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SPIN 30: Ice Cube Reflects on His Back-Against-the-Wall Debut, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’

For our big 3-0, we're revisiting a few of our picks for Album of the Year — first up is Cube's 1990 classic

On March 19, 1985, the first issue of SPIN hit newsstands. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re revisiting a handful of records that the staff has previously awarded “Album of the Year,” a distinction the magazine started giving out in 1990. 

For the past 20 years or so, rapper/actor Ice Cube has mostly focused on the latter half of that job description, leading the Friday and Barbershop franchises, co-starring with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in David O. Russell’s Gulf War flick Three Kings, and appearing in the big-screen reboot of 21 Jump Street, among many other roles. But before he put in all that time building his IMDb page, Ice Cube was known primarily as one of the most controversial MCs in hip-hop — first as a member of iconic gangsta-rap outfit N.W.A and then as a solo artist.

Cube — born O’Shea Jackson and raised in South Central Los Angeles — left N.W.A in 1989, a year after the group unleashed its incendiary debut album, Straight Outta Compton. The split stemmed from clashes with management, which also reportedly prevented N.W.A’s Dr. Dre from producing Ice Cube’s one-man project. Instead, Cube and his regular collaborator/co-producer, Sir Jinx, drafted Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad, to assemble what became AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, a politically charged platter filled with dense, speaker-busting samples and vivid, barbed lyrics that drew attention for their violence and misogyny; the record went gold two weeks after its 1990 release and eventually topped SPIN’s first-ever year-end list.

SPIN recently spoke with Ice Cube over the phone about the making of AmeriKKKa, the album’s legacy, and his favorite records from the last 30 years.

Do you remember when SPIN named AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted 1990’s Album of the Year?
I don’t remember too much from that year. That year was a blur, pretty much. It was an extremely exciting year… I can’t recall getting that award. I never got my trophy or my plaque. [Chuckles.]

So that year was a blur because of everything going on in your career?
Yeah, there was a lot going on. I was a solo artist for the first time, so that was just strange — being in total command of my records and my career. I was actually feuding with my group, N.W.A… so I was really looking for that outcome to turn out in my favor. And, you know, I had a record that just went gold, and worked with the Bomb Squad, which was a dream come true. I was starting to tour for the first time by myself. It was just a year of new stuff.

Did you feel validated when the record turned out to be such a critical and commercial success?
It felt good. It’s a trip: When critics say something good about your music or what you’re doing, you like what they’re saying. You quote them and show people the articles and shit. But when they don’t like your stuff, you think they’re some silly, untalented motherfuckers who just sit around and wait to destroy shit. You get this love-hate relationship, but my thing was that hip-hop fans loved the record. Even fans of N.W.A loved our record, so I just felt good producing a record with the Bomb Squad, but me and Sir Jinx were the ones quarterbacking where that record should go: What should be said, what’s not said, what’s expected of Ice Cube. We really worked well with the Bomb Squad, and they helped us develop our ideas and make them better.

At the time, did you feel like this was the proper follow-up to N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, or did you think of it as a completely different thread because it was just you?
Well, I just felt that it was more or less a great record for Ice Cube fans. But it 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’s interesting that it’s such a quintessential West Coast record, but you made it with the Bomb Squad, a quintessential East Coast team. Was that something you were conscious of at the time?
Yeah, we didn’t want to be something weren’t. That’s why I say Sir Jinx was so instrumental in making this record, too, because we were going to keep the record West Coast. We were going to have the skits in between the records, we were gonna have songs and music that we would normally use anyway. But with the Bomb Squad’s superior production and their mad-scientist approach to sampling, it just gave our West Coast sound a whole dynamic that, to this day, still hasn’t really been matched as far as that dynamic of [being] so East Coast and so West Coast at the same time.

It’s amazing how after all these years, the record still sounds so explosive.
The sampling era is the best era in hip-hop besides the golden age. Just, like, when you could take all these dynamic riffs and horns and seams and loops, and you could make ‘em into your own song, and be as creative as you can be. It is just the best era. To me, once people really had to start making their own music, it’s been less dynamic ever since.

You’ve said that Dr. Dre wanted to produce AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but couldn’t because of disputes with the label and everything that was happening between you and N.W.A at the time. It might be a little silly to play the “What If?” game, but what do you think the record would have sounded like if Dre had been at the helm, instead of the Bomb Squad?
It would have been a monster record. But it’s a trip: At the time, Dre wasn’t my favorite producer. It was the Bomb Squad, we loved their production. Eric Sadler, Keith and Hank Shocklee, Chuck… they mastered the sample. I think Dre’s sound was heavier, crisper, but I just thought the Bomb Squad had the complicated funk. So I was happy either way. I wanted Dre to work because I knew what I was getting with Dre. I didn’t know what I was getting with the Bomb Squad. I didn’t know if they even wanted to do my whole record, I was just hoping to get them to do two or three songs. So, when they agreed to do the whole thing, I fuckin’ did a backflip.

What’s your relationship with the record like now? Do you ever listen to it on your own time?
Oh yeah, I go back now and then and listen to all of my records, when I get the urge. I’m still performing off of these albums. It just reminds me more of making the record than after it came out.

When you listen to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, what do you hear in yourself?
I hear that I have my back against the wall and I had to come out swinging. It was sink or swim on this — it had to work.

Is there anyone making music now that reminds you of what you were doing with AmeriKKKa? Or what the Bomb Squad was doing at that time?
Kanye’s records are always interesting. There are a few people that are interesting artists: Kendrick Lamar is real interesting. I used to love OutKast when they were doing their thing. To me, those are the most dynamic artists right now. Even though other people are doing good music — Drake is doing good music, the Young Money crew does good music — but as far as dynamic, change-the-world stuff? Not too many people are really going that route.

Off the top of your head, what’s your favorite album of the past 30 years?
Wow… Damn. I guess it would be [Dre’s] The Chronic. I think The Chronic is the biggest game-changer in music, because it just took the sound and made it accessible to everybody, every part of the globe. Hardcore gangsta rap changed music, so it’s either The Chronic or Straight Outta Compton — one of those two.

Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. I know you’re a busy guy, so —
I want to add another one, I got three: It Takes A Nation of Millions.

Oh, nice. A lot of people on the SPIN staff prefer Fear of a Black Planet.
Nah, It Takes A Nation of Millions. Motherfucker right there is potent.