RAP / What it adds up to: squaring things with Cube: How bad is Ice Cube? Marek Kohn watches his show in Brixton

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The Independent Culture
THERE was no riot at the Brixton Academy last Saturday, no flashpoint, no vicious incident. There was an overfilled auditorium, the crowd overwhelmingly young, black and male, but there were women and white people too. There was - in the parts of the house where there was room to breathe, at least - a party.

Which begs all the questions. Yes, there was misogyny. Yes, there were racial epithets. Yes, there was a celebration of violence. Yes, there was constant verbal aggression. So what were these happy people doing, grooving to a litany of hate?

The first thing that they were doing was standing words on their heads. Da Lench Mob, Ice Cube's gang and support act, set the scene by rousing the audience into a chant from Cube's first solo album: 'Fuck You, Ice Cube'. It's exactly the same as any other inversion on the lines of bad-meaning-good, just more abrasive. But if that's how the crowd salutes the star, the meaning of any other utterance is put in question.

The language is incessantly Larkinesque but it is primarily a rhythmic device. Ice Cube makes the same potent use of three or four swearwords that the best rock'n'roll records make of three or four chords. Not for him the wet adenoidal slap with which Philip Larkin delivered his celebrated obscenity: Ice Cube rolls the curses out and gives them a beat. The k's and the ch's become detached from their meanings (variously sexual, aggressive, or misogynistic) and serve as verbal analogues of chops onan electric guitar.

All this helps make Ice Cube one of the most compelling rappers ever to declaim a rhyme. Moreover he has a fine ear for a backbeat and an urgent sense of pace: the bottom line is that the show is inherently entertaining and funky. Most rap acts, even the ones which specialise in studio subtleties, merely go through the motions on stage. Ice Cube is one of the few rappers worth bothering to watch.

Not that he cuts much of a figure. Dressed in democratic t-shirt and baseball cap, he split the limelight with a rapper called WC. Like newscasters, rappers can work solo but they feel more comfortable in pairs. Ice Cube also shared the stage with his posse, who assembled silently, stock still in big coats, only their heads nodding. It was a symbolic gathering, to affirm that the gang is the basic social unit of rap culture. Cube also signalled a more conventional affiliation, presenting his somnolent two-year-old son for the crowd's approbation. 'Aaah,' went the crowd, though this could have been either sentimentality or a groan.

Gangster and family man; as in other respects Ice Cube has his cake and eats it. He has aligned himself with Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, but not to the extent of adopting its austere way of life. (Some of those who have done so, uniformed members of the Fruit of Islam, provided backstage security.) Taking his cue from Chuck D of Public Enemy, he has endorsed the idea that rap is reportage; the black man's CNN. But his middle-class origins preclude him from claiming to be a reporter, speaking solely from personal experience, and so he is forced to acknowledge a more complex identity as a narrator with a partly fictional persona. This allows him to contrive the best of both worlds by not letting on which parts are autobiographical, and which are invented or second-hand.

Even at a live show, where the details of the words are generally inaudible, the weaknesses in the idea of reportage are apparent. Ice Cube's cadences are those of an orator; not a reporter. He is articulating a worldview that continually struggles to hold itself together, an overtone of hysteria shrilling above its rage and militancy. It is young black American males against the world; up above are 'devils' with their conspiracies to pollute the ghetto with drugs and viruses, below are 'bitches'

forever trying to ensnare the black man. 'You can't trust no bitch,' he affirms, on Predator, his latest album. 'Who can I trust? Me,' a chorus line reiterates.

In the sleeve notes to the Death Certificate album he explains that he uses the term 'nigga' because his people have not yet transcended a 'nigga mentality', and advocates the Nation of Islam as the best way to 'become' black. 'Devils' is a convenient codeword for those who espouse certain varieties of Black Muslim lore, as 'cosmopolitan' is to neo-Nazis. There is no need to specify whether all white men are devils, or just the ones behind the various conspiracies. Not all women are 'bitches' in Ice Cube's typology, but these she-devils are the only sort he has so far been interested in speaking about.

'Fuck you, Ice Cube' the crowd chanted, as Cube took his leave. Surveying his audience, he paused to drink it in. 'I love that shit,' he observed.