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Ice Cube gets back to his roots with new CD

Godfather of gangster rap was inspired by working with artists like Lil Jon
Ice Cube poses for a photo at his office Tuesday, March 21, 2006, in Santa Monica, Calif. After almost 20 years since he helped create the gangster rap genre with NWA, Cube is back with new album.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Before he was an actor, before he made TV shows and movies with his own production company, before he had a record label, Ice Cube was a rapper.

Cube was just a kid in 1988 when he and NWA helped launch the gangsta rap genre with “Straight Outta Compton,” a raw collection of catchy rhymes about inner-city injustices that appealed to audiences of all kinds.

Now he’s returning to his rap roots with his first solo album in six years, “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” out June 6.

In it, Cube unleashes a 20-track blend of bass-thumping beats and social commentary, with a dash of silliness thrown in for good measure.

“I didn’t want to make a record that was like a history book,” the 36-year-old says, sitting inside his Cube Vision office, the walls dotted with posters that include Muhammad Ali and the movie “Scarface.” “I wanted to make a record that does what all good hip-hop do. It makes you feel good, it kinda pumps you up but it also shows you a part of life that you might not have been paying attention to or might not even know exists.”

‘It’s music that you can learn from’On “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” the targets of Cube’s lyrical fire include George W. Bush, money-drenched gangsta rappers, racial stereotypes and his own evolution as an artist. Rap sends a message, he says.

“That’s really the essence of the music,” he says. “Yeah, it’s got ego and macho and all that stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s music that you can learn from.”

The godfather of gangsta rap ought to know. Before it was a genre with its own streetwise name, Cube and his crew called their rhymes “reality rap.” They said what they wanted and people responded. Their work paved the way for other artists to express themselves, Cube says.

“If NWA didn’t exist, would you have ‘South Park’ or ‘The Osbournes’? Would you have ‘The Sopranos,’ things like that?” he says. “We kind of made it all right to be yourself, say what you want to say. Artists don’t have limits no more. I think that’s the legacy of NWA and I’m proud of that.”

Of course, music is still a business — one that Cube describes as “gangsta” and “shady” — where money calls the shots, altering what some artists can say.

That’s one reason he released his new record on his own Lench Mob label. Working without corporate constraints made recording fun again, Cube says.

“There was no pressure, no time limits, no schedules, no A&R, nobody telling me what kind of record to do,” he says. “It was just me going in there and doing the record that I like, that I think my fans would like. I took my time with it.”

Juggling films and musicCube has been busy with a string of films, including 2002’s “Barbershop,” “All About the Benjamins” and “Friday After Next.” Other credits include 1999’s “Three Kings” and the 1997 sea-monster thriller, “Anaconda.”

He took a yearlong break from movies to focus on the new album, collaborating with some of the hottest names in hip-hop, including Snoop Dogg, Scott Storch and Lil Jon.

Hearing Lil Jon’s beats inspired Cube to start rhyming and eventually head back into the studio, he says.

“I started writing to [the beats] and ended up, like, not stopping,” says Cube, who also contributed two tracks to Lil Jon’s latest album.

“We laid all the groundwork on my record, so it was family by the time he was working on his [stuff],” Jon says. “He’s always been just a dope lyricist. That’s his mark.”

Music is his “inspiration,” Cube says, but he’s enjoyed success in TV and film too. The reality series he produced, “Black. White.,” recently wrapped its six-episode run on FX Networks. (The show’s title song, “Race Card,” appears on Cube’s new album.) He is also working to bring “Welcome Back, Kotter” to the big screen, where he’ll reportedly play the tolerant teacher, though he’s reluctant to say too much about the project.

“It’s too soon,” he says. “In Hollywood, man, the sun and moon has to align for something to get done.”

The next ‘Scarface’?But Hollywood hasn’t lost its charm for Cube, who has appeared in nearly two dozen films — 10 of which he produced and five he wrote. He hopes to play more dramatic roles, he says, though his comedies have been so successful that “you’ve got to kind of go the path of least resistance.”

“I want to play a gangsta on screen that’s bigger than ‘Scarface,”’ he says. “That’s a dream role.”

He might even write it himself. When Cube wants to create, he heads to his “dungeon,” a room in his home stuffed with inspirational items of all kinds — from posters and action figures to a life-size cutout of Michael Jordan.

“There’s just everything in there, everything that’s visually stimulating,” he says. “It’s a room that I can always go into and kind of create and get going.”

It’s easier to write songs than movies, he says, because the former is so personal and the latter so collaborative. He may consider writing a book someday, but right now “it’s too soon,” he says.

“I haven’t lived enough, to me, to write a book,” he says.

But the father of four has come a long way since his older brother nicknamed him Ice Cube when he was 12 years old.

“He thought I was too cool for myself. He was making fun,” Cube says. “But I kept it, and now I’m making money with it, so now who’s funnin’?”