I Used to Love H.E.R.: Oxford Collapse

When I wrote Oxford Collapse on the off chance they might be interested in contributing to I Used to Love H.E.R., a series in which artists/bloggers/writers discuss their most essential or favorite hip-hop albums, I heard back within an hour from singer/guitarist Mike Pace: “I can speak on behalf of the band when I say we are obsessed with Ice Cube circa ’88-’93, and a tour doesn’t go by when we don’t listen to “Death Certificate” in its entirety (usually multiple times).”

Remember: Oxford Collapse plays Rhythm Room with Frightened Rabbit on June 24. Oxford Collapse’s new record, BITS, comes out Aug. 5 on Sub Pop, and you can pick up the recently released Hann-Byrd EP at eMusic.

Pace’s entry is the 29th in the series.

Ice Cube
Death Certificate (Priority Records, 1991)

I bought Ice Cube’s Death Certificate on cd sometime in 1993, about a year after it came out. I had the day off from school, and I rode my mountain bike to LaserLand, the preeminent cd/laserdisc superstore in Syosset, Long Island. The album was already notorious – a parental advisory sticker clearly branded in the corner of the cover art only hinted at the maelstrom of controversy contained within – and my 14-year old adolescent self had absolutely no problem getting the long-box off the rack and paying for it with my allowance, while the bored clerk behind the counter nary looked in this brotha’s direction.

I rode home with the LaserLand bag on my handlebars, most likely farting out of excitement. I was already in love with the radio-friendly cassingle for Steady Mobbin b/w Us, (I’m almost positive that I first heard Steady Mobbin on Yo! MTV Raps!) and I couldn’t wait to go home and pore over the other 18 tracks, memorize their lyrics, and giddily spew Ice Cube’s homespun epithets at my buddies. To paraphrase another Ice of the era, the tension was mounting, on with the body-counting!

A few school friends rode over to my house to hang out, and we did what any normal group of 7th graders hip to hip-hop in the early 90s would do: we took all the pillows and cushions in the house and made a big pile in our finished basement, popped the cd into my Discman that was hooked up to some $5 speakers from 1974 that I bought at a garage sale, pressed play, and had a big ol’ pillow fight.

After that initial listening session, the album quickly became one of my favorites. I didn’t know anything about production techniques but I could tell some crazy shit was going on behind the scenes. I was blown away by the dense layering of samples, sound effects, and skits that permeated the record from beginning to end (no doubt tricks Cube & Co. previously learned from working with the Bomb Squad on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, I’d later learn). Death Certificate sounded so full; bursting at the seams with the coarsest, crudest, most colorful, studied language, and augmented with the boldest, brightest, and deepest musical flourishes I’d ever heard on a rap album. It also helped that the majority of the 20 tracks were heapin’ with hooks, both musical and lyrical.

At the time, I was disappointed by the album version of Steady Mobbin’, as the radio edit was still etched in my memory. I had nothing at all against cursing (at 14 years old, I was cussing like a sailor at recess), but all the “bitches” Cube employed just seemed less musical than the linguistically-neutered version I was familiar with. I learned to live with it, but to this day I still swear by the radio edit of Mobbin’, and by that I mean I scream “fuckballs shitass!” every time I hear it.

Those lyrics overall, man … fucking A! For years I thought that he was saying, “a massive gale, crack a sail,” in A Bird in the Hand, which is some real Herman Melville-type shit (turns out the actual lyric is “of Massengill or whatever the hell crackers sell in their neighborhood,” which is equally, if not more, brilliant). Tons of “potent quotables” abound on Death Certificate:

“Went to mom’s house and dropped a load in the bathroom.”
“rather have an AK than a fucking canine.”
“When I was young I used to hang with the seventh graders, little bad motherfucker playing Space Invaders.”
“Or should I just wait for help from Bush or Jesse Jackson, and Operation PUSH? If you ask me the whole thing needs a douche.”

Cube managed to capture everything: the good, the bad, the mundane, the highs, the lows, the in-betweens, the personal and the political. For all his bravado, he wasn’t afraid to tell you that he’d drive to his mother’s house to destroy her bathroom. He’d later boast that his “jimmy ran deep, so deep put her ass to sleep,” but here he’d admit to putting “the rubber on the wrong way” when he lost his virginity. He’d beat you damn like it ain’t nothing one minute and then find himself lying helpless on the hospital waiting room floor literally dying to see a doctor the next.

I don’t listen to nearly as much hip-hop as I did when I was in my mid-teens, but Death Certificate is one of the few rap records that I can listen to, enjoy, and quote from beginning to end. An Oxford Collapse tour hasn’t gone by without at least one spinning of that album. “CubeSpeak” has found its way into the band’s lexicon; we named a song For the Khakis and the Sweatshirts after a line in My Summer Vacation. If we blow past a cop car and it doesn’t budge, someone will inevitably say “didn’t even look in the brotha’s direction.” (yeah, that one’s from The Predator, an amazing record in its own right). Whatsamatta you BURNIN’? is also a hit.

“WHOO?”
“Eat a dick straight up!”
“Fuck Pac-Tel, move to Sky Pager.”
“…he’s a goner, black.”

The list goes on. We’ve eaten at M&M Soul Food in Inglewood, the mom n’ pop chicken shack that Cube recommended to us in Steady Mobbin’. We’ve got the bootleg t-shirt of the month, with “You Can’t Touch This” on the front. And in the end, while I hope to live long and prosper, I’ve got absolutely no regrets about signing my Death Certificate at such a tender age.

  • Ice Cube | Steady Mobbin’ (album version)
  • Ice Cube | Steady Mobbin’ (clean version/radio edit)

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