Seeing Ice Cube rap in a nearly empty Myth nightclub, I was reminded of how country music treats its greats. By the time they were in their fifties, Johnny Cash and George Jones were ignored, considered to be too old to share radio playlists with the younger, flashier black hat acts. Ice Cube isn’t even forty yet, but as a black dude in America, it makes sense that the industry would pasture him a decade before the average country star is handed his AARP card.
But Cube's still making records anyway. Evidently, his latest, Raw Footage, reached the top of the rap charts (for whatever that’s worth in today’s music economy). Rapping to a couple hundred die hard fans who had made their way to Maplewood and paid $35 to see “the Godfather of Gangsta Rap,” Cube was as petulant and defiant as he was on his politically scathing classics from the early 90s, like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and The Predator. “Every time I go on tour, I hear the same stupid question,” he said. “Ice Cube, when you gonna retire? Well, I’m never gonna retire.”
This wasn’t Hollywood Cube. He wasn’t doing the black-Chevy Chase thing that he’s been doing onscreen; he was spitting hot fire dating from 1989 to the present. He did songs I knew from the NWA days like “Straight Outta Compton,” to solo hits, like “It Was a Good Day,” to songs I didn’t know, like “I Got My Locs On,” his duet with Young Jeezy off the new album. That voice is still a serious bark, but Cube is funny too (he wrote Friday for God’s sake). I enjoy any entertainer who can coax a crowd, no matter how modest, to chant “Ain’t No Party like a Minnesota Party because a Minnesota Party Don’t Staahhhhp!” And by way of introducing his new single, “Do Ya Thing,” he dropped some Compton philosophy on us: “When you’re the lead dawg, your view always change. But when you’re a follower, when you’re back in the pack, all you get to see is ass.”
The DJ mix was murky, and to my ears, Cube brought more energy to the classic material than the new stuff, but it’s probably my fault for not paying attention to his music career for, oh, the past 16 years. Which made the scene at McNally Smith Music College on the afternoon after the concert kind of surprising.
For the last three years, Ice Cube has awarded “The Ice Cube Scholarship” to a lucky freshman at McNally Smith. It’s a big deal—a full ride for four years, worth about $20,000 annually. This year it went to Josiah Kosier, a guitar player (John Mayer and Jimi Hendrix are his heroes) from Watertown, S.D.
After presenting Josiah with his scholarship, Cube sat in a leather chair with his Washington Nationals hat pulled low and a super blinged out diamond and platinum bracelet around his wrist. He sat on a small riser in an auditorium packed with eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids and the gangsta rap teddy bear took a few questions. He was polite and clearly interested in telling the kids what he knew. And they had done their homework--they were either savvy enough to know how to wring everything they could out of Ice Cube's wikipedia entry or they were bona fide students of hip hop. They started out by asking Cube about the first contract he signed with the notorious Jerry Heller. And then they wanted to know what he thinks about selling music on the Internet. All of the questions, in fact, concentrated on the business of music, rather than the art. He had solid advice for the kids: “Until you’re started and ready to sign a contract, it’s better to blow up on your street.”
When the QA wrapped up, Cube came back to the green room and answered a few questions from the media. I asked him what motivates him to make music, now that he’s making millions off movies. “Movies are really restrictive,” he said. “They have a strict blueprint, and you have to build the house according to that blueprint. But I love beats and rhymes. I love speaking for people that can’t speak for themselves—hip hop is a great tool of understanding.” Somebody asked him what movie performance he’s especially proud of. He said, “Boyz in the Hood, of course. That showed everybody how we lived in South Central. But then I wrote Friday as a lighthearted look at how we live. People thought it was just a horror show, but we had a lot of fun. It wasn’t all ducking from drive-bys.” Another lady asked him about the content of his lyrics, and he told her what he told the crowd at Myth before he started rapping, “Gansta Rap Made Me Do It” the night before. Cube explained that like all art, gangsta rap is a mirror. “And if you’re ugly, you don’t break the mirror,” he said. “You fix the face.”