Ice Cube 1964
I have often wondered at the persistent relevance of “classic” records like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” which was as significant for its technical achievements as it was for its social content and high levels of musicality. But what if the technical achievements, the very processes of virtualization that make modern music production and recording possible, are a part of what makes them so long-lasting and possibly more like software? In my world, with 1990’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” rapper Ice Cube has just joined Marvin. I propose that we consider this album (and similar recordings that blur the distinctions between protest fiction, documentary, art, and entertainment) as affective virtual environments whose interactive capacities are largely mental and emotional rather than optical, haptic and mechanical.
One morning last week, in the wake of the recent police shootings of Keith Scott (Charlotte, NC) and Terrence Crutcher (Tulsa, OK) I found myself in a 1990’s Ice Cube kind of mood, so I fired up “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” via Apple Music. The album opener, “Better Off Dead” starts with Ice Cube’s death row execution via electric chair. The production and foley work on this one-minute audio play features echoing footsteps, clanking chains, grinding cell doors, whirring cameras and Cube’s last words: “F**K all, y’all” before the sounds of the volts dance and burn between the left and right audio channels.
Then the record actually starts, a totally funky and chaotic synthesis of Hip-hop at its sampling heights, musique concrete, pseudo-documentary, Blaxploitation, and Chandler-esque crime drama… all narrated through Ice Cube’s relentless flows featuring sharp wit, frequently vulgar but always incisive observations, consummate storytelling, and indelible rhyme-implanted images.
The track that inspired this post closes the album: “The Bomb.” Musically it is a classic 90’s assemblage of vintage funk and soul samples, but it opens with a sample of unidentified documentary audio that I transcribe as follows:
“The police set up barricades. There a scuffle. This turned into a riot and it spread through central Harlem. Negroes threw bottles at the police, orders to disperse were ignored, and huge crowds swarmed through the streets.”
I believe that this is sampled from a news report of the 1964 Harlem Riots, which were sparked by Lt. Thomas Gilligan’s shooting of Black teenage student James Powell. Peaceful protests turned violent when cops used clubs and bullets to disperse the crowd.
Reflecting on the event in an NPR interview, New York City Council Member Inez Dickens says:
“It is an emotionalism that causes you to riot in your own community and not downtown, where economics will really impact upon the decision-making of those in power. But they would probably have shot us [if the riot occurred downtown].”
Compare to these lines from the album’s second track:
“It’s time / To take a trip to the suburbs / Let ’em see / A nigga invasion / Point blank / On a caucasian.”
That morning I listened to an NPR story where one reporter recorded a “portrait” of the confrontation between cops and protesters in Charlotte. It is worth quoting at length and listening to as well.
TOM BULLOCK, BYLINE: This latest round of protests started peacefully says 31-year-old Eddie Thomas.
EDDIE THOMAS: It was all cool. The bike cops was cool with it until riot cops came out. And once the riot cops came out, within five minutes, you had a young man on the ground bleeding.
BULLOCK: Thomas is a public defender here in Charlotte. He came, he said, to help keep the peace between protesters and police. But the peace was not kept.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: They want to hurt us. Y’all got all that armor. We ain’t got on nothing.
BULLOCK: The situation escalated.
(SOUNDBITE OF BATONS HITTING RIOT SHIELDS)
BULLOCK: More riot police were called in, banging their batons against their shields as they walked in line before stopping at an intersection where protesters met them, yelling just inches from the officers’ faces.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNINTELLIGIBLE YELLS)
BULLOCK: The police stood silently for a time then threw concussion grenades.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLAST)
BULLOCK: And tear gas canisters. A steady breeze carried the gas throughout the crowd.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Go. Run, run – [expletive] run.
BULLOCK: The protesters retreated down the street, regrouped and went back again and again.
Here comes round three of tear gas. The crowd is now throwing them back. The police then kick it back towards the crowd.
More would follow. Some protesters threw bottles of water, trash cans, even plants they ripped from the ground, at police. They smashed car windows and doors. At least four officers were injured. Today, some businesses are telling their employees to work from home. And with the governor’s emergency declaration, members of the North Carolina National Guard will soon deploy on Charlotte’s city streets.
For me, Bullock’s audio report was an echo of and a direct hyperlink to the sample that introduces “The Bomb,” thereby creating a very real loop or portal between two historical situations that seem to be separated by very little social, political or metaphysical difference.
We media studies folks have long been accustomed to radio and recorded music’s long-distance and asynchronously mediated effects and affects so I am not trying to point out some kind of miraculous occurrence. However, to treat this alignment of Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa” with a contemporary radio news story as mere serendipity (technically or politically!) misses something extra that Ice Cube’s artistic intent adds to the situation.
As “AmeriKKKA’s Most Wanted” ages, and Cube continues to work an entirely different professional persona in Hollywood, I find it significant (and depressing) that this record remains relevant. Though I benefitted greatly from its aggressive, defiant and nihilistic affects while toiling as an engineering intern in all-white Boise Idaho, I never really expected this album to “stand the test of time.” Perhaps I was in denial about how much the pre-uprising state of Los Angeles was really affecting Cube as an artist, and unaware of how closely he was observing it. Perhaps I still considered it more as entertainment than a different sort of text: a means of vicarious or surrogate experience that mixed terror, protest, comedy, identification and artistry into a volatile form of funky and fragmented Aural Noir.
Ice Cube has described himself as a kind of “street reporter,” modeling Chuck D’s oft-cited analogy of rap music and CNN. In a 90’s interview with bell hooks he stated that “I do records for black kids, and white kids are basically eavesdropping on my records.” At face value Cube is describing a communications structure that privileges one audience and accepts another. In “doing records” for black kids he is also referring to a complete production process that includes music, lyrics, song sequencing, and compelling audio plays. Saturated with the “local color” of South Central Los Angeles expressed through the songs the chooses to sample (working with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad and his own DJ Sir Jinx,) his slang, his choice of words, and his allusions and references to the specifics of Police occupation and crime, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” isn’t just entertainment, and it’s more than a “concept record.”
Concept records are characterized by the development of complete worlds and continuous themes or narratives between and across multiple songs. Cube’s first person narratives move from scene to scene and theme to theme in a kind of intimate mix of cinema and cultural database; the audio plays in particular play a huge role in the immersive effects of this album. Cube is, I would argue, trying to create a consistent (and possibly persistent?) world that listeners can return to not simply for the sake of repetition or nostalgia, but perhaps to continue “working the problem” that brought the intersection of artist and listener into existence. To me this is a lot like writing software. The programmer confronts a problem, designs a solution, codes it, implements it as an application on a given platform, and hopes that its deployment to a population of users is successful.
And herein lies what makes this moment I am playing with relevant to treks across the wide and diverse fields of the digital humanities: the means of accessing Cube’s debut solo album at this point in time has a lot to do with the meaning of accessing it at this point in time. Black men getting killed by cops in 2016, followed by street riots not only “shouldn’t” still be happening, but a “Reality Rap” record from the 1990s “shouldn’t” be prophetic either. Most important in my experience is not that the prophesy was in anything that Cube said specifically, but that the avatar he created across these sixteen tracks would, in its performance and “decryption” create a prophetic affect.
For those interested, here’s a rapid-fire fast-forward summary of the album:
“The N**a Ya Love To Hate.” Cube raises middle fingers to EVERYONE with the best hook ever: “Fck you, Ice Cube!” Built out of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.”
“AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.” Laced with audio samples from “COPS,” Richard Pryor, “America’s Most Wanted,” and the Last Poets. Verse three anticipates the geist of the 92 LA uprising, and Ferguson… and Baltimore… and Dallas… and Charlotte.
“What They Hitting’ Foe?” Cube narrates a craps game in gloriously mixed stereo that puts you in the middle of the action. You might get shot.
“You Can’t Fade Me / JD’s Gafflin’.” “I dropped my brew…” The baby isn’t his, but Cube’s evil meditations on how to get out of the situation before science can exonerate him is a high water mark for his on-record misogyny.
“Once Upon A Time In the Projects.” Cube stops by the projects for some afternoon delights, but the situation rapidly deteriorates. “Nobody move! Freeze or I’ll kill ya!” goes the sample that culminates a rich foley track of Black poverty’s ambience.
“Turn Off the Radio” and “Endangered Species (Tales From the Darkside)” return us to Cube’s specific brand of street-level political rhyme. The first cut eviscerates R&B stations that don’t play rap music, and the second illustrates police shootings in verse one, and intra-community revenge cycles in verse two. In verse three Public Enemy’s Chuck D reiterates Cube’s points with his apocalyptic sportscaster’s baritone. The intimately portrayed murder in concluding audio play might be caused by a cop or a kid.
“A Gangsta’s Fairytale,” “I’m Only Out For One Thang” and “Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo Bitch To Come Here” are in the vein of 70’s adult Black comedy – think Redd Foxxx and Rudy Ray Moore – which by no means validates or excuses Cube’s sexism.
“The Drive By” is another complete radio play (that starts off with a soap opera organ) and ends with screams, peeling tires and a cynical Tom Brokaw quote. This one is also mixed from a first person perspective, with careful attention paid to the stereo field and a terrible moment where one of the shooters you’re riding with yells “don’t shoot right now, there’s kids!”
“It’s a Man’s World” is a reductive, cartoonish tit-for-tat battle of the sexes (versus emcee Yo-Yo) that anticipates the likely tone, spirit and depth of tonight’s Clinton vs. Trump presidential “debate.”
“The Bomb” is discussed above.