From The Park To The Penthouse: Ice Cube Talks Hip-Hop History & The Big 3

On a recent trip to London, we sat down with the rap legend to discuss The Big 3—his rapidly growing 3-on-3 basketball league—and all things hip-hop.

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50 years on from DJ Kool Herc and Cindy Campbell’s Back To School Jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, this year has quite rightly been a year dominated by reminiscing, celebrating and mythologising.

A true watershed moment, everything that followed has been celebrated; from that hallowed South Bronx block party, rippled possibly the most dramatic seismic shift in popular music. Spreading the length and breadth of the United States and right around the world, hip-hop’s global domination is undeniable. 

As the outspoken voice and pen behind some of rap’s most iconic challenges to authority (and abuses thereof), Ice Cube’s journey is almost as storied as that of hip-hop itself, with almost as many twists and turns—from rap superstar to screenwriter, director, producer and film star to business mogul and now founder of The Big 3, a 3-on-3 basketball league incorporating some of the sports biggest stars—including former NBA players and international basketball stars—and the flair for theatrics shared by rap and sport. And we’ve seen much of that in this year alone: this summer, The Big 3 completed its sixth tournament, wrapping up with a special Championship match at London’s O2 in Greenwich, and next month he’ll return for a six-date UK and Ireland tour alongside fellow West Coasters Cypress Hill and The Game.

We caught up with Ice Cube in London ahead of the LDN Championship to discuss The Big 3’s progress, his transition from hip-hop’s rebellious young gun to seasoned OG, and, of course, the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

“Patting yourself on the back for what you did in the past doesn’t mean shit tomorrow.”

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COMPLEX: First thing’s first: what inspired you to start the league in the first place?
Ice Cube:
Just being a fan of basketball. When it’s over in America, there’s basketball and then there’s American football. I love both, but there’s always a downtime between the seasons where you wish there was more. Football is still two and a half months away, so the finals in the NBA just gets you a little more. In 2015, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his last game, but there’s nowhere to see him play again. It’s over. But he scored 60 points, so obviously he can play. That was mind-boggling to me!

I’d been thinking about three-on-three games for years, and asking myself: “Why wasn’t it elevated to the professional level?” I’m like, “Man! It should be a way to see these guys play. How can we figure it out?” So I sat down with my partner, Jeff Kwatinetz, he’s the co-founder, and we brainstormed what a league would look like if we started one, and why leagues don’t work and why would ours work, what could we do differently to make ours work. We spent 2016 thinking about rules, thinking about a business model, thinking how we could treat our athletes better than the NBA It looked pretty damn good, and I realised: if this was real, this could be something special. Then we started to contact Hall-of-Famers, like Iceman and Clyde Drexler and Dr. J, asking them what they thought about the idea. They liked it and told me to hit them up when I was serious. So that happened all 2016 and by the end of the year, we had 10 Hall-of-Famers, 10 players that had just left the NBA all down to do it, and we officially launched in 2017.

So you just banged it out in a year? From shooting an idea around to a fully-functioning league in 12 months?
Well, I would say a year and a half because we announced it at the beginning of 2017, and then we started the season in the summer of that year. So it was a year between.

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Why did you decide to host the championship in London? 
We see basketball as an international sport. Boxing, MMA, soccer—they all play all over the world, so we knew that we wanted to have a global sport. We would love to have a team in London one day; we’ve played in Toronto, we’ve played in the Bahamas, and this is just another quest for The Big 3: to show the world how cool the sport is and to show that we are thinking international. So this is what you do when you have a new sport: you go to new territories and you show the people what you got, how cool it is and, hopefully, we gain fans. And like I said, hopefully, one day there’s a London team playing in The Big 3.

Besides taking it international, what are your short and long-term goals for the league?
Short term, we’re going to sell teams and those teams are going to represent cities. We’ve sold one team to the owner of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. He’s also the owner of the Washington DC/Baltimore area franchise, so he’s the first owner but we’re going to sell teams to different owners and they’ll put them in different cities. We have 12 teams now, and so once we sell those 12, we’ll expand to 16 or 20. And then we’ll sell those and the league will grow. Most of the teams will probably be in the States. Like I said, we want a London team, we want a Paris team, we want a Toronto team, we want a Mexico City team. We see us expanding in that way in the next 5 to 10 years, and hopefully—one day—we can create the equivalent to the World Cup in soccer. We would create that in three-on-three, where every country would send their best teams to try to win it all.

I know we’re approaching the end of the year, but it is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. It’s been remarked a few times that we need to remember this is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, not just rap. Do you think those other parts of hip-hop are still as important?
I think so, yeah. I think rap gets the attention, like the lead singer in a band. Just because the lead singer may be getting all the attention, that doesn’t mean the drummer, the bass player, the guitar player, and the keyboard player aren’t just as important. It’s the same thing with scratching. And, okay, it’s not really break-dancing, but they got all kinds of hip-hop dances that have evolved and are just as important because the music creates the movement. So those go together. And as you can see, if you go around any major city, graffiti is coming back. It’s everywhere. Writing on the wall or writing on a train is probably not how hip-hop is represented as much as graphic design, but it’s all just as relevant. And DJing is bigger than rap. Right now, you got some of the biggest DJs in the world with some of the biggest crowds, the biggest stage shows, so the DJ is bigger than ever, the rapper is bigger than ever, dancing is always the mortar that brings people together, and if it wasn’t for the club, where would you play the music? And then the art, from videos to merch to The Ninja Turtles—that movie literally looks like moving graffiti, like somebody bombed or tagged that on the wall and it’s moving! So it’s morphed and evolved, but you need all four pillars to express hip-hop.

What do you think has been the most positive change in hip-hop over the past 50 years?
The industries that it’s created, people being able to make a living off the music—whether you’re a rapper or not. In some ways, you’re making a living off the music, reporting on people like me. So the sustainable industries that it’s been able to create are the most positive part, because now people can feed their families, they can live their dreams. It’s not just something done on the street that never made it to the big time. Going from the street and the park to the penthouse, that’s probably one of the most positive achievements hip-hop has made over the last 50 years.

When you and NWA first came out, you were so dramatically different from everything that came before. You were the new guys turning everything on its head. Could you pinpoint the exact moment where you shifted from being that young buck to being a veteran, and how did it feel? 
You know, you do a few records and you get the respect you seek from your peers, and then that’s when you realise you’ve become an OG in the game, so to speak. When your peers come to you and ask you for advice, when the younger MCs seek you out to get advice, those are the indications that you’ve kind of stepped into more of a big brother/OG role in the game. I guess it happened to me probably about ‘97, ‘98, when I started to feel like, okay, I put in about a decade in the game. I’m a OG now. I made my mark. I’ve made an impact that you can’t deny.

With the 50th anniversary, I’m sure you’re being asked a lot about albums like Straight Outta Compton or Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. How do you feel constantly being asked about those big impactful records, when you’re still putting out music? You did an album last year, for example. Is it frustrating?
You realise that when you’ve done a few releases, sometimes you’re ahead of the curve and it takes a few years for people to catch up. So you drop a record like War & Peace and you’re like, “Oh, this record should blow through the charts,” but it doesn’t and you’re like, “Okay, well, maybe I missed the mark on this record.” And then you have people coming up a year or two later, like, “Man, that War & Peace album! It was crazy.” You just look and say, “Well, I was ahead of the curve on this one release. Sometimes you right on point, sometimes you behind the curve. You learn to live with it. As an artist, you realise it’s art. You set it on the wall and you walk away and people walk by it. Some people will love it. Some people will see it the first day you put it up. Some people won’t see it until three years later, but they’re gonna give you a reaction. They’re either gonna love it or hate it. So you learn to not worry about that kind of stuff. Do what you do. Do your art, put it on the wall, and hopefully the people that’s supposed to see it will see it one day and like it.

You’ve got the UK tour coming up in December, too. When you’re going through your set list, obviously you’ve got tonnes to pick from. Are there any tracks that you look at in a different light now? Old favourites you’ve gotten sick of or forgotten gems you’re excited to pick back up?
It’s always a challenge. I try to research each region and see what songs I should be doing or what song I shouldn’t miss when I play this place or that place. It’s hard when you got 30 years of music. It was the same with the Straight Outta Compton movie. Trying to put 10 years into two and a half hours was hard. What do you highlight? What do you leave out? So what I try to do is give people a 30-year version of Straight Outta Compton. I just try to find hit songs or those favourites in between, but you can never get to them all.

I used to go watch Prince play and I knew he was gonna miss a bunch of shit that I know I wanna hear. But whatever he choose, you figure: okay, yeah, this was his set list tonight. And I change up—I change up songs. I try to make sure if you see me once, you don’t feel like you already seen me. You feel like, okay, shit, he might do something new—let me go check him out. And we’ve got Cypress Hill and The Game so it’s gonna be some West Coast, California Love going on. We’re gonna have fun. I toured with Cypress Hill in Australia. Great shows! People get their money’s worth and we didn’t even have The Game out there. Bringing The Game with us here is going to be epic.

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We’re here talking about the past and everything that you’ve done and achieved, but you’ve got The Big 3, you’ve got the new Ninja Turtles film, new music, a tour in December. How do you balance those two: recording the past without getting too nostalgic and mist-eyed?
Just proper planning. There are three different levels of production: 1) Things I want to do, 2) Things that I’ve done already that I got to promote, and 3) Things I’m in the middle of doing. So it’s really just planning it out to give each section the attention that it needs and I get it done. Every day I’m just executing, man. I’m executing either something I want to get done, something I’m doing, or something I’ve done that I’m promoting. And it’s fun to have those plates. As for getting nostalgic, I just don’t. I run full speed, and then I find a spot to rest. And when I rest, I look back at everything that I’ve done since the last time I rested. It’s all about being present. It’s all about being in the now. Patting yourself on the back for what you did in the past doesn’t mean shit tomorrow.

Ice Cube, Cypress Hill and The Game start their six-date 'High Rollers' tour across the UK and Ireland on December 5, running through to December 12, with dates in Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, London and Nottingham. For tickets and more information, head here.

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