By 1991 HipHop had acquired a diminished capacity to shock even members of the general public and media who, thanks to Yo! MTV Raps, the Arsenio Hall Show, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, had slowly started to accept rap and rappers as part of the mainstream popular culture.
After all, by that time HipHop had bonafide street cats and gangstas like Schooly D and Ice-T presenting stark tales of street life; Too $hort was pimpin' hoes on wax; 2 Live Crew was perfecting sophomoric porn rap while blessing an appreciative male audience with brazen, bodacious, unclothed strippers, rump shakin' and coochie poppin'; The Geto Boys used a picture of a gunshot wound to Bushwick Bill's head as cover art; Public Enemy had already channeled Malcom, Marcus and Huey via unflinchingly militant lyrics and sonic chaos … and dealt with the fallout of being labeled anti-Semetic after Professor Griff went in on Jews.
Record store owners and clerks were cited for selling 2 Live Crew albums to minors. The group faced misdemeanor obscenity charges carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail. — Luke Skyywalker and the Crew beat the rap.
In 1990 Geffen Records refused to release the Geto Boys' third album due to its lyrical content … which included verses about rape and dismemberment … oh yeah, and some necrophilia.
NWA received a letter from the FBI for "Fuck the Police" (written by Ice Cube), in which an official with the bureau admonished the group over the song's content, stating, "Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action."
So in this climate it would seem almost impossible to stir up much more controversy than his peers had already done. But Ice Cube found a way.
The formula began with recruiting the services of Khallid Abdul Muhammad, a high-ranking Nation of Islam official who was removed from the organization in '93 for a series of speeches and comments that were beyond the Pale, even for the Nation.
To put it in context, Khallid Muhammad was so fierce and angry and militant, he made Min. Louis Farrakhan look like Carlton Banks.
And Khallid Muhammad's fingerprints and influence are all over Death Certificate.
In working with Public Enemy on his previous LP, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube began to merge his already A+ gangsta rapping with P.E.'s Black political consciousness.
What emerged was an image, not of the Black militant who would march down the block and deliver an impassioned speech, but rather the Black militant who would drive down the block in a drop-top '64 Impala, whip out an AK and blast anybody obstructing his radical agenda — including, but not limited to, cops, politicians and sellouts.
It was this latter version of Ice Cube that showed up to record Death Certificate with a focused, scorched earth agenda that, without nuance or apology, left no subject off limits or unscathed.
As if firing a verbal starter's pistol Khallid Muhammad's voice is first heard in the album's intro proclaiming Ice Cube to be "the wrong nigga to fuck with!"
And much like his pseudo mentor, who was censured by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate for advocating the killing of "every white that ain't right that's in sight" in South Africa, including "women, babies, cripples, the blind, the faggots, and the lesbians," Ice Cube wastes no time in advocating violence as a means to an end. Not even the then owner of the LA Raiders, Al Davis, is spared, as Cube threatens to shoot the 62-year-old for not sharing any profits from the Raiders gear Cube, NWA and Public Enemy helped popularize.
But I suppose Davis' fate is less harsh than that reserved for then LAPD Chief Daryl Gates whom Ice Cube plans to shoot, beat to death, decapitate and set on fire.
And the violence doesn't end there as sights are set on rivals, white men who lust after Black women, gays, politicians, Uncle Toms, and Korean shopkeepers.
While some of the language is clearly intended to inflame and elicit a response, the majority of the album speaks to the harsh reality of conditions on the ground, in South Central Los Angeles — gang violence, drug trafficking, high rates of unemployment, the AIDS crisis, poor education, lack of health care, and police brutality — problems that have no bright sides or smooth edges.
Still, you can not make statements like, "real niggas ain't gay" or refer to white men as "Hell-born, demonic, savage, fierce, vicious, wild, tameless, barbaric, ungovernable, uncontrollable, obstinate beasts," and not expect some kind of adverse reaction.
However, the public backlash against Death Certificate would be like nothing seen before or after.