Ice Cube's March 1994 Cover Story: 'The Devil Made Me Do It'

Ice Cube's March 1994 Cover Story: 'The Devil Made Me Do It'

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 1994 issue of VIBE Magazine.

“Four years ago, he was “the nigga ya love to hate.” Now Ice Cube has a wife and family and has embraced the Nation of Islam. The original Boy N the Hood has finally moved out of South Central. He says he’s older, wiser, and still true to the game. But, asks Joan Morgan, has hip hop’s leading prophet of rage lost his edge.

Written By: Joan Morgan

It’s a beautiful day in Encino, California. A good day, if you will, in the spanking new offices of Ice Cube’s fledgling company, Lench Mob Records. Cube’s wife, Kim—a very pretty, very pregnant woman—drifts by every once in a while to tell him about an important call he needs to take or affectionately chide him about the growing piles of clutter on his new desk. He says it isn’t messy; she says it is. Their wedding picture occupies the one spot on the desk that is relatively clear, a constant in a pile that seems to be ever-shifting, ever-shuffling.

It’s been almost four years since Cube’s debut solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, marked his graduation from a mere nigga wit attitude to the nigga America loved to hate. Lookin’ back, we were ripe for it. Cube broke out at a time when hip hop was definitely on some ol’ “I feel pretty” shit. Nubians had discovered the elixir of self-love; Afrocentria abounded—sometimes ad nauseum. But as Langston Hughes once wrote, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs….”

Cube came ready to serve heaping mounds of ugly. On AmeriKKKa, Cube emerged as the sonic personification of unmitigated black rage. It was violent, sexist, powerful, relentless, funny, and painful. It was also seductive as all hell. For white America, it was a voyeuristic look into the world where racism causes its equality-starved victims to feed upon themselves. For black folks, it was a long, cold, hard look in the mirror. There we were, ass-out for the world to see, and all the Brooks Brothers/kente cloths, relaxers/dreadlocks, embarrassment/denial in the world were not going to change the fact that these “negative” characters were very real fixtures in the black community. In the pain and insane.

On his second full-length album, 1991’s Death Certificate, Cube stripped away the comforts of voyeurism and showed white America what real unmitigated black rage would look like if it ever made its way out of the ghetto. The picture was not pretty. Jews, gays, and Asians were the newest victims to get caught in the cross fire. And many of the oh-so-liberal observers who sang Cube’s praises when he was rhyming about niggas killing niggas and smackin’ up bitches (read: black) were now demanding he be silenced by any means necessary. In 1992, Cube gave his critics the definitive “fuck you” when The Predator premiered at number one on the charts.

A lot has happened in Cube’s life in the last two years. He’s happily married, a follower of the beliefs of the Nation of Islam, and the father of a little namesake (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), with a baby girl on the way. Fans and detractors alike will tell you that Cube seems a lot less angry these days. His new album, Lethal Injection—funky, melodic, and relatively laid-back—has left some listeners grumbling, “the Nation and married life done got to Cube,” and others wondering if the absence of ire means that they need to find a new vehicle for catharsis.

Over the course of several hours in his office, Cube spoke—full of riveting insights and maddening contractions—about work, life, family, relationships, and how he intends to survive the pressures of being the world’s most celebrated angry black man.

How conscious were you of your audience when you were making this record? On Death Certificate, for example, the concept was that side A would say one thing to your audience, and side B would say another thing.

Well, from Death Certificate to now, my audience is totally different. From the little white kid that’s nine years old to the old grandmother who likes “It Was a Good Day.” That’s my whole audience. So I really don’t have a pinpoint idea, even though I still do my records directly for black teenagers and young adults.

But I was getting feedback, some people saying, “well, Ice Cube lost his edge.” So I have to do records that you expect and records that you don’t expect. With The Predator, I really wanted to show that Ice Cube has skills—do “Now I Gotta Wet’cha” or “Wicked,” and show that I can do just a rap record with no social message. That was the main focus on The Predator. And one thing that’s never been consistent on any of my records is the music. There’s never been a certain musical feel to the whole record. So on Lethal Injection, I tried to keep the music consistent, and then throw the raps in for messages. My next record will be real put together, more like Death Certificate.

There was a time when you had to go to the ‘hood to hear rap, plain and simple. There are pros and cons to its commercial success, but do you think that the expanding audience affects its ability to really be a voice of young black people?

No, because the good thing is that the hardcore records are still respected more than the pop records. Once the pop records get more respect than a hardcore street group, that’s when the music will hurt. But any kind of pop, bubblegum, sugar-toast group out there, the hardcore still gets more respect, and that’s where it started from. So as long as we keep that base, I don’t think the music is hurting at all.

What about the people who front being hardcore, but really aren’t—who don’t come from where they say they come from. Those records aren’t pop, but they have a pop thing about them in the sense that people don’t know, so they buy it and eat it up. Do you think that waters it down at all?

If you’re black and live in this country, it’s an experience. You got a story to tell, and you’re legit in telling it. Because no matter how rich you are, how poor you are, this country sees black and white. You’re going to get treated pretty much the same way. I think what matters is what a group is saying: Nobody is harder than a bullet. I don’t consider myself a hard individual; I can’t step through the earth, I can’t stop a bullet with my bare flesh. I consider myself real, and that’s a difference.

We have generals out there that have never shot a gun in a war, but they could tell you about war because they know how to look at it. I know a lot of killers, but they’re in the pen now, so they can’t rap. And I know people who have witnessed things and can explain it. I don’t think that makes them less legit than a person who has—quote, unquote—been through it, because we all have been through it. Unless you’re black, you don’t know. Period. So no matter who you are, I don’t think it waters it down.

Some people are comic books, and some people are newspapers. Comic books have a whole lot of shooting and killing, but you ain’t getting nothing out of it. The newspaper maybe has less of that, but it’s true, or somewhat true. I think the audience can pick out who is the comic books and who’s the newspaper.

How do you think the mainstream media is handling rap right now?

Well, rap is the only thing where information is distributed that don’t go through these channels that information usually has to go through. Without a newspaper, Ice Cube could still sell records. Without a magazine, without a video, without the radio, Ice Cube could sell records. So there’s no way to control that. That’s scary to the ones who control this all. Because if you distribute information, you can teach the people.

Everybody else—movies, TV shows—has to go through certain channels, and music used to be the same way. If you didn’t get played on the radio, you didn’t sell. Nowadays, that’s not even an issue. Radio play can damn near hurt you. That scares the media, so they have to attack the media, so they have to attack rap and make it not so powerful. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T, whoever is saying something, that’s the main threat, and their main focus is to try to bring us down. And they use different ways, they see exactly what tempts you. Some groups they watch and try to bury from the start—let you blow up fast, then get you buried.

Is Arrested Development an example of that? They got written up in places like The Wall Street Journal.

They saw that the group had some conscience. Let’s see what happens with their next record. It’s going to be like, damn, they was all over MTV last year. I didn’t hear nothing about them this year. It looks like you failed, because most of the people that’s watching don’t know the game. You look like you’re on top of the world, and next year, you ain’t nothing. So it looked like you just took a nose dive. And that can kill a group, if you play into that game.

People try to play that game with me. See, I know that game; I’ll take the long route. Don’t give me the short route. I don’t want to do that. They played “Good Day” all over the place, then they want me to play on the Rock and Jock basketball games. But, I’ll play with my homeboys, you know, because those people don’t love me. They don’t love what I’m saying, and I know it. So before you take the gift of the devil, you’ve gotta see exactly what’s in it for him.

Would you say that from the mid-’80s to now is the first time that young black men have had control over their public image?

No. Until we can control networks, movie studios, theaters, the only image that we really control is our image through rap. We are open people so the hell that we’re going through is all in the streets. The suburbs are going through hell, too, but you don’t see it in the streets. But you go in the household, and it’s all hell inside the household. The streets look quiet, because white people are really not open, emotional people. Their neighborhoods reflect that. But if you go inside each door, each household is going through a crisis. The tripped thing about it is, they’re going through a crisis, and they got all the damn money.

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What do you think of that crisisthe dissatisfaction that’s affecting not just black families but white families in particular?

In America, for any people to be powerful, they have to ride on the backs of the poor. How do you keep people poor? You keep them ignorant. So if you want people to be slaves, or have a slave mentality, you keep them from knowing those things that will set them free. That’s the aim of the government, to keep people ignorant, and I think what you have is people fighting to gain some kind of knowledge of who they are and where they’re going. It’s like they’re pushing down and we’re pushing up. And we’re going to meet somewhere in the middle, and I think that’s what tearing America up right now.

So pretty soon, it’s got to change, because I can’t see myself sitting on the back of nobody’s bus. And my sons probably can’t see themselves putting their hands up in the air when the police pull them over. If the government thinks they’ve got to worry about Ice Cube… it’s that 14-, 15-year-old, who’s buck wild and feels invincible—that’s the one you’ve got to worry about. And the ones coming after him are going to be worse, until we have freedom, justice, and equality.

Given the realities of poverty in this country, that there are poor people who are white, who are Asian, who are Latino, do you think economic conditions could ever unify people? Do you think that there could ever be a unified movement of blacks and other oppressed people?

It could be, and it should be. But when it comes to oppressed people, the black man is always at the bottom of the totem pole. The closer you are to white, the more arrogant you are. A certain kind of arrogance is breeded into people. White folks are snotty towards black people. Orientals are snobby, all the way down the line, ‘till you have lighter black folks more snobby than darker black folks. It comes all the way down the line to the blackest, blackest, blackest man, who’s everybody’s an enemy of.

Once we learn how to love each other, then we can reach out for other people. But how am I going to help you build your house when mine’s not finished? It don’t make no sense. I think we have to stop looking for so much outside help, and start to help ourselves.

I really wish we would build a wall {laughs}— not a physical wall, but a wall around our community—till we get our thing together. It’s like a football team just going straight up to the line of scrimmage—no play, no huddle-up, no nothing. Just out there doing plays, running into each other. You have to huddle up, get your shit together, and then you can go and attack the other team with a play. We refuse to do that. We refuse to huddle up and get our shit together. Then we can challenge the world.

There was an article that we did in the magazine about Japan. Right now, Koreans in Japan are really treated badly. They have something that’s almost the equivalent of a pass system. They make you take a Japanese name, and if you’re Korean, there are certain jobs you’re not eligible for. Just a lot of discrimination. And a lot of the kids are really big rap fans, because they say that they really identify with the oppression in the music. One kid said, even when you don’t understand the words, you understand the feeling and the anger behind it.

Do you know what I think about that? If Japan is for the Japanese, I ain’t got no problem with that. At all. Japan is for Japanese. Korea is Koreans. Now, the problem I have is, America is for Americans. But they tell you that America is for everybody. See, to me, that’s worse. Because you’re looking for something that you ain’t never, ever going to get. If they said, “Look {snaps his fingers}, America is for white folks. Black folks, here’s yours.” I ain’t got no problem with that. The problem is America saying, “oh, this is love, the melting pot.” But America is for fucking white Americans. Straight up—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

I went to Japan. And in some places, it was like, ah, you can’t come in here. I had no problem with that. Because I knew that, up front. They didn’t disrespect me. Japan is for Japanese. You ain’t going to come over here, you ain’t going to get no Japanese job. But that’s honest; what you see is what you get. What I hate is the motherfuckers sitting behind a desk at the record company, with a tie on. Bigger crooks than my homeboys. To me, that’s worse. Deception is worse than the truth.

So if America is for white Americans, cool. But America owes us a spot, a piece of this country that should be just for black folks. And they ain’t got to worry about me ever going into that part of the airport, to where they are. I’m content.

Let’s change the subject a little bit. I want to talk about you as a family man. You got married. You had a son. You have another kida daughter, this timeon the way. You moved out of South Central. How do you think being a family man has changed your life?

It’s made me more of a man. Not as reckless as I used to be. I thought I’d never move. Never, man— this is me, right here. But when you’ve got a family, and you’ve got motherfuckers going, “We’re going to kidnap your wife,” and you’re in Baltimore...damn, how do I protect my family? When you’ve got niggas driving by your house that you don’t know: “Yo, Cube, man come outside.” So I said, let’s get to a place where I’m not as popular. Or a place where nobody knows where I live.

I used to think, how could you make money and then move out? But it’s like having a piece of meat in the jungle. All the lions and tigers want that piece of meat, too, ‘cause they don’t have none. So, what you’ve got to do is take your meat in your den, or your tree, or wherever you are and eat it. And then show everybody else how to get some meat, too. So you won’t become prey, sitting in a land of predators. I used to be a predator, and I never want to be the prey, but that’s how it is. You can’t fight off everything.

My family made me more cautious. I’m old and I lock my doors and all that stupid stuff that I never used to do. But, you know, you got somebody that’s your blood, that’s your purpose on earth, so you want to make sure your offspring survives. Some people say, “I’m never having kids”—well, fool, your history stops right there. I want to be able to sit grandkids on my lap, and tell them stories about how it was: “They burnt the city down in 1992, or was it ‘93?” That type of thing. I want to be able to play with my kids. You know, if my kids start running with the gangs, I’m able to relate to the things that they’re going to have to go through, so I’m cool with it. I think that’s my purpose, to instruct the youth—not only my own, but other youth— on how to keep out of this self-destructive cycle.

I think that people who just know your media image would be surprised that you’re married. You have this image of being a raving misogynist. So I want to know what was it that you were looking for in a wife?

Somebody that was strong. Just like I hate yes-men, I hate yes-women. I hate that. Because I don’t know everything, so I need somebody to tell me, “Yo, you’re fucking up over here.”

You always knew she’d be a sister?

A black woman?

Uh-huh.

Oh please. Please. Man. Nothing but. White woman took me to the store one day during a video shoot…. I felt so uncomfortable, just riding in the car. Just terrible. It’s true: the truth is true.

You mentioned yes-women. Do you think black women, in particular, have problems with self-esteem?

I think black men have problems with self-esteem. I think black women know what they want. And they make no bones about it, and they hold you up to that. But for black men, there’s extra, added pressure. That’s why black men are more likely to die of high blood pressure and all these types of things, because of all the pressure that comes from not being the man of your house—being a man physically, but not mentally. I think that’s why a lot of men beat their women, feeling like, “I’m not living up to what I am, and I can’t take it out on the one that’s oppressing me, so I’m going to take it out on a woman.”

I think you’re rightI think it is about lack of power. So what do you do? I know a lot of black women who are intelligent, and beautiful, and strong. And lonely as hell. Don’t really want to date white men, you know, not trying to do that. I guess I’m asking how can we heal as a community if we can’t come together and have positive relationships?

Well, I can’t answer that. Um...damn. That’s a heavy one {laughs}. The black man is going through a plight, and we are—oh, here we go: we are like children, the whole black community. Whatever the white man does, we want to do. Just like the child wants to do what the adult wants to do. And the white man disrespects his women on all levels.

So I think everything that he does, we do on a smaller level. Even killing each other. Yeah, we do Crips and Bloods, but then you look at Bosnia and Herzegovina. You take car-jacking, and then you take Panama—you know, country-jacking. He hates his woman, and he’s been our only teacher for 437 years, so we hate our women. He erased all of our knowledge and replaced it with his own. And his own evidently, is not good for us. We will continue to do what we’ve been taught, until we decide not to follow that way. Children follow their mother or father to a certain extent, and then they have too break off and do their own thing. That’s what our community has to do.

So ultimately, what you’re talking about is the need for us to develop a value system that’s not based on the materialistic, or sexist, or patriarchal, or racist ideas…

We need not just a value system, but a whole national system. We need to become a nation within a nation. We need to have our own everything inside this culture. That’s how we survive. Because this world is the devil’s world. You have to break from that, make a new reality, in your own way. And become something other than what this world is producing, which is shit, hell, destruction. And I trip off the preachers, because if this world is of the devil, you should be trying your damnedest to get away from this world. But you’re trying to fit in, you want to be there with Clinton, shaking hands. What the hell is that?

A friend of mine was in this position recently, and I want to know what you think of it. She was in the car with her baby’s father, and he was listening to The Chronic, and she was like, “I don’t really care when you play it in the house; I don’t like it, but you have every right to play it. But around our daughter, I don’t really think she should have to hear that.” And he was like, “This is my experience, my reality, this is a part of where I come from, she should hear it.” So I want to know, what are you going to do when your little girl comes, and she wants to know whether it’s okay to play the year 2000’s version of The Chronic or AeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, for that matter.

Now, why would I shield my daughter from anything that I can explain to her, inside the house? Why would I say, “No, don’t listen to that,” so she can go outside and hear it with no explanation, nothing behind it but what people her age know about it? I’d rather pick my child’s brain, to give her the right medicine, because I can shield her from it while she’s in here, until she steps out that door. And nobody’s shielded from nothing when they walk out the door. I don’t shut the kids out from nothing they want to look at—nothing. Def Comedy Jam, nothing. They don’t laugh at what we laugh about, because they don’t understand. But just break it down to them.

When parents are in the position to teach their kids, they don’t; and then they get mad when they got rappers teaching their kids, because the rappers don’t shield the kids from nothing. The rappers tell them straight up. And that’s really all the kids want to know. The kids don’t need to know lies, they want to know the truth. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny...how are kids going to grow up with that bullshit?

There’s been a movement, internally, to address a lot of these things in black music, like sex and guns in lyrics. What do you think about that?

I’ve been saying this for years: You can’t change the problem if you don’t got a problem. If rappers didn’t come out with “bitch” and “ho,” we would still not be addressing that issue at all. Now, in 1994, we’re starting to address that. If everybody comes to the conclusion that “bitch” and “ho” aren’t appropriate for the community, they won’t be used. Just like “Negro” is not used no more. It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t fit, it has no meaning. But until somebody brings that to the table—here’s what’s going on, here’s what’s happening—you’re never going to address it. It’s like, if your hair is messed up and I hold a mirror in front of you long enough, you’re going to use a comb. That’s our whole purpose.

You said earlier that there were people who say you got married and got soft. What do you say those detractors when they that your music isn’t as hard as it used to be, that you lost your edge, that you’re not as angry as you used to be?

I ain’t as stupid, that’s basically what it is. We hate ourselves so much that you ain’t hard unless you’re talking about, “I shot this nigga, I got 1,000 AKS, I killed 1,000 niggas.” Motherfuckers would rather hear you say you killed 1,000 niggas than hear you say you smoked one devil. They love that more than they love themselves. So that’s the only thing that’s changed in my music: it’s more focused. I know that killing a nigga down the street ain’t going to solve none of my problems at all. And I don’t put that into my records, unless I’m explaining a situation. I ain’t stupid no more. And some people can’t deal with that. Niggas are scared of evolution, niggas don’t want to be free.

They’re scared because with freedom, you have to make your own decisions. Freedom is responsibility. Shit, I live in my mama’s house, cookies are there every day. Bam—you move out, ain’t no more cookies in there, unless you put them in there. You’re like, “Damn, I got to buy dishwater liquid?” That’s the responsibility you want to take to be free. These are scared Negroes, just like when slavery was over; yeah, you’re free to go. Now what am I going to do? We sharecropped. Still a slave.

What would you say to someone who says, okay, you’re married, you have two, five, maybe eight kids. You got a house, you got a car, you got a business...Cube is really living the American Dream.

It ain’t no dream for me. You can’t compare one man’s wealth to a whole nation of poverty. If they foreclose on my house, I can’t go to my bank and say, “White man, let me get a loan until next month. Give me $20,000.” Until I can go to my people and get help out of any financial situation I’m in, there ain’t nobody rich. I’m as poor as anybody else. I know how to get some money, and my duty is to show people around me how to get it, and how we all can get it.

So might that mean taking a step like directing feature films after all these videos you’ve worked on?

Yeah. Directing is cool, but I need to grow. I’ve been offered films to direct, but I’m not ready. I need to learn this game more. I’m going to be in this movie with John Singleton, Higher Learning. So I’l be looking over his shoulder the whole time. I never went to school, so I really want to sit and learn the game, and not just jump out there and be weak {laughs}. I don’t want to do nothing weak. I want to make sure I win.

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Main Image Credit: Vibe