It's been nearly seven years since Ice Cube put out his most recent album, I Am the West, focusing most of his time on a busy acting career and the occasional single. Now the entertainer has three hard-hitting new tracks that he's releasing as a part of a 25th-anniversary reissue of his notorious 1991 album Death Certificate.
"A lot of my true fans got the record already, so to make this new version happen, why not start it off with something new and fresh?" he tells Rolling Stone in a serious tone. "It sets you up for the anniversary of the album, and it makes you appreciate the album more, 'cause you're getting new, fresh material that is perfect for the record."
Cube says he has some 50 new songs in various states of completion, but he chose to finish up and release these three – "Good Cop Bad Cop" and "Dominate the Weak," both about corrupt police, and "Only One Me" – because he felt they fit the themes of Death Certificate, a vicious album that spoke loudly about mistreatment of African-Americans, released just months before the L.A. riots. Though celebrated for throwing harsh spotlight on injustice, it was also the center a maelstrom of controversy due to lyrics perceived as anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic, most notably in "No Vaseline," a ruthless diss track directed at his ex-N.W.A bandmates.
N.W.A have since made up (and released the blockbuster biopic Straight Outta Compton in 2015), but when Ice Cube looks at the world at large, there's still plenty to keep him angry.
You've said being a rapper is giving a voice to the voiceless. Who are you giving a voice to on these new songs?
All of us.
What is "Good Cop Bad Cop" about?
It's continuing the conversation of how cops deal with the community. I'm calling out good cops to weed out the bad cops. It's the only sane option to deal with bad cops.
That's a pretty different perspective from N.W.A's "Fuck Tha Police."
It's a different approach of dealing with the same problem. "Fuck Tha Police" is not a celebration; it was our only weapon to deal with the problem. Well, not our only weapon – our most sane weapon. It's better to talk about it than to fight it out.
What inspired "Dominate the Weak"?
It's about what I see happening everywhere I look, the makings of a police state right before my eyes.
You compare Irvine, California to Nazi Germany on that one. Does it really feel that way to you?
Sometimes. It depends on who pulls you over. We've just got a world of bullies. It's just what it is. It's just a perspective on what I see, and to me it fit the Death Certificate record. That's why I put it on this 25th anniversary.
You've said you have some 50 new songs. What are your plans for releasing a new album?
They're in various states of completion, so it's not like I'm just sitting on songs. It's all timing. And we're close to the Predator 25th anniversary record, so if this proves to be a good formula, I'll do the same thing for Predator – include three new songs at the front of that. I don't know if you're gonna get an album, but you will get new music.
Do you not want to make albums anymore?
I do, but it's the 25th anniversary of these other records, and I have to give 'em they just due, so that's what I'm doing. I'm proud of the records, and 25 years only come around every 25 years [laughs]. After the success of Straight Outta Compton, a lot of new fans are getting introduced to my old music, and this is just a way to keep the momentum going.
Did the success of that movie make you feel like doing music more again?
I've been dropping music; that never stopped. It's just in the last few years, movies have taken over because they've been back to back to back to back. I don't believe in mixing things and doing music and movies at the same time. You need to focus on what you're doing.
Have you been recording with Dr. Dre at all?
Nah, we haven't been doing anything besides what you heard on his record.
In the movie world, what are you working on? Have you begun filming Last Friday?
I'm not filming anything. I'm developing five or six projects right now, so I'm getting in my music before I end up doing more movies back to back to back like that.
Has making movies made you change your approach to music?
Yeah, it's changed slightly. I always experiment. When you're doing music, you shouldn't stay in your comfort zone. So what I've changed is I do "Ice Cube records" now. I don't care about trends or radio or anything. That means records that sounds like me [laughs], beats that I should be rapping on, topics I should be flowing on. So my philosophy is I do me and I don't worry about no other artist and what they're doing and their success.
On "Only One Me," you rap, "If Cube ain't in your top three, then you's a bitch to me." Who are your top three?
My top three always changes [laughs]. There have been some incredible MCs, and it's like athletes: Who's the top basketball player? You and me could start thinking about who you're leaving off and then it'd be like, "Nah," so I change like the wind. But I'll put somebody out there: Muhammad Ali is up there. He's one of the best MCs that ever did it. To me, he's the father of the modern MCs.
How did you react when you heard about his death last year?
To be honest, I was happy for him. He lived a good life, and he dedicated a lot of his time to God and now he got the chance to meet his maker. So it's sad for us, but I was happy for him.
One of your brags on "Only One Me" is that you showed Tupac how to "keep it gangsta." What are your favorite memories of him?
Laughing. He was a spirit. He just enjoyed himself. There's a lot of ugly things that can turn your personality ugly, and, to me, every time I saw him, he was fun and a ball of energy enjoying himself.
When you listened to Death Certificate again for this reissue, what struck you about it?
It's very sharp. It's sharp as broken glass. I got the same feeling I got when I first sequenced the record and listened to it. It's fire.
When you sequenced it, there was a "Death Side" and a "Life Side," and you wrote in the liner notes that the Life Side was "a vision of where we need to go." In hindsight, what do you think of how things have changed since 1991?
Things move slower than we would like. A record like Death Certificate was really the peak of the era of politically charged hip-hop. That window started to close in '93, and it's one of the last records of that era. It wasn't about making you dance at all; it was a record to make you think.
A song like "Alive on Arrival," which is about a kid who gets shot in gang crossfire but then has to wait forever in the hospital because the police think he's a gangster, could be a story from 2017.
Without a doubt. It's just mistreatment. That's in our story: the story of mistreatment.
That's also what "A Bird in the Hand" is about.
Yeah, the options get taken away, so you need to make it with the options that are out there.
You've said that you get the same feeling now under Trump as you did when you made Death Certificate when the first Bush was president. What is it about Trump that makes you feel that way?
How could a guy that rich – not even that rich ... How could a guy that selfish care about you? You got a president that don't care. And people want him to build a wall? Are you sure that's to keep the Mexicans out or to keep us in? Which one? A wall's a wall. So really? Uh ... I'm cool.
Then he's got the Muslim ban, and you're a Muslim, so how do you feel –
[Interrupts] Well, nobody know what I am, 'cause to me the labels that everybody putting on each other is the problem. The labels that people are wearing as badges of honor is the problem. So I'm a human being. And that's all I want to be judged on. Being in America, where everybody is influenced by everything, I don't see how anybody can say they're anything out here.
Everybody writes things and reads into things, and they think they got the narrative. People are more comfortable when they can put a title on you. People still call me a rapper, and it's like, huh? [Laughs]. I think of myself as an entertainer. I started off as a rapper, but if you look at everything I've done, a rapper is almost an insult. I'm an entertainer. But it's all good, because it makes people comfortable. But I don't have to buy into it, because I'm way more than a Muslim-American. I'm way more than a Christian-American and a Jewish-American, way more than any religion you wanna put on it. People just look at the label sometimes more than the human.
You were accused of racism and anti-Semitism after you put out Death Certificate because of the songs "Black Korea" and "No Vaseline." What did you learn from that experience?
That people really just look at themselves. If you look at the record, I say more about black people than I say about anybody on the record. If you're human and you're living, I think you deserve scrutiny, too. It doesn't make you exempt because you're this color or that color. I don't care. It is what it is. Nobody's exempt on Death Certificate. So nobody's perfect. We got black idiots; everybody got idiots.
"No Vaseline" has become one of the most famous songs on Death Certificate. You've since made up with N.W.A, but you recently said you'd written a verse and a half for a sequel diss track that you never put out. Do you remember what that was like?
Nah. I mean, it's in a notebook somewhere. I'm glad I didn't have to use it [laughs].
What are your favorite diss tracks?
It's hard to have favorites. I like great fights. It's a great tradition in hip-hop, and it can get ugly. It's like drag racing for pink slips or something, you can lose everything. It's high stakes. That's what makes it good. So there's some great ones in history. My radar is L.L. vs. Kool Moe Dee, KRS-One vs. MC Shan, Roxanne vs. UTFO – even Salt-N-Pepa got down on a diss track, "Showstopper." It's just a great tradition. As long as it don't get ugly and get violent, it's always great. But there's high stakes; that's what makes them good.
Speaking of disses, on Death Certificate's first song, you say, "Fuck R&B." What was that about?
When I was coming up as a youngster in hip-hop, a lot of R&B and soul singers said that it wasn't even music, that this was noise. They could never see it going anywhere; it was just a fad. That lasted for years. It didn't end with the emergence of Run-DMC – there was still hate. Then around the mid-Eighties we started seeing R&B groups using hip-hop beats. There was scratchin' and breakers and graffiti. I thought, "Now y'all trying to get this hip-hop shine." I was very against the merge of R&B and hip-hop. So by '91, I was just pissed that so many singers were using hip-hop artists to make their records sell. I felt it was diluting hip-hop so I was pretty pissed off at R&B at the time.
When did your feelings change?
Shit, I don't know. You start listening to some great records and your mind changes real quick. Good music is good music. Back then, I was just pissed at everything.