Published Jun 09, 2014You've seen the internet meme — the one that juxtaposes a snarling, AK-47-brandishing Ice Cube with a kinder, gentler O'Shea Jackson, the automatic rifle traded in for a fishing rod and a smile. The 180 degree spin from controversial lightning rod — a man whose art was deemed racist, sexist and violent in spite of its brilliance — to huggable family man who makes movies for Disney lovers has become the predictable Ice Cube punch line. But plopping "Fuck Tha Police" beside Are We There Yet? — that "crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube" contrasted with that softie Nick, easily won over by PG hijinks and cute tweens — and getting a chuckle is missing a catalogue of fantastically brave music.
Born in a hard neighbourhood to good parents, a young Ice Cube felt like he was viewing a body every other month. He was angry and determined, but he was also smart. Pushing buttons and ticking off authority, Cube the MC could write damaged and desperate characters, real and fictional (and ghostwrite for others, making them stars). He was also blessed with a voice built to ring clear over the most frantic backbeats of his era. "I keep the fire in me," Ice Cube once told Biography.com. "You gotta be able to survive in whatever environment you find yourself in. The 'hood means everything to me. You never know when you could wind up back there."
1969 to 1985
O'Shea Jackson is born in South Central L.A. on June 15, 1969, to mother Doris, a hospital clerk and custodian, and father Hosea, a groundskeeper at UCLA. O'Shea's half-sister is killed by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide when O'Shea is just 12. A strong student with a love for football and music, Jackson leans on the older men in his life, his strict dad and his brother, to avoid the pitfalls of a rough L.A. neighbourhood. "They were always available, always there with anything I needed to help me get through the day," Jackson will tell Teen Ink in 2005, "living in South Central Los Angeles and trying not to get caught in all the traps it had."
Once he becomes a teenager, Ice Cube's parents pull him out of school in his high-crime neighbourhood and bus him to suburban Taft high school in the San Fernando Valley. He begins penning his nascent rhymes during keyboard class at the same alma mater as Eazy-E and House of Pain's Everlast, and begins to question why the drugs and violence destroying so many of his friends and neighbours aren't being eradicated.
1986 to 1988
Determined to carve a better life for himself, Jackson enrols in the Phoenix Institute of Technology and earns a two-year diploma in architectural drafting. Hooking up with producer Sir Jinx and fellow MC Kid Disaster, the three friends form rap group Cru' In Action! C.I.A. hone their live show at parties thrown by Jinx's friend, the older and more established Dr. Dre, a member of popular electro group World Class Wreckin' Cru. Impressed by Cube's pen game, Dre taps Cube to write for the Wreckin' Cru's "Cabbage Patch," a local hit, and the two link for a side project, Stereo Crew, that drops a lone twelve-inch on Epic Records in 1986; "She's a Skag" marks Cube recorded debut. In 1987, C.I.A. drop a three-song twelve-inch, My Posse, which lifts a Beastie Boys sample. Ice Cube screams his raps and writes most of the lyrics; Dre handles production and mixing, making use of his Roland TR 808.
Dre brings Cube into the fold of his new project, Niggaz Wit Attitudes, which ditches electro BPMs for an abrasive, lyric-heavy approach. Cube raps the lyrics to "Boyz-n-the-Hood" for Eazy-E, who initially rejects the song before changing his mind, with Dre's encouragement, and deciding to put it on wax, the first of dozens of verses Cube would scribe for Eazy. Eazy's double-platinum solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It, drops in 1988; Ice Cube is credited as a writer on five songs.
The extended-family LP N.W.A. and the Posse drops in 1987, but it's the following year's Straight Outta Compton — with a trimmed-down lineup of Dre, Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella — that sets the West coast ablaze and frightens parents and conservatives worldwide. N.W.A. instantly become one of the most important rap groups ever. In addition to his own, a Jheri-curled Cube writes the verses spat by Dre and Eazy on the game-changing album, which challenges authority and sparks a litany of West coast gangsta rap albums to follow suit.
1989 to 1990
Fed up over being underpaid by Ruthless Records for his N.W.A contributions, Cube rejects group manager Jerry Heller's contract offer and bolts east to start a solo career, bringing Jinx with him to produce and mix. Released in 1990 under the guidance of Public Enemy production team the Bomb Squad, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted shreds any doubt that Cube is the quarterback behind N.W.A's wicked irreverence and shiv-sharp wit. On an artistic roll, Cube drops the seven-track Kill at Will the same year; it becomes the first hip-hop EP to go platinum, and "Jackin' for Beatz" originates the now common practice of rhyming over other MCs' popular instrumental tracks. The remaining members of N.W.A take shots at Cube on 1990's 100 Miles and Runnin', painting him as a coward and a traitor for splitting camp.
Ice Cube's focused and fearless Death Certificate shotguns any notion of the sophomore slump, and "No Vaseline," a no-holds-barred response to N.W.A's jabs, goes down as one rap's fiercest diss records. "It's a monster. I was mad as hell when I did that record," Cube will say in a 2013 interview with Hot 97.
Accused of being a racist and a misogynist, Cube appoints female MC Yo-Yo at the head of his record label and produces her debut, 1991's Make Way for the Motherlode. At the peak of his recording career, he makes his big-screen debut, as Doughboy, in John Singleton's raw Boyz n the Hood, which fittingly borrows its title from the song Cube wrote for Eazy-E.
Ice Cube converts to Islam; he describes his Muslim faith as a simple, personal one and doesn't attend public service or prescribe to rituals. In April of 1992, Cube marries Kimberly Woodruff. The two will go on to have four children. A spot on the grunge-heavy Lollapalooza tour expands Ice Cube's fan base in the summer of 1992. "I was the alternative to all the alternative acts," Cube will tell Hot 97. That winter he unleashes The Predator. Fuelled by hit singles "It Was a Good Day," "Wicked" (with a video cameo from his tour pals, the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the Das Efx-inspired "Check Yo Self," the album hits No. 1 on Billboard and sells more than three million copies in the U.S., making it Cube's most commercially successful CD. At the height of his solo success, Cube executive produces the excellent I Wish My Brother George Was Here, the debut LP of his quirky cousin, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, which helps kick-start the Heiroglyphics movement. Cube produces a new group, Da Lench Mob, featuring old C.I.A. mate Kid Disaster, now known as K-Dee. The crew's debut, Guerillas in tha Mist, captures the anger and frustration in post-Rodney-King-riot Los Angeles. Cube the actor stars opposite that other "Ice" rapper, Ice-T, in Trespass, confusing my mom.
1993 to 1995
Lethal Injection, Cube's fourth solo album, fails to live up to its predecessors, as the MC tries to incorporate Dre's mid-tempo G-funk sound. Cube develops the craft of other West coast MCs (Mack 10, Kausion, Mr. Short Khop), producing, promoting and guesting on their albums. He produces another solid West coast album for another talented cousin, Kam's Neva Again, and further develops his acting range in The Glass Shield and Higher Learning, the latter another Singleton film. "If you can write a record, you can write a movie," Singleton tells Cube. Inspired, Cube writes and stars in the cult classic Friday, which grosses $28 million on a $3.5 million budget and makes co-star Chris Tucker a hot commodity in Hollywood. Cube and Dre squash their beef as they team-up for the electrifying "Natural Born Killaz," the best reason to purchase the Murder Was the Case soundtrack, and Priority releases Bootlegs & B-Sides, a collection of lost tracks and remixes. Eazy-E dies in March, 1995 due to complications from AIDS, but not before running into Cube at the Tunnel in New York City. "We ended up talking for two hours," Cube will tell Hot 97. "He was talking about, 'Let's get the group back together.' Two months later he got sick."
1996 to 1997
As West coast/East coast battle lines begin to be drawn, Ice Cube forms the Westside Connection super-group with Mack 10 and W.C. Their debut, Bow Down, features a "Westside Slaughterhouse," an attack song that targets East coast MCs, including Common, for his perceived diss of the gangsta rap movement on "I Used to Love H.E.R." The usually mild-mannered Common responds with the caustic "The Bitch In Yoo," which rips Cube's acting pursuits and trend-hopping and calls him out as a hypocrite for acting hard while living a Hollywood life. Cube's acting career continues with Anaconda and Dangerous Ground.
1998 to 1999
Led by a forgettable rock-rap duet with Korn, "Fuck Dying," the inconsistent War & Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc) marks Cube's long-awaited but underwhelming return to a solo recording career. He and Korn hit the road on 1998's "Family Values Tour." Cube makes more noise by directing the comedy/drama The Players Club, starring himself and Jamie Foxx, and turns in a credible performance alongside Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney in the critically acclaimed Gulf War satire Three Kings. By this point Ice Cube is a dedicated husband and a father of three.
2000 to 2001
Now freely stating in interviews that his main priority is acting, Cube's final solo LP for Priority Records, the delayed War & Peace sequel, Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc), is a dud. The record peaks at No. 3 on Billboard and features a reunion with Dre and MC Ren ("Hello") and the strip-club anthem "You Can Do It," but long gone is the authority-bucking trendsetter of the early '90s. Cube updates his stoner classic with Next Friday; Tucker is replaced by the up-and-coming funnyman Mike Epps. In the summer of 2001, he performs on the undercard of Dr. Dre, Eminem and Snoop Dogg's "Up in Smoke Tour."
2002 to 2004
As one Ice Cube film franchise launches (BarberShop), another concludes. The Christmas-themed Friday After Next puts a bow on a steadily declining trilogy; plans for a fourth Friday are mercifully scrapped. Westside Connection reunite after seven years for 2003's solid Terrorist Threats. The album is a commercial flop, however, and when Mack 10 takes issue with Cube's focus on his film projects, the Connection disbands. BarberShop 2: Back in Business rides the success of the original just two years later.
2005 to 2007
As one Ice Cube franchise moves to the small screen — sitcom Barbershop: The Series debuts on Showtime — another, Are We There Yet?, is born on the silver screen. As MTV lists Ice Cube No. 8 on its list of the ten Greatest MCs of All Time, he drops Laugh Now, Cry Later, his first solo LP in six years. Released on his own Lench Mob Records, the gold LP debuts at No. 4 on the charts and garners positive reviews. It also sees Cube reconciling with a deceased Eazy-E: "Never thought I'd see Eazy in a casket/ Thanks for everything/ That's on everything." Cube's Are We There Yet? sequel, Are We Done Yet?, earns an eight percent rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
2008 to 2011
Cube wastes no time heading back to the studio and churns out another gold indie record, Raw Footage in 2008, defending his genre with "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It."
The man whose crew popularized the Raiders cap tackles the Al Davis era of his home NFL franchise in Straight Outta L.A., a documentary he directs for ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series in 2010. When he's not recording his ninth solo album, the mediocre I Am the West, Cube is busy voicing a character in the popular Call of Duty: Black Ops video game and helping Are We There Yet? make the leap to television, dropping in for a recurring role in the series. Two of Cube's sons (O'Shea Jr. and Darrel) rhyme on I Am the West under the handles OMG and Doughboy.
"I love entertainment, all kinds. Hardcore and the soft stuff too. It's really about being the business long enough to do everything you want to do," Cube tells George Lopez on his talk show in 2011. "My fans got kids. They can't listen to 'Fuck tha Police.' They gotta check out Are We There Yet? I got everything for everybody."
2012 to 2014
Cube's film career rebounds with a support role in 2012's comedy-action blockbuster 21 Jump Street and 2014's Kevin Hart collab, Ride Along, which cruises to No.1 at the box office for three straight weeks. Sequels for both are quickly approved. The Source ranks Cube No. 14 on the Top 50 Lyricists of All Time. The gangsta rapper's tenth solo album, Everythang's Corrupt, is expected by the end of summer 2014. "All that shit that goes through people's minds, they doing records for record companies and radio," Ice Cube tells The Source in 2014. "I'm just having fun now."
ESSENTIAL ICE CUBE
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted (1990, Priority)
All the spit, all the fight, all the laughter, all the rebel in O'Shea Jackson is on full display in his first effort since departing N.W.A. How do you leave the world's most dangerous group and manage to sound even more dangerous? You hire the Bomb Squad production team to fire a blast panic into your funky backbeats. You spin X-rated fairy tales ("Once Upon a Time in the Projects"). And you write a character so on-tilt ugly that he threatens to end his girlfriend's pregnancy with a coat hanger. Straight Outta Compton got your attention, but Most Wanted made you hate or love the guy.
Kill at Will (1990, Priority)
Sandwiched between his two most original solo albums is a seven-song EP that captures Cube, the originator, at his creative apex. "Jackin' for Beats" brings us Cube the thief, stealing other rappers' hottest instrumentals and making them his own, a practice used to this day on mixtapes. "The Product," thrusts the listener into a detailed biography of its protagonist from conception to prison. And the sobering "Dead Homiez" remains rap's greatest pour-out-a-little-liquor ode to fallen friends: "They say, 'Be strong,' and you're tryin'/ How strong can you be when you see your pops cryin'?"
Death Certificate (1991, Priority)
Cube's second — and best — solo LP is one of the fiercest, funkiest, and most flagrant recorded efforts in history. Like the samples used by producers Sir Jinx and the Boogie Men (Parliament, Average White Band, Gladys Knight, Wilson Pickett), Cube reeked of soul. Fast, violent and clever, the self-proclaimed "wrong nigga to fuck wit" pulls nary a punch as he unleashes tirades against Republicans, bigots, STDs, Korean shopkeepers, naughty Catholic schoolgirls, slavery, his former N.W.A. buddies, and U.S. medical care. Through tattooed tears, Cube tells Uncle Sam to go fight his own wars, then raises conspiracy theories: "Tried to give me the HIV/ So I can stop making babies like me."