*One of my favorite TV shows happens to be “The Boondocks.”  Most Boondocks fans remember the scene where one of the boys on the show, Riley, makes reference to the rapper Ice Cube by saying, “You mean the dude who makes family movies?”

The infamous Boondocks scene defines the “remarkable transformation” of Cube that Michael Eric Dyson referenced during our debate on hip hop at Brown University last month.  Both Dyson and I agree that Ice Cube is amazing.  However, we disagree on whether hip hop artists have gone over the top in their commitment to using language that is damaging to the psyches of our children.

Ice Cube was my favorite rapper growing up (I still think he’s arguably the most talented rapper of all-time). I can still remember hearing his booming voice at a party as he introduced a totally foreign concept called “Gangsta rap” to the rest of us.  He made history, and has firmly entrenched himself as one of the greatest performers of all-time on both stage and screen.   My feelings about Cube’s contribution to humanity are mixed, but I’ll try to be honest in my assessment.  So, here’s a short list of the five most interesting things about the rapper Ice Cube:

1)      Without Ice Cube and NWA, many of your favorite artists would not exist:  Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, TI, 50 Cent and other artists would probably have never had a chance had it not been for Ice Cube’s music.  Ice Cube and NWA opened the door for an entire generation of artists to pursue music that the world had never seen before.  Unfortunately, much of the music has transformed itself into a recipe for self-destruction for African American men, encouraging them to get high and drunk, remain ignorant, waste their money, kill one another, spread STDs with irresponsible sexual behavior and show blatant disrespect for women.  The point here is that while it’s clear that Ice Cube is a great man, that doesn’t mean that he has been entirely good for the black community.

2)      Ice Cube understands how to build a brand and a business:  Quite simply, Ice Cube has become both king and king maker.  He is the Tyler Perry of the West Coast, learning how to create his own opportunities, rather than sit around waiting for someone to give them to him.   African Americans have never lacked the talent necessary to shine on any platform.  Where we come up short is in the ability to create those platforms in the first place.

3)      He’s a little bit schizophrenic in his public persona:  I saw Ice Cube go from gangbanger to hardcore Muslim, to gangbanger again, and then to family filmmaker.  I’ve concluded that there must be no real Ice Cube, just a bunch of personas that he uses in a quest to determine which one might be most profitable.

Ice Cube’s confusion also showed itself in one of his most recent songs, “Child Support.”  In the song, Cube criticizes younger artists for only rapping about “p*ssy and money.”  I found this ironic, given that one of Ice Cube’s most famous lines was “Life ain’t nothing but b*tches and money,” in the song “Gangsta Gangsta” by NWA.  Maybe this is an example of the pot calling the kettle a hood rat.

4)      He knows how to utilize markets that are overlooked by others:  When Ice Cube and NWA released their first album, they got no play on the radio and they couldn’t get money from major record labels.   But the creativity of NWA fueled a multi-billion dollar industry single-handedly, since there was a strong appetite for the music.  The same was true with Ice Cube’s low budget film, “Friday,” which went on to earn $28 million worldwide from a budget of just $3.5 million.   The best thing about creative black people is that we know how to make something out of nothing.  Perry and Ice Cube are perfect cases-in-point.

5)      For good or bad, he’s impacted the world:  Living in a nation where handgun violence is the leading cause of death for young black men, it’s hard not to link this explosion in violence to the destructive music that most thugged out brothers love to bump in their systems.  Of course, NWA was rapping about their environment, which was created by systematic factors that were beyond their control.  But the mass marketing and glorification of the dead end lifestyle of a south central gangbanger only served to fuel the growth of gang violence throughout the nation.

While Cube definitely deserves credit for the good that was done by songs like “F*ck the Police,” (which highlighted police brutality), he must also be critiqued for songs like “A Bitch is a Bitch” and ”Natural Born Killaz” which lead some black men to believe that they are meant to be womanizing, weed smoking criminals who shoot each other on sight.

All-in-all, Ice Cube is the kind of character where we might need to (as my southern ex-girlfriend used to say) “Chew the meat and spit out the fat.”  At best, Ice Cube can be defined as a complex and brilliant artist who was also a bit disturbed and irresponsible with the messages he sent to the public.  There are things he’s done for which we are eternally grateful and other things that are simply unforgiveable.   But at the end of the day, you have to say that he is one of the great ones.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

boyce watkins