Tomorrow, Saturday, May 16, is the 25th anniversary of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Ice Cube's solo debut and one of the most important rap albums ever recorded. This particular album was released during a period of transformation. Hip-hop started to rapidly evolve during the late '80s and early '90s, as it went from being relegated to the corners of America's inner cities to being thrust into the national spotlight thanks to controversial groups such as 2 Live Crew, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. The simple raps were turning more complex thanks to rappers like Rakim and Ice Cube, and the simple production became more sophisticated thanks to producers like the Bomb Squad and Dr. Dre.
While Cube was trying to make his solo effort a reality, he was going through a nasty breakup with his group N.W.A. He still wanted Dr. Dre to helm the production side of things, but his label, Ruthless Records, felt different. So with his plans thwarted, Cube decided to take a trip to New York in search of producers willing to unify both coasts. Already a huge fan of Public Enemy, the West Coast's most prominent rapper linked up with the group's production team, the Bomb Squad.
We were fortunate enough to speak with Cube and Hank Shocklee (one-fifth of the Bomb Squad) about how they first met, the construction of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, the similarities between N.W.A and Public Enemy, and the album's lasting legacy.
Angel Diaz is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @ADiaz456.
On First Meeting:
Ice Cube: At the time, [the Bomb Squad] were my favorite producers. Which is funny because people think it was Dr. Dre. But when we were first starting, Public Enemy’s records were the biggest records at the time. They were the most complex, the most creative. obody could touch them when it came to sampling, rhythm and dynamics. Me and MC Ren would bump P.E. records all day. I was just thirsting for Public Enemy records.
I met Chuck D in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center. We had a show. It was Public Enemy, NWA, and Zapp & Roger [Laughs.] It was a crazy mix and I had a chance to talk to Chuck D backstage. We exchanged numbers so when I was going through my situation with NWA, I used to call Chuck for advice. He would say to keep him updated. When I eventually broke up with the group, I still wanted Dre to do my album, but Ruthless vetoed that. I knew Lyor Cohen, so I told him to hook me up with Sam Sever who had did the 3rd Bass album because their beats were dope too. I flew out to NYC, and Lyor set up a meeting. So I go to the meeting, and Sam Sever never showed up. [Laughs.]
WHEN I EVENTUALLY BROKE UP WITH THE GROUP, I STILL WANTED DRE TO DO MY ALBUM, BUT RUTHLESS VETOED THAT. —ICE CUBE
As I’m leaving Def Jam, I run into Chuck D. He’s like, “Yo, what you doin’ out here?” I told him that I broke up with that group and was trying to get my record done. So he was like, “Well, me and Big Daddy Kane are gonna be at Greene Street Studios doing a record called 'Burn Hollywood Burn.' You should be on it, it’ll be a cool way to show people that you’re going solo.” I was like, “Man, please. I’m there.”
Hank Shocklee: Well, it’s funny ’cause when he first reached out, he called the Greene Street Studios and they said Ice Cube was on the phone and wanted to talk. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was one of my friends playing a prank on me, ’cause I have friends who do stupid stuff like that. When it was actually him on the phone, I was still suspicious because I already knew that he was working with Dre and Ren and Yella and all those guys were pretty self-contained.
When it was actually him on the phone, I was still suspicious because I already knew that he was working with Dre and Ren and Yella and all those guys were pretty self-contained. —Hank Shocklee
Cube: Hank, Keith, and Eric Sadler were all at the studio. While I was telling them the story of why I was leaving and how I left, I noticed that Hank was real interested. So when I told them something I heard through the grapevine about some N.W.A members laughing when they heard I was going out to New York to get my record done, that seemed to turn Hank on. When he said he wanted to do the whole album, I almost did a backflip in the goddamn Greene Street studio. This was a dream come true right here.
On Starting the Recording Process:
Hank: He bought a one-way ticket to come out. He explained his position, and I respected it. He had like 10 composition notebooks full of material with him, and I was shocked. Everybody wants to do an album, but nobody understands how intense doing an album really is.
Cube: That’s how you had to be when working with Dre. You had to be ready. You had to have your shit together. I used to write rhymes every day back then. I was ready. I had songs. I had titles. I had hooks. But Public Enemy taught me how to put a record together as far as knowing what song should come after what song and the feel of a record. Chuck D is a master at that. How it’s sequenced as a whole is just as important as each individual record.
When [Hank] said he wanted to do the whole album, I almost did a backflip in the goddamn Greene Street studio. This was a dream come true right here. —Ice Cube
Hank: A lot of people think that, “If I’m going to record an album of 10 songs, I’m going to record 10 songs.” That’s not how it works. You have to have 10 times the amount of material to make a good album. Cube had a lot of material, and that’s when I knew he was one of the greats. Because if you sit down with LL, Chuck, Run-DMC, these guys had ridiculous amounts of material. That's the thing that drove it home.
On Keeping That West Coast Bounce:
Hank: At the time, East Coast beats didn't really have a bounce; they were hard. And the harder you made the beat, the more you made it sound like concrete, the more everybody liked it. With the West Coast, it’s a different flavor. It’s got to have a walk or lean to it and you got to understand that lean.
Cube: That’s where Sir Jinx came in. Sir Jinx is Dr. Dre’s cousin. We lived on the same block. He’s the only reason I know Dre. We were friends before we started doing hip-hop together. When I broke up with the group, he came with me. He wanted us to start producing, but when he heard I was going to New York, he wanted to come out too because I had already wrote stuff on his tracks, so he was down to come on board and help out. It still has that West Coast personality mixed with Bomb Squad beats. So Jinx and the Bomb Squad made the perfect combination. It was an Ice Cube record with a different sound.
On the Album's Dark Humor, Style, and Cohesiveness:
Cube: That’s what the hood is like to me. It’s fun, but then shit gets dangerous. Being from that environment, you get a dark sense of humor. You have to have the balls to do dark humor because a lot of people don’t get it. A lot of people think you’re crazy. If you don’t laugh, you’re gonna cry. That’s the flavor of me. That’s the flavor of my records. That’s who I am. We were just in there trying to make fly hip-hop. Something new, fresh, and different.
Hank: Exactly, and to me all rap is telling story. [The Bomb Squad] approached Slick Rick’s [The Great Adventures of Slick Rick] the same way. If you can’t control the whole album you really can’t tell the full story. So that to me was the impetus behind making sure that we did the entire album ’cause I didn’t want it to be a collection of singles.
Cube: I wanted my album to sound like the mixtapes of the day. The DJs would mix the records and fade them out. I didn’t want the album to be boring. We needed skits and make one song go into the next. I didn’t want a collection of songs. They did that in R&B and soul albums. I wanted to do something different. We had all this material and fly ideas so I wanted the shit to sound like a mixtape. Not the new mixtapes, the old mixtapes, when they used to really mix. They don’t mix tapes anymore. [Laughs.] People learned a lot from how that album was built. Just like I learned from De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. That album had like 30 songs, and 15 of them were like 15-20 seconds and shit. When they did that they opened the floodgates to really get creative. I think we took it one step further by playing out scenes and making it feel like a movie.
Hank: Most of the songs were pretty much written. The only thing that had to be done was edit them down to something that makes some sense in terms of musical or even people’s attention span. So that right there to me was the easy part. I grew up listening to so much funk music, mainly out of the West Coast. I had a ridiculous library that spanned different regions. So when you think about the different regions at the time, everybody was listening to hip-hop specific to their region, but everybody was influenced by different types of R&B music. So I went through and picked out all the ideas that I think would work in an L.A./Oakland vibration. So I wanted to make sure that that album didn’t feel like it was made in New York.
On the Similarities Between N.W.A and Public Enemy:
Cube: Coming from the West Coast we saw a lot of gang things, but we really didn’t understand why it was happening. A group like Public Enemy helped put some of that stuff in perspective. When you put it in perspective you tend to have a more political look at things and not just a street look, at least for me anyway. I can’t speak for the other members of the group.
Now the reason why we mirrored each other was back then people used break beats. Break beats would come out every six weeks with dope shit you could loop, sample, whatever. So what happens is you see some of the same elements in the music. The start of "Fuck tha Police" is "Bring the Noise." Theirs was more sped up and ours was slowed down. The same break beats were being used in different ways. We were trying to mix the street with the knowledge, so now you have "street knowledge."
Coming from the West Coast we saw a lot of gang things, but we really didn’t understand why it was happening. A group like Public Enemy helped put some of that stuff in perspective. —Ice cube
Hank: I was a big fan of N.W.A, are you kidding me? I first heard "Boyz N the Hood" as a demo. But I didn’t really get hooked until Eazy-E’s album dropped. I became an Eazy-E fan instantly and then I became a N.W.A fan. I never looked at them as different from P.E. I just thought they were P.E. 2.0. We mirrored each other, but the only difference was they were more direct than we were. So that’s what worked, but I have to say it was P.E. that gave them the ability to be that direct. Hip-hop at that time was a lot more watered down before P.E. So we gave hip-hop that vibration that it could be dense, it could be a lot more concentrated and in your face and I don’t give a fuck. N.W.A took that and put a supercharger on it.
So when Ice Cube reached out, we wanted to unify the East Coast and the West Coast and not create a bigger divide because, at the time, there was this crack that was happening between both coasts. I think that’s what the Ice Cube album did. It unified the efforts of both coasts and made hip-hop stronger than everything else. I think that’s why that album is so pivotal.
On "Endangered Species (Tales From the Darkside)" Featuring Chuck D, Rodney King, and the L.A. Riots of 1992:
Cube: That song’s not from the future. That song is talking about history. It’s been going down like this between black people and the police since there’s been black people and police. This ain’t nothing new. This is the norm. That’s why the cops don’t understand what’s going on. They’re like, “Yo, we always do black people this way. Why is it so different now? What changed? This is the what y’all taught us in the academy.” That’s how they see it. That’s why they can’t understand when they get indicted or get charged. They want us to drop our no-snitching policy, but they have their own no-snitching policy. Cops don’t tell on each other. How can they expect us to snitch on each other if they don't do it either?
Hank: It was like a volcanic eruption that everyone got to see. It didn’t start there, though. It was something that was brewing for a while in L.A. New York as well. We were going through that like crazy, getting searched down and always getting harassed for just hanging out. We wanted to shed light on that and I think we did by putting people on alert.
On Whether or Not To Pimp a Butterfly Is This Generation's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted:
Cube: Ugh, you know, I’m not so quick to say that because each record deserves to stand on its own. I don’t want people measuring up his record versus mine. It’s really not fair to the art. To Pimp a Butterfly has the same impact as AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. To me that’s a better statement than saying it’s the new one. It’s really not fair to his record or mine. I know just like the people that came before and influenced me, like Melle Mel, KRS-One, Rakim, Ice T, King T. Just like those dudes influenced me in some kind of way, I’m pretty sure a lot of MCs have been influenced by Ice Cube. And that’s cool, that’s how it’s supposed to be, and those artists should influence the next artist behind them, and so and so on.
To Pimp A Butterfly has the same impact as AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. —Ice Cube
Hank: Oh God, you know why that’s hard to say? When Ice Cube was out, that record was a bandwidth within many bandwidths, and Kendrick’s album doesn’t have any other bandwidths around it. So in fact, it’s like a conglomeration of all those previous albums smashed together. There’s nobody hitting that frequency. He’s the only one. So that makes [TPAB] more important, that makes it bigger. So if I have to put it on a scale, that would be like taking It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 2Pac's albums, Big Daddy Kane, Biggie, etc., and smash it all together and that’s what you have there with Kendrick Lamar.
So I look at that and I sit there and see that he’s speaking to a whole a new generation who don’t even understand really what the truth is, but he’s not telling them what the truth is, he’s reaching them on a whole other frequency. I was around in both of those times and even before that so I can understand the climate of what was happening then and then I can compare that today and I look at the climate today, and the climate today is a vacuum, and in a vacuum you can’t really hear sound. So in order for you to penetrate you have to be on another frequency all together.
On AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted's Importance Then and Now:
Cube: It was important then because it fused the hip-hop nation. Ice T had started it by working with New York artists like Afrika Islam and Afrika Bambaataa. With this record we really solidified that it was one hip-hop nation, and it wasn’t just East Coast over here and West Coast over there. I think it did that for a brief moment. It’s still important today because you always need to know where you come from to understand where you’re at. The shit is still bumpin’ today like it was in 1990.
Hank: For me it’s simple, man. It represented a time where we were able to do and have creative control over the product and content that we wanted to put out regardless to what anybody else thought—the record label, the management system—whatever the situation was we didn’t care what they thought. We put out the music. That was the spirit of N.W.A, that was the spirit of Public Enemy, that was the spirit of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. It was in defiance of any sort of control mechanisms that would allow us to not be in control. That’s why Ice Cube came to the East Coast to make a record.
Cube: When you have that microphone in your hand, it’s important to do something with it, not just rap. I always thought rhymes could be done in nursery school. But to be an MC, to be somebody that deserves to be on the mic, you have to be a storyteller, you have to be a teacher. You have to have that on top of having a fly flow, dope metaphors, dope concepts, style, and finesse. You need all those things to be an artist this long. To still have love and respect from your peers 25 years later, you need to put more than a rap in a rap.