Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tag ‘Em and Bag ‘Em: ‘Death Certificate’ Turns 20

Ice Cube’s Death Certificate isn’t just Hip-Hop’s greatest concept album, but an artistic revelation whose earth shattering impact can only be understood within the proper historical context.  The musical, social, and political landscape of America was quite different in the early 1990’s.  People actually went out to stores and purchased music on physical media.  CD’s were still a relatively new format.  Street corner drug dealing was still a viable means of clocking tax free loot.

The months leading up to the L.A. riots seemed to suggest that something big and terrible was on the horizon for the city of angels.  The crack epidemic had already peaked and was in its waning years, yet a wholly different social virus took hold in its wake.  The gang wars that had ravaged L.A. for decades were gradually becoming a nationwide problem.  Bloods and Crips were popping up in Midwestern and southeastern cities with regularity, their violent exploits serving as fodder for alarmist broadcasts on local news stations.  Their spread was spurred on by the crack epidemic.  As the L.A. market became saturated, G’s from various sets sought to plant roots elsewhere. 

Even without the added insult of Los Angeles style gang warfare being added to the mix, various cities across the U.S. had already buckled under the relentless onslaught of the crack attack.  In 1990, New York City’s murder reached an all-time high.  Chicago’s rich gangster tradition predated that of Los Angeles, and had been evolving along a similar pattern.  Crack cocaine had, in effect, lowered the countries collective immune system.  The virus that is the L.A. gang mentality took route, and slowly spread to every extremity of its host.  

Warning signs were plentiful.  Aside from the alarmist, fear mongering elements in American news media, Rap music had made a point of documenting the massive urban blight while offering appropriate commentary.  West Coast rappers had a unique insight, seeing as how Los Angeles was ground zero for the crack epidemic.   West coast gangsta rappers adopted the perspective of participants.  They related tales of dope dealing and gang banging from a first person perspective, presenting that particular mindset in its rawest form.  They offered little in the way of cautionary tales.  There wasn’t any easy moralizing or self-righteous detachment.

East Coast rappers had a somewhat different approach.  The early work of Schooly D, Just-Ice, Boogie Down Productions, and Kool G Rap offered an unfiltered look at urban decay.  As the late 80’s set in, a different sensibility began to take hold.  Easterners rappers began adopting a “politically/socially conscious” stance, positioning themselves against all that ailed their communities.  The teachings of the five percent nation were presented as a mystical spiritual armor of sorts.  They mistakenly purported themselves as being the polar opposites of their West Coast gangster counterparts.  Unexpectedly, a jheri-curled wunderkind would enter the fray, forever altering the Big Apple’s idea of what West Coast rappers where capable.   

Raised in a middle class Los Angeles household, O’Shea Jackson had a keen awareness of what went on in the rougher parts of his city, although he wasn’t a participant.  He possessed the gifts of absorption and mimicry in addition to a keen sense of storytelling.  He started out writing raps in High School.   By the mid 1980’s, he and partner Sir Jinx formed the group CIA.  Their first and only release was a Dr. Dre produced single called “My Posse,” which appeared on the 1987 Macola records compilation album N.W.A and the Posse.  Also appearing on the very same album was Eazy-E’s breakthrough single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” which was also penned by Ice Cube.  He then became one of the Ruthless Posse’s in house writers, in addition to being a member of N.W.A.  In 1988, the group released what is now seen as the prototypical west coast gangsta rap album, Straight Outta Compton.  The album changed Hip-Hop seemingly overnight, selling multiplatinum in less than two years, with no substantial radio or video play.   

However, all was not well in the gangsta’s paradise.  Cube had grown weary of the influence that manager Jerry Heller was exerting over label owner and N.W.A front man Eazy-E.  He felt that he was not being adequately compensated for his substantial contributions to Straight Outta Compton and Eazy Duz It.  He decided to part ways with Ruthless, setting his sights eastward to Strong Island, New York.  There resided Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, the rugged beat smiths who apocalyptic back drops for Public Enemy’s galvanizing musical war cries.  

This landmark collaboration between west and east yielded Cubes classic solo debut, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.  Not quite as irreverent as Straight Outta Compton (yet every bit as potent), Amerikkkas Most Wanted showed amazing cohesiveness in both theme and concept.  It was more focused than perhaps anything Hip-Hop had seen before.  The album was a commercial success, achieving gold status fairly quickly.  Cube became the first west coast gangsta rapper to gain widespread acceptance in New York (Due in no small part to his affiliation with Public Enemy).  It is fitting then, that Cube would be the one that would meld the stoic Black Nationalism of PE with the raw gangsterism of the left coast.

For his second album, Cube did not employ the services of Hank Shocklee and company.  This time out, Sir Jinx and the Boogie Men took up residence behind the mixing boards.  They stayed true to the aesthetic of the Bomb Squad while maintaining a decidedly west coast musical sensibility.  The resulting sound collages would serve as masterpieces in and of themselves (as they did with the Bomb Squad), but as a grand stage for the narrator of a bloody epic.

Somewhere between the release of his first and second albums, Cube had become quite taken with the teachings of the Nation of Islam.  Rumors began to spread that he had become a Black Muslim.  This was considered quite shocking at the time, seeing as mostly east coast rappers espoused Islamic teachings via their music.  It also seemed to add credence to rumors that Cube had abandoned his West Coast roots.  Little did his detractors know, that he hadn’t abandoned anything.  He simply evolved, having developed a larger understanding. 

Death Certificate, as Cubes 2nd opus was called, continues the episodic and cinematic layout of its predecessor.  Its central concept revolves around life and death, or, more accurately, living death and spiritual rebirth.  The cassette tape (for those who are old enough to know what that is) split the album into two movements: The Life Side and The Death Side.  The first representing the then current state of the Black community, which, as Cube stated, was one of emergency.  The second side is the road to recovery, revealing his newfound social consciousness.

Coming on the heels of his successful acting debut in Boyz n the Hood, Death Certificate reveals Cube’s flare for the dramatic.  Though episodic, the songs play out into an overarching narrative.  The concept evolves throughout, with the skits acting as connective tissue between each song.  They set both the mood and the scenario, making the album come off as something of a ghetto musical.  There isn't a single whack song on it.  Not an ounce of filler.  The album is a full and complete meal, providing all of the necessary sonic nutrients.  Yet, even in this flawless feast, certain courses stand out, dazzling the palette with a burst of flavors and textures.     

The second chapter, “My Summer Vacation,” lays out the nationwide spread of Los Angeles Gang Culture in a way that could that befits Gary Webb’s conspiracy laden tome Dark Alliance.  A group of gangbangers in LA seek their fortunes in Saint Louis after the crack trade in LA becomes buyer’s market.  The song displays Cubes storytelling abilities at their most vivid and immediate.  As always, he tells the tale from a first person perspective, forcing the listener to see things through the main characters perspective.  It’s all set to the rubbery, menacing bassline of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” spliced with Zapp & Roger’s “So Rough, So Tough.”

“A Bird in the Hand” illustrates how the crack trade was, at one time, seen as a viable alternative to minimum wage employment.  A teenage father must contend with the real world after graduating from High School.  The good grades he maintained throughout his scholastic career are of little use, as job prospects are bleak.  A job in the fast food industry provides him with barely enough to live on, while politicians and community leaders offer nothing but empty promises and ineffectual social programs.  Salvation comes in the form of a kilo of powder cocaine, the metaphorical “Bird in the Hand” referenced in the title.  The swaying violins and rolling drums are almost as dramatic as Cubes delivery.    

 “Man’s Best Friend” is a darkly humorous ode to the second amendment that would bring a tear to the NRA’s collective eye.  Cube paints a handy firearm as much more reliable companion that the most faithful guard dog. The beat is a collage of George Clinton and Parliament samples, smashed together into a treacherous yet funky soundscape.  A refrain at the end of puts a unexpectedly hilarious spin on the songs nigh impenetrable machismo:  “Fuck a dog fool, he’ll shit in the Den/Nowadays, a gat is man’s best friend.”   

The albums sense of consciousness awakens like an angry, sleeping giant on The Death Side.  "Horny Lil' Devil" is a paralyzing dose of venom, meant as a lethally permanent cure to the condition of Jungle Fever.  Cube casts the white man as a literal and figurative rapist, ravaging everything in sight.  His voracious sexual appetite knows no bounds, and is not limited by boundaries such as sexual orientation.  A portion of Lou Donaldson’s “Pot Belly” (Also used in Main Source’s “Just A Friendly Game of Baseball”) is sampled and looped at a Merry-Go-Round pace.  It’s graphically violent, homophobic, profane, racist, vengeful, and undeniably infectious.  It invades the listener’s blood stream like adrenaline.  Rarely has unbridled anger felt so good.  

“Black Korea” is a dire warning against Korean store owners who set up shop the hood, but treat Black store patrons like pilfering vermin.  “True to the Game” slows the Gap Band’s “Outstanding” down to a leisurely stroll.  Cubes tone and pacing is likewise adjusted, but the emotion and message retain their potency.  He puts sell outs of all stripes in his cross hairs, from successful Blacks who abandon the hood, to Oreo’s who eagerly climb the corporate ladder, all the while sacrificing any all semblance of Black pride and self-respect.   

The somber and affecting “Color Blind” takes a look at LA’s most infamous and ongoing civil war.  It’s an all-star posse cut featuring the likes of Cube, King T, Deadly Threat, Kam and then future star Coolio.  It subtly yet boldly calls for a cease fire between all warring parties.  It has the ambience of a mournful gospel song coupled with the inherent ruggedness of early 90’s hardcore Hip-Hop.  The perpetual funeral march is often interrupted by lyrics that are shockingly sobering: “Lou wears blue, Big Fred wears red/Put 'em together and we color 'em dead/Dead, dyin, gettin smoked like part of the fun/They get smoked just to show how many come to the funeral”

Lest one think that Cube is afraid to confront the enemy within, “US” is a ballsy indictment of the Black race as a whole.  Cube illustrates the various acts of self-sabotage that that bring about Black America’s collective demise.  It’s the kind of record that many so-called “pro-Black” rappers of the era were afraid to write.

The album closer, “No Vaseline,” ends the proceedings on vengeful note.  Over the glitzy sonic ambience of “Brick” by Dazz, Cube unleashes an industrial sized can of lyrical whup-ass on his former band mates.  Like “Horny Lil’ Devil,” the song is a dose of vitriolic homosexual derision, only much more focused and personal.  

Death Certificate is blast of raw Hip-Hop power from a phenomenal young talent riding the eye of the storm.  It’s Hip-Hop at its most frightening, emotional, and thought -provoking.  Cube would go on to even greater success in both the music industry and Hollywood, but would never again manage to muster up this particular brand of controlled chaos.  He was like an expert marksman wielding a devastatingly powerful WMA.  He meant to lay waste to all enemies, both foreign and domestic.  While he may not have accomplished that, he definitely put them on their collective guard.  In so doing, he established himself as the most gifted rapper of his generation.

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