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 just Amerikkka’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 Most wanted, 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.