Ice Cube Gives Sydney A History Lesson In Vivid Opera House Show
"Sydney, we making history tonight"
It's not often you get a history lesson from a guy in a snapback baseball cap.
That might be among the better descriptions for rapper Ice Cube's performance at Sydney's Opera House, his first of a two-night stand last Friday night as part of the Vivid Sydney festival.
Meandering through his storied back catalogue, from his notorious run with groundbreaking Compton group N.W.A. to his own celebrated solo career and dipping into his forays into film, it was 90 minutes of booming hip-hop that variously delved into the realms of concert, career retrospective, motivational speaking date and presentation on the very history of the genre.
"In the beginning, there was hip-hop, and God saw that it was good," boomed Ice Cube -- known formally as O'Shea Jackson -- in an off-stage voiceover as the stage lights went down for the first hip-hop artist to headline the main room in the historic building. Black-and-white visuals dissolved onto the screens above the stage, throwing up photos of some of the early stars of hip-hop -- Salt N Pepa, LL Cool J -- as their famous tracks boomed around the famous concert hall.
"Suddenly there was a shift in the universe, and street knowledge reigned supreme," Cube's voiceover suddenly continued, the reference to Dr Dre's famous voiceover opening N.W.A.'s debut album eliciting a roar from the crowd.
"That's where I came in."
Comparing one's career to the Book of Genesis might seem a bit of a stretch for most, but when it's Ice Cube and hip-hop, and the true "let there be light" moment that N.W.A. gave to the genre, we can let the braggadocio pass unchallenged. Suddenly, with a flash of light, like a certain messiah bursting forth from a certain cave, Ice Cube was on the stage, blasting straight into 'Straight Outta Compton' -- or, at least, his own incendiary verse that opens the pioneering track.
Following an infamous and acrimonious split from his bandmates in 1989, it's no surprise Ice Cube doesn't rap along to or cover the verses of Eazy-E or MC Ren, or even let them play out over the sound system -- instead, Cube's on-stage DJ mashes N.W.A. songs together into one seamless mix, 'Straight Outta Compton' melding into 'Gangster Gangster', as stage lights and strobes flash blue and red like police sirens.
A concert venue more suited to Rachmaninoff than rap, to Beethoven than booming '90s beats, the Opera House hall was filled with hard-backed seats from front to back. The awkward seating arrangement hardly cramped the style of attendees though, all out of their seats from the opening blast of music, the entire venue heaving and dancing and rapping back the iconic verses.
It was quite a thing to see the near-50-year-old man attack his verses with near the same gusto and energy and ferocity he did when putting them to record 30 years ago.
The years might have dulled a bit of the edge of his delivery and stage presence, and in a day of rappers like Kanye West stoking outrage as a sales and marketing tactic, it is almost easy to forget just how incendiary, how ground-breaking, how truly dangerous N.W.A and Ice Cube himself were when they burst forth in the early days of hip-hop's graduation to the mainstream music industry. They billed themselves as "the world's most dangerous group", and in attacking police brutality, inciting riots and finding themselves caught up in violence, it wasn't just a moniker.
It's quite a thing to see the songs of a group that burnt out almost as quickly as they blew up, a group banned from venues and radio across their home country, resurrected decades later on one of the world's most famous stages.
"Sydney, we making history tonight," Cube said from the concert hall stage, and it's hard to disagree.
"We call this 'history of the world'. We're going through my history."
Ice Cube was joined by long-time hypeman WC on-stage, but a special appearance from his son O'Shea Jr. -- who played his famous father in the 2015 'Straight Outta Compton' biopic movie -- was a surprise highlight.
O'Shea the younger performed his father's verse on N.W.A. cut 'Dopeman', as Cube himself strangely stepped off-stage just minutes into the performance. The son ripped through the track with a startling resemblance, both physically and stylistically, to his father before the main act returned to drop his solo tune 'Check Yo Self'.
The opening few sections of the set highlighted how startlingly prevalent Ice Cube is in the canon of golden era rap, how his fingerprints and trademark growl are all over so much of the most important and influential hip-hop of the 1990s. Black-and-white photos of each song and era were flashed as a backdrop for the song, old snaps of Ice Cube with N.W.A. and others like Ice T looking down as he brought his decades-old songs to a new audience.
All three men were dressed head-to-toe in black -- shirts, jeans, shoes, baseball caps emblazoned with Ice Cube's logo, his own face on an Oakland Raiders NFL logo -- and many in the overwhelmingly young, white audience had done the same, donning the type of LA-branded sports wear Cube made famous. The sartorial tribute was well-noted and surely appreciated by the headliner, but made for an abrupt juxtaposition of stories of police brutality, growing up young and poor and black in inner city Los Angeles being told to the type of people who could afford $90 for a ticket and more for expensive streetwear.
"I didn't want to come out here and do song after song without letting you know some of my history," he said, referencing his time working on films 'Boyz N The Hood' and 'Friday', reuniting later in his career with Dr Dre, and giving an impassioned address telling fans "don't do pills".
"I been in the rap game for 30 years. I do other shit but this is what I feel like I do the best. It's been a long road but I'm here. I have no regrets. None. Live your life with no regrets," he said, kicking off a long spiel about "the digital world."
"Get out that digital world. The digital world is false reality. Get off that internet. That's fake reality... What do you do with a net or a web? You catch shit. We all caught. Let's get back to the physical world."
But after a sprawling set spanning a storied career, perhaps the loudest cheer was saved for when Cube praised the audience for their reaction, leading into his signature tune 'It Was A Good Day'. Leaving the whole crowd smiling, singing, swaying with hands in the air, it would have been a perfect set-closer, but the trio -- Cube, WC and O'Shea Jr. -- returned for an encore performance of 'You Can Do It' which, while a barnstorming and fun surprise inclusion, almost took the shine off the main set closer.
Ice Cube owns one of the most celebrated, influential and storied careers in the history of rap. As an icon of the genre, he is near-peerless. As a performer, he remains compelling, if -- understandably -- a step or two behind his former self. It was a history lesson, and one warmly received by adoring fans.