The Bitch in You: Revisiting Ice Cube and Common’s Vicious 90s Rap Battle
Before they were big screen buddies, the two headstrong rappers needed Minister Farrakhan to mediate their beef
To the average person, one who might know Ice Cube and Common better for their acting roles than their music, it would appear that these two accomplished performers have always been friends. But before they were sharing the screen in this April’s Barbershop: The Next Cut—a film produced by Ice Cube—the two endured one of the meanest and most lyrically compelling battles in hip-hop history.
This unexpected clash between two gifted and well-respected artists would act as the tipping point for the heavily publicized East Coast/West Coast rap feud that would follow. The venom that spewed—along with the accompanying behind-the-scenes drama—was so heavy that Minister Farrakhan organized a peace treaty between the warring rappers. Let’s put it this way: seeing these two rap giants co-starring in a comedy is akin to Drake and Meek Mill co-piloting a Bad Boys remake. It’s almost that unimaginable.
Here’s how it all started: On September 27th, 1994, young Chicago rapper Common Sense released a song called “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” the acronym standing for “Hip-hop in its Essence is Real.” As the first single from his second album, Resurrection, the song was a cleverly-penned metaphor about a girl that Common fell in love with, who by the end of the song is revealed to be the personification hip-hop music and culture itself. The song was a hit with finicky East Coast rap heads, who more or less met Common’s first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar? with a collective shrug.
“Common was kind of getting love in New York, the label was New York,” says Dug Infinite, who was producing tracks for Common at the time. “Peter Kang was managing [New York DJ troop] the X-Ecutioners and was his A&R at the time and Com was getting paired with the Beatnuts on a lot of tours. From being out there a lot, it seemed like he was getting a lot of love at the time, even New York citizens would be like ‘Yo that’s Com!’ in the cab or whatever. I think ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.’ kind of did that for him.”
But Common’s portrayal in the song of how the once-pure hip-hop transformed into the more sensationalized, negatively-tinged “gangsta rap” rubbed Ice Cube the wrong way. Common rapped:
“But then she broke to the West Coast, and that was cool / Cause around the same time, I went away to school / And I’m a man of expanding, so why should I stand in her way / She probably get her money in L.A…
“Talking about popping Glocks serving rocks and hitting switches / Now she’s a gangsta rolling with gangsta bitches / Always smoking blunts and getting drunk / Telling me sad stories, now she only fucks with the funk.”
“They took that as a dis,” says Infinite, who also was Common’s Relativity Records label mate. “Honestly I don’t think Common ever intended that as a dis, more it was Common just trying to actively tell his version of the history of what happened to hip-hop.”
“In my mind, it was purely descriptive. I was talking about hip-hop’s life cycle and how the West Coast cats had really taken over by the 1990s,” Common revealed in his 2011 memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense. “But I guess Ice Cube heard my song different. I was in New York, hanging out backstage at an Alkaholiks show, when King T said, ‘Yo, Com, you heard that Cube verse? He’s talking about you. It ain’t really that bad, though.’ The way he was saying ‘It ain’t really that bad,’ I knew that it had to be precisely that bad.”
The verse in question was on Mack 10’s “Westside Slaughterhouse,” featuring Ice Cube and W.C. Incidentally, it was released as a single on September 28th, 1995, one year and a day after the release of “I Used to Love H.E.R.” But the buzz began a few months earlier in June, buried deep in the track list of Mack 10’s self-titled Priority Records debut. It would be the first time that Ice Cube, Mack 10 and W.C. would record together unofficially as Westside Connection, escalating the highly publicized East Coast/West Coast rap war that was gestating in the early 90s among artists like Tim Dog, N.W.A, The Dogg Pound, Tupac and Biggie. While many of these artists danced around it with years of indirect “sneak disses,” “Westside Slaughterhouse” ignited the powder keg. Ice Cube rapped:
“Used to love her, mad cause we fucked her / Pussy whipped bitch, with no common sense / Hip-hop started in the West / Ice Cube bailin’ through the East without a vest…”
In four provocative bars, Cube made the declaration that hip-hop culture started in California—rewriting history and omitting 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx, NY from the equation. Common was caught in the middle of the crossfire of it all, both figuratively and geographically.
Ice Cube was already coming under fire from his audience, despite releasing a series of four arguably classic solo records, each released only a year apart from one another: Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, The Predator and Lethal Injection. Criticisms were hurled at Cube among his fanbase for various reasons, such as borrowing (jacking?) the beat to Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “The Message” for the “Check Yo’ Self” remix, despite Puffy doing it again successfully three years later. Cube was also criticized for ripping off the hook to Cypress Hill’s “Throw Ya Set In The Air” for “Friday,” as well as trying to balance the contradicting reckless lifestyle of a gangster rapper and that of a straight-edged member of the Nation of Islam in his music. When he took aim at the East Coast with Westside Connection after working with Public Enemy, the Bomb Squad and Das EFX just a few years earlier, fan frustration with Cube had reached the boiling point. Common’s response record couldn’t have been better timed, capturing the sentiment of the hip-hop audience at the time.
“I just kind of smiled, like, ‘Okay, I see how it is,’” Common recalls. “I probably wouldn’t even have reacted further if Cube and his people hadn’t kept talking about it. Westside Connection went on BET’s Rap City taking trash about me. That brought my Chicago up. So I decided I needed to bust back with a track. That’s how ‘The Bitch in Yoo’ was born.”
Common was working primarily with Chicago producers No I.D. and Dug Infinite at that time, who released Accept Your Own and Be Yourself (The Black Album) on Relativity Records in 1997. “I don’t think No I.D. wanted to do the beat. For one he was working on his album, but I don’t think he wanted to be pulled into the beef. He wanted to be more the producer that worked with everybody. So Com went to get Pete Rock to do it,” Infinite recalls.
“I remember getting a phone call from [Common] saying how upset he was about getting disrespected by Ice Cube. I told him, ‘If you need my help, I’m here,’” producer Pete Rock revealed in 2011. “He came to New York and we hung out at a friend’s house. I made that beat at a friend’s house with records that I had given him so he could make beats, because he made beats too. I left them over there, [so I used the records] and came up with the track. I couldn’t believe that [Common] would like it. I thought I would have to go home among my stuff. He was right there with me when I made it.”
DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia debuted the track on their legendary WKCR radio show in 1996, but in a different incarnation than the version that was released at retail. While the first verse was unchanged, the unfinished demo version that was aired included two deleted verses, which were not about Ice Cube. Rumors swirled that the demo version’s second verse was aimed at Common’s label mate Fat Joe, who released the single “Shit Is Real” in 1993. Common’s verse started out “If it’s really real Joe, let that shit show for self / No need parading guns, murders or your wealth.” It was speculated by fans that the verse was changed because Common and Fat Joe were both members of the Relativity Records roster. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“That had nothing to do with Fat Joe,” says Infinite. “Joe is a term in Chicago that they give to somebody when they don’t want to just call you by your name. ‘What’s up, Joe?’ Or Charlie. If you really don’t want to give him honor by calling him his name, you’d call them a Mark, a Vic, a Joe or a Charlie.”
The origins of the slang go back even further: during the Vietnam conflict, when “Viet Cong” was shortened to “VC” or “Victor-Charlie” in the NATO phonetic alphabet. “When the enemy was out there he was a ‘Charlie.’ When older cats from Chicago came back from Vietnam, they started addressing people that they didn’t have love for as Charlie. That went into Joe and all of that other stuff. So that’s all that was,” Infinite adds.
“The first time I performed the song was down in Atlanta at this music festival,” Common recalls. “Cube and his people were also on the bill. I didn’t know who else was out in that crowd, but I didn’t really care. ‘Man, fuck Ice Cube!’ I was thinking. So I had them turn down the beats, and I spat that first verse a capella. The crowd went wild. A few weeks later, I performed the song at the House of Blues — the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in L.A.! They loved it too. That made me write another verse talking about ‘even in your town, they be loving my shit!’”
The song was finally released as a promotional single, with No I.D. and Dug Infinite’s “The Real Weight” on the b-side. It was given official release on a Relativity Records compilation called Relativity Urban Assault. The end result was perhaps one of the most scathing dis records ever, firing on all cylinders as Common was able to verbalize exactly what fans were feeling about Cube at the time. Loaded with clever puns, he called him out for pandering to the East Coast and then rebelling against it (“Went from gangsta to Islam to the dick of Das EFX”). He blasted him for contradicting Muslim teachings (“Hypocrite, I’m filling out your Death Certificate / Slinging bean pies and St Ide’s in the same sentence”). And perhaps most brutally, he ended the song by using Cube’s own lyrics against him (“In the immortal words of one, a bitch is a bitch.”)
“When Common responded, his rap was so dope. He went in on Cube, he killed Cube! And Cube was one of the dopest at the time! He was the man and Common ate him up. He spanked him,” says Chicago rapper D.A. Smart, who would later play a small role in the saga.
“Cube was already known for being a notorious dis guy too, already coming hard at his old crew mates [N.W.A] with ‘No Vaseline,’” says Dug Infinite. “I think it was kind of like ‘If you’re going to come at Cube lyrically, you better come with it, or he’s going to body you. So I think Com felt that way, being the lyricist that he is.”
“He was charged up. I felt, as a man, if you feel disrespected, and you feel that in your heart, you fire back. That’s what it is. That’s how real men are supposed to get down,” says Pete Rock. “But this was a wax thing. I think Common stood up as a man and told him how he really felt. It was memorable, man. Very classic moment.”
Yet after the murders of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997, it was clear that these lyrical rap battles were becoming more than just a “wax thing.” Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam organized a peace summit with several feuding rappers on April 3rd, 1997, less than 30 days after Biggie’s death on March 9th that year.
“Rumors were swirling that it could get deeper than just the music. Common’s camp called it, Cube’s camp called it. Cube’s camp was cool with the Minister. Common was cool with the Minister. That was the grounds that they could lean on to have an intermediary to squash the beef,” says D.A. Smart, who was a part of Farrakhan’s Fruit of Islam security detail and was in attendance at the meeting.
“No I.D. was in the Nation [of Islam] and Cube was in the Nation at the time too. That put both parties in close proximity, where the Nation was really feeling like this was something that needed to be squashed,” says Dug Infinite, who also attended. “Because not only was this a bad reflection on hip-hop, but it was a bad reflection on the Nation. Everything that was happening had to be positive at that time.”
Taking place at the Nation of Islam’s Chicago headquarters, the event was populated by Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony, Channel Live, Nate Dogg, Mack 10, WC, Too $hort, Fat Joe and Chuck D, among others. But the highlight of the afternoon — according to those in attendance — was Common and Ice Cube’s reconciliation.
“It even got a little intense. People were expressing themselves, wishing to start little arguments, but it was quelled in the presence of the Minister. People were starting to take things personal and feeling like they had to do something about it outside of music,” says Smart. “Farrakhan just broke it down and he killed all of that. At the end of his conversation, they were like ‘I’m sorry!’ and ‘My fault, I apologize brother!’ (laughs). They squashed the beef and it never came back.”
“Ice Cube pointed out that artists outside of New York were feeling a lot of pain because of the continuous rejection from those who controlled the media in a city that is deemed as the hip-hop Mecca,” longtime Bay Area historian Davey D wrote days after attending the event. “He stated that he felt like it would have to be someone of his stature to stir things up by taking his course of actions. He said he knew there would be a lot of heat on him, however he felt that there were a lot of unfair attacks upon West Coast artists… Cube also expressed his frustration that he and other West Coast artists would be labeled as gangsta rappers who ruined hip hop, while these same critics would honor groups like Wu-Tang and Fat Joe who were basically rapping about the same subject matter: street life.”
“Farrakhan was talking to us about how we as a people have been divided against one another for far too long. It was time to unify,” says Common. “‘All this turf you fighting for — East Coast, West Coast — who owns it? Not you.’ He really got through to us.”
“One of the most compelling and moving moments came when Ice Cube got up and hugged Common Sense,” says Davey. “The pair had been feuding on records and now realized the type of impact such exchanges can have within their communities.”
Despite the fact that things were reconciled between Cube and Common, that sentiment didn’t extend between other members of the respective camps quite as easily. One year later, Goodie Mob, Fat Joe, Common and Mack 10 were tapped for a Voltron-themed Sprite commercial, with each rapper representing a region of the United States.
“One of my guys was still beefing over the Cube thing,” says Common. “When he crossed paths with Mack 10, he grilled him so hard that Mack stopped and confronted him.
“What you looking at, nigga?”
“I’m looking you in the eye. Chicago niggas look you in the eye.”
Dug Infinite corroborates this tale.
“Mack 10 said ‘You’ll lose, here,” says Dug. “Like, ‘Maybe in Chicago you can do that.’ Mack 10’s bodyguard stepped up and the guy from Chicago called him ‘Wack 10’ and there was some pushing and shoving.”
Common continues: “Even Cee-Lo was like, ‘Damn, he went in kinda hard right there.’ Mack 10 was heated, so he sent one of his boys out to the car and he came back with a mag. That’s when Fat Joe intervened, kinda like a Mafia don. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Com, ain’t nothing gonna happen to you out here, but you gotta check your man. He’s out of pocket.’”
“The guy from Chicago got kicked out of that Sprite commercial shoot and went outside and did some damage to Mack 10’s car,” adds Infinite. “There was some more fighting and it then it all died down. Later on that night at the hotel, Mack 10’s guys came looking for him at the hotel in a very street way, I guess packing or whatever.
“Mack 10 charged Relativity for the damaged car, which my wife — who was Common’s assistant A&R at the label — always reminds me of. Like ‘What happened?! Why do we have to pay for Mack 10’s car?!?’ That had to come out of Common’s budget,” laughs Infinite.
“I was a little mad at my guy ’cause he was messing with my money at that point. We stayed around and shot the video and it was all good from there,” says Common.
Despite all of this, twenty years later these events are water under the bridge for Common and Ice Cube, who star together in the upcoming comedy Barbershop: The Next Cut. They will also star in a new VH1 “Behind The…” special on April 11th about the gang violence epidemic in Chicago. Most recently, the duo collaborated on a single for the Barbershop: The Next Cut soundtrack called “Real People.” The song directly references their past beef and reconciliation.
“I think we’ve been fans of each other from afar. Our beef happened because of a misunderstanding. It was cool for us to sit down, talk to each other, work that out as men. We’ve been really cool with each other for a long time,” Ice Cube revealed recently.
The fallout from this battle begs the question of whether or not it essentially destroyed Cube’s rap career. He was already graduating from rapping to acting in the mid-90s, clearly cashing his largest checks from Hollywood. So did music matter to him anymore after that first handful of classic albums? After he released his critically-acclaimed-yet-polarizing Westside Connection full-length with WC and Mack 10 in 1996, he returned as a solo artist in 1998 with War & Peace Vol. One (The War Disc).
Abandoning the sample-heavy, golden era styles that made him popular, the album was met with poor reviews, despite going platinum. Sure, this era would produce two of Cube’s most recognizable modern crossover singles — “Pushin’ Weight” and “We Be Clubbin’” — but this pair of cheesy, disposable club tracks couldn’t hold a candle to his earlier material. It would be two more years before we’d see the gold selling War & Peace Vol. 2: The Peace Disc — his last album for Priority Records before going independent . Sadly, these albums confirmed what Common had told us on “The Bitch In Yoo,” as many fans felt it was too late for back-peddling. Something clearly had changed.
“I think Ice Cube might have been mad at me for [producing] the beat,” said Pete Rock. “But I mean, I make beats. It is what it is. It doesn’t matter to me if someone wants to use me for a beat to get at somebody. What I thought was dumb was saying if you make the beat then you have something to do with it. Nah, this is a man who’s gotta get something off his chest. If you don’t respect that, then I don’t know what to tell you. But I don’t think Ice Cube’s thinking about that anymore. He has had a great career.”
That he has. Despite a period of time when Cube made some questionable decisions in the eyes of die-hard rap fans, it hasn’t really tainted his legacy— just as one forgettable Paul McCartney solo album doesn’t undo the greatness of the rest of his or the Beatles’ catalog. The success of 2015’s N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton proved that the impact of Ice Cube’s career far outshines whatever missteps he might have made along the way. People have a whole lot of love for what Cube has accomplished, still singing every word to “It Was a Good Day” and countless other classics in his catalogue. Now ain’t that a bitch?
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