SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Before he was an actor, before he made TV shows and movies with his production company, before he had a record label, Ice Cube was a rapper.
Ice Cube was just a kid in 1988 when he and N.W.A 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. He 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," he says.
On Laugh Now, Cry Later, the targets of Ice Cube's lyrical fire include President Bush, money-drenched gangsta rappers, racial stereotypes and his 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, Ice 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, Ice Cube says.
"If N.W.A 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 N.W.A and I'm proud of that."
Of course, music is still a business - one that Ice 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, Ice 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."
Hearing hip-hopper Lil Jon's beats inspired Ice 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)," Lil Jon says. "He's always been just a dope lyricist. That's his mark."