#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Ice Cube’s ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’

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#LongPlayLove: Celebrating Ice Cube’s ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’
by Justin Chadwick

Happy Anniversary to Ice Cube’s debut LP AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, originally released May 16, 1990.

As I’ve previously written about here in this column, there is no bigger sucker for good music documentaries than yours truly, whether it’s Wattstax, No Direction Home, Ken Burns’ Jazz series for PBS, Time is Illmatic, or pretty much any episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. There’s 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 can—and most definitely have—watched these films for hours on end, with rapt attention. And when it’s released later this summer (August 14th), I’ll 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.A’s 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 group’s hyper-charged music and controversy-stirring messages. But the chapter of the group’s 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 Cube—the group’s chief songwriter who penned memorable verses on “Fuck the Police,” “Express Yourself,” and “Straight Outta Compton”—parted 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 label’s other co-founder.

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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 duties—and Dre was apparently game for the collaboration—but 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.

Cube’s 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 Enemy’s landmark Fear of a Black Planet at the time, The Bomb Squad learned of and empathized with Cube’s predicament, offered to produce his album in partnership with Sir Jinx, and the rest is hip-hop history.

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As recording sessions began in earnest for what would become AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, the pressure was on and Cube embraced an intensified sense of purpose, as later manifest in his decidedly poised stance in the album’s front cover image. It’s as if he’s addressing the listener squarely in the eye and subliminally proclaiming “ok, let’s 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 this—it had to work.” Not just because the album served as Cube’s first project since flying the N.W.A. coup, but more notably, because it represented a first-of-its-kind sonic summit of hip-hop’s 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 coast’s signature sound.

Fortunately for all parties involved—including us, the listeners—the 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 Squad’s influence is unmistakably prominent across the entirety of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, most notably evidenced through its sonic depth, incorporation of multiple samples, and all-around intensity. Nevertheless, Sir Jinx’s 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 “It’s a Man’s 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 couldn’t be straight New York. It had to have LA in there, too. Jinx’s 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 didn’t 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 hasn’t really been matched as far as that dynamic of [being] so East Coast and so West Coast at the same time.”

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As for Ice Cube himself, AmeriKKKa’s 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, Cube’s songwriting blossomed with his renewed sense of creative freedom. Remarkably, considering the events that preceded the album, Cube’s 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 AmeriKKKa’s 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 AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted] kind of stand alone. But I wanted it to feel like a movement—not 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 career’s strongest to date.

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