June 13, 2014

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Jesse Taylor doesn’t know but today seems kind of odd

Prologue

December 24, 1992

Floating high amongst trees grazing wind-blown leaves was a pitch-black figure approaching a large home.

It passed through the stucco exterior and inside the walls. In the master bedroom snoring loudly was rap music legend Ice Cube. He cuddled against his wife Kimberly, releasing wall-shaking inhalations that, like his exhalations on the mic, loudly shattered the air into quaking pieces.

Suddenly Cube’s breath became stuck and his chest clenched tight like a fist. The upper half of his body shot up from the bed and he awoke to an ice-cold room. He looked up to see death at the foot of his bed – a large Phantom shadow in a black-hooded cloak.

“What the fuck!? Kimberly! Yo Kim! Wake yo ass up!” But Kimberly did not wake her ass up.

The sound was sucked from of the room. The Phantom raised a boney hand that controlled Cube’s body beyond its power to resist and forced him down to one knee. Cube looked up as the Phantom’s boney metacarpals created a ball of swirling smoke. Out of a cloud of vague forms and sounds and colors a picture began to form.

Cube saw a clear image of himself, roughly 20 years older, at a bar on the beach with a Coors Light bottle, making corny joke after corny joke. Confused, Cube looked into the darkness of the mysterious creature’s hidden face.

“What was that?”

The Phantom did not answer but revealed the next image.

A 40-year-old man was driving a Honda Accord with his teenage son in the passenger seat.

“Come on, dad,” said the teenager. “Just give Drake a chance. You’ll like him.”

“Nah, come on. Check out this Ice Cube.”

“Ice Cube? That dork from ‘Are We There Yet?’ No thanks. Is he going to rap about teaching a little girl to play football? Give me a break.”

Next, smoke blasted from the Phantom’s hands high into the ceiling and dissipated into a music video. Ice Cube was dancing around with females to the sounds of “Bop Gun” and “We Be Clubbin’.”

Current Cube was crushed. “I … I crossed over?”

Sounding like a lawn mower cutting through a field of gravel, the Phantom said, “Might as well cut them balls off.”

The Phantom played War & Peace I & II track by track, then Laugh Now, Cry Later. Cube was crushed. The person he was today wasn’t there anymore.

“Please, make it stop. I promise I won’t make music like that … ever. I’ll quit. I can’t do that to my legacy.”

The Phantom spoke again, “You want to act? Fine. Then act. But stop rapping.”

Cube nodded and the Phantom left.

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Cube sat awake the entire night. Christmas morning arrived as Cube squinted, watching little lines of yellow light fill the edges around his drawn window shades. He finally lifted himself from his bed, grabbed his phone and left a message with Priority Records.

“Yo, this is Cube. I’m retired.”

Kimberly awoke and Cube hung up the phone, ready to begin a new chapter in his life.

“Let Me Tell Ya A Story Or Two”

But Ice Cube didn’t retire from rap. He never experienced Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Future. Unlike an actual ice cube, the rapper didn’t just melt and fade away leaving a stellar yet incomplete career behind like 2Pac and Biggie.

The entertainment industry is like the delicate change in balance of a seesaw. At the top of the seesaw in 1992, Cube would crawl and grovel between his lyrics, tunneling like an escaped convict among words then coming up covered in the muddy mess of brilliant hard-core rap.

Then Hollywood caught his attention. He continued to make albums but surfed lightly on top of his music; never again getting deep enough to have the same impact. He lost his rap advantage and his seat on the seesaw slowly went down.

I choose to ignore the fallen rapper and remember the genius of Ice Cube. But then, I may enjoy his music more than most. I eat stories like an addict smokes meth. Ice Cube was an amazing storyteller and his songs were like a fresh batch of blue from Walter White.

Cube explaining the nuances of a crap game was like Mark Twain describing a group of kids painting a fence. His Tom Sawyer was a boy worried that a one-night stand might have made him a dad. Cube’s Aunt Polly lived in a crack house and owned a 12-guage Mossberg. Huck Finn and Jim didn’t paddle down a river in Ice Cube’s stories; they jacked a motherfucker for his Nissan right in the McDonald’s drive through and came away with a truck and a happy meal.

Sometimes it took several listens to grasp all of the story lines in a Cube song. You were never sure what the next word would be. With most rappers you are absolutely sure what the next word will be.

He could tell introspective and hilarious stories while also making you want to tear the world up by its racist roots.

Starting with “A Bitch Iz A Bitch” and ending with his guest appearance on 2Pac’s “Last Wordz,” from 1987 to 1993 Ice Cube was the baddest motherfucker in the history of rap music. He was a destructive machine that chopped down anything standing in his way; with a stare that intimidated like a silent earthquake.

I listen to Ice Cube today smiling like an old man thinking on a pleasant memory. It makes me sad that today’s generation hears the name Ice Cube and thinks of bad rap music, corny Coors Light commercials, Are We There Yet? and Kevin Hart movies.

So I’m writing this article, not just to ask the youngsters to go back and listen to Cube’s early work, but for that frustrated 40-year-old driving the Honda Accord while his son listens Drake.

“Who Is Ice Cube?”

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I first heard Cube when I was 15. It was 1989 and the N.W.A. controversy had hit my East Bay Area neighborhood.

This was a time when the rules of music were being torn down. The world put up barbed fences around rappers, and they plunged through the wire. Graphic lyrics described the reality of sex, drugs and violence, and parents, denying these things in themselves, were horrified to find their children enjoying it.

Outside of recorded blank tapes, my music collection wasn’t that great. But I had a friend who liked to wear baggie jeans into music stores and shove a bunch of rap tapes down his pants. He came up with two copies of N.W.A. and graciously gave me one.

As someone who got so few new tapes, I didn’t take Straight Outta Compton lightly. I cradled it for weight, reviewed all the stickers on the wrapper, read every word of text on the inside and outside covers, and studied each person in the photos and created personalities for each.

Finally, I put the cassette in my boom box nervously expecting to hear violence in the form of voices screaming at me. Frightened and at the same time attracted – ready for a rap version of devil-worshipping heavy metal music.

But as I listened, I was engaged by the sound. My attention was tied to the speakers by a taut string. Out of the gray throbbing angry words an ecstasy arose.

Straight Outta Compton made Ice Cube, with Dr. Dre, one of the two creative forces behind arguable the most important album in rap music history. If Dre was the sound of N.W.A., Ice Cube was the voice; not only for himself but for group, writing many of Dre and Eazy’s lyrics.

Rap was not yet mainstream. N.W.A. hit a nerve with audiences, so when Ice Cube went solo, there was no guarantee he would have success. He easily could have made a great record that no one bought and disappeared forever.

But he didn’t.

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“I’m Sick Of Gettin’ Treated Like A Goddamn Step Child”

Cube released Amerikkka’s Most Wanted – a tightly wound narrative of a young person growing up in the ‘hood. Like Mike Tyson in 1985, Ice Cube came out swinging with each song and knocked them out within seconds.

“The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” – Mike Tyson knocking out Donnie Long in 1:28.
“AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” – Sammy Scaff, 1:19.
“What They Hittin’ Foe” - Marvis Frazier, 30 seconds.
“You Can’t Fade Me” – Robert Colay, 37 seconds.
“Once Upon A Time in the Projects” – Richardo Spain, 39 seconds.

What a remarkable way to begin a solo career. Each of those five songs is a classic. But he didn’t end there. The next 11 tracks stand on their own as great songs, including my favorite line about a sneaker ever:

There he saw the lady who lived in a shoe / Sold dope out the front, by the back marijuana grew / for the man that was really important / Who lived down the street in a Air Jordan

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All Y’all Dope Dealers, You’re As Bad As The Police Cuz You Kill Us

In the year-and-a-half between his first and second solo albums, Ice Cube released an extended play album (with two huge hits – “Jackin’ For Beats” and “Dead Homiez”) and co-starred in the critically acclaimed classic movie Boyz in the Hood.

Expectations were high for Death Certificate. Unfazed and confident as hell, Cube switched it up and took a deep dive into the issues of the entire country – mainly race.

Cube was on a mission to destroy anything restricting improvements in the black community, so he went after whites, the Jewish community and Asians that owned stores in black neighborhoods. He even went hard at his own race.

Amerikkkas Most Wanted was the better, more consistent and complete album. But the best songs on Death Certificate were the peak of Cube’s work.

These peaks included “Look Who’s Burnin’,” “A Bird In The Hand” and “Man’s Best Friend.” They were great warm-ups for his masterpiece, “Alive On Arrival.”

In just three minutes of one long verse with no chorus, Cube addresses gang violence, police abuse, healthcare in poor black communities and the popularity of M.A.S.H. reruns. Three of those are huge issues in America (sorry M.A.S.H. fans). A writer’s goal is to say more with less. Cube chooses his words wisely through what was a challenging task – fitting a three-hour real time narrative into three minutes.

“Us” is another standout for me, mainly because of something my mom caught in the song. Yes, my mom, the single mother who was both tolerant in her child-raising tactics but overly involved in my life. This meant listening to all the crazy ass rap tapes I stored under my bed. As we listened to “Us” she stopped me after this verse:

Go to church but they tease us / with a picture of a blue-eyed Jesus / They used to call me negro / After all this time I’m still bustin’ up the chifferobe.

“You know what that’s from right?”

Me: “No.”

To Kill A Mockingbird.

Mind fucking blown. In that classic book/movie, a white girl was raped by her father, but she accused a black man, Tom, of the crime. She claimed Tom was busting up an old chifferobe (aka wardrobe closet) for her then forced himself on her. The innocent Tom was found guilty and shot 17 times by the prison guards.

After all this time I’m still bustin’ up the chifferobe.

Deep. Don’t let “Are We There Yet?” fool you.

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Epilogue

While 1992’s The Predator was solid, and Cube’s most successful album, it was a major drop off in quality. With each album, his rap suffered as he found other interests. Cube had aspirations beyond the mic; and who can blame him? Maybe a specialist who focuses one thing, afraid to look out of his little cage, misses the whole world outside of his window. Ice Cube’s career and his life have been far more impactful than if he had just remained a rapper.

I only wished that he had stopped rapping when he moved on to other ventures. But like Rick and Ilso will always have Paris, Ice Cube fans will always have Amerikkkas Most Wanted and Death Certificate.

And for that, we are thankful.