention of white America--and plenty of Caucasians were frightened by what they heard. "Gangsta Gangsta" begins with the sound of an automatic weapon spraying lead--a cliche now, but shocking at the time--and "Fuck tha Police" was such an irony-free invitation to attack the nearest cop that the FBI actually sent Priority a letter of complaint. The five principals made a point of saying that they were merely reporting what they saw outside their doors every day and hinted broadly that they knew about drug trafficking and the like from personal experience.
Compton went on to move three million units, but Cube wasn't around to contribute to a sequel. Following a contract dispute, he went solo, and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, from 1990, proved that he made the right decision. Assembled with the help of Public Enemy's production clique, the Bomb Squad, Most Wanted is a virtual blueprint for gangsta rap. "Better Off Dead," a cinematic intro (as he's being strapped to an electric chair, Cube tells his jailers, "Fuck all y'all"), leads directly into "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate," a fierce lyrical assault in which Cube shows why he's made such an impact on the hip-hop genre. There's plenty of uncomfortable material on the CD, including "You Can't Fade Me," in which Cube considers kicking in the stomach of a woman who might be pregnant with his child, but the danger and pure power of the music are impossible to deny.
On Death Certificate, from 1991, Cube came up with enough relentless beats to compensate for tunes that even some boosters found objectionable (like, for example, the blatantly racist "Black Korea"). It was another astounding/disquieting display. But 1992's The Predator and 1993's Lethal Injection were notably short on freshness. "Bop Gun (One Nation)," from Injection, was typical--a nod to the Parliament-Funkadelic catalogue at a time when such grooves were being overused by every hack with two turntables and a microphone. The presence of P-Funk's George Clinton on the track couldn't mask Cube's creative problems. He was trapped by his own image--and this time, escape seemed impossible.
Fortunately, Cube had options. His excellent turn in director John Singleton's 1991 film Boyz N the Hood won him roles in six movies over the next five years, including Singleton's Higher Learning and Dangerous Ground, the latter of which cast him opposite Elizabeth Hurley. He also headlined Friday, made from a script he co-wrote, and while most reviewers treated the flick like something left behind by an incontinent house cat, enough of the faithful turned out to convince New Line to finance The Players Club.
With Hollywood beckoning, Cube cut back on rap--and although Westside Connection's Bow Down was a commercially successful musical comeback, it has far less substance than his earlier efforts. Songs like "Bow Down," "Gangstas Make the World Go Round" and "All the Critics in New York" are hard-core, sure, but they're mainly about proving that Cube and company have bigger dicks than their competition. The sound and fury are entertaining, but they don't signify much. Still, Cube rejects the contention that he's betraying his past by putting out songs like "We Be Clubbin," a party-hearty track from The Players Club soundtrack.
"I still have strong beliefs that there's a lot of fucked-up stuff that's going on in this country, and I stand behind that," he says. "But I'm not a person who's going to repeat himself over and over again. The records are recorded, and you can go get them, you know what I mean? When you're in a Death Certificate mood, you can pick up Death Certificate. I've been around so long that I don't have to tie myself in and just be a hard-core artist. I can be any kind of artist and I can do any kind of record I feel I want to do, as long as it's good, as long as it's not garbage.
"Rap moves in cycles. When rap first came out, it was basically about bragging, and then it grew and grew and grew and it became a political vehicle. You could be able to say what you wanted to say and talk about social things that were going on. But as people got wore down by that and got tired of feeling like they were in school whenever they picked up a record, it went back to where we are now, which is back to the bragging thing. But there'll be another phase of political rapping in the future. You can already see it coming, led by the women, like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who sometimes aren't even doing rap. They're putting a social message back into the music, and the rappers are definitely going to start reflecting that."
In the meantime, Cube is offering up War and Peace, which balance social exposes like "3 Strikes You In" and "Ghetto Vet" with "War and Peace" and "Limos, Demos and Bimbos," the last two featuring samples by No Doubt and the Police, respectively. (Puffy would approve.)
There's also "Fuck Dying," to which Korn contributed after the completion of "Children of the Korn." Cube implies that the combination of these songs and the Family Values tour may result in an album-length teaming between him and the band. "I want to do something so good that the hard-core rap fans are going to love it and the hard-core rock fans are going to love it, too," he says.
That's a tall order, but Cube believes that it's within his grasp. He admits, however, that perfecting the synthesis of rock and rap isn't as important to him as who's waiting for him at home at the end of the day. "My biggest challenge in life is to take the position that I'm in and expand it to where I can benefit my family, and my kids' kids, and their kids' kids. I'm the only person in my family who's been in the position that I'm in, so I want to take full advantage of every opportunity that I have to make sure that my kids don't have to worry about what I had to worry about."
Ice Cube is scheduled to perform as part of the Family Values tour, along with Korn, Rammstein, Limp Bizkit, and Orgy, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, October 8, at America West Arena. Call 379-7800.