Ice Cube is widely hailed as one of the most important rappers of his generation. Scour the archives and you’ll find countless artists who have cited him as an important influence. Ice Cube has been sitting in this comfortable position for decades now, but it wasn’t always that way.
Born in South Central Los Angeles in 1969, Ice Cube spent much of his early life in a hostile neighbourhood that, as he grew older, was increasingly shaped by the presence of drugs and violence. Cube’s parents knew that if their son stayed in the neighbourhood, it would only be so long before he wound up with a bullet in his chest.
They decided to pull him out of his local school and place him in a suburban high school in the suburban San Fernando Valley. Until this point, all Cube had known of LA was his crumbling neighbourhood. But in San Fernando, things were different. Arriving in this affluent part of Los Angeles every morning, he started wondering why the violence that marred his home only affected certain areas of the city, and why it wasn’t being discussed more widely.
To secure a better life for himself, Cube decided to enrol at the Phoenix Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a degree in drafting in 1988. At the same time, he’d continued pursuing music, with the blossoming world of rap making a huge impact on him while he was studying in Phoenix.
By the mid-1980s, he already started his own group known as CIA, who quickly caught the attention of Andre Romelle Young, an ambitious young rapper going under the alias Dr. Dre. The pair joined forces with a local crew composed of DJ Yella, Eazy-E and MC Ren, and so N.W.A. was born. They were about to take the world by storm.
N.W.A. went on to inspire a whole generation of artists, and during an interview back in 2019, he explained exactly the kind of artists who we drew his inspiration from. He said: “I always look at the influencers, the pioneers, the ones who virtually created a style or a flavour all their own. To me, those are the trendsetters, the ones who changed the trajectory of the game in a major way,” Cube continued. “It was about skills and talent, and really having their own style and taking it and running with it.”
In a 2015 interview with NME, as part of their ‘Soundtrack Of My Life’ segment, Cube was kind enough to reveal what the first song he fell in love with was, and it stuck to his unwavering ethos of listening only to the influencers and pioneers. He chose the seminal political soul track, 1971’s ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye.
Cube said: “My parents always played ‘Let’s Get It On’ in the house but this was my favourite. It’s got so much soul, but it’s also politically conscious and talks about real things happening in society, on the street. It started me thinking about those things. Before long, when my mom was working nights, I wouldn’t be watching cartoons – I’d be watching the news. Marvin told me what’s going on.”
It all makes sense now. ‘What’s Going On’ was a turning point for soul, as it made the genre more political, waking up a generation in the process. Fuelled by the confusion and anger felt by the African-American community, not only did it set a precedent for contemporary Black music, having an effect on the works of Sly & The Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield, but it also inspired countless subsequent African-American pioneers, including N.W.A. as it told the heartbreaking tale of real-life police brutality towards peaceful protesters in Berkeley, California.
Without the game-changing steps of ‘What’s Going On’, and the album of the same name, N.W.A. and their peers in the ‘90s would not have had the platform to really stick it to the establishment. Ice Cube’s account is just another example of how Marvin Gaye had a colossal impact on culture.
Listen to ‘What’s Going On’ below.