I never liked music until I heard hip hop. I never really liked hip hop until I heard NWA. Call me a thug, a hoodlum, or a dangerous black man, but as an 18-year old teenager, the chronic coming out of those speakers took my breath away. Ice Cube was the magic behind NWA, the lyrical genius, and the businessman who was smart enough to survive the murky waters of the young “gangsta rap” industry and build an even stronger career as a multi-million dollar filmmaker.
I grew up with Ice Cube: when he was young, I was young. When he got old, so did I. Although I lived in the south, I was a loyal ambassador of the West. My mother nearly had a heart attack when she heard Ice Cube’s song “Dopeman,” one of the greatest rap songs in history. Also, I’m sure my father the police officer wasn’t all that happy about hearing the words “F*ck the police,” (another Ice Cube classic) coming out of my bedroom. The music of NWA reflected the cultural cage that had been created for young black men in urban America, where toys and playgrounds were replaced by crack cocaine and AK-47s, all sponsored by the irresponsible decisions of the federal government. Yes, Ice Cube was a product of his environment, and his oratorical reflections of that environment became a product of corporate America.
To be sure, Ice Cube helped to single-handedly create a multi-billion dollar industry. Without Ice Cube and NWA, there would be no TI, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent or any of the other artists representing the sometimes inspirational, but typically disappointing sounds that populate urban airwaves. With his status as the founding father of gangsta rap, Cube has garnered respect world-wide, as he is the only artist allowed to be America’s Nightmare on his albums, and a young Bill Cosby the big screen. His genius is unprecedented.
But sometimes with genius and confidence, there can also be a large dose of arrogance and myopia. Ice Cube, like many artists from his generation, seems to lack the ability to respect younger artists behind him. Hip hop has had a multitude of such flair-ups. One huge one recently occurred between Soulja Boy and Ice T: in this particular case, the old guy (Ice T) told the young guy (Soulja Boy) that he was garbage, and the young guy responded by noting that there is no serious rapper born as early as 1958 (the year Ice-T was born). The latest battle features Ice Cube and “the New West,” a group of young artists who are now positioned to represent the next generation.
In a statement on his blog, Ice Cube explained why he feels no obligation to help young artists: “I got burnt out. Nigg*s couldn’t take the baton and run wit it,” Cube said. “I was sick of babysitting grown ass men and walking them through the industry. I felt like Dr. Frankinstein building uncontrollable monsters. How? If you DON’T make’em a star, they blame you. If you DO make’em a star, they leave you. I got sick of that ungrateful sh**.”
Ice Cube, in all his boldness, must be careful not to make the mistake that has been repeated since the beginning of time. All throughout history, older people have always taken a broader stake in cultural achievements than they can realistically maintain. They are tempted to believe that all young people are headed to hell in a hand basket and are ruining the great thing they’ve come to create. They become like the man who thinks no one will ever sleep with his wife after he’s dead, or the retired police officer who believes that no one else deserves to carry his badge and gun. When we play a powerful role in the development of something valuable, we have a hard time relinquishing control. So, when others come behind us to guide the very thing we’ve built, we genuinely believe that we have the right to make the rules.
The Civil Rights Movement is a great example, as some leaders refuse to acknowledge those who come behind them. If you didn’t march with Dr. King, then you don’t have a right to have an opinion. Unfortunately, Ice Cube is embracing a similarly self-centered spirit with album titles such as I Am the West, and songs like “Child Support,” where he mentions that there are no kings in rap because they’re, “nothin but my children.” The truth is that as much as the world is fully aware that Ice Cube was one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap, young artists only owe him a debt because they choose to acknowledge it. Ice Cube is respected in west coast hip hop, but he doesn’t own it.
Fighting to kill the future is like trying to stop stem cell research or getting teenagers to stop thinking about sex – it’s a battle you simply cannot win. Young artists stay young, while old folks get tired and become less relevant. While I still find myself inspired as I bounce to Ice Cube’s music, my daughter yawns and begs me to change the channel. Cube and other artists must realize that the best role for an older artist to play is that of patient mentor and not the role of eternally stubborn dictator emeritus. Hip hop is coming of age, and as this aging process takes place, there will be dissection and dissension. One thing that is becoming quite clear in all this is that there is no one way to define the culture.