Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 78 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring “It Was a Good Day,” with a guest spot from Van Lathan.
By now you understand that Ice Cube gets funnier the angrier he gets. There’s a CNBC interview, from right after Death Certificate comes out, where Cube’s getting grilled by a reporter named Barbara Nevins, along with a bunch of viewers calling in. They confront him about the racism, the misogyny, the antisemitism. And he answers. He doesn’t apologize, but he answers. Those answers are important, but this is the key moment for me:
BARBARA: Yeah, I have trouble because I see the anger, out there, I feel the anger directed at me, as a white person very specifically.
CUBE: Excuse me. You see the anger, but you don’t understand the anger. That’s the problem.
You see the anger, but you don’t understand the anger is the whole ballgame for me. Ice Cube’s anger manifested in some genuinely appalling ways, but his response, broadly, has always been that the people most appalled by his anger just don’t understand where his anger is coming from.
CUBE: People think that, you know, the ’60s, people think that we got all the rights that we need, and everything is all right. No. You can’t give me a wound and just throw a Band-Aid over it.
He goes on to talk about the racism he’s experienced as a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound; she clarifies that the gunshot wound is metaphorical. The societal conundrum of separating Greatness from Ugliness in popular music is not solved in this conversation, either. But whatever you think of Ice Cube, You see the anger, but you don’t understand the anger sticks with me. Because the anger is always there, in his music, even when it’s not at the forefront, even when he’s at his funniest, his calmest, his poppiest. The anger is here, too.
Just wakin’ up in the morning, gotta thank God
I don’t know, but today seems kinda odd
No barking from the dog, no smog
And Momma cooked a breakfast with no hog
“It Was a Good Day” is easily Ice Cube’s biggest song. It’s his only top-20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, peaking at no. 15; The Predator, which came out in November 1992, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. “It Was a Good Day” has about 650 million plays on Spotify. This is the Ice Cube song pretty much everyone agrees on, everyone loves. And every line is memorable and catchy and fun, right? “No barking from the dog / No smog / And Momma cooked a breakfast with no hog.” That’s fun. Have fun. Ice Cube’s having fun and he wants you to have fun.
I got my grub on, but didn’t pig out
Finally got a call from a girl I wanna dig out
Hooked it up for later as I hit the door
Thinkin’, “Will I live another 24?”
Ruminate a little bit on the line “Thinkin’, ‘Will I live another 24,’” though. That’s all I ask. That’s all he asks. “It Was a Good Day” is a song about how rare it is for Ice Cube to have a good day. “It Was a Good Day” is a song about how every day could be his last.
Get me on the court and I’m trouble
Last week, fucked around and got a triple-double
Freakin’ n----s every way, like MJ
I can’t believe today was a good day
It is objectively funny to imagine Ice Cube counting his assists and rebounds in his head, so he knows when he gets a triple-double. Just another knucklehead out there cold shootin’ some hoops. That’s fun. Have fun. Just spare a quick thought for “I can’t believe today was a good day.”
I picked up the cash flow
Then we played bones, and I’m yellin’, “Domino!”
Plus nobody I know got killed in South-Central L.A.
Today was a good day
Spare a quick thought for “Plus nobody I know got killed in South-Central L.A.”
You know the guy on Tumblr, like 10 years ago, who determined the exact day on which “It Was a Good Day” occurred? A Tumblr called Murk Avenue that determined that the Good Day in question occurred on January 20, 1992? That’s super-fun. That’s fantastic. That’s peak blogging. To figure that out you gotta know when Yo! MTV Raps premiered, when pagers were commercially introduced, when Ice Cube wasn’t super-busy acting in the era-defining 1991 John Singleton movie Boyz n the Hood, you gotta figure when there was no smog in the morning in L.A., and most importantly you gotta look up when this happened:
Left my n----’s house paid
Picked up a girl been tryna fuck since the 12th grade
It’s ironic, I had the brew, she had the chronic
The Lakers beat the SuperSonics
Not the part about the girl with the chronic. The part about the Lakers beating the Seattle SuperSonics. The Lakers beat the SuperSonics 116-110 on January 20, 1992, and L.A. had clear skies that morning, and Yo! MTV Raps and pagers both existed, and Cube wasn’t busy shooting Boyz n the Hood. That’s the day. Fantastic. That’s super fun. We’re all having fun. Have fun. Go get something to eat. Just notice all the things that Ice Cube notices aren’t happening while he goes to get something to eat.
One great book to recommend to you, by a friend of the show. It’s called Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality, by Eric Harvey. About the rise of “reality rap” and reality TV. (Ice Cube preferred the term “reality rap” to gangsta rap; “Who Got the Camera?” is another great song on The Predator.) So this book’s about early-’90s TV shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted, and albums like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. On the first page of this book Eric quotes Ice Cube saying, “I do records for Black kids, and white kids are basically eavesdropping on my records. But I don’t change what I’m sayin’. I won’t take out this word or that word because I got white kids buying my records. White kids need to hear what we got to say about them and their forefathers and uncles and everybody that’s done us wrong. And the only way they’re goin’ to hear it uncut and uncensored is in rap music, because I refuse to censor anything I have to say about anybody.”
A lot of people who listen to, and love, and rap along to “It Was a Good Day” are eavesdropping. Put it that way. I was. I am. For all Ice Cube’s anger about other rappers who sell out, who go pop, who can New Jack Swing on his nuts, this song, on his terms, is immaculate, revered, enduring pop music. It’s fun. Have fun. Rap along to it. Or rap along to most of it. But depending on who you are and where you come from and what experience you have with where Ice Cube comes from, just respect the fact that this line might feel a little different in your mouth.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.