Thirty years ago, Ice Cube released his Bomb Squad-produced masterpiece AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Read the story of how Ice Cube left N.W.A. and traveled to New York City to record a classic.
As the pages on the calendar flipped to the 1990s, West Coast hip-hop was beginning to tighten its grip on the consciousness of the culture. Rap artists on the East Coast had pioneered and dominated the genre during its infantile stages, however, the previous three years marked a period where Los Angeles would come to power, beginning with Ice-T, who unleashed his landmark debut, Rhyme Pays, in 1987. Just a year later, N.W.A. emerged on the scene, shocking the world with their own debut album, Straight Outta Compton, which lamented the harsh realities of the LA streets like never before.
Comprised of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and Eazy-E, the Compton-based rap group was a seismic force. Touching on the gang violence, police brutality, and drug pandemic sweeping urban America in the light of Reaganomics, Straight Outta Compton’s jarring content struck a chord with fans across the country, who pushed it to platinum certification, unprecedented territory for a rap act with explicit content. Released on Ruthless Records, an imprint co-founded by N.W.A. member Eazy-E and the group’s manager, Jerry Heller, Straight Outta Compton — and Eazy-E’s own solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It — included contributions from the group as a whole, but a sizable chunk of the lyrics rapped on both albums can be attributed to one individual: Ice Cube.
Born and bred in Los Angeles, Cube, who began writing rhymes as a teenager, originally intended to become an architect, moving to Arizona to study at the Phoenix Institute of Technology following high school. Those dreams of drafting blueprints for structural purposes became a reality when he returned to Los Angeles and banded with Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. Upon the release of Straight Outta Compton, he’s emerged as the group’s breakout star via show-stealing performances on singles “Straight Outta Compton,” “Express Yourself,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” and “Dopeman (Remix).”
However, despite the group’s runaway success, by 1989 relationships had soured, and Ice Cube broke ties with N.W.A. and Ruthless amid a dispute concerning the terms and conditions of a recording contract drawn up by Heller and Eazy-E.
At the time, the move was unprecedented. Why would an artist of that stature leave a group at the height of its success? Cube, who initially intended for N.W.A. group-mate Dr. Dre to produce his solo record, got caught in a dilemma when that request was rebuffed by Ruthless Records, leaving him to search elsewhere to construct an entire new sound. In an attempt to change course, Cube’s management contacted Def Jam executive Lyor Cohen to set up a meeting between the rapper and East Coast producer Sam Sever. Sever, who had previously helped produce New York rap group 3rd Bass’ debut, The Cactus Album, in 1989, had piqued the interest of Cube, who sprung at the opportunity to procure the rising boardsman’s talents.
Unfortunately, when Cube touched down at the Def Jam offices in New York City, Sever, was nowhere to be found. As luck — or fate, depending on who you ask — would have it, Cube ran into Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, an artist on the label whom he mad met the summer before while touring with N.W.A. Informing him about his split with N.W.A., Cube received an invitation from Chuck D to join him at Greene Street Studios in Manhattan, where he recorded his brief guest verse on “Burn, Hollywood, Burn” a Public Enemy track that also featured rap star Big Daddy Kane. The song, which was later released as a single from Public Enemy’s third studio album, Fear of a Black Planet, served as Ice Cube’s first appearance on wax as a free agent and drummed up anticipation of what the public could expect next.
During the initial recording session for “Burn, Hollywood, Burn,” Cube was introduced to The Bomb Squad, the production crew behind Public Enemy hits like “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Bring the Noise,” Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” and, most recently, “Fight the Power,” the theme from Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do The Right Thing. Sharing his struggle to find a producer to craft tracks for his album, Cube, who had hoped to get “a track or two” was floored when the Shocklee brothers, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and company offered to extend all hands on deck and oversee the album in its entirety. From there, Cube, along with producer Sir Jinx, camped out at a Long Island warehouse, where they were tasked with digging for records to mine for samples, at the order of The Bomb Squad.
An arduous assignment that took over a week’s time to complete, Cube and Jinx’s efforts were rewarded upon their return to Greene Street Studios; The Bomb Squad teamed up with Jinx to transform those two crates worth of samples into the controlled hodgepodges of noise the crew were infamous for. At the same time, the two Cali kids got a crash course in East Coast hip-hop, with future legends like Busta Rhymes, Redman, and EPMD’s Erick Sermon ingratiating themselves to Cube and Jinx and creating an air of camaraderie. As representatives of the West Coast, who were often ostracized by their eastern counterparts at the time, Ice Cube and Jinx’s collaborative effort with The Bomb Squad was uncharted territory, with both parties feeling the need to prove their ability to transcend regional biases and constraints by crafting a quality body of work.
Recording in twelve-hour intervals, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted — a title chosen by Cube as a twist on the true crime show, America’s Most Wanted — was completed in the span of a month. Released on May 16, 1990, just a month after Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was the latest indictment against the powers that be in the light of the precipitous decay of urban America. Following a chilling introductory skit that casts Cube as the victim of an electrical execution, he comes out the gate swinging at the establishment on “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate.” A funky opener that finds him barking, “I heard payback’s a motherfucking nigga,” “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” — which includes a myriad of samples, including “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton — captures its author dissing everyone from the media to law enforcement to Arsenio Hall.
Basking in the role of being “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” is a constant theme throughout AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Cube’s rap career in its entirety, as he spouts the truth in an abrasive manner, with a scowl that’s indicative of his disregard for the sentiments of mainstream America and its apologists. Released as its lead-single, the title-track finds Cube in the midst of a brazen crime spree while evading capture. Conjuring visions of a forceful “nigga invasion” in white suburbia, Cube taps into this country’s greatest fear on “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted“: being at the mercy of a vengeful black man. Reporting live from a crap game — which culminates in a shootout on the quick-strike cut, “What They Hittin’ Foe” — Ice Cube delves into the depths of misogyny, one of the album’s prevalent talking points, on “You Can’t Fade Me / JD’s Gafflin.”
Discovering he’s possibly impregnated a promiscuous woman, Ice Cube contemplates the unthinkable, rhyming “Then I thought deep about giving up the money/What I need to do is kick the bitch in the tummy/Naw ’cause then I’d really get faded/That’s murder one ’cause it was premeditated.” At a time when rap artists were striving to push the envelope, these lyrics were considered the extreme — and would be considered reprehensible in today’s landscape — a testament to the grim truths embedded in the music, regardless of how sinister. From there, Cube lightens the mood a taste on “Once Upon a Time in the Projects,” a standout selection giving a play-by-play of his experience visiting a public housing residence in the hopes of sexual pleasure. However, he comes to the realization that the apartment is a crack-house before ultimately become ensnared in a police sting.
The locker-room banter continues on the bluntly-titled offerings “I’m Only Out for One Thang” and “Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo Bitch to Come Here,” but the hi-fives and cheap laughs are interrupted by “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside),” a song featuring Chuck D that focuses on the devaluation of young black men in the eyes of law enforcement.
Likening the target on his back to being an animal in the wild, Cube touched on the inspiration behind the track during an interview with ABC following AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted‘s release. “It’s like a war on black young males with baseball caps and T-shirts, he said at the time. “I’m an endangered species myself.”
Taking a page out of the book of Big Daddy Kane’s “Callin’ Mr. Welfare,” Cube flips the script with “A Gangsta’s Fairytale,” before serving up a precursor to the climax of his forthcoming film, Boyz n the Hood (which he began filming later that year) on “The Drive-By.”
One pivotal moment from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted came via “Rollin’ Wit the Lench Mob,” which introduced his crew, Da Lench Mob; the move foreshadowed his first step toward becoming the captain and leader of his own ship in the subsequent years. Another wrinkle from the album that was groundbreaking, yet doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, is Ice Cube’s willingness to include a female rapper on the album, with Yo-Yo making her own debut on the impressive salvo “It’s a Man’s World.” A classic instance of the battle of the sexes, the guest spot would jump-start Yo-Yo’s career as a soloist and was a progressive move for one of the leading voices in a sub-genre often charged with discrediting and devaluing women of color, a topic he touched on following the album’s release.
“I think the female view needs to be heard, and she`s the perfect person to do it,” he said at the time. ”Together, we get this problem out in the open.”
Upon its release, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted broke the bank in a big way. Debuting at No. 19 on Billboard 200 and becoming among the first rap albums released in the ’90s to reach platinum certification. The album managed to crossover despite being banned by many radio outlets and video stations alike for the explicit nature of the lyrical and visual content. While Ice Cube and the album itself was maligned for those qualities, it didn’t deter the critics from hailing it as an instant classic and masterpiece, with various publications deeming it the best rap album of the year and touting Ice Cube as rap’s new preeminent soloist, the first time that honor had been universally reserved for a west coast rap artist.
Despite its acclaim and success, Ice Cube would change course following the release of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, toning down the misogyny on its follow-up, Death Certificate, which focused more on sociopolitical matters, the following year. This could be attributed to his conversion to Islam and the influence of figures like Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan had on his view of the black community and the world at large.
Thirty years later, Ice Cube has managed to find success beyond hip-hop, re-branding himself as a family-friendly actor and filmmaker through his roles in films like Barbershop, Are We There Yet, The Longshots. He’s also an entrepreneur, launching the BIG3, 3-on-3 basketball league. It’s a stark contrast to the scowling menace to society he was perceived as at the outset of his career.
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted continues to be one of the most pivotal rap albums to ever impact the musical landscape, and while its creator has turned over many new leaves in life, he will forever hold a spot as “That nigga they love to hate.”
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?