I was watching Ice Cube’s Behind the Music the other day, and had a few things cross my mind.
Let me start here: I’m an N.W.A. apologist. I purchased and really liked the first two tapes, “N.W.A. and the Posse“ and “Straight Outta Compton“. I had seen political hip-hop artists, but I don’t think I had ever seen a music video that showed enslaved Black people in an insurrection.
N.W.A. was such a departure from what I had heard before, and I was really drawn to Cali’s “Boyz in the Hood“. Growing up in a Detroit suburb, I knew all about living south of 8 Mile, Young Boys Incorporated and Pony Down, and what went down in Belle Isle park after dark. And since New York was the mecca of hip-hop and home to most of my favorite artists, I understood what “the bricks” were, how tough things were in the South Bronx, and the rough times in Queens Bridge. These Cali dudes though, talking about six-fohs and rims and LAPD‘s brutality… I was fascinated. Their stories were similar, yet different from those that I had heard before, and their content was just as varied.
So I’m a fan of Ice Cube and his career, and his original crew, and I embrace their controversial place in popular culture.
What came to mind as I was watching Cube’s mother and father talk about how they raised him, his introduction to hip-hop music, and how he met the other members of NWA, were conversations I’ve had about Cube with my friends in the hip-hop generation. Questions and comments like, “Is he really a ‘gangsta’?”, “didn’t he grow up in the suburbs”?, and “dude aint real!” always came up when discussing “Amerikkka’s Most“.
I know authenticity and what’s “real” are vital aspects of hip-hop culture, but we almost always get into some really dicey territory when we talk about it. There’s this unfair standard of “realism” to which Black artists and entertainers are held that those in other races don’t face. We readily accept that the Dixie Chicks can write love songs without constantly being romantically involved in the types of relationships they sing about, but the idea that Ice Cube has never shot anyone is ridiculous – and somehow unacceptable – considering the music he’s made. I understand when my friends and peers have said that the violence in a lot of hip-hop music changes our perceptions of its authenticity, but I’m not so convinced. I think it’s the Blackness and the maleness of the dudes saying it that make us see them that way – as actually doing the things they rap about.
The reason why we don’t believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a mass-murderer in real life isn’t because of his talents as an actor or any concerted effort he’s made to draw distinctions between the characters he’s played and real life. It’s because he’s a White male. So while O’Shea Jackson is fully and wholly responsible for every single person Ice Cube has talked about killing in a song, we very easily separate Arnold from the killings the characters he’s played have done. O’Shea/Ice Cube fits our prejudiced and bigoted notions of young Black males as dangerous criminals, so we hang that “realism” sign on him and his music that no more belongs hung around Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s neck.
The answer is that of course Cube is “real”. Is he a “gangsta”? I think that depends on your definition of the word, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that though he’s never killed anyone and that he has no criminal record, he’s a gangsta with that mic in his hand. Bigger than that though, O’Shea Jackson is and always has been a ‘Nigga With an Attitude‘. That’s real, and that is something with which I can identify.