In the early hours of March 3, 1991, George Holliday, a citizen of Los Angeles, California, filmed the arrest of Rodney King. Unbeknown to the four LAPD officers involved, Holliday’s camera captured an apprehension that saw 56 baton blows, six kicks, 11 skull fractures, broken bones, broken teeth, and kidney damage; all suffered by the African-American suspect King. Two weeks later, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American student, was shot in the back of the head from a distance of about three feet as she turned to exit a store after an altercation with middle-aged female Korean store owner Soon Ja Du.
Little over a year later, the officers involved in the Rodney King beating were acquitted of assault and Du had just begun serving five years probation for voluntary manslaughter with no jail time. On April 29, 1992, almost immediately after the officer’s acquittal, the Los Angeles riots broke out.
It was during this period between the King beating and subsequent court verdict that Ice Cube cut Death Certificate, a chilling glimpse into the anger and frustration South Central Angelinos were feeling. Years of systematic racism and urban mismanagement had taken its toll on LA’s African American communities. While the King and Harlins incidents proved to be the final catalysts, the riots were a result of decades of institutional and structural neglect that had led to conditions of poverty, racial segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and shocking police abuse.
While Death Certificate was only Cube’s second stab at making a solo record—his first being the chilling and prophetic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted—the 22-year-old had been already been around for a number of years as a member of the influential gangsta rap collective NWA. But despite its success, the group didn’t make its members rich and when Cube broke from NWA in December 1989 over financial disputes, he was still living in the same South Central home he had grown up in. Very much embedded in the area and suffering with the same problems his local community faced, Cube had been a ticking time bomb of rage. In NWA, he had teased out some of these frustrations, most notably setting his sights on the LAPD on the controversial “Fuck Tha Police”. But in 1991, Bruce Banner was about to go full on Incredible Hulk, as O’Shea Jackson’s transformation into the snarling, heated monster that was Ice Cube hit its peak.
Approaching Death Certificate, Cube had just finished up work on the film Boyz N the Hood. Written and directed by 23-year-old South Central native John Singleton, the film opens with the chilling statistic that one in 21 black American males will be assassinated in their lifetime and ends with Cube’s character Doughboy meditating on whether most of America had abandoned the region completely. “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood,” he says about the mainstream media when they failed to cover the murder of his brother Ricky in the movie. The film was an early case of South Central residents channelling their anger into art, and perhaps helped chisel Cube’s thoughts as he reconnected with the area after his excursion to New York, where he created AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted with the Bomb Squad the previous year.
After finishing up work on Boyz N The Hood, Cube shaved off his jheri curl, began associating with the Nation of Islam, and adopted a more militant image. Posing with a dead body draped in an American flag and tagged as “Uncle Sam” on the cover of Death Certificate, he represented a scathing deconstruction of the American Dream. The album is thematically split into two halves. During the intro, Cube clarifies that “The Death Side” would be a “mirror image of where we are today.” ‘The Life Side” would be a “vision of where we need to go.” Both equally bleak, he sets his sights on just about every target—whites, Asian Americans, Jews, gays, race traitors, former friends, and women. The self-proclaimed “nigga ya love to hate” now referred to himself as “the wrong nigga to fuck with” and seemingly no one was safe from his crosshairs.
Opening with a funeral, and a speech from the Nation of Islam’s Dr. Khallid Muhammad, Cube explodes out of the coffin on “The Wrong Nigga to Fuck With”. In the wake of the King beating, he instantly sets his sights on the LAPD, specifically calling out the chief of police: “Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic / I gotta have it, to peel his cap backwards.” On the following track, “My Summer Vacation”, he gets more specific about police harassment: “Police looking at niggas through a microscope / In L.A. everybody and they momma sell dope.”
These opening skirmishes set the tone for the record, not just lyrically, but musically. While AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted had fused the sound of both coasts at a time when they were experiencing creative explosions in hip hop, Death Certificate was a return to Cube’s west coast roots. Long-time Cube collaborator Sir Jinx took primary production duties. Moving away from the east-coast sounds of the Bomb Squad, his beats leaned heavily on funk music of two decades previous, extensively sampling Parliament, Funkadelic, and Zapp, helping to bring about the birth of G-Funk, which would dominate California hip hop for the next five years.
These energetic, aggressive beats were just the catalyst Cube required to maintain his onslaught. “True to the Game” criticises those who Cube believes to be “sellout blacks”, while “A Bird in the Hand” bemoans the jobs available to young men with criminal records and little education. On “Alive on Arrival”, a lowly drug pusher is interrogated by police as he lies dying in a hospital waiting room after being shot. Receiving only a fraction of this attention from doctors, the character dies confused and upset: “Why oh why can’t I get help? / Cause I’m black, I gots to go for self,” he muses shortly before flatlining.
Indeed, at times Cube’s imagery is truly startling, though equally shocking are some of his opinions. He attacks former NWA allies and their manager Jerry Heller, referring to him as “cracker” and “Jew” on “No Vaseline” (“It’s a case of divide-and-conquer / Cos you let a Jew break up my crew / House nigga gotta run and hide / Yellin’ Compton, but you moved to Riverside.”) He also lays local STD outbreaks primarily at the door of neighbourhood women: On “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dug Out”, Cube, greeted at a legally underage girl’s door by her father, proceeds to spell out in no uncertain terms her sexual history. The song goes on to warn of the consequences of messing with such girls, before a trip to the clinic on “Look Who’s Burnin’” confirms Cube’s fears.
But perhaps the most notorious song on Death Certificate was “Black Korea”, a track that reflected rising tensions between L.A.‘s African American and Korean American communities at the boiling point. Hassled by distrusting store owners as he attempts to buy a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, Cube confronts the Korean entrepreneurs, first threatening them with boycott (“So don’t follow me up and down your market / Or your little chop suey ass’ll be a target of the nationwide boycott”) and then arson (“So pay respect to the black fist / Or we’ll burn your store, right down to a crisp.”).
To call Ice Cube out for his impossible-to-endorse opinions is perhaps to miss the point. Cube was the voice of black discontent, whether it was anger that was defensible or not. He channelled attitudes that ran throughout the community from where he hailed, and for speaking up, he was slated a bigot, misogynist, anti-Semite, and was accused of inciting racial hatred. To many African-Americans, Latasha Harlin’s killer Soon Ja Du was typical of Asian liquor store owners in South Central. In this instance, their distrust had led to an unnecessary death. On “Black Korea”, Cube is confronted in a similar fashion to Harlins, and the thousands of locals for whom he spoke for.
However, Cube resisted being a voice of a generation. When Death Certificate was released, it immediately became to most controversial rap album of all time, attracting political attention and minor boycotts. The following year, Boyz N The Hood came out and Cube sought refuge in Hollywood. Meanwhile, talks between local black and Korean organisations, partially sparked by the controversy surrounding “Black Korea” proved fruitful.
But on April 29, 1992, tensions finally boiled over in the L.A. Riots. Fifty-three people would lose their lives during six days of rioting and property damage would hit the one-billion-dollar mark. Two decades on, Death Certificate remains the definitive document to understanding why.