"I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y'all lamed out / Didn't really appreciate it, 'til the second one came out"
— Jay-Z, "Hard Knock Life"
As a result of Death Certificate's themes, lyrical content ("Black Korea" and "No Vaseline" in particular) and cover art:
- The state of Oregon enacted a statewide ban making it illegal to display Ice Cube's image in any retail outlets.
- The Oregon ban extended to ads for the St. Ides Malt Liquor, for which Ice Cube was a spokesperson.
- In the United Kingdom, Island Priority Records removed the songs "Black Korea" and "No Vaseline" from the UK versions of the album.
- Camelot Records, one of the largest music retail chains in the Midwest, joined other retail stores in refusing to sell the album
- The Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced the album
- The Southern Christian Leadership Conference denounced the album
- The Los Angeles Urban League denounced the album
- The Guardian Angels denounced the album, comparing Ice Cube to former KKK member turned politician David Duke, and pressured MTV to ban Ice Cube videos from the air.
- WGCI-FM (107.5) Chicago refused to play songs from the album
- Billboard magazine called for retailers to decide "whether or not Ice Cube's record is fit to sell or purchase," despite running a full-page advertisement for the album.
The media showed Death Certificate little love:
"The Racist You Love to Hate" — LA Weekly, Nov. 1992
"If a song contains anti-Semitic or racist lyrics or there's a clear controversy over content, we won't play it. We're not in business to infuriate people, we're in business to entertain them." — Dave Shakes, program director of WBBM-FM on why the station refused to play songs from Death Certificate
"It's the rankest sort of racism and hatemongering. ... (Ice Cube's) unabashed espousal of violence against Koreans, Jews and other whites crosses the line that divides art from the advocacy of crime." — Billboard, Nov. 1991
"If there is an agenda for social revolution in Death Certificate, it's hard to hear it amid the bigotry." — Rolling Stone, Dec. 1991
"On Death Certificate it's hard to tell which is more obtuse, Ice Cube's gangster raps or his political statements. … The "Life Side" is where the limits of Ice Cube's knowledge become clear. The album reflects some of the same concerns Public Enemy takes up on Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, but at the level of a street brawl instead of a discussion." — New York Times, Nov. 1991
"Ice Cube undercuts his impact. Instead of focusing our attention on the paramount inner-city issues that obviously trouble him — from education and crime to jobs and the family — the language in the album will take many listeners on a detour. The issues they'll raise will be about Ice Cube himself: Is he a racist? Is he anti-Semitic? Is he a misogynist?" — LA Times, Nov. 1991
"Early on he mitigates the usual gangsta shit — gat as penis and pit bull, female body as pestilence and plague — with such touches as an anti-gang track and a nurse with attitude. … He inveighs against "Jap" and "Jew." And he proposes a "nationwide boycott" of Korean-owned inner-city businesses that escape the torch ... Call him Ice KKKube — a straight-up bigot simple and plain." — Village Voice, 1991
"Ice Cube, 22, is clearly in over his head. But in the dearth of strong Black leaders, rap turns young men into leaders often before they're ready. This one, through venom or confusion, now seems a racist demagogue." — Newsweek, Dec. 1991
THE AFTERMATH & THE PROPHET
By May 5, 1992, when "order" was somewhat restored to the streets of South Central Los Angeles, as the media and most of the powers that be were still trying to understand how and why LA erupted, it was clear that instead of railing against Ice Cube a year earlier for what he said on Death Certificate, the real question should have been, "Why is he saying what he’s saying?"
The album is too well crafted to assume any of it was constructed by accident or without acute awareness of what was being presented. Even in its most over-the-top moments it cannot be simply written off as the ramblings of a racist. No, that's too easy... and wrong.
Even by 1991, Ice Cube was financially well-off enough that to think he was personally going to engage in any of the violence he espoused on the album was beyond absurd. Instead of outlining what now rich and prosperous Oshea Jackson would do, Death Certificate presents an examination of life in South Central LA as told from the point of view of someone who would actually commit the type of crimes and engage in the type of violence that played out on TV screens worldwide.
It is told from the perspective of individuals for whom casual and random violence is a part of everyday life.
Individuals for whom poverty and prison stints are generational hand-me-downs.
Individuals who probably wouldn't say, "I had a disturbing encounter with the Asian American proprietor of the local retail establishment," but rather, "The Oriental one-penny countin’ muthafuckas, make a nigga mad enough to cause a little ruckus."
Individuals for whom the decision to carry a gun is really no decision at all, as detailed in "Colorblind":
I understand how all my homeboys feel,
Cuz I was shot and to this day, I pack my steel
Cuz I was born in a certain territory
Where you don't talk only the streets tell stories
With blue and red bandannas on the street
And if you slippin, you'll be six feet deep
Death Certificate connects the dots that answer the questions posed by those with time to ponder questions such as:
Why would an able-bodied young Black man turn to selling drugs? — "Bird in the Hand," "My Summer Vacation"
Why are these young Black men carrying guns? — "Man's Best Friend," "Color Blind"
Why are these young Black men so angry? — "Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit," "Color Blind"
Why is the rate of AIDS 38-percent higher in South Central than the rest of Los Angeles? — "Givin' Up the Nappy Dugout," "Look Who's Burnin'"
What happened to these young Black males as children to lead them down such self-destructive paths? — "Doing Dumb Shit," "Us," "A Bird In The Hand"
It's not that Death Certificate was the first or last album to document street life — far from it. But Death Certificate is unique in that:
1. It presents its stories in such a straightforward way that the listener need not possess the advanced interpretive skills necessary to approach some more heady and abstract material from groups like PE or X-Clan.
2. There’s no celebrating or reveling in the violence and dysfunction that, unfortunately, became the rap music norm sometime early in the' 90s.
3. The stories and lyrics exist to advance the album’s overall concept, instead of simply adding stripes to Ice Cube’s street cred or providing the false bravado and bluster that exist on most albums simply to prove the emcee ain’t no punk.
4. Oh yeah, he predicted the LA Riot a year before it took place, identifying both the key flashpoints — Black/Korean relations and Rodney King/Police abuse — and pointing out exactly who was going to be targeted when the violence eventually jumped off.
A must factor for any album tagged with the "classic" label is timelessness — a sound, a rhyming style and lyrical content that that don’t sound dated, but maintain a freshness and lasting resonance that endure years beyond the initial release.
A few specific name and date references aside, Death Certificate could have been released in 2001 or 2011 and been relevant because, the unfortunate fact of the matter is many of the problems and conditions Ice Cube described on the 1991 release persist in inner-city Black communities throughout the country.
Let’s look at "Bird in the Hand."
Told with a tightly edited matter of factness, the song succinctly details the situation far too many young Black males find themselves in and the dismal choices to be made.
Like most of the songs on the Death Side, "Bird in the Hand" offers nothing in the way of solutions but instead, lays out the facts and likely outcomes, allowing listeners to come to their own conclusions without creating the bias that occurs when MCs glorify the obviously negative choice.
The protagonist graduates from high school; has a child; has to get a job; can't afford college; doesn't have money; can't find a job; finds a low-paying job in fast food that doesn't make ends meet; considers options — continue as a member of the working poor, wait for government assistance, or sell drugs?; Takes the third choice and examines the consequences. The eventual moral: A bird (kilo of cocaine) in the hand is better than a bush (President George HW Bush/the government).
There are many morally ambiguous moments on Death Certificate that force the serious listener to consider the implications of various decisions and what exactly constitutes a positive or negative choice.
And then there are other moments when Ice Cube simply sends out, in no uncertain terms, a clarion call. Such was the case when dealing with another blight on the South Central landscape — Killa King.