I recently finished reading Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang. Overall, it was a highly informative read (though flawed in terms of journalistic style), and incredibly different from how I expected it to be. Chang does a brilliant job of balancing the socioeconomic forces behind the genre with the discussion of the music itself, which, though it makes it a little more difficult to get through, completes the entire picture.
What surprised me most about the book was the portion that focused on Ice Cube. Growing up in the Pacific-Northwest, by the time rap/hip-hop really spread to the area, it was mostly about ass-shaking and sheet dirtying (which is quite possibly why teenagers decided to embrace it in the first place). Rap/hip-hop had been in the mainstream since the early ’90s, but the early ’90s was also the time of grunge – a time when the culture of the PNW was being blown up to Vogue heights. It took until the late ’90s for rap/hip-hop to thoroughly catch on in the Seattle area, and by that time, Ice Cube had mostly left behind his days of racial slurs about Asians and caustic political attacks – a period in his career that was only just recently revealed to me in Can’t Stop. Though we may have been vaguely aware of N.W.A., the Ice Cube most of us knew was the Ice Cube of “We Be Clubbin'” and “You Can Do It.”
I don’t own AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted or Death Certificate (though I intend to remedy this), so I can’t quite yet examine Ice Cube’s role as a social commentator, but I can look at this – at some point, he had to make the transition between an instigator of political and social debate into the club king I recall from my youth, and in this transition lies a very interesting song.
“It Was a Good Day” is an easy-going track. You can walk to it. You can strut to it. Musically, it’s a very agreeable song, and even those of you who might not usually stray to the rap side of things might be able to appreciate it. Lyrically, it tells the story of a day focused mainly around smoking, drinking and having sex (a top-notch day, no doubt). Simple enough. But in-between all of that, there’s attention drawn to violence and a noticable lack of it, dispursed through quick spurts of lines like, “nobody I know got killed in South Central LA / today was a good day,” and “today I didn’t even have to use my A.K.” This string of broken up comments gives the song a slowly mounting sense of foreboding, noticable long before the track wraps with “stop this shit / what the fuck am I thinking about?” There are several possible factors for why Ice Cube decided to tone things down from songs like “Black Korea” or “I Wanna Kill Sam,” but there’s almost something more effective in serving his message in piecemeal instead of shoving it down the listener’s throat. Like the violence he sings about in “It Was a Good Day,” it’s noticeable for its decrease.
Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day” (download)
And because I’m feeling mighty generous with these lately, here’s the remix, featuring what wikipedia tells me is a sample from the Staple Singers:
Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day (Remix)” (download)