The Making of Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
During their heyday, N.W.A had it all. There was the rebellious rap anthem, in the form of their 1988 single “Fuck Tha Police”; a platinum album, with Straight Outta Compton; sold-out shows across the country; and the iconic stature that came with being one of the few rap acts to have a constant presence on MTV. What MC wouldn’t want to be a part of that monstrous success? So it may have seemed like a bad career move to some rap fans when member Ice Cube split from the five-man group due to a contractual dispute, in the summer of 1989.
But when the then-Jheri-curled rapper, became a solo artist signed to Priority Records, the same label as N.W.A, and dropped his debut disc, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, on May 16, 1990, he proved that he could stand on his own two as one of hip-hop’s star solo artists.
Although he left the group, Cube still hoped that it would be N.W.A producer Dr. Dre who would oversee his album, but the drama surrounding Cube’s departure prevented that. Determined to make his own mark, Ice Cube flew out to New York in search of 3rd Bass producer Sam Sever, to work on AMW, but Sever ditched a meeting with Cube, leaving him waiting in the Def Jam offices. Fatefully, the rapper bumped into Public Enemy front man and Bomb Squad producer Chuck D in the famous rap label’s office hallway. Cube was a fan of Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad—the beatmakers who had pioneered a densely layered sound for P.E. So when Chuck agreed to produce the South Central, L.A., rapper’s first album, it was a match made in rap heaven.
Ice Cube and producer Sir Jinx returned to New York in January 1990 and began to work out of Public Enemy’s preproduction studio in Hempstead, Long Island. Once the album’s blueprint was laid, Cube, Jinx and The Bomb Squad began recording at Greene Street Studios in Downtown Manhattan. By the beginning of March, the album was completed; it was released two months later.
The 16 tracks that appeared on AMW were some of the most unabashed hip-hop records to date. There were the unapologetic “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate,” the mouth-dropping “You Can’t Fade Me” and the R&B-bashing “Turn Off the Radio.” The album’s title track may have been the most poignant, with its unpatriotic misspelling of the word America. Cube replaced the C with the three capital K’s, drawing a parallel to the historically racist practices of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Reagan-era inequalities that young Black men faced in the 1980s.
Sonically, the album was remarkable, blending Cube’s West Coast vernacular with a distinctly East Coast sound, provided mostly by The Bomb Squad. It was gangsta, politically charged, socially relevant and downright funky. Fans flipped over Cube’s solo debut, and in less than three months after hitting the shelves, the LP earned a gold plaque. The Cali MC had officially arrived.
Cube has since released seven more solo LPs and is set to drop his ninth album (I Am the West) later this year. He has emerged as a Hollywood icon, has appeared in over 25 movies, and has directed, written and/or produced over a dozen films. And his solo success all started with one standout album.
For AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’s 20th anniversary, XXL talks with Cube and the album’s chief creative collaborators to find out how Cube went from most wanted to most successful.
1. “Better Off Dead”
Produced by Ice Cube, Sir Jinx and Eric Sadler
Ice Cube: These sound-effect CDs were all over the place, and they were just new to the public, so we wanted to [use them] and make the record come alive. After Jinx and Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler—they put together that intro. That intro was so visual, especially at the time, that we knew that [skits] had to be a constant through the record. The record had to be three-dimensional, not just in your stereo, but it was happening.
Eric Sadler: It was more like a movie than a skit. Public Enemy was used to doing interludes, but on the Cube tape, we decided, “You know what, let’s throw skits in there…” The tone of it and the timing of every single nuance made the difference. It was real cool when we finally put it together. We were like, “Whoa, that was something that was never done before.”
2.“The Nigga Ya Love to Hate”
Produced by The Bomb Squad
Co-produced by Ice Cube and Sir Jinx
Ice Cube: That record was actually an N.W.A record. It was originally called “The Niggas You Love to Hate,” and I was writing it as an N.W.A track. Then, when I left the group, I just went on and put two more verses on it and kept it for myself. So the song was in my notebook, kinda there… Eric Sadler would come in with these crazy, amazing-ass bottom beats that just was the shit. I would start rappin’ off of ’em. So when one of those bottom beats took hold, and he had Steve Arlington’s “Weak at the Knees” looped up, I rapped on that with N.W.A’s “Gangsta, Gangsta.” If you listen to “Gangsta, Gangsta,” and listen to “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate,” you’ll see the difference in production. But those are the same loop. One of them is just going faster. The other is thicker and slower. So, after you do that, it’s all about just layering on top of it. So once we had a bottom beat and a rap—see, that was a song that we can go and record now. All the shit that you gonna put on top of it wasn’t done until we got to Greene Street [studios]… We had the song, and we were trying to do scratched hooks all through the break. And I was like, “Since the song is ‘the nigga that you love to hate,’ the hook should be ‘Fuck you, Ice Cube.’ And it should be people complaining about the kind of records I’m doing.” That was a big argument between us, about, should somebody say fuck you to themselves on their own record? Specifically, I guess I remember Jinx not really wanting to do that. He had his reasons, because he was in the inner thing with me and N.W.A. Dre is his cousin. He didn’t think it was cool, at the time, to do that, and I was like, “Man, it’s the perfect time.”
Sir Jinx: Me and Cube in the studio, we’re able to say, “I like something” or “I don’t like something.” So, at just some point, with me wanting [Cube] to come out with his shining armor, why would you wanna scar it? He’s a convincing guy. Obviously, he’s talented enough to spearhead and do it.
3. “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”
Produced by The Bomb Squad
Co-produced by Ice Cube and Sir Jinx
Chuck D: Yeah, that was the first song we recorded: “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.” We had to set a precedent there. That had to be something that we had to do.
Hank Shocklee: [That beat] I wanted to use for [former Bomb Squad artist] Son of Bazerk… Cube came [to New York] with lyrics, I played that track for him, and he started putting lyrics down to it, and I kinda liked what he was doing.
Keith Shocklee: That’s how we worked. If we felt that you didn’t do the right thing on the track, sometimes we took the track back.
Ice Cube: It was [inspired by the TV show America’s Most Wanted]. I had saw this way to spell America with the three K’s, and that kinda represents the America that we were dealing with [during] Reaganomics. I figured that this was the perfect title for this record. The lyrics for every song [came first, before the music], except the songs that Jinx produced. The songs that Jinx produced I wrote with the beat. The songs that were produced strictly by The Bomb Squad were already written. I had notebooks full of stuff, and as they played beats, I would rap and just connect them with the beats… That’s one thing, to me, that helped put a stamp on the record. Calling it “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and spelling it like that made the record political, and not just dismissed as a gangsta record. These little things helped solidify the record. Puff told me that, before him and Biggie did Ready to Die, they listened to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. To me, that’s just telling you the impact of the record. —Rob Markman
To read the rest of the making of Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, be sure to pick up the June issue of XXL, which I son stands now!!!