There was a time when lyrics really mattered. I remember as a kid pressing “play” and “rewind” over and over again so I could memorize what I considered to be hottest verses in rap music. It was one thing to like an artist, but if you really wanted to be on top of your game, if you really wanted to show that you knew your stuff, if you truly respected the game, you had to know the rhymes that defined it, line for line! But those days are essentially gone. As most artists seek to produce records that will bring them money and the subsequent mainstream success, lyrics have taken a back seat to catchy hooks and hypnotic beats. It’s got a lot of folks sounding like De La Soul wondering, “Whatever happened to the emcee?”
The emcees themselves will answer the pressing question in my reoccurring feature called, “Rewind the Rhyme with Amanda Diva and (insert your favorite emcee’s name here).” The Hip-Hop-loving folks at AllHipHop.com will uncover how some of rap’s greatest lyricists created their most classic records/verses, how things have changed or remained the same in their creative process, and whether lyrics still matter.
Before the kiddie flicks and family fun movies, Ice Cube, through his scalding honesty and intensity, came to be regarded as one of rap’s most respected wordsmiths. A living legend, he is accredited with, among other things, solidifying the gangsta rap movement with classics like “N***a You Love to Hate” (1990’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted) and the laid back “Today Was a Good Day” (1992’s The Predator). About to release his fifth solo album of new material, Laugh Now, Cry Later, I sat down with Cube at Mirror Image Studios in New York City to rewind the rhyme and talk about Cube’s writing process on some of his most renowned records, his new music, and if he’s still the n***a you love to hate!
Amanda Diva’s Rewind The Rhyme with Ice Cube.
AllHipHop.com: Do you still listen to Hip-Hop?
Ice Cube: Yeah.
AllHipHop.com: You still do?
Ice Cube: Yeah, what else I’ma listen to?
AllHipHop.com: Nah, you know a lot of folks be like, “I don’t even listen to Hip-Hop no more, yo. I’m straight old school, straight old school.”
Ice Cube: Nah, I listen to everything. I mean, I listen to old school, but I listen to new school, rap, R&B.
AllHipHop.com: So, on a scale of one to 10, where do you think lyrics rank on a scale of importance in Hip-Hop these days?
Ice Cube: [Listen] One-to-10 on importance? I mean, as far as the game go, lyrics are always gonna be some of the most important things. Just as important as your beats. But, nobody ain’t saying nothing important right now. You know what I mean? Nobody ain’t really saying nothing significant that’s gonna change somebody life. It’s a few MC’s out there that are trying to do it. Or that have been consistent with it. I mean you know, you can’t dismiss what The Roots are doing. You can’t dismiss what people like dead prez is doing and Common and Kanye and people like that. But for the most part the Hip-Hop nation just don’t want to hear [lyrics] now like that.
AllHipHop.com: Let’s start off with a record that did change a lot of people’s lives and lyrically I think this is the record you get most “props” for.
[“The N***a You Love to Hate”-Amerikkka’s Most Wanted]
Ice Cube: [Listen] DAMN! (Smiling) I remember doing this record! Greene Street Studios, SOHO right? Green Street Studios, with Chuck D, the Bomb Squad, Eric Sadler, Keith Shockley, Hank Shockley. You know this record to me represents the best of both worlds. You know coming straight from NWA with that West Coast gangsta flow, but over a Public Enemy conjured up-you know they used to be like mad scientist up in there with them beats flippin em-and it was like the perfect marriage at the right time. It was exactly what Hip-Hop needed and uh, you know the record Amerikkka’s Most Wanted is still my favorite record.
Ice Cube: Yea, ’cause my memories of doing that record and what I had to go through to get it done makes it just kinda like close to my heart.
[“Today Was a Good Day”-The Predator]
AllHipHop.com: So let’s play this next record. I think this is probably your best known record. When folks think of Cube this is the record most point to that don’t really know your history.
Ice Cube: [Listen] At the time I did “It Was a Good Day,” people was trying to pigeonhole me saying, “All he can do is one type of record.” And you know, I’m a B-boy, I like all kinds of Hip-Hop. I’m not just, “Oh I like the gangsta stuff and that’s it.” So, “It Was a Good Day” was trying to show that, you know, whatever comes from me is not gonna be because people are saying I should do this kind of record, or I should just stick with what I’m doing. ‘Cause people was not really wanting me to do this record in my camp. They was saying, “You do hard records. Why you gonna do this?” And I was like, “That’s exactly why. Because it’s dope.”
AllHipHop.com: I think a lot of people miss the point of this record though. They miss the irony.
Ice Cube: Yeah
AllHipHop.com: The record is ironic in that it’s a good day cause n****s ain’t get shot? That’s crazy! But people don’t see it that way.
Ice Cube: Exactly. It is. It is. But when you really strip the song down, life is hard in the ghetto. All these land mines you try and duck and you’re happy that everything is going alright. Basically the song is saying, if you get through the day it’s a good day, without getting shot or going to jail or people you know getting shot or going to jail.
AllHipHop.com: On the new album do we have any joints that lead to a laid back Cube or is it a whole new Cube?
Ice Cube: It’s a lil’ dibble and dabble of both, of the old and the new. I got a song on there called “Growing Up.” It reminds me a lot of “It Was a Good Day.” It’s that old Minnie Ripperton sample, “Back Down Memory Lane.” It basically takes us through the history of Ice Cube from the time I met Dre all the way to XXX II (XXX: State of the Union). It’s one of those songs that felt a lot like “It Was a Good Day”.
AllHipHop.com: So we got this new album and the name of the album is?
Ice Cube: Laugh Now, Cry Later.
[“Chrome and Paint” Street Single off of New Album]
AllHipHop.com: And where did you get that title from?
Ice Cube: That’s a title that a lot of the people in the penitentiary use; tattoos people get. It kinda describes their life when they were on the street and them paying for it now. You know, laugh cry later is kinda the feel of my album. It’s got, you know, the club bangers, the political records-which is the cry later kinda feel. It kinda encompasses that. You know I didn’t want to do a whole political record and I didn’t want to do a whole record where I was just trying to get it jumped off. You know so, it’s a record that flows from kind of one tone to the next. Laugh Now, Cry Later really is the state of the world in a way. You know, you could say it’s the state of the world, the state of America, the state of urban America. Now everybody’s doing a lot of playing and nobody’s really thinking about when God gonna make us pay for all this at some point in time. That’s really what inspired me to make it that title.
AllHipHop.com: How do you know as a writer when a verse is done; when a record is finished?
Ice Cube: When the song is complete and I rap it acapella and I rap it with the beat that somebody gave me before we recorded and I go set it down, but I wanna go in there and rap it again because I wanna hear how it’s sounding. Cause I know that it’s fire, you know what I’m saying? (laughs) So, that’s how I know, to me, that a song is complete and a song is good, is that I wanna-I’m like anxious to get to the studio. I’m like busting at the seams to get there. That’s how I know, that this is it.
[“We Be Clubbin”]
AllHipHop.com: You’ve got classics. Hits! A bevy of them. Did you know that they were classics when you made them? Did you know that these were lyrical classics that people would be repeating these words? Don’t be modest!
Ice Cube: In some cases yeah and some cases no.
AllHipHop.com: Name one that you knew.
Ice Cube: “We Be Clubbin.”
AllHipHop.com: You knew it?
Ice Cube: I knew it! I knew, like “We Be Clubbin” that nobody was really rappin about being in the whole club experience. It was a song that kind of kicked off talking about how it feels to be kickin’ it in the club. So I knew that it was something that a lot of people was doing. You know, I did that song in ’96. So it was something that a lot of people was doing, but a lot of people wasn’t rapping about it. So I knew that would do it. I knew “F**k the Police” was gonna be. I knew “Today Was a Good Day” was gonna work.
Ice Cube: Just cause of the sample. Using the Isley Brothers I felt like I was winning before I even started rappin so…
AllHipHop.com: Did you have any idea that “N***a You Love to Hate” would end up being one of them records that defines you?
Ice Cube: Yea it’s like a record that, like if “F**k the Police” marks NWA, “N***a You Love to Hate” kind of is like the stamp. If you want to explain to anybody what Ice Cube is about, you could probably play that record and get then and now.
AllHipHop.com: So are you still that n***a?
Ice Cube: Oh yea, fa sho, fa sho!