By Donnell Alexander

As I drive up the porn valley in sunny Southern California, I'm listening to Jay-Z's "The City is Mine" and thinking about all I'll miss when I move from the West Coast. There's Big Boy on the radio in the morning and Fatburger and regular girls who, on any whimsical day, might just decide that a thong is the thing to wear. And how about Highway One, Yoga West, and the Mexican girls at Hollywood High? Or the freshest produce that any true city dweller can obtain? Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles? Harbin Hot Springs? Lower Motherfucking Haight!

Because I'm driving up the porn valley, in San Fernando valley, the world fuck flick capitol, and closing in on Tarzana, I'm thinking in particular about two people, adult amateur auteur Ed Powers, and hip hop icon Ice Cube. The Reality Pimps. My ace homeboys. Yo, I don't know-them know them, but I'm intimately familiar with what they respect, for better and worse. The pornographer and the rapper tell on themselves so completely they manipulate reality so that even as they're leaving little obvious, they're coming up with something fake as can be. Their contrivances invest every ion of their truths. Just like real life.

Due to the fact that I'm driving up the porn valley to go see Ice Cube, I'm thinking of the rap side of the porn game, the sound that jacks the imagination, leaving it butt-naked in the street with its knees around its ears. Ice cube, whose mama calls him Oshea Jackson, is the one, the Ed Powers of hip-hop. The real nigga who puts all notions of concept to bed. The one from N.W.A. who made street credibility the crucial culture force of the decade. From advertising to entertainment to education, streed cred has come into demand to the point where one wouldn't be entirely surprised to hear that the Golden State Warriors plan to replace P.J. Carlesimo with E-40, just to put asses in seats. Through his writing and hard rhyming, Cube brought mainstream culture closer to the street--paving the way for Puffy, forcing Will Smith to get Jiggy with it for once in his life--which was hella good news for the street, tired as it was of reaching and striving and all that shit. Boomin' at its peak, the music of Ice Cube gave us a spiritual break, and, frankly, helped get a lotta media niggas some good-ass jobs.

I'm thinking that I've been here before as I walk into Can-Am Studios, where Ice Cube's putting the finishing touches on the soundtrack to The Players Club, the New Line film in which he makes his directorial debut. The soundtrack also happens to be the first release for Heavyweight, the label Cube has started with A&M Records. In the studio's entryway, it's not the gold records from Snoop and Dre that give me deja vu. Rather it's the whole vibe of box-shaped creative uteruses where entertainment industry hustlers deliver the real "Real World." Out west, these sorts of waking dream factories all vibe the same. Months earlier, I walked in on Ed Powers 'round these parts while he was editing down an Arkansas house wife's meandering masturbation session to a screaming cum-fest. Here, Cube's cutting the space between an absurd Bernie Mac speech ("buck-ed nek-kid!") that will be an album insert so that the following cut's bass drop will hit you on the real. In both instances, the artist is playing a small trick on his audience's consciousness to heighten their sense of reality.

A half-hour later, Ice Cube will smile at the suggestion that Players Club unfolds like a metaphor for the career of a rapper. But think about it: The film's protagonist is a stripper who gets on stage and shows her ass, projecting herself even when she knows that what the audience sees isn't really her, just a make-believe version. And she must keep track of herself as her professional milieu gets zanier and zanier. What role could be more like a rapper?

Once Ed Powers told me, "I am the most naked, most raw man on the face of this earth." Later this day, Ice Cube Would say, "You ain't never looked and said 'Damn. What Ice Cube Doin'?'" In the coming weeks, as I'd jet from the fakest realest city in human history, I'd come to believe that the two statements are interchangeable to the point forgetting who said what and when.

Here's where the porn metaphor ends: Adult films boomed in the 90's--receipts from tape rentals and purchases regularly outpreform rap and rock record sales combined--but their purveyors operate in anonymity. (Name me three adult film figures not named Amber, Hunter or Ron.) The rap game, having left the underground like a husk, occupies the flip side of the coin. The house that Cube built upon hip-hop's firm foundation has gotten so large, that where he once divided an album into "Death" and "Life" sides, he now must put out a double album, War and Peace, with each CD adhering to a concept. This with the music industry in a general state of malaise. And mad kids know his name and want to see his face. Indeed, one of the disappointments in Players Club is his brief amount of screen time. But if you miss the actor in his own film, you can catch him on the internet, MTV or any number of award shows.

Ironically, it's been at least five years since the artist has put out an album that the whole of his core audience felt they just couldn't miss. Brilliant as some found Westside Connection, no quorum could get with its calculated brand of social commentary. Cube's two previous albums, Lethal Injection (1993) and The Predator (1992), had some great moments, but fell way to short of the regular musical epiphanies we'd come to expect from the man who brought us Death Certificate and AmeriKKa's Most Wanted, and who played the role of go-to guy on arguably the most influential album in hip-hop history, 1989's Straight Outta Compton.

More than half a decade of spotty material--as well as a wide range of extra-curricular charges ranging from not being real to jackin' for beats--have left folks pondering the value of his rap institution. (I mean, like Sears has been around forever too, but I don't have to go there either, now do I?) Cube's not so isolated from the flossing fray of the present-tense hip-hop community that he dosen't know that he's seen as being prone to wackness. Now, as blazin' "We Be Clubbin'" (and tis equally hard re-mix featuring DMX) attests, he's refocused his career and acknowleged past transgressions, although he refuses to discuss them specifically. "I ain't gonna put my mouth mistakes up on glass so they can be analyzed."

"You get kinda lazy," he says while breaking from soundtrack production. "You get like, 'Oh I can do this.' You don't have to work as hard when you figure you got this down pat. And the records start to suffer because of that. With the Westside Connection record, I've re-dedicated myself to the music."

By now, most know that Ice Cube is smaller in person and more real than the scowling visage presented on his album covers. And you see the wheels turning behind his dark friendly eyes. Decked out in matching Kelly Green cap and jersey, he interchangeably fields tough questions, resolves some sonic isues, and handles the suits. "If New Line ain't paying for my security, I ain't goin' a motherfuckin' place," he snaps before silently placing the phone in its cradle and completing the sentence he started before the call came in. Now, that's an impressivlely bad Negro. "I think I'm doing better music than I have in the past four or five years," he says. The Heavyweight gig has fixed that, delivering more solidly visible gigs than the independent Lench Mob Records did. If he's wack as a producer on this stage, every kid from Iowa to the Bronx to Tokyo is gonna know.

"What I love is rap music. It's what I've been doing since I was 14 years old. It just started to be too much of a business, too much of a job. Hip-hop gives me the freedom that movies will never give me. At lease they don't give me that right now. They might in the future, I can get inspired, make a record and then have it scrutunized. In this acting game, everything [gets] scrutinized before we put it out. With movies your're kinda locked in. The [Players Club] program we were on a year ago, we gotta stick with to get this movie out. With records, it can be spontaneous. If I ain't feelin' a record, I can do a re-mix. With movies you got so many suits puttin' they two cents in... they gotta hafta kick me out tha rap game."

And don't think there aren't people out there convening on that particular matter. Them that rejected Westside Connection didn't just not buy the album, they hated it with the passion. Niggas who ain't feelin' his protege Mack 10 just don't dismiss his records--as they might the latest Mase release--they rail against it, taking the shit personally, like Ice Cube is their dog who turned on them. Even with the dance-floor sucess of "We Be Clubbin'," some are still mad. "Where are the 'conscious' lyrics?" they say. "Make me feel like I did the first time I heard "Stright Outta Compton.' OhpleaseOhpleaseOhplease, just gimme just one more hit!" "I can't go over ground I already covered," Cube Responds. "And that's what people want you to do. They want another AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. They want you to do another record like Death Certificate. I can't do that. That's not where my head's at. I never been tryin' to do what I've already done."

What Cube's trying to do now is be a multi-media mogul motherfucker. The direcrtor's gig is one step toward controlling his image, the other is partnership in Heavywight Records with A&M. One artist at a time. He's developing the West Coast answer to Bad Boy and No Limit, a follow through on what Death Row started. As Ice Cube rapped on "Legal Paper," an underground cut from last year: "New tragedies call for new strategies." Now, that's real.

And let's not forget the motive behind the 28-year-old's latest moves: Transecnding the stereotypical paradigm of publiciy flaunting guns and boot to no meaningful end. Say what you want about The Players Club, there's no denying its author tried to do something new--and make money at the same time. Ain't you heard? Cube's talkin' bout an evolution.

LisaRaye has a way with salsa. Maybe it's because, less that a year removed from Chicago, she's still new to L.A., and juicy tomatoes in February make her tounge tingle. Maybe she's just feeling fruit in a general sense. Regardless, when the 30-year-old star of the Players Club brings the sauce past her blood-red lips, I'm feeling I'm witnessing an intensly personal experience. LisaRaye dreamily stirs the salsa, and I'm like "Should I even be seeing this?" It's a good thing the kids across the street at Hollywood High can't see into our booth at Acapulco. And yet, she dosen't get naked. Not in public that is. At least she hadn't until shooting for the film commenced last year. There had been some modeling gigs in her hometown where the product she was hawking would obscure her boobs, but she'd never full-on broadcast her bare-assed goodies. She took the lead role in Cube's script because it was a plumb. (The director chose her over a number of bigger-named, more experienced actresses.) Yet the level of nudity in the script troubled her. LisaRaye reminded cube that her walking around with everything hanging out was not in the vision of his script. So in the end he buttressed her single stripping scene with edits of her about to disrobe or just buttoning up. In the sea of ass that is the film's calling card, these iplications go a long way. There remained, however, the one big strip scene. The prospect petrified her, and you cain't shake your moneymaker if you're stiff as a tree. There would be a pole on stage, and LisaRaye was going to have to work it in front of both crew members and faux audience members. When it came time to shoot, Cube reassured the actress that she could pull it off, and when the fantasies she'd relied on to carry her through wore thin, it was the rapper/director who coaxed her shyness away and got a credible preformance on film.

"I love him. I'd do anything for him. He stayed right here with me," she says, putting a peace sign between her eyes. And how did cube keep his homies in check when the set abounded with fleshy inducements to act up? LisaRaye can't rightly say, but when I caught up with the director, he put it down real simple-like. "You ain't never heard about the Westside Connection, none of my people, being into incidents. My people know how to conduct themselves. I keep it under control, 'cuz it's all about business." Besides Ice Cube offered, in his trademark country delivery, "They loved being nekkid, if you ask me."

It's a far cry from the youngster who helped bring the expression "buck-wild" into common parlance. The image of this kinder, gentler Ice Cube rushing to the aid of a naked damsel in distress seems almost antithetical to the young nigga who was "Only Out for One Thing." The big round things he's out for now aren't soft and brown, but hard and green. Like zeroes. And this thing about touting his crew as good boys? What's up with that? Maybe what we're seeing is a grown-up Oshea Jackson making solid his place in a world that chews up talents and spits it out as fast as said talent can be spotted.

It's been more than two weeks since my visit with Cube, and I've been in New York for 10 days. On the train I can't help but lewdly scope out the Puerto Rican girls, even the pregnant ones. My eyes close and ears fill with the dramatic, foreign cadences of the black kids. And Central Park white folks floss like they're in Hollywood. It dawns on me that, of course, white people invented flossing. Brooklyn feels like a blessing. I've only touched in two boroughs, and I am indeed feeling the transformative nature of Gotham. Still, there's something about L.A. The birthplace of the fake breast phenomenon. The home of the disease called Road Rage. The city will never change. Rightly or wrongly, some things are just what they are, and should remain so until they're no more. Which brings us back to Cube. See, ya'll motherfuckers got the whole story wrong. That kid was never a rapper. He was a kid rapping. Change his place on the set, and he'll reflect somethin' different. The way he'll say it won't ever change. He's a native son.

"I've started to give it more thought than ever. Rap is more than mainstream. I'd be a fool not to play this game to the fullest--but [I] try not to lose myself. Outta all these years of doing it, I've always been myself. Ya ain't ever look and said, 'Damn, what's Ice Cube doin'? What the hell is wrong wit' Cube?' I'm never going to place myself in a position where I'm doing something outside what I want to do, or what's in my heart. But yeah, I'm ready to play this mainstream game. If they wanna take this gangsta shit mainstream, then I'm ready. Just let the world know that, yo, you can be real, be yourself and get paid."

There's an old Lou Reed song that includes a lyric, "If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see/I'd put you in the mirror I put in front of me." Over the years, Ice Cube has earned the rights to a share of that mirrior. He stands before it naked as the day he was born, making us all get naked too. Sometimes we look better than others. Days of frigidity and impotence follow upon those funky vigor. As Ice Cube grows stronger and bigger he balances his increased ability to project that image with the possibility of distorting it. Which could be worse than no reflection at all. His is a task way large for a li'l nigga from Compton, but if he keeps coming throught as he has, we can all get down.

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