When Ice Cube left the notorious L.A. rap group N.W.A in 1990, he continued writing hard-hitting gangsta rap songs that pushed buttons in the media as well as among parents, politicians, and police. He also embarked on a successful acting career that by the end of the decade had almost eclipsed his musical output.
The son of a strict two-parent home (his mom was a clerk, and dad a groundskeeper at UCLA), South Central L.A. native O'Shea Jackson found success with N.W.A [see entry] after graduating from college in 1988 with a degree in drafting. In 1990 he had a falling out with N.W.A's management and went solo. For his first album, Cube and his group, Da Lench Mob, enlisted Public Enemy's celebrated Bomb Squad production team, whose dense musical collages include artful uses of sampling and turntable manipulation. Released in spring 1990, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted (#19 pop, #6 R&B, 1990) went gold in 10 days and platinum in three months. A sonically forceful, lyrically vicious album, it juxtaposes a barrage of disparaging terms like "bitch" and "ho" with astute, politically charged observations of ghetto life: gang violence, black-on-black killing, abusive police, poverty, drugs, money, and sex roles. Parents and officials immediately criticized Cube for being a bad role model; Cube countered that that was not his responsibility. Even among rock critics who defended his gangsta rap for its realism, he was censured for the brutal track "You Can't Fade Me," in which the song's protagonist fantasizes aborting his girlfriend's pregnancy with a coat hanger.
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted also introduced Cube's female collaborator, Yo Yo, who on the point-counterpoint track "It's a Man's World" offered a black woman's perspective to counter Cube's male-centric observations. (Ice Cube landed Yo Yo a reported six-figure deal with Atlantic and coproduced her 1991 #5 R&B debut, Make Way for the Motherlode.) For all its unanswered questions and contradictions, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted is considered a rap classic.
With his powerful, rhythmic baritone delivery, Ice Cube has maintained a consistently high standing among critics and fans. Still, after the Kill at Will EP (#34 pop, #5 R&B, 1991), he returned with two of his most controversial songs to date on Death Certificate (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1991): "Black Korea," wherein he denigrates Korean market owners, and "No Vaseline," in which he antagonistically refers to N.W.A manager Jerry Heller as a "Jew." The songs led to the first condemnation of an artist in the editor's note of the music trade publication Billboard. The album's single, "Steady Mobbin'," reached #67 pop and #30 R&B that year. In December 1992 Ice Cube made history again when The Predator debuted at #1 on both the pop album and R&B charts (it sold 1.5 million within a month of release); the album included "It Was a Good Day" (#15 pop, #7 R&B, 1993), a clever ghetto fantasy where everything goes surprisingly right for 24 hours.
By late 1993, Lethal Injection reached #5 pop and #1 R&B. Cube didn't release another solo album of new material for several years, though he formed Westside Connection with rappers Mack 10 and WC for a blast of "old-school gangsta hip-hop" entitled Bow Down (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1996). He also wrote and produced Da Lench Mob's Guerillas in the Midst. Cube reunited with ex-band mate Dr. Dre for the single "Natural Born Killaz" (#16 R&B, 1994), but a followup album collaboration to be called Helter Skelter did not materialize.
In the early 1990s Cube began a second career as an actor and filmmaker, building on a flair for songwriting and rapping that was already richly cinematic. His first film was John Singleton's acclaimed 1991 drama Boys N the Hood, in which Cube portrayed a teenage ex-con in South Central L.A. named Doughboy. He then appeared in 1992's Trespass as a thug sidekick to fellow actor/ gangsta rapper Ice-T. While appearing in Singleton's Higher Learning, the director encouraged Cube to write his own films. In 1995, the rapper appeared in the comedy Friday, which he also coscripted with frequent music collaborator DJ Pooh. Ice Cube then wrote, directed, and acted in 1998's The Players Club. His Hollywood career has alternated between the popular likes of the horror film Anaconda (1997) and critical successes such as the Gulf War satire Three Kings (1999). Cube wrote, produced, and starred in slapstick-heavy Next Friday in 2000. He stars in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, due for release in late 2001.
Converted to the Nation of Islam in 1992, Cube was by the late '90s a dedicated family man, a married father of three. He returned to recording with a two-album project: War & Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc) (#7 pop, #2 R&B, 1998) and War & Peace Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc) , which also reunited Cube with N.W.A's Dr. Dre and MC Ren on the opening trac, "Hell Low." The new albums sold respectably but failed to match the numbers of his early solo career. A new track credited to N.W.A also appeared on the soundtrack to Cube's Next Friday, followed by a national arena tour in 2000 with Dre, Ren, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).