Ice Cube ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ Was a ‘Sink or Swim’ Album for Him
That might sound a little melodramatic -- but not by much. He'd given up his spot in N.W.A over a business dispute with manager Jerry Heller and fellow group member Eazy-E, and although losing their chief lyricist was definitely a significant setback, they were still one of the biggest hip-hop acts on the scene. As a solo artist, Cube was seen as something of an underdog in what looked like a nasty West Coast rap beef.
Heller, for his part, did what he could to ensure Cube stayed at a disadvantage. Although his departure from N.W.A was chiefly what Cube later described as a "business decision" that didn't really have much of an impact on his friendship with his former partner Dr. Dre, the tangled state of those relationships still enabled Heller to prevent Dre from producing Cube's solo debut.
"When I left the group, I was still trying to get Dre to produce my album," Cube insisted in Check the Technique 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. "I didn’t have any hard feelings like that. It was a business decision when I left. But Jerry Heller stepped in and vetoed Dre working with me."
This forced Cube to put together a new team for his solo debut. Intuitively understanding that neither he nor his longtime partner Sir Jinx were ready to produce a full album on their own, he sought help from an unexpected source: the Bomb Squad, the crew then chiefly known for its production work on Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. As Cube explained in Check the Technique, even though they came from opposite sides of the West Coast/East Coast hip-hop divide, working together made perfect sense.
"With N.W.A, we had toured with a lot of East Coast groups: De La Soul, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J. So I knew the hot producers," he pointed out. "We was all fans of the Bomb Squad, as you can tell by the samples that we used on Straight Outta Compton."
Still, getting the Bomb Squad to work on the record wasn't as simple as asking. Chuck D, a member of the Squad as well as the leader of Public Enemy, had a double-vested interest in avoiding involvement in the beef between Cube and his former partners, and initially suggested other options for the producer's chair -- something Cube put a stop to when he arrived in New York and found himself face-to-face with Squad member Hank Shocklee while guesting on "Burn Hollywood Burn," a track that ultimately surfaced on PE's Fear of a Black Planet LP.
"Cube went to Hank and us and said that he had mentioned to Dre and Eazy that the Bomb Squad might produce his album. And when he did, Eazy had rolled his eyes, and Dre said, ‘Well, then you’ll barely go gold,'" recalled Chuck in Check the Technique. "When that was heard, we assembled."
If Chuck D initially thought he and the Bomb Squad had something to lose, that pressure weighed even more heavily on Ice Cube -- although his instincts told him the gamble was more than worth the risk.
"I wanted Dre to work because I knew what I was getting with Dre. I didn’t know what I was getting with the Bomb Squad," Cube explained to SPIN. "I didn’t know if they even wanted to do my whole record, I was just hoping to get them to do two or three songs. So, when they agreed to do the whole thing, I f---in’ did a backflip."
Cube also came prepared. "I realized this could be a really good project when [he] showed me six or eight composition books full of rhymes," Shocklee remembered in Check the Technique. "And they weren’t the 90-page ones, they were 200 pages, filled up! That was what got me really excited. To me, that’s the mark of an artist — how much material can you bring to the table? I already knew we had an album’s worth, now we had to figure out how to condense it into something cohesive."
Part of that mission meant adopting a different stance than the one Cube had taken with N.W.A., whose records tended to be militant without being particularly political. With his new songs, Cube took a somewhat more thoughtful approach -- without losing the humor or the strident edge that had helped make him famous in the first place.
"N.W.A is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the hood," Cube told SPIN. "But I wanted it to feel like a movement -- not just rapping but street knowledge, real street knowledge. I felt like my music was always geared to letting the streets know what the politicians were trying to do to them, and I always let the politicians know what the streets think of ‘em."
That attitude was apparent as soon as fans took a look at the record cover and saw the title: AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Released on May 16, 1990, the album authoritatively opened a new chapter in Cube's career by doing exactly what he'd initially set out to do: Come out swinging. Throwing punches at everything from urban blight and systematic racism to the battle of the sexes -- and backed up with the Bomb Squad's customarily dense, sample-driven sound — he sounded like a man reborn before he'd even celebrated his 21st birthday.
As Cube later recalled, the chaotic sound of the record's production was somewhat reflected in the occasionally messy way the tracks came together. "The Bomb Squad would generally only work from 6PM to 6AM, so sometimes you’d go to sleep, wake up and they’d just be there, still working on s---," he recalled in Check the Technique. "Like, ‘Who did all that? This is dope!’ All of those dudes was mad scientists to me. No one has ever been able to put samples together better than they did back then. It was just all these people around the album like bees, working on one thing. Living, breathing and growing."
Those efforts paid off with an album that, while mostly too brutal and profane to make a bid for crossover status, quickly found its audience. AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted hit No. 6 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart and No. 19 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart, and spun off a No. 1 Rap Singles hit with the title track. Within months, it was certified gold; platinum sales -- and a rush-released EP, Kill at Will -- would soon follow.
Cube would go on to enjoy greater commercial success in his solo recording career, notching seven straight Top 10 LPs between 1991-2008 -- including the No. 1 The Predator in 1992. But for many, he's never quite managed to equal the intoxicating collage of noise he and the Bomb Squad assembled with AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. It's a period Cube himself looks back on now as a creative peak -- not just for himself, but for hip-hop in general.
"The sampling era is the best era in hip-hop besides the golden age," he argued to SPIN. "Just, like, when you could take all these dynamic riffs and horns and seams and loops, and you could make ‘em into your own song, and be as creative as you can be. It is just the best era. To me, once people really had to start making their own music, it’s been less dynamic ever since."