It’s not often you find yourself on a Zoom call with a rap legend, so the notification that “Ice Cube has entered the waiting room” is a thrilling way to start the day. O’Shea Jackson snr, to use his off-stage name, is in the studio that he installed in his California home during Covid as a place to “knock out ideas without having to drive somewhere”.
On the wall behind him are gold discs and a framed basketball jersey once worn by Magic Johnson; basketball, his other big passion, has become another pillar of his career after he cofounded Big3, a three-on-three pro basketball league, in 2017. On his head is a baseball cap with his name on it. Such blatant self-promotion might usually be unseemly, but he gets away with it because, well, he’s Ice Cube.
It’s less than a week until he hits Dublin on the High Rollers Tour, alongside Cypress Hill and The Game. He has not spent much time here in the past – no, he has no Irish roots despite his name, in case you were wondering – but has had an invitation he’s considering taking up when he arrives in Dublin. “Conor McGregor invited us to his restaurant, to hang out and have dinner,” he says, smiling. “So it’s going to be cool to see a little more than just the hotel and the arena.”
Despite not releasing new solo music since 2018, Cube has earned his place in the pantheon of rap greats, partly because of his work with NWA. This year is also the 35th birthday of NWA’s seminal debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton, a record that arguably altered the course of rap music and made its three MCs – Eazy-E, Dr Dre and Ice Cube – kingpins of the new gangsta-rap subgenre.
More than three decades later and, despite it being the only album that he recorded with the group before jumping ship, in 1989, Cube acknowledges both its enduring influence and its enduring relevance, thanks to songs such as the iconic F**k tha Police. He notes with a grin that he was the only member not from Compton but from South Central, about 15km away.
“I just feel grateful that my sister dropped me off on those days,” he says, laughing. “The party could have gone on without me. I just had the tenacity to be around, to be there, to be present when we were trying to create something. I’m grateful that I quit football in high school to hang out with everybody. So I made the right moves and I feel grateful for everything falling in place. I was very blessed to just be in that position.”
NWA had a lasting effect on rap as a genre. Cube has to take a moment to consider whether anyone on today’s scene is capable of making a similar impact.
“I think a guy like J Cole can move the needle,” he says, referring to the North Carolina rapper. “I always say that one of the best albums to move the needle was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Public Enemy. Straight Outta Compton was just a shift in thought process, so I think an artist like that can make [another] shift like that with an album that’s undeniable.” He pauses, mulling over the question again. “Probably Kendrick Lamar could do it. I still think . . . there’s only a few. There’s not a lot of people. The Roots may be able to do it. It’s just got to be that groundbreaking record that makes everybody look.”
Is the problem that rappers are now afraid to get too political, perhaps concerned about cancel culture? A song on his last solo album, Everythang’s Corrupt, released in the midst of Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the United States, was titled Arrest the President (“Arrest the president, you got the evidence/ That n**ga is Russian intelligence”), after all.
It’s just not popular to be political, he says with a grimace. “I think that’s the biggest reason why more artists don’t go that route. People go the path of least resistance.” He admits he thought Childish Gambino could have had a lasting impact. “If he had followed This Is America with something else . . . That was a powerful visual, and I think it could have changed the trajectory of the music – but [he didn’t do it with] the follow-up. He’s an artist that does something different every time.” He shakes his head. “There’s opportunities still for artists to do that. But they’ve got to do something that’s as groundbreaking and as mind-shaking as This Is America.”
Cancel culture, if you were wondering, is not something that concerns Ice Cube. Despite his huge social-media audience – almost 31 million followers on Instagram alone – he has never been afraid of speaking his mind. That has landed the 54-year-old in hot water over the decades, with some accusing him of anti-Semitism in his lyrics (a charge he has always rejected). There is no pressure that comes with having millions of people waiting for him to trip up, he says.
I don’t want to play a buffoon, I don’t want to play a caricature, I don’t want to play an agenda. I want to play good characters that I can enhance or bring to life
“It’s really about being yourself, being authentic,” he says. “If you lose people, you lose ’em. I look at art like a painter would. You paint your picture, you walk away, and if people don’t like it that’s really their problem, know what I mean? You’re gone, doing the next painting. And if people come by and say, ‘That’s ugly, that’s crap, I don’t like it,’ well, that’s kind of their personal problem. So I look at it the same way: if I make something public, I look at it as art – even if it’s just my opinion. And y’know,” he says, exhaling, “let the chips fall where they may after that.”
Aside from music, family, legacy and basketball, there is another tab open on Ice Cube’s expansive diary. Although he claims there is more music on the way to follow 2018′s Everythang’s Corrupt, his acting career continues to thrive since his debut, in the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood. He has played a variety of roles – many of them in comedies, including Friday, his self-penned cult classic – as well as in action films like Three Kings and horrors such as Ghosts of Mars, while he also voices the villainous Superfly in the new animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem film.
“It has to be a movie that I would go see,” he says of what attracts him to a film project. “For me to take a role, I want to have a character that has strength. If he has weak moments, that’s fine, but they have to be well defined. I don’t want to play a buffoon, I don’t want to play a caricature, I don’t want to play an agenda. I want to play good characters that I can enhance or bring to life. And I’m a picky actor,” he adds. “I can see a few things in a scene or a character, and if the director’s not willing to change them, then I sometimes won’t do the movie.” He shrugs. “That’s just me.”
The long-awaited fourth Friday film, titled Last Friday, has been rumoured for years; it remains at the mercy of studio bosses and script rewrites. But he is hopeful it will see the light of day. There are “smarter people at Warner Bros” now, he notes, “so hopefully smarter people will see the value in this great franchise. So we’ll see.”
His manager cuts into the conversation. It is time for Cube to go – but not before I ask him what he is most proud of in his career. He instantly names AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, his 1990 solo debut, which spawned the song that remains his biggest solo hit, It Was a Good Day.
“I felt like my back was really against the wall, and I had to prove myself as an artist at that time,” he says. “Movie-wise, I’m very proud of Friday – it’s the first movie that I produced and wrote, and it’s become a cult classic; people really love it. I’m proud of Big3, my basketball league, which has been the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in entertainment. So these are the things that I’m proud of, because I tested myself and I passed, which is cool.”
He pauses, adjusting the peak of his baseball cap as he stares into the camera with his trademark implacable expression. “Because when you test yourself, you want to step up to the challenge and achieve your goal.”