May 15, 2020
Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective
N.W.A.’s former front man left one of Rap’s most controversial groups at their peak to go solo without any production from Dr. Dre. He then headed to New York to find a new producer, resulting in one of the greatest debut albums in Rap history.
N.W.A. was formed back between 1986 and 1987 with the original lineup consisting of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & Arabian Prince. A 17 year old Ice Cube joined after his old groups Stereo Crew and C.I.A (Criminals In Action) with Kid Disaster (K-Dee) and Sir Jinx who Dr. Dre produced for both dissolved. Shortly afterward, MC Ren and DJ Yella entered the fold and in November 1987 Macola Records released and distributed N.W.A’s debut project on their independent label funded by local hood Eazy-E called Ruthless Records. At the time, Ice Cube was 18 years old and responsible for writing the songs that put the group on the map both locally and nationally, Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood” & “8 Ball” plus N.W.A.’s “Dopeman”.
In August 1988, N.W.A. who were less than satisfied with Macola’s handling of their material switched to Priority Records as a national distributor. They re-released “N.W.A. & The Posse” (not “Straight Outta Compton”) which immediately began moving units and entered the Billboard charts. They also released a new single “Gangsta, Gangsta” on Ruthless/Priority that garnered them even more attention and spread nationwide like wildfire. The song was once again, penned by Ice Cube. It was soon followed by one of the most influential songs in Rap history, “Fuck The Police”.
The next step was to release Eazy-E’s debut LP “Eazy-Duz-It” which was mostly written by MC Ren and The D.O.C. formerly of Fila Fresh Crew but featured contributions from Ice Cube on the aforementioned “Boyz-N-The-Hood”, “No More ?’s” and the spoken word album closer “Eazy-Chapter 8 Verse 10”. It was released in September 1988 and soon joined the re-released “N.W.A. & The Posse” on both the Top Black Albums and Billboard 200 charts, climbing them both at an impressive rate.
In February 1989, N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” was unleashed on the masses, its meteoric rise up the charts was powered by the Ice Cube penned pre-release singles “Gangsta, Gangsta” & “Fuck The Police” in addition to the single “Express Yourself” that got them some radio play with a video that landed on BET’s “Rap City” and MTV’s “Yo! MTV Raps”. “Express Yourself” featured Dr. Dre kicking rhymes written by Ice Cube and the single and video exposed N.W.A to a much wider audience and expanded their reach even further. Following the sales success of both albums, N.W.A. went on their Straight Outta Compton Tour then picked up some other dates later on but as the tours progressed Ice Cube kept close tabs on his publishing and royalties statements.
By Fall 1989, Ice Cube became frustrated with his situation at Ruthless Records and felt he wasn’t receiving his proper compensation for contributing to the empire Ruthless was becoming. By then, J.J. Fad was Gold, Eazy-E had gone Platinum, N.W.A. was certified Platinum and The D.O.C. had just received his Gold plaque. Cube noted that neither Priority nor Ruthless was spending an exorbitant amount of money on marketing or promotions, they typically sold via word of mouth thanks to the coverage they got in mainstream press as the poster children for “Gangsta Rap”, derived from the N.W.A. single “Gangsta, Gangsta” Cube made significant contributions to.
Ice Cube was 20 years old at the time, constantly butting heads with Jerry Heller and Eazy-E over his splits, points and his royalties from N.W.A’s back catalog in addition to Eazy-E’s. Rather than sign another contract with Ruthless that would no doubt result in Cube continuing being under compensated for his role in the group as well as other albums on the label, he instead opted to go solo. By December 1989, Ice Cube leveraged his value to Priority into a solo deal by telling them Def Jam was interested in signing him.
This resulted in Ruthless Records blocking Dr. Dre from producing Ice Cube’s upcoming debut on Priority Records so he contacted several people in New York in search of producers, among them being The Bomb Squad which he had preliminary talks with. Ice Cube traveled to New York in January 1990 with Sir Jinx heading for the Def Jam offices to meet with Sam Sever, one of the main producers of one of his favorite albums of 1989, 3rd Bass’ “The Cactus Album”.
Sam Sever never showed up for the meeting but by chance Ice Cube ran into Chuck D of Public Enemy who was in Def Jam’s offices handling some business. Ice Cube and Chuck D first became acquainted back in December 1988 when Public Enemy brought N.W.A. & Eazy-E along with them on the Bring The Noise Tour with Ice T, Stetsasonic & EPMD. Public Enemy was in the process of completing their album “Fear Of A Black Planet” and Chuck tells Cube he should come to Greene Street Studios tonight because they were going to record a song called “Burn, Hollywood, Burn” with Big Daddy Kane. Cube came through, recorded a short 4 bar verse and sounded at home over Bomb Squad production… the rest was history.
Ice Cube then spent time with Chuck D fleshing out what he wanted on the album in notebooks and Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad stressed that they wanted to make a concise body of work for him as opposed to a few tracks here and there. Next step involved Ice Cube and Sir Jinx spending a couple of weeks at Public Enemy’s pre-production studio and rehearsal space at 510 South Franklin Street in Hempstead, Long Island poring through a mountain of records.
After taking careful consideration of the many records at their disposal, Cube & Jinx selected Funk from Kool & The Gang, Commodores, Betty Davis, Steve Arrington, Funkadelic, Parliament, Sly & The Family Stone, Maceo & The Macks, Bar-Kays, The J.B.’s, Fred Wesley & The New J.B.’s and Zapp in addition to staple breaks from Bob James, Mountain, The Meters, The Turtles, ESG, Cerrone, Melvin Bliss, King Curtis, Lafayette Afro Rock Band, Kid Dynamite and Soul Searchers. Between Ice Cube, Sir Jinx, Hank & Keith Shocklee, Chuck D & Eric “Vietnam” Sadler we have all the ingredients necessary for a classic album.
After close to two full weeks of culling together sample material, additional loops, sounds and song ideas from a cassette tape Chuck sent Cube a month or so prior to him arriving in New York and having Eric “Vietnam” Sadler craft together a bunch of skeletons to work from they eventually moved from there to Greene Street Studios to begin the recording process. Ice Cube had notebooks full of rhymes, some originally intended for Eazy-E and future N.W.A. projects, the ideas he laid down with Chuck and now the beats (some of which were demos originally recorded by Son Of Bazerk and True Mathematics). All that was left was for the Bomb Squad’s mad scientists to put on their lab coats, safety goggles and gloves and try to make a timeless piece of art.
The album itself was created over a 4 week span by The Bomb Squad, Ice Cube & Sir Jinx. The Bomb Squad’s attentions were split between finishing “Fear Of A Black Planet”, putting finishing touches on Bell Biv DeVoe’s debut “Poison”, tour dates and working with other talent they were developing like Leaders Of The New School, Young Black Teenagers and Son Of Bazerk featuring No Self Control & The Band. It was rough going given the scheduling conflicts but eventually the team was able to finish the project. Everyone worked relatively quickly and the album was done, mixed and mastered by Howie Weinberg then was turned in by March 1990. Ice Cube wanted to deliver the album to Priority as soon as possible so it could beat the next N.W.A. project to market.
The album consists of 17 tracks, 3 of which are skits (“Better Off Dead”, “JD’s Gafflin’” & “The Drive-By”) and 3 more were short songs like “What They Hittin’ Foe?”, “I’m Only Out For One Thang” & “Get Off My Dick & Tell Yo Bitch To Come Here”. “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” had a few features on it, Chuck D on “Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside)”, Flavor Flav on “I’m Only Out For One Thang” and Yo-Yo on “It’s A Man’s World”. Given Ice Cube’s track record for making misogynistic anthems, the first member from his crew to get a deal was Yo-Yo and his manager was a Black woman, Pat Charbonnet.
Yo-Yo’s verse on this album led to her getting signed to EastWest/Atlantic later on that year. The experience Sir Jinx & Ice Cube gained working on this album plus having The Lench Mob in tow gave them the foundation for Street Knowledge Music. Eventually it led to Ice Cube working with his own iteration of The Bomb Squad, The Boogie Men (DJ Pooh, Bobcat & Rashad) in concert with his road dawgs Sir Jinx & Chilly Chill.
Priority released a single from the upcoming album in April, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” b/w “Once Upon A Time In The Projects” but there was no video and although the single was selling it wasn’t receiving any radio airplay. On May 15th, 1990 Ice Cube’s Bomb Squad helmed debut LP “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” finally hit store shelves. When it debuted on the Billboard charts it was #110 on the Top Pop Albums on June 2nd, 1990. The single “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” was #2 on the Hot Rap Singles chart right behind Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke”.
To provide some context to the era, A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm”, Public Enemy’s “Fear Of A Black Planet”, Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.’s “New Funky Nation”, Audio Two’s “I Don’t Care: The Album”, Poor Righteous Teachers’ “Holy Intellect” & X-Clan’s “To The East, Blackwards” were all recent releases. By June 9th, 1990, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” entered the Top Black Albums at #47 and jumped all the way up to #62 on the Top Pop Albums as the single occupied the #1 spot on Hot Rap Singles.
On June 16th, 1990 it leaped all the way up to #19 Top Black Albums and #27 Top Pop Albums while “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” b/w “Once Upon A Time In The Projects” remained the #1 Rap single for the 2nd week in a row. It occupied the top position on the Rap charts as #2 was Snap!’s “The Power”, #3 was Power Jam featuring Chill Rob G “The Power”, #4 was MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and at #5 was Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke”. Ice Cube had just turned 21 and his first solo single was a #1 Rap hit in the age of MC Hammer & Pop/crossover Rap…
What makes this feat all the more impressive was Ice Cube’s single got little to no support at Black radio whereas all of the singles charting below it were. Nonetheless, Ice Cube’s single was still outselling all of the others while Priority was spending the bare minimum on their marketing campaign and promotional materials. The album was pretty much selling itself via word of mouth.
The subject matter on the album included some of the West Coast fare N.W.A. fans were used to from the same Ice Cube who made “A Bitch Iz A Bitch”. Songs like “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate”, “You Can’t Fade Me”, “Once Upon A Time In The Projects” & “A Gangsta’s Fairytale”. The Bomb Squad/Public Enemy influence was evident in cuts such as “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”, “Turn Off The Radio”, “Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside)”, “Rollin’ Wit The Lench Mob”, “Who’s The Mack?” and “The Bomb”. The way Ice Cube was able to blend elements of Gangsta Rap with Conscious Rap themes and Sir Jinx managed to combine his West Coast roots and East Coast influences to result in the incredible finished product was a revelation for many who thought Cube couldn’t do it on his own.
The fascinating thing about “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” was how it was RIAA certified Gold on August 9th, 1990 with no video, no Black radio support and at the time not even a 2nd single released. One of the motivating factors behind the Bomb Squad knocking the album out of the park was when Ice Cube told Hank Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler when he informed N.W.A. that he would seek out production from them if Dr. Dre wasn’t involved with his solo project they said he’d be lucky to even go Gold. This was odd considering “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” was Platinum at the time as was “The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick” which the Bomb Squad had also made significant contributions to.
Around the same time, N.W.A. released their EP “100 Miles And Runnin’” and a video for the title track on Ruthless/Priority containing several Ice Cube disses whereas Ice Cube made a conscious effort to not address his situation with N.W.A. or even mention them at all on his album. That same month, Priority decided to finally shoot a video for the follow up single, “Who’s The Mack?”.
The job of directing the clip went to Alex Winter and Tom Stern of Propaganda Films, it debuted on BET’s “Rap City” & “Yo! MTV Raps” in mid to late September 1990 and had entered the regular rotation of The Box on October 13th, 1990. Priority urged Ice Cube to release some follow up material which resulted in the “Kill At Will” EP released that November. The EP was self produced by Ice Cube, Sir Jinx & Chilly Chill and was supported by two videos, “Jackin’ For Beats” and “Dead Homiez”. It went Gold in under 3 months and “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” eventually went Platinum. Far more important than the sales was the lasting influence of Ice Cube’s debut album and the accompanying EP…
What “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” did was take the style of music Spoonie Gee created, Schoolly D pioneered, Ice T, KRS One (BDP), Just-Ice , Toddy Tee & Mixmaster Spade innovated and Ice Cube made style evolutions in then marry it with the sociopolitical themes Public Enemy addressed on wax but from the perspective of a young person from South Central Los Angeles. This album became a new benchmark for not only artists looking to rebrand themselves after going solo but for new artists making their first project. “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” was revolutionary but gangsta before 2Pac was.
It set in motion a new timeline and created a lane where Paris, Geto Boys, The Coup, The Lench Mob & later on dead prez for a new generation of emcees and groups that could toe the line between gangsta and conscious post Boogie Down Productions’ “Criminal Minded”. Ice Cube was further able to merge the fanbase that loved Public Enemy, BDP, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian with one that also loved Ice T, King T, Geto Boys, Compton’s Most Wanted & Above The Law in a way that N.W.A. couldn’t do without Ice Cube.
Ice Cube’s output and evolution between 1988 and 1992 is easily one of the best and most impactful 5 year periods of any Rap artist in the genre’s history. It’s insane to think that span only covers Ice Cube between the ages of 18 to 23. By the time he was 25, he was considered a legend who was instrumental in launching several Rap careers, including Yo-Yo, Del The Funkee Homosapien (and Souls Of Mischief & Hieroglyphics), Threat, Da Lench Mob, Anotha Level & Kausion amongst others.
Sean “Puffy” Combs once told Ice Cube that while he was in the process of putting together “Ready To Die” for Biggie during his days at Uptown/MCA he studied “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”. Over the past 30 years solo acts, groups and producers alike have all drawn inspiration from this album and cite it as influential. This opus is one of the many bodies of work that inspired me to write about music, frame it and put it into full context for those who may not have lived to experience the era for themselves. Ice Cube went and fucked up the program… Fuck you, Ice Cube!