Some of you are probably too young to remember, but there was a time when hip-hop music was legitimately threatening. These days, even the most violent shtick of hardcore rappers seems at least a little staged. Not that guys like Jay-Z and 50 Cent are completely faking it—you don’t survive a nine-bullet fusillade without having some gangsta credibility—but they’re also following a script, even if it’s subconscious. During the late 80s, before the advent of coastal rap feuds and saggy pants, a group like N.W.A. (an acronym for “N-words With Attitude”) was legitimately shocking, and not just to suburban white kids who couldn’t so much as whisper their name without feeling like a racist. Ice Cube, N.W.A.’s de facto leader (Dr. Dre notwithstanding), was a living/breathing/rapping example of an equal-opportunity intimidator. Regardless of your pigmentation or economic status, when Cube expressed relief at being able to enjoy a day without using his AK or confessed that he had no moral quandaries about gunning down a police officer who’d gotten a little too comfortable with his “authority to kill a minority,” only an idiot would’ve accused him of being ironic. Remarkably, his gangsta-rap posturing still has credibility after two decades and a few too many Friday sequels. It’s almost impossible not to sound like a bitter old man when explaining why things were so much cooler back in your youth, but seriously, with all due respect to Lil Wayne’s diamond-studded grill and tat-covered torso, he will never be able to compete with the menace and testicle-rattling fear that Ice Cube could inspire with just a scowl.
I called Ice Cube to talk about his new album, I Am West, which drops next Tuesday, September 28th. Maybe I just listened to Straight Outta Compton a few too many times as a teenager, but I was honestly nervous about talking to him. As it turned out, he was affable and facetious, quick to laugh and play along with any absurd line of questioning that was thrown at him. But then he told me that some of the funniest people he’s ever known are also the most dangerous. “They’ll make you laugh and shit,” he said. “But the moment you turn your back, they’ll fucking kill you.” So I’m not sure what Cube was trying to tell me exactly.
Eric Spitznagel: You’re bringing back an old-school gangsta rap attitude and sound with I Am the West. Have you been feeling nostalgic for the old days?
Ice Cube: It’s not really nostalgia. With this record, I wanted to just do what I do best, instead of always trying to reach for the new. You don’t go to Mexico and eat Chinese food. You know what I mean?
I do. That is a guaranteed way to get botulism.
I want to stay in my lane and do what I do best.
There’s this thing that happens with rock music, where the songs you used to love are suddenly being called “classic rock” and then you know you’re old. Is there something similar in hip-hop?
[Laughs.] Absolutely, yeah.
So you might hear one of your songs on the radio and it’s being called “old school” and you’ll think, “When the fuck did I become old school?”
It happens to the best of us. That’s just the nature of the business. People think that because you reach a certain age, you don’t know how to do what you do. It’s crazy. I don’t know how old you are, but if somebody told you you couldn’t write cause you crossed a certain threshold, you’d look at them like they was crazy.
What do you miss the most about the old school days?
The individuality. People were in their own groups. They didn’t ball and steal styles. You had to be unique to make it. Now, you gotta be cookie cutter to make it.
When was the last time you walked down a city street with a boom box that weighed as much as a futon?
Aw man, not since the 80s. I loved boom boxes. For me, it was part of the culture of letting people know, this is not your normal fan here. You know what I mean? You’re dealing with a b-boy. You’re dealing with a person that’s part of the music, not just a listener of the music.
And obviously, you’re somebody with a lot of upper body strength.
A little bit, yeah. A boom box is some heavy shit.
What about jheri curls? Are they poised for a comeback?
I actually seen a kid with a jheri curl the other day. It might be on its way back. You’re laughing but I’m serious. I think sooner or later, it’s all going to be back. It’s gonna be Hammer time once again.
Who rocked the curls better, you or Philip Michael Thomas?
Me! Phillip Michael’s shit was dry. He had an afro curl. My shit hung in back!
I assume you’re going on tour to support the new album. Will you be giving fans a taste of the old hits?
Oh yeah, I don’t believe in leaving out twenty years of history. I gotta give them a little bit of Straight Outta Compton and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Westside Connection. And then we’ll play the new stuff a little bit too.
Have you thought about updating any of the references in those old songs?
Naw! That’s what makes them old-school hits, because they’re like time capsules.
Well, how about “It Was a Good Day”? It’s got lyrics like “Half way home and my pager still blowin’ up.” There’s probably not a lot of pagers blowing up in the audience anymore, right?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess not. But everybody knows the lyrics, so it is what it is.
Do you have a pager?
Nope. I don’t think anybody uses pagers anymore, except maybe doctors and those chain restaurants.
There you go, that’s how you change the lyrics so it makes more sense. (Badly rapping.) “Half way home and my pager still blowin’ up/ my table’s totally ready at the Cheesecake Factory, wa’sup.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, no, thanks, I’m good.
As an elder statesman of rap, do you look at some of the trends in hip-hop today and think, “Are you kidding me with this shit?”
I’m not feeling the skinny jeans.
Not the oversized jeans that hang below the ass?
That don’t bother me. It’s the skinny jeans that I hate. They definitely showing off a little more than I would like to see from a guy.
How about makin’ it rain? Especially in this recession, isn’t that fiscally irresponsible?
I think it’s dumb in any era. To throw money in the air, that’s just stupid.
Instead of “makin’ it rain”, shouldn’t we be “askin’ for change”?
I don’t know about that. But makin’ it rain, I never believed in that.
Do you have the same gangsta attitude you had back in N.W.A.?
I feel more gangsta now. Back then, I didn’t really know what I wanted. But now I know what I want, and I know how to get it. It makes me a little more tenacious.
That attitude doesn’t mellow with age?
When you’re a kid, you don’t know what you think you know. So you probably have a little more attitude, because there’s a lot of frustration built in there. I got attitude for different reasons.
I don’t want to be the fly who kills the elephant. I would rather be the fly who annoys the elephant enough that the elephant moves and gets the fuck out the fly’s way. You know what I mean? 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. I’d just make dance records, shake your booty records.
When you were forming N.W.A., were you guys consciously looking for a name that white people couldn’t say?
We didn’t think about white people at all back then, much less whether they could say the name of the group. We didn’t care about them. We thought we were so underground that the mainstream could never get to us.
Let’s say Dr. Laura Schlessinger approached you, and she said, “Mr. Cube, I’m a huge fan of African-Americans With Attitude,” but she used the other word for African-Americans, the one that rhymes with Tigger and got her fired from her radio show. What are the chances she’d live to see the morning?
[Laughs.] She’d live to see the morning. It’s about the context. Language is like a knife. You can cut your food with it, or you can cut somebody up with it. It can be a tool or it can be a weapon. It’s really about how it’s used. If you’re just saying it trying to be a smart-ass or trying to be cool, that’s a different context than if you say it trying to be viscous or trying to hurt somebody’s feelings. It’s all about the intent.
Is the word any better if it ends with a suffix like “-az” or “-ah” rather than “-er”? Does that actually make a difference?
Yeah, it does. It’s how it sounds. The “-er” sounds corny.
Corny? That’s not the adjective I would’ve used. Don’t you mean hateful?
Naw, it’s just corny.
Everything about your life and career goes against the classical gangster story. If you look at movies like Scarface or The Godfather, the gangster usually ends up riddled with bullets. There’s never a gangster story that ends with, “And then he became an executive producer for a family friendly comedy on TBS.” Why are you the exception?
Gangstas want the picket fence and the nice home and the two cars in the garage like anybody else. They want all the stuff like the regular nine-to-five guy. To me, gangsta really isn’t about the criminal life only. It’s about living your whole life on your terms, no matter what. If what you want to do is within the law, then you don’t have to break the law to be a gangsta. But if what you want is outside of the law, and you still do what you want anyway, that’s pretty gangsta. It’s ain’t always just on the violent criminal tip. It’s on the attitude and how you approach this world, and not taking no for an answer.
On the new album, you’ve got a song called “Man vs. Machine,” which is about our cultural dependence on machinery and how it’s taking over. Are you talking about robots?
That’s one aspect of it. I think every job that a person has is under threat of being taken over by a machine. By a robot.
Probably so, yeah. If you record enough of my voice a cappella, you could probably replace me with machine. It could make music. It ain’t gonna make you feel like Ice Cube, but it’ll definitely sound like me.
Is that what auto-tuned hip-hop artists like T-Pain are about? Are we being indoctrinated to a musical future of robot singer-songwriters?
Naw, not really. I think it’s just people trying different styles. Roger (Troutman) and Zapp brought in the vocoder in ’81. So it’s been around for awhile. When it comes to music, nothing sounds better than the human voice with a little reverb on it. I don’t think you’re ever going to lose that to more technological-sounding records.
Okay, let’s say music is safe for the time being. How else will machines take over? Which electronic convenience is going to rise up against us first? The laptops? The flat-screen TVs? The SUVs?
Digital data. Digital data will be the first thing that starts to go.
Our pretty new iPads could destroy us?
Not destroy us, but paralyze us. Most people depend too much on their Blackberry. If all of their information was zapped out of it, they wouldn’t even know how to contact their mother. Our information is going to get attacked first before the humans are attacked by over-intelligent machines.
But that’s next, right? I’ve talked about this with Clive Davis and I’m pretty convinced it’ll happen. The human race will eventually be enslaved by robot overlords?
Oh yeah, for sure. But that to me is a long way away. That’s years off. Right now, I think it’s our information that’s the most vulnerable.
Speaking of creepy technology, maybe you can help me with this. I was trying to illegally download something the other day, not gonna say what, and all I could find was something in “FLAC” format.
What’s it called again?
FLAC? It stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec.
I’ve never heard of it.
Yeah, I don’t know really understand it either. But if I do somehow figure out how to use FLAC and play it on my iPod, does that give me permission to steal music?
No! You should never steal music! If you steal music, you put your favorite artist out of business. You might get it for free today, but what are you going to be able to steal tomorrow, when people stop making music because there’s no money in it? Fast forward to forty years from now, everybody’s going to have these crazy advanced iPods, which are built directly into their ear.
Seriously? That sounds horrible.
It will be horrible, because they ain’t gonna have shit to play but old-ass music. Cause no new music is being recorded because nobody’s gonna do it because there ain’t no money in it. So we’ll have this amazing technology, but your ass is still playing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Wow. That is a grim, dystopian vision of the future.
Stay away from that FLAC stuff.
Okay, one final question. Who killed Tupac?
The guy they say killed him.
Wait, what? They found his killer? I didn’t hear about this.
He was some dude they caught on the south side. I forget his name. Yeah, they knew who killed him. They don’t know who killed Biggie.
When you say “they,” who are you talking about exactly? Are you telling me that there’s a secret society of hip-hop artists, like the Masons or the Illuminati, and they always knew what happened to Tupac and Biggie but they never told the rest of us?
Naw, man, I’m not saying anything like that. That don’t happen in rap. Not at all.
Okay, I’m going to take your word on this, Ice. Well listen, thanks for talking, but I gotta run. My pager is blowing up.
[Laughs.] Yeah, better check that. Sounds like your table’s ready.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)