Within the urban community, there are certain cultural heroes who are held in special esteem due to their dominance and achievement in multiple realms. Hip-Hop is no different, as we celebrate one’s ability to navigate various thoroughfares and avenues to success, particularly after having risen from adverse or impoverished conditions. In 1991, depending on who or where you were, rap music was either considered revolutionary or a detriment of it. And being a young Black male or female creating it meant you pretty much fit the bill on both sides. Yet, regardless of whatever disdain was directed towards the music, the noise was overpowered by its sheer popularity among the youth, leading Hollywood and Tinseltown to come knocking at its most popular artists’ doors. That year alone, rap stars like Will Smith (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Ice-T (New Jack City), Queen Latifah (Jungle Fever), and LL Cool J (The Hard Way) appeared in high-profile television and film roles that served as their launching pads to what have proved to be illustrious acting careers.
However, Hip-Hop’s runaway MVP of 1991 was undoubtedly Ice Cube—whose supporting role as Doughboy in the critically-acclaimed feature film, Boyz n the Hood, and the lyrical masterclass of his sophomore LP, Death Certificate—helped solidify his dominance at the box office and on the Billboard charts. Having extricated himself from Ruthless Records and N.W.A. two years prior, Cube had proved himself capable of standing on his own in 1990 with his platinum-certified solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which featured production from the Bomb Squad and earned him rave reviews for his prowess as a storyteller and wordsmith. Doubling up later that year with his Kill At Will EP, the first in Hip-Hop history to reach platinum certification, Cube’s penchant for profane, misogynistic talking points were viewed as crass to a number of mainstream pundits and helped gain him the moniker “The N***a Ya Love To Hate.” Yet, amid the success belied a hunger for more within Cube, who found himself reflecting on the direction of his life and the role he would play in the betterment of his people. According to Cube, this was a period that would inspire him to reach the peak of his talents while delivering unapologetic messages not only intended for white America but those contributing and succumbing to the destruction and despair within their own communities.
“Well, I was in a transition stage to figure out what kind of person [I was],” Cube tells VIBE in a Zoom interview. “My past and future, what was it gonna look like? Was I just gonna wallow in my past and how I grew up? Was I gonna try to elevate myself and just become a better person? And the album reflected that.”
The album he speaks of is Death Certificate, which celebrates its 30-year anniversary today (Oct. 29), and is regarded by many as his musical magnum opus. Debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, with 105,000 copies sold in its first week, Death Certificate reached platinum certification in less than two months of its release. Running 20 tracks in length and split into two sides, Cube used the album to highlight the good, bad and ugly going on within the country during that time. His hope was to not only critique and chastise but to educate and uplift. “We had the Death Side and the Life Side. And the Death Side was speaking on things that kill us in our community and things that we’re wrapped up in, myself included,” he says. “So the Life Side was about trying to come out of that, trying to understand that, and trying to change our ways in a lot of aspects. So, it’s a record to me showing growth, but still, it’s music. It’s Hip-Hop.”
Led by the single, “Steady Mobbin’,” Death Certificate included a number of incendiary selections that created a firestorm around the album and served as a sign of the times going on in South Central Los Angeles and neighborhoods across the nation. On “Black Korea,” Cube addresses the tension between Korean business owners and residents in the Black community, which boiled over following the tragic death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in May of 1991. The murder of Harlins, who was shot to death during a physical confrontation with store owner Soon Ja Du after being accused of stealing from her store, sent shockwaves through Los Angeles. Tracks like “Black Korea” and “I Wanna Kill Sam” garnered polarizing headlines and placed a target squarely on the back of Cube, but were applauded for their examination and conveyance of the harsh realities that were ongoing at the time.
And if you ask Cube, many of those same issues he spoke about 30 years ago are still very much prevalent today. “Unfortunately, yeah,” he says of the relevancy of the subject matter on Death Certificate in 2021. “The same stuff going on, same issues. Different names, same gang. It’s a time capsule. If you wanna know what was popping off in 1990-1991, that’s the record and you’ll realize that the same stuff is happening in 2021, thirty years later and it’s sad but true and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Aside from its sociopolitical implications, Death Certificate is an essential and enjoyable listen on the merits of its sonics, which were constructed by producers Sir Jinx, DJ Pooh, and Boogiemen. Recorded after having cleared any doubts of his mic supremacy on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Cube recalls the freedom in which he created his sophomore set, deeming the experience as “a special time.” “Ah, man, all of ’em are dear to my heart,” he says when pressed for his personal favorite cuts from Death Certificate. “But I think about songs like ‘Bird in the Hand.’ ‘Bird In the Hand’ was produced by DJ Pooh and it’s one of those records that everybody could relate to at the time, for sure.
“Trying to figure out how you’re gonna make a living in this world when sometimes you do the right thing and it’s just not enough. So it was one of those records that a lot of people were commending me on and saying, ‘Yo, this record here, I’m feeling it.’ The next one is ‘Alive On Arrival.’ It’s right after ‘Bird in the Hand’ and it’s about just hanging out, getting shot and making it to the hospital alive. And a lot of bullsh*tting going around [in the hospital], a lot of waiting around and you end up dying, but you were ‘Alive On Arrival.’ So, those records are strong records. ‘True To The Game’ is a strong record [about] just trying to stay down. And ‘No Vaseline’ is kind’ve a get back record, you know (laughs). Yeah, that’s that last one that I just couldn’t let it slide. So, I wanted to say what I wanted to say on the whole album, but deal with that situation at the end.”
Prior to the release of Death Certificate, Ice Cube made waves with his acting debut in the aforementioned Boyz n the Hood, garnering an overwhelmingly positive response for his stirring performance. Merging the hardcore aesthetic portrayed in songs like Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood”—the film’s inspiration and namesake—with moments of raw vulnerability, Cube commanded viewers’ attention, asserting himself as a natural on the big screen. Yet, Cube admits that Columbia Pictures, the studio that purchased Boyz n the Hood, had doubts of his ability as a thespian, enrolling him in acting classes, which the rap star begrudgingly took at the studio’s request. “I remember when I first started the movie, they thought I needed to go to acting classes to get comfortable with acting and all this,” Cube shares. “I didn’t really wanna do it. We had done a lot of improv stuff so I was like, ‘Man, it seems like I got this Doughboy stuff down,’ but they still wanted me to go. I think the studio was pushing for it.”
However, after receiving the cosign of costar and veteran actor Laurence Fishburne, Cube’s visits to his appointed acting coach quickly dwindled. “I was leaving one day and Laurence Fishburne, he saw me,” he recalls. “He was like, ‘Cube, where you going?’ I said, ‘Man, they got me going to this acting class.’ I said, ‘I don’t get it because I come out here and I act all day on camera, and after I’m done, I go to the class. I should be going to the class first. I don’t get it.’ He was like, ‘Class? You don’t need to go to no damn class.’ He said, ‘Do you know who Doughboy is?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ [He said], ‘No, do you know who Doughboy is and what he’s about?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Be Doughboy, man. Stop trying to act. Just be Doughboy, don’t try to act.’ So, that helped me more than anything, as far as that character. As far as my first movie, was to not try to be Laurence Fishburne. But be myself and be my character and just deliver that. And I was cool from then on.”
Widely regarded as the penultimate performance of his acting career, Cube’s portrayal as Doughboy has stood the test of time. Multiple generations have hailed him as one of the more memorable and iconic characters in the history of Black cinema. Featuring a star-studded cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Regina King, and Fishburne, Boyz n the Hood was a massive success, grossing $57 million at the North American box office. In addition to the film being considered for the Best Original Screenplay award at the 64th Academy Awards, director John Singleton—who created the role of Doughboy exclusively for Cube—made history by becoming the youngest person and the first African-American in history to receive Best Director nomination. Singleton’s work on Boyz n the Hood, which was added to the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” would serve as the genesis to an illustrious career that included additional classics like Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), and Baby Boy (2000).
Finding additional success in the world of television throughout the years, Singleton was riding high off the runaway success of his FX series Snowfall when the legendary director passed away on April 28, 2019 after suffering a stroke. The news devastated the entertainment community and hit home hard for Ice Cube, who’d worked with Singleton on numerous occasions throughout the years and with whom he’d enjoyed a friendship spanning over 25 years. When asked of the recent rounds of celebration and reverence that surrounded Boyz n the Hood in light of its 30th anniversary passing earlier this year, Cube voices his appreciation for the love, but acknowledges the void that is Singleton’s absence putting a damper on what would be an otherwise joyous occasion.
“It’s a little bittersweet because we know John Singleton, R.I.P., the director, is not here to celebrate,” Cube says of the festivities that coincided with Boyz n the Hood‘s milestone anniversary. “He was a guy who would believe in keeping up the prestige of our cinema. The arts, the movies, preserving the preciousness of those works. So to have him not here, we’re missing somebody who this whole year would’ve been plastered with Boyz n the Hood memorabilia, clips, behind the scenes. The history of the film and we just miss a little of that by missing him. I’m extremely proud of the movie, glad we did it. The song I wrote for Eazy-E called “Boyz-n-the-Hood” inspired John to take that title and then write about what was really going on in the hood with the boys. Playing Doughboy was dope, I identified with that character. Actually, I identified with all of the characters so it was just great to be a part of that movie. You look at all of the stars that that movie created, to be a part of that is something special, for sure.”
Reminiscing on the definitive year of his career may have taken Cube on a trip down memory lane, but he’s fully in the present, with plans to make a return on the musical and theatrical fronts. Recently forming the supergroup Mt. Westmore, which finds him rhyming alongside a few of his fellow Cali legends, and releasing their first single, “Big Subwoofer,” the rap icon is fully in go-mode. “Yeah, we’re working on music right now,” Cube says of his plans for the rest of the year heading into 2022. “We’re working on a project called Mt. Westmore. Me, Snoop, E-40, Too $hort just all getting together and doing a whole record. A few records, actually. And tour and merch and just trying to make sure that we continue to make an impact in the game. So, you got us, four legendary emcees, from the West Coast getting together and putting out music. The music is banging, we just gotta make sure we got our business taken care of and our ducks in a row before we launch. Hopefully, we can get it out before the end of the year. It should be rolling by the winter, for sure.”
While music may be at the forefront of his mind, Cube’s feet are still firmly planted in Hollywood, as he reveals that we can expect to see plenty of him on the big screen next year after securing roles in a few blockbusters slated for release in 2022. “I’m finishing up a movie for Universal called War of the Worlds,” Cube announces. “I think that’s coming out in ’22, though. And I’m supposed to be starting a movie with Jack Black called Oh, Hell No. So we’re supposed to do that, I think, in January. We’re keeping it moving.”