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Ice Cube: ‘The Essence And Origin Of Hip-Hop Is To Battle’

Ice Cube. (Courtesy of the artist)

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The Bank of America Pavilion is not the obvious place to find the author of some of the most politically incendiary, unrepentantly explicit and suburban-mom-scaring hip-hop songs of all time. But in the 25 years since he was an upstart Jheri-curled 19-year-old introducing himself as a “crazy mother****** named Ice Cube” on N.W.A.’s 1988 debut “Straight Outta Compton,” the Los Angeles-native has shifted gears more than once.

As one of the founders of gangsta rap, Ice Cube is recognized as one of the greatest and most influential rappers of all time. And he’s enjoyed a prodigiously successful second career as an actor, producer, writer, filmmaker and, yes, as the current Coors Light pitchman.

Still going strong at 44, Cube gets a chance to relive his salad days when he shares the bill with fellow rap legends Public Enemy, De La Soul and LL Cool J when the “Kings of the Mic Tour” comes to town this Wednesday, June 19. Cube spoke to me about his memories of the era, his thoughts on today’s battle rappers, and who should play him in the upcoming N.W.A. film.

Ice Cube. (Courtesy of the artist)

Ice Cube. (Courtesy of the artist)

When was the last time you did a big nationwide stadium tour?

“The last one that we did that was on this level was probably ‘Up In Smoke,’ with Eminem and Snoop and Dre. That was equivalent to this. But as far as me, I tour but I usually do theaters, 5,000-seater [venues], House of Blues, festivals, but as far as hitting it all the way through the country on something this big, it was ‘Up In Smoke.’”

With all the other projects you are working on, do you miss being on stage?

“I always love it. And you always love it until you’re about 15 shows in, then you realize how taxing it can be. So I love to tour, I don’t miss it because I usually tour as much as I can. It seems like every time I drop a record, I’m doing spot dates. I never let it get too far away from me.”

As your career was beginning on the West Coast, were you fans of the other guys on tour?

“Hell yeah. They were my heroes, especially LL. He was someone my age who was like a young phenom, extremely impressive. And then Public Enemy showing how powerful rap actually can be as a force of awareness and force of positive change. These dudes were my heroes. And De La! Them, the Jungle Brothers, Tribe Called Quest inventing a style of rap that wasn’t seen before that called the Daisy Age. Those dudes were incredible. They had looped ‘Knee Deep’ for ‘Me Myself & I,’ which to me is the best song ever made, ‘Knee Deep’ by Funkadelic. We were buying tickets to go see them, and now we are on the same show with them. It was an out of body experience in a lot of ways because I remember damn near killing somebody to get a ticket to see these dudes, and now here I am performing with them.”

Note: Ice Cube is known for strong language.

That diversity amongst mainstream rap acts seems to have gotten lost in the years after you broke through.

“The ‘80s was our golden age. The creativity of the ‘80s was unmatched. It seemed like once gangsta rap kind of exploded on the scene, all the rappers after that wanted to be gangster rappers more than their own style. For the ‘90s, you had pretty much a whole decade of people trying to duplicate their version of N.W.A. You had a couple groups that tried to break out of that like The Pharcyde, PM Dawn and people like that. But for the most part people were tying to duplicate what they was hearing from N.W.A. or Eazy-E. Now we are kind of getting out of that, people are trying their own styles. But hardcore gangsta rap like that still kind of rules the day.”

N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” and your first two solo records ["Amerikkka's Most Wanted" (1990) and "Death Certificate" (1991)] had some really explosive and controversial thematic material. What is the feeling now when you revisit songs from those albums on stage in 2013?

“You know, I always look at these records as time capsules, as pieces of time that were able to be captured and recorded. At this age, I understand things a little different. I look on some of those records and I was totally on point, and they are just as valid today as they were back then. As an artist that’s what you’re trying to do, make records that stand the test of time. If you wanted to know what Ice Cube was thinking or tripping off of in 1991, we got a record for that.”

Note: Ice Cube is known for strong language.

Is there a particular record you like to perform from that era?

When you have so many records and a limited time to do them, it’s always hard to choose which records to do from that era. I like doing ‘The N***a You Love to Hate,’ that record’s got the energy that gets the crowd going. I like ‘Jackin For Beats’ off the ‘Kill At Will’ album. Also ‘Steady Mobbin.’ ‘No Vaseline’ used to be a big hit, but I really stopped doing it after Eazy’s death. I just felt there was no more need for that record.”

With these crowds that you are coming out to, do people know you more from movies and TV or from music?

“I think it’s a mixture of both. A lot of people that follow me back then have followed me through my whole career, through movies and records. We’ve been getting crowds of our peers, our age group. I’m pretty sure most of them know my history. Then I see some of the younger people getting educated as to what I’m all about too.”

Both you and LL were both involved in some famous battles with other rappers. That’s something that doesn’t really happen anymore. Is that a good or bad thing?

“I think it’s kind of like MMA fighting. It’s good for the exercise, it’s good to get your nose bloody. I think social media and Twitter have erased the need to wait until you hear the record, you can actually insult somebody as soon as you hear that they dissed you. I think that has taken the place of a lot of records that would have been done. But I think the essence and the origin of hip-hop is to battle. I think there’s always a place for it, and I’d hate to see it go all the way away, although you don’t want to see people get physical with it. It’s a little dangerous, so in some ways it’s probably good, but to me, as a purist, it sucks.”

Does the competitive nature of hip-hop still motivate you?

“On some level, but on another level I’m trying to do what I feel for my fan base, because I think so many artists are kind of rag dolled into doing what the people who put the money up want them to do. To me, the joy in being independent is being able to do whatever I want to do and try to make it fly and fresh. It’s fun. That’s the tip I’m on, do what I want to do and not worry about what’s on the radio. I just worry about Ice Cube fans and giving them a piece of what they’re looking for.”

What is the situation with the possible N.W.A. movie?

“Universal has picked up the movie. F. Gary Gray will direct the movie. Me, Dr. Dre and Eazy’s widow are producers on the movie, and we’re gonna make a story about the world’s most dangerous group. Hopefully we’ll be shooting by late this year.”

Do you have any idea who’s going to play you?

“I want my son to play me. I don’t know about Jerry Heller yet. We definitely want a top notch actor in that spot.”

  • Ice Cube performs on the “Kings of the Mic Tour” with Public Enemy, LL Cool J and De La Soul, Bank of America Pavilion, 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19.

Check out ARTery’s other hip-hop coverage here.

Martín Caballero is a Somerville-based arts writer for the Boston Globe and editor of JTTS.com.

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