Ice Cube’s Death Certificate pulled no punches. He encouraged Eazy-E to murder manager Jerry Heller, he dissed rappers who shed their hardcore music for pop and mainstream ambitions. Hell, he even featured a toe-tagged Uncle Sam on the album cover. Cube was rap’s boldest, most prolific and arguably most influential voice when the LP dropped in October 1991 and he didn’t waste one second on the mic. Every song gave listeners some sort of analytical commentary whether it was hood-related, gang-affiliated or politically-based. In this writer’s humble opinion,Death Certificate is not just a top five of all-time LP because of Cube’s lyrical sledgehammer or the masterful, heavy handed sonic carpeting on the project, but it’s thematic weight and execution is practically unparalleled, even to this day.
Here, Cube breaks down his LP. He tells why he chose not to use The Bomb Squad who produced his classic debut, AmeriKKKA’s Most Wanted, how N.W.A egged him on to make a controversial diss record, and why a CNN interview ended a major controversy for him.—Shaheem Reid(@ShaheemReid)
XXL: Death Certificate is 20 years old. I remember having the cassette with the “Death Side” and “The Life Side.” What do you think about the album reaching such a milestone?
Ice Cube: The record kinda just came together. It told its own story. I knew I had records that was straight street and I knew I had records that were dealing with knowledge of self. Some songs I didn’t know where they were gonna land on—“The Death Side” or “The Life Side,” but it all worked out. I’m very proud of that record. That was my sophomore record. Most people usually have sort of a jinx during that time. Their [second] record can’t hold up to the first album. That record [Death Certificate], people loved it. I remember people standing out in front of the record store on line. It was lines wrapped around the store and all that stuff. It was to me, a record that needed to be done. It was a record where I was in transition. I was learning knowledge of self, our history here in America. I was trying to bring our fans along with it. Trying to show them you don’t have to stay straight hood, straight gutter. You could add some intelligence with it. You’d be better to navigate through this world.
What was it like writing the album because that point you’re coming off not justAmerikkka’s Most… and Kill at Will as a solo artist, but Straight Outta Compton as well. Those are three classics right there. That’s a career right there, outta the gate.
I felt energized. I felt that “in your prime.” It’s like you feel you know what hip-hop needs. It’s that feeling. That’s the kind of feeling that record gave me. I was coming off a lot of momentum. I was eager. People took longer to drop records before then. By coming out, with AmeriKKKa’s Mostwanted, then dropping Kill At Will later that year, then having Death Certificate ready, it made people come out a little faster. It let people know you can’t just rest. A lot of people were surprised I had a record ready that quick and wanted to drop it. It was fun. I hadn’t worked with The Bomb Squad on Death Certificate; I worked straight with Sir Jinx and The Boogiemen which were DJ Pooh, Rashad and Bobcat. It was gonna be a straight West Coast record as far as production-wise. That made me a little weary, that I didn’t use The Bomb Squad anymore.
Why go in a different direction then? You and The Bomb Squad had made an undeniable classic with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.
They were going through their turmoil. The situation with [Professor] Griff had gotten real bad. They weren’t in position to produce the record. Things had gotten real fragmented. I had to kind of keep it moving and do what I had to do. Then we were successful with Kill At Will. Kill At Will wasn’t with The Bomb Squad. That was just me and Jinx putting that record together. It was like, “We can do it. We don’t have to have Dre, we don’t have to have P.E. We can still do a good record.”
What did you think when you saw the group you left, N.W.A, still being successful in the wake of your absence? Were you more fueled by the fact that Niggaz4life LP sold huge numbers or that the group had sent shots your way on the project?
The shots fueled me more than the sales. I didn’t care what they were selling. I’d figured I didn’t have nothing to do with it, so I didn’t care what they were selling. But them dissing, after I didn’t diss… AmeriKKK’as Most Wanted, there’s not one N.W.A reference at all. I was a little shocked that they would diss. I was real ferocious as far as being mad about it. With [The EP] 100 Miles and Running, they threw a little shot. I threw a little shot with “Jackin for Beats.” But on their actual album, they did a skit that was a little bigger. I was like, “I’m not playing. I’m gonna just go and come off my chest. Say what I feel.”
Who brought you the beat for “No Vaseline?”
I wanted the beat. I told them to loop the beat. I had the lyrics already and I was looking for a beat. I heard [Dana Dane’s] “Cinderfella” one time and I was like “nobody used that Dazz Band beat [“Brick”] in a long time. It’s about time to pull it out.” I knew using that beat on the song would be popular because everybody liked that shit at the time. I knew the beat was hot and the lyrics were personal. I knew the shit was gonna cause a lot of turmoil.
Another highlight off the album was “Summer Vacation.” That was an amazing story.
That song, before when we was with N.W.A, we would go out of town to do shows. But the way we were dressed, we would always get hemmed up in the airport by feds or airport police. They were looking for the niggas transporting dope. We looked like LA niggas transporting dope. They would sweat us, we had to let them know who we are what we’re here to do. I was like “this shit is bad. These LA niggas done went all over this country and turned these places out.” I wanted to write about it. “Summer Vacation” was the song where I just wanted to talk about it. It was like the art of story telling letting people know how this gang was spreading across the country. That’s why you got Crips and Bloods all over the country now, because of the dope game. It ain’t got nothing to do with movies or records. It’s just the dope game.
At the end of a song that tells the story of a gangster such as that, the star of the song or the bad guy walks away in the sunset. On this particular record, you went to jail in your draws.
Yeah, well I done heard stories about when people went outta town. They always tell you the good stuff. “I went out of town and ran that shit.” They don’t tell you how dudes in the town shot they ass up, tore them up or whatever. So I wanted to tell a story that would… … I’m trying to impact the gangster. I’m trying to impact his psyche. I wanted to show, “Ok, these niggas may take and take and take, but as soon as the other dudes huddle up and figure out how aggressive they have to be to get y’all outta there, they gonna do it. They’re gonna get y’all outta there.” I was showing that and showing the consequences of the dope game.
The signature from the album, of course was “Steady Mobbin.” How did you come up with that?
We called ourselves Da Lench Mob. So “Steady Mobbin” was a take off of Da Lench Mob thing. It ain’t complicated rapping, talking hood stuff. But the music was so fly. Bobcat and Pooh, it was banging. Then you add the Parliament stuff “have you ever seen such a sight in your life.” But that sample… the beat sounded totally different. It just came together. I remember laying down in the studio, just laying back, when my eyes woke, I was like, “What the fuck is that?” Bobcat was like, “I’ma loop this little sample.” I was like “loop that bitch up!” That just made the song. It’s what you hear.
I was a shorty listening to the album. I didn’t have a pops around or a older brother, so I definitely picked up some gems from you. I have to ask you about two songs in particular that I paid close attention to, “Look Who’s Burnin” and “Nappy Dugout.”
“Look Who’s Burnin’,” “Nappy Dugout,” Them fun records. I was trying to tell the real. Take the real what people are going through and give people a song where they can be entertained and rock to it. So, “Look Who’s Burnin’,” couple of homies bwoooooy [Laughs]. Them stories they come back with, I had to drop that on them. “Nappy Dugout,” is that old famous parent who thinks their daughter is the angel. [Laughs]
The skits on the album were so crazy. Especially when the chick goes “what’s the matter, ya burnin?” Damn!
That’s Sir Jinx. Sir Jinx is the master of all the skits. He did Robin Lench,” the stuff with Dr. Khalid Muhammad. Jinx is the skit master. Even all the skits on AmeriKKKa’s Most he did that. We was just doing shit as we went along. I’d come in the studio a little later and they’d be working on a skits. He’d have all these people in there. The reception lady from the front desk of the studio. The security dude from outside. Anybody. He’d find a muthafucka from the street if they had a voice. “C’mon here say this. I’ll give you 100 dollars.”
Everyone in the hip-hop community loved the album when it came out. It’s still cherished. But it was such a nationally polarizing album. You had the love from the hood, but mainstream protested you. It was like they hated you and were scared of you. What was it like having so much love from one world and at the same time going through so much controversy with another world?
You know, Jerry Heller had took the album to the Simon Wiesenthal center. He was like, “Yo, he’s dissing Jews.” [He referred to] “You let a Jew, fuck up my crew.” That line. They came down on me. The editor of Billboard [at the time] told retail they should not sell my record. It was real heated. I had to do a lot of interviews to defend the record. It was real heated. I was like, “That album is saying a whole lot. And y’all are caught on ‘No Vaseline’ and ‘Black Korea.’ “Black Korea” I did that after Tasha Harlins thing when she got shot for the orange juice. Everybody was pissed.
I remember this. I was on a call on CNN, my voice and the Rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he was on. They were asking us these questions. For one thing, I was like, “Let me ask this guy here. Are you condoning what Jerry Heller did to me? Are you saying it’s cool that old Jewish managers should fucking steal and get their young black artists to sign bad paperwork and do bad deals? That muthafucka hung up.The mediator that was on CNN was like, “Hello. Hello? OK, I guess that ends the interview.” From there, nothing else was ever said about it. All this turmoil one day and then it was like somebody turned off a switch. I always thought they tried to undercut my career in other ways. Other than just that. It was other left handed shit. You’d have to be an artist in my shoes to detect it, but I thought “that shit was funky.” They can’t stop you when the people love you.