There are few careers that have been so bewildering to the public eye as that of one O’Shea Jackson. At the same time as starring in banal family comedies like Are We Done Yet? and his latest The Lottery Ticket, Jackson has also played a part in far more weighty matter – such as Three Kings , Barbershop and Boyz In The Hood . And through all of that, he has simultaneously existed as Ice Cube; a career that began in the mid-‘80s, when a seventeen-year-old Jackson started performing at parties hosted by Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young. As Ice Cube, and a member of the iconic N.W.A, Jackson has been perhaps the standard-bearer for the aggressive, hyper-masculine world of gangsta rap.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy. If few actors can survive any public lifestyle considered to be even remotely ‘anti-family’, even fewer rappers have been able to do anything without ‘realness’; the appearance of living the lifestyle you rap about. Yet as the first superstars of hip-hop enter their middle age, the world that they spawned seems to be more and more forgiving of their pantheon, who are now writing rhymes based around a lifestyle that they haven’t lived for many, many years. Outside of being a successful actor for instance, Jackson’s been married since 1992, and he and his wife have four children together.
A happy family seems a world away from Fuck Tha Police, a song so visceral in its rage that the members of N.W.A. were rumoured to be on the LAPD’s ‘Most Wanted’ list for a time. Jackson never goes quite so far as to say he was simply acting the part of a militant, disaffected Compton teenager, but suggests instead that both his goofy mugging for the cameras and lyrics like “Today was a good day / Didn’t even have to use my AK”, come from different aspects of his own personality. “I don’t really consider myself a persona. I just be me,” he muses. “And people didn’t realise that when I was doing N.W.A... I could still laugh with the best of them.”
Instead, Jackson suggests tracking his essential self through his solo records, on which “you kind of get to be yourself”. And indeed, the Ice Cube oeuvre is all of a type – full of macho swagger and a reductive worldview that prioritises violence over almost everything. It is, unquestionably, badarse, and ‘Cube is a damn fine MC – even when you can see a rhyme coming, he can still shock you with the sheer intensity of his delivery. “Those records are... thorny,” he says, enjoying the sound of the word. “That’s what they’re made to be.”
That business of making a record has changed profoundly since Jackson got in the game, and he has a fairly bleak view of the current climate, which he talks about with an air of resignation. “Now, getting an album is damn near like getting a soda out of the refrigerator,” he says, ruefully. “It’s anti-climactic.
“I remember when people used to skip work, or skip school, and they were standing in line at the record stores – and it was an event to get a new record.” It’s suggested that albums leaking before their release date certainly can’t help; and it’s something that seems to especially occur in hip-hop with alarming frequency. “Yeah,” he agrees, “and that hurts. But... the biggest problem in the industry is the fact that people think music is free. And music is becoming worthless.”
There have been countless models and theories floated as a means to counteract this, but Jackson’s own approach catches me by surprise. “You gotta stick with your true fans and just satisfy them, because those are the ones that are going to come to the show. So I don’t concern myself with hip-hop fans no more; I concern myself with Ice Cube fans. And I do records for Ice Cube fans. And as long as they satisfied, I’m satisfied.”
Ice Cube’s most recent record, I Am The West, was released just a month ago – and Jackson is coming to Australia this week to show it off live. He assures that, as with any artist with a back-catalogue like his, there’s going to be plenty of old stuff too, for those rusted-on Ice Cube fans. It’s going to be “that hardcore hip-hop”, declares Jackson.
“No band. Two turntables. Me and my man Dub C. And then 20 years of hip-hop, from Straight Outta Compton to I Am The West, and everything in between.”
Considering that hip-hop has always been very much a young man’s game, does it seem at all odd to Jackson that, at 41 years, he’s still going? It does, he says, but it’s nothing new. “I mean, you don’t want Mick Jagger to stop, so why the fuck should Ice Cube?
“If Paul McCartney don’t have to stop, why does Dr. Dre? So, it’s basically, yeah, you’re right... But you still have fans from back in the day who are now in their 50’s or 60’s. They are still B-boys. They aren’t giving it up.
“And you run into Afrika Bambaataa, and see what he’s talking about,” he points out. “Y’know what I mean? He talkin’ ‘bout hip-hop, and some B-boy shit, but with grey hair coming out,” he laughs. “Retirement is something that old men do, and I’m a young man.”
ICE CUBE's new album I Am The West is out now. He plays The Palace Theatre next Wednesday October 27.