#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Ice Cube’s ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’
#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Ice Cubes ‘AmeriKKKas Most Wanted’
by Justin Chadwick
Happy Anniversary to Ice Cubes debut LP AmeriKKKas Most Wanted, originally released May 16, 1990.
As Ive previously written about here in this column, there is no bigger sucker for good music documentaries than yours truly, whether its Wattstax, No Direction Home, Ken Burns Jazz series for PBS, Time is Illmatic, or pretty much any episode of VH1s Behind the Music. Theres just something endlessly entertaining about the combination of discovering musicians back stories, digesting the measured narration that accompanies their firsthand tales, and of course, revisiting the rush of the music, in all of its timeless glory. I canand most definitely havewatched these films for hours on end, with rapt attention. And when its released later this summer (August 14th), Ill be one of the first in line for tickets to Straight Outta Compton, the highly anticipated, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube co-produced film biopic of N.W.As infamously indelible legacy.
Granted, most hip-hop heads worth their weight in golden era knowledge should already be well-versed in the iconic West Coast gangsta rap groups hyper-charged music and controversy-stirring messages. But the chapter of the groups story that some may not be as familiar with is its tension-fraught demise that culminated in 1991, following an ephemeral yet bountiful five-year recording career. The edifice of explosive sound and provocative rhymes that Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella erected in the late 1980s would begin to crumble roughly one year after the August 1988 release of their seminal LP Straight Outta Compton. Toward the end of 1989, Ice Cubethe groups chief songwriter who penned memorable verses on Fuck the Police, Express Yourself, and Straight Outta Comptonparted not-so-amicable ways with his bandmates, claiming irreconcilable financial differences with their manager and Ruthless Records co-founder, Jerry Heller, and Eazy-E, the labels other co-founder.
Following his exit from the group, Ice Cube wasted no time in embarking upon the recording of his debut solo album. Though the production team he eventually employed for the LP was neither his first choice nor his second. Initially, Cube envisioned having Dre assume production dutiesand Dre was apparently game for the collaborationbut Heller and others allegedly placed the swift kibosh on those plans, presumably due to the residual antagonism between both parties. Cube then proceeded to explore Plan B in the form of Sam Sever, who had caught his ear and established a solid reputation by orchestrating 3rd Bass stellar 1989 debut The Cactus Album. As the story goes, Cube traveled to New York City to meet with Sever at Def Jam headquarters in early 1990, but Sever bafflingly never showed up to their meeting. Strike two, so to speak.
Cubes third attempt would prove the charm, and an extremely fortuitous one. During his visit to the Def Jam office for the appointment that never materialized, Cube ran into none other than Chuck D, who subsequently introduced him to The Bomb Squad, the mastermind production team chiefly comprised of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric Vietnam Sadler. Placing the finishing touches on Public Enemys landmark Fear of a Black Planet at the time, The Bomb Squad learned of and empathized with Cubes predicament, offered to produce his album in partnership with Sir Jinx, and the rest is hip-hop history.
As recording sessions began in earnest for what would become AmeriKKKas Most Wanted, the pressure was on and Cube embraced an intensified sense of purpose, as later manifest in his decidedly poised stance in the albums front cover image. Its as if hes addressing the listener squarely in the eye and subliminally proclaiming ok, lets do this. As Cube confided to SPIN magazine, My back (was) against the wall and I had to come out swinging. It was sink or swim on thisit had to work. Not just because the album served as Cubes first project since flying the N.W.A. coup, but more notably, because it represented a first-of-its-kind sonic summit of hip-hops West and East coasts. As the new decade of the 90s dawned, it was an unorthodoxly ambitious approach, to say the least. Until then, it had been unheard of for an emcee with such deeply entrenched roots in the West Coast to employ the services of a production collective commonly associated with the opposite coasts signature sound.
Fortunately for all parties involvedincluding us, the listenersthe collaboration achieved the seemingly unthinkable, by blurring geographic divides to create a truly brilliant headrush of an album that can be appreciated by all, regardless of our respective stomping grounds. The Bomb Squads influence is unmistakably prominent across the entirety of AmeriKKKas Most Wanted, most notably evidenced through its sonic depth, incorporation of multiple samples, and all-around intensity. Nevertheless, Sir Jinxs often overlooked production handiwork pervades the record as well. He co-produced every track, controlled the boards for album highlights Once Upon in the Projects and Its a Mans World, and ensured that the whole project retained an unmistakable West Coast flavor. Sadler (of The Bomb Squad) has admitted that:
We knew that Jinx and the Lench Mob were there to keep the West Coast feel, and we knew that the album couldnt be straight New York. It had to have LA in there, too. Jinxs work was especially helpful to keep the Cali sound there. I loved working with him. As for East and West, I just wanted to make a great album. I didnt care about geography, I cared about textures, tempos and sequencing.
Indeed, the album is testament to the passion and professionalism of both camps, as egos were tempered enough to orchestrate a killer record together, one that Cube has argued still hasnt really been matched as far as that dynamic of [being] so East Coast and so West Coast at the same time.
As for Ice Cube himself, AmeriKKKas Most Wanted helped him expand beyond his Compton-based sound pedigree and aesthetic, in favor of more adventurous songwriting and sonic palettes. Just 20 years old when the album was recorded, Cubes songwriting blossomed with his renewed sense of creative freedom. Remarkably, considering the events that preceded the album, Cubes rhymes contain not a single N.W.A. directed jab. Though Cube would spit plenty of vitriol toward his former bandmates on his sophomore LP, Death Certificate, Cube devoted his energy and intellect toward more broadly relevant subject matter on AmeriKKKas Most Wanted. Moreover, he made the calculated decision to distinguish the message in his music from that of his former group, as he shared with SPIN:
[My album] just had, to me, more political direction than the N.W.A record. N.W.A is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the hood, and most of these songs [on AmeriKKKas Most Wanted] kind of stand alone. But I wanted it to feel like a movementnot just rapping but street knowledge, real street knowledge. I felt like my music was always geared to letting the streets know what the politicians were trying to do to them, and I always let the politicians know what the streets think of em.
It proved a wise change of direction, and his evolved penchant for vivid, no-nonsense storytelling and cogently conveyed socio-political messages produced a handful of songs that still stand as some of his prolific careers strongest to date.