Sir Jinx Speaks About Keeping The Production On Ice Cube’s Death Certificate True To The Game
Present day Hip-Hop relies heavily on serial albums. From The Blueprint to Detox, there is momentum in many great artists’ catalogs that keeps the listener engaged while threading a concept. Twenty five years ago this week, Ice Cube released Death Certificate. This platinum album followed 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted solo breakout, and its supplementary EP, Kill At Will. By 1991, Ice Cube had put a toe-tag on the competition with an inventive, conceptual, and outspoken release that Hip-Hop fans hold in the highest regard. But he did not do it alone.
Sir Jinx had been making music with Cube since before N.W.A. The artists founded C.I.A. together, and stood in the same ensemble on the N.W.A. & Posse album cover. After Cube exited his group, and the production of Dr. Dre (Jinx’s cousin) & DJ Yella, the artists reunited to make some of the most fiery, rhythmic, and timeless music in the canon of Gangsta Rap and Hip-Hop. In honor of the anniversary, Jinx spoke with Ambrosia For Heads. Within, he reveals some inside information on a classic album. “No Vaseline,” a song Rap fans often consider to be a vitriolic diss—was more than a year old when released. Jinx believes it was much more of a battle than a beef. Moreover, the producer explains the collaborative studio spirit of himself, Cube, and The Boogiemen—led by Friday writer/actor DJ Pooh, as well as a fertile group of MCs looking on. From “The Birth” of the album, to its completion, this true to the game discussion exemplifies why Death Certificate lives eternally in the ears and hearts of many.
Ambrosia For Heads: In 1990, you were at the helm for Kill At Will. How did the sessions for it and the response to that EP set the stage for Death Certificate? Was there a break in time between those two things?
Sir Jinx: Nah, it seemed like we was dropping album after album. When we did Kill At Will, [it] was just the remixes of the songs from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. [Because] “Jackin’ For Beats” had so many samples in it, it couldn’t be on a record with no other song [due to publishing splits]. So that’s why we made an EP. So “I Gotta Say What Up!!!,” “You Can’t Fade Me” and one other song paid for “Jackin’ For Beats.” “Jackin’ For Beats” [was massively expensive to make].
Ambrosia For Heads: So there was no break in the sessions between that right into Death Certificate, you and Ice Cube just kept working?
Sir Jinx: Well [many of the songs] were already done. We never stopped working. We had to go on the road. We had to do a bunch of stuff. When we got home it was studio, studio, studio, studio. We had to knock out [Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s I Wish My Brother George Was Here]. We had to knock out Yo-Yo’s [Make Way For The Motherlode] record. We had to knock out [WC and The the Maad Circle’s Ain’t A Damn Thang Changed], then we had to knock out [Kam’s Neva Again]; we had [Threat’s Sickinnahead]. I mean, it was a lot going on at that time. [Writer’s Note: Sir Jinx and Threat (who was with Sir Jinx during the interview reveal that many of these artists provided background vocals on the album. Reportedly, WC and Threat specifically provided background on “No Vaseline.”]
Ambrosia For Heads: You’re a veteran, so did you find that working that much made you even sharper than when you had all the focus to spend all the time in the world on one particular song or one particular thing?
Sir Jinx: We didn’t spend a lot of time on songs. [When] we did AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, we [began recording in New York City] in February and left in March, and the album came out in April—so that’s how fast that happened. We don’t sit on music; When me and Cube work on music, we know what the song is, it just gotta be completed—so we not gettin’ to the end of the song thinkin’ it’s not complete. It might need a little mix here, maybe a little scratch here—but, all in all, them songs get done when they get done.
Ambrosia For Heads: So who came up with the concept of “The Death Side” and “The Life Side?” Because, especially in the cassette tape era everybody remembers that about this particular album.
Sir Jinx: The Death Certificate record was two sides. It was almost like…Kill At Will and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted gave birth to that idea… AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted—what do you get after that [in a series]? Kill At Will. What would you get after that? A Death Certificate—so it was kinda like adding up. And then Lethal Injection. They’re all somewhat connected.
It kept going because some of the songs were made when we were making [previous albums]. Put it like this: We had “No Vaseline” in AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted—he just didn’t put it on the record. Then we did Kill At Will. And then [N.W.A.] started dissin’ Cube, and then that’s why we [said], “It ain’t over!” And that’s the last song on Death Certificate, ’cause we never wanted to beef with [Dr.] Dre and them. It wasn’t like that. The crowd saw it like that, but it was not like that. It was only [Ice Cube standing up for himself].
Ambrosia For Heads: Who decided what went on “The Life Side,” “The Death Side,” or what would sit until the next album?
Sir Jinx: Well, I can say that I had a lot to do with the sequencing, because—if you know my history and all the albums that I dealt with—sequencing was one of the best [attributes in my career. Ice Cube] wouldn’t really care. He’ll write the songs, and if you can put it together, and he like it, you got it—but soon as there’s a stumble, then he’ll come in and correct: “I don’t want this and I don’t want that.” But Cube is the type of artist that lets you do you.
Ambrosia For Heads: After the intro, the first song is “The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit.” As a producer, there’s a lot that people may overlook about that record, on your end—from the way that you let the first line hit the track, to several points in the song where you drop the beat out to make his rhyme have so much effect.
Sir Jinx: If you look at the way Cube flows, you know, Cube got a steady flow. Cube don’t get off-beat, he don’t do crazy stuff, he don’t do tongue roll stuff. Cube’s raps have more punch than his style. So his style is just pretty much telling you what’s going on, but the words have a punch to it. So his words need a drop-out [in places] And it’s very fuckin’ clear, so when he’s rappin’, it’s not like he’s saying stuff you can’t understand. Cube be like, “…then I’ll smack you in the face!” We need a snare right there. We need [sound effects]. He made that happen, ’cause he was so calm. So with him being calm, [I could] go crazy.
We [came] from Hip-Hop; We weren’t from R&B, so he’ll let me do my Hip-Hop thing—and I’m all Hip-Hop, when it comes to the break. [Approaching] the bridge or the verse, the beat drops out on the first four to make it come back in with a [bass line], then change the beat again. At some point, I wanted to speed the record up by making it dynamic—you know, puttin’ magic tricks in it—and people love that. What they love that about Cube and our production, is that I didn’t overshadow him. It all worked.
Ambrosia For Heads: Did you know, as you were coming up with beats, between Del, Yo-Yo, Cube, what beats would go where?
Sir Jinx: They were all different. Del was a part of my camp, so I was developing Del. Cube didn’t work with Del; I did. So Del was my friend. [We] gelled because me and him are weird. You know, we were backpack guys with gangster [sides too]. This is [true of] Souls of Mischief [too]. So when I do a beat for Del, it ain’t the beat Cube gon’ be on. I make a beat for Cube, that ain’t the beat Del’s gonna be on. I make a beat for Yo-Yo, they can’t be on that beat—because it’s made for her. “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo”—people just look at that song as what it is. I’ll tell you that the song has more meaning: It was a Black woman’s lib thing going on, so we was trying to make a song like you can’t dangle her like a toy. It [had Queen] Latifah [samples]; that couldn’t have been a Cube song. It was made for her.
Ambrosia For Heads: Everything Sir Jinx does is tailor-made.
Sir Jinx: All the time. I don’t just make beats. When people be like, “Oh man, I got 200 beats,” I’ll say, “I got two beats. I got two, and one is sold to T.I. [as “Dope”]. Now I got one for sale. Anybody? Anybody? Anybody?” I don’t do all that beat after beat [work ethic]; I’ll wear myself out.
Ambrosia For Heads: Death Certificate sounds like it could’ve been made by one person and it is so cohesive. Still, it was made by you, The Boogiemen, and Cube. How was achieving that sound possible?
Sir Jinx: Well look, back in the day—of course, you’ve seen [Straight Outta Compton so you know that] Dre lived with us, and he would bring the drum machine home. So that [same] drum machine went with 100 people, ’cause soon as Dre’d go to sleep, somebody’d pick it up. So I’d get ready to go to school, about 8:00 or 7:00 in the morning, [DJ Pooh would] knock at the door—[he was] comin’ to pick up the drum machine. You gotta remember LL Cool J’s [Bigger And Deffer] was already out—so I’m lookin’ at DJ Pooh [with incredible respect].
All throughout my life, dealing with music, Pooh always been there. When I [started] workin’ on music, he came to the studio and sat with me all day and just helped me tune the song. When Pooh came in, he was always just like the overseer. He was the closest we could get to Dr. Dre. It was too much for me [as the] sophomore album [by] Ice Cube—for me to take on that responsibility. It was too much, and I knew it was too much. So DJ Pooh comes in, and that’s when Pooh brings in Rashad [Coes] and Bobcat—those are The Boogiemen. We all friends; it was nobody competing with nobody. When one song was up, all the producers was there. It wasn’t like today, where producers run off and work by themselves. The song was on the reels that Ice Cube owned. You couldn’t take the track nowhere. You had to be like, “Hey, can I get in tomorrow at 5:00,” and that’s your time to work…We blocked out the whole month, so everybody had their time.
Ambrosia For Heads: You’re sharing the room, the equipment—you had to put ego aside and be creative artists like you were.
Sir Jinx: Well, there was no egos, ’cause how you gon’ be bigger than DJ Pooh? How you gon’ floss on him? And he’s not a funny dude, like, he’ll sock you. He’s a tough guy. He’s a friendly dude, but at the end of the day, back in the day, DJ Pooh was not a friendly guy. So, with him being around, we needed that structure. Other people couldn’t come in and try to get a beat placed; Pooh wasn’t lettin’ it happen. Pooh came in because Eric Sadler and [The Bomb Squad] didn’t give Cube any beats that he liked. I don’t know what went on with Public Enemy, but you have to know this: that [the complete Bomb Squad] never made another record after AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Eric Sadler left. [At the start of Death Certificate], Cube kept up with Eric Sadler. When Eric Sadler played the beats, it wasn’t the direction we were going. Death Certificate had more [of a] West Coast [sound]. [When] we did AmeriKKKa’s Most, I was kinda like the middle guy to kind of keep it West Coast a little bit, but still have that East Coast edge. By the time we got to Death Certificate, we shaved off all that—and there was just West Coast.
Ambrosia For Heads Was there a specific formula that you guys had in terms of dividing the labor?
Sir Jinx: No, we all had our own songs…We had our own songs, but still be there like, “Oh, maybe you wanna try this?” But we never stacked music together. I worked on my music by myself and then brought it to the studio. And then when I’d bring it to the studio, then the live stuff come and, you know, Pooh is on the board, and maybe he might wanna throw a cymbal or a reverse cymbal or just kinda boost it up a little bit—same thing I would do with him. We did “Steady Mobbin’.” “Steady Mobbin’” beat is the same beat [as Yo-Yo’s “Put A Lid On It”]—The Average White Band [“Reach Out” sample]. But that came out of my record crate. That came out of my crate, but you know, I didn’t be like, “Ah, nigga, that’s my shit!” We didn’t care about that shit. We was makin’ money, man. All together. How you gonna say you gettin’ robbed and you gettin three commas?
We was on top of the world. There was nobody next to us. That’s why the music sounds so together—’cause we wasn’t competin’ with each other, we just wanted to have a dope record. I damn sure wasn’t competin’ with Pooh. Bobcat already had [made LL Cool J’s] “Mama Said Knock You Out,” so at some point I’m still like fresh in the [NBA] and I’m around two big centers—and they helped me. Both of them helped me in my development of mixing and music—more Pooh than Bobcat, but Bobcat was there too.
Ambrosia For Heads: Was there any routine that you and Cube had had from the C.I.A. days that you brought into any of the music you were making after N.W.A. together?
Sir Jinx: No. We got better and better and better and better and better. Everyday our life changed.
Ambrosia For Heads: How else do you remember those studio sessions and environments like? What was the mood like?
Sir Jinx: Back in the day, we didn’t drink. Well, I didn’t drink. You know, everybody else did what they did, but it wasn’t [like] today. When we went to the studio, it was like going to the hospital. You don’t bring your friends to the hospital. You go ahead and take care of business. You don’t take pictures doing surgery. You’re not bringing bitches in the fuckin’ operating room. We paid for the studio time. At some point it felt like we earned our money and we had to get something out of it—so [when] we was in the studio, [there] wasn’t no playing around. The door’ll be shut. You wanna talk? Go outside. We were fresh off Kool & The Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire, and how they ran they sessions.
Our sessions, we did Westlake [Studios]. We did Westlake and blocked out Frank Sinatra. We did Westlake and blocked out Michael Jackson.
Ambrosia For Heads: When you say Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, do you mean their recording rooms, or they were there at the same time?
Sir Jinx: No, they couldn’t have been there the same time, ’cause we was there. They had three rooms—so they had the big room. That’s Quincy [Jones’s] room, so when Quincy ain’t there, then we in there, right? But sometimes we can get in there and they’d want it, but we might have to shorten our [session]. But we was in there with Frank. We was in there with Quincy. We was in there with Nine Inch Nails. We was in there with a whole bunch of motherfuckers, in Westlake.
Ambrosia For Heads: Cube was a mainstream sensation, and this was the same year that Boyz N The Hood comes out, do you remember, whether it was Frank or Trent Reznor or Quincy, what their reaction was. Did they treat you like the musicians that you were?
Sir Jinx: Yes. I ran across Quincy Jones maybe a few times, but you gotta remember, Stanley Clarke did the [Boyz N’ The Hood] soundtrack, so at some point [they gravitated to Hip-Hop]. They loved it. They didn’t take it like the other musicians, like, “Oh, they stealin’ our music. They’re not talented.” They didn’t act nothing like that. They embraced us.
Ambrosia For Heads: you said that “No Vaseline” sat for more than a year. When it gets real and it’s decided that that record is gonna be released, your name is attached to it and you know all the dudes Cube was going at. How did that feel for you?
Sir Jinx: I didn’t feel nothin’, ’cause what I told you: it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t [a scathing diss record towards N.W.A.]. Cube didn’t say, “I’ll kill you [and] fuckin’ blow your house up. Nigga, fuck you!” It wasn’t that. You don’t hear aggression in Cube, you hear celebrating. He don’t sound scared, and he don’t sound mad. He [rapped], “Lookin’ like straight bozos.” He could’ve said [worse]. It was what it was.
Me and Dre done talked about it, and a couple of niggas got they ass whooped playing that song. You pulled up to Dre playin’ around…he might drag you out that car, jack. But, you know, [Dr. Dre is] my cousin—and you know I had the #1 song in Straight Outta Compton, so it’s over with, you know?
Ambrosia For Heads: As a producer, did you have input on what the lyrical concepts would be on Death Certificate? I don’t mean did you write rhymes, but did you say, “Hey, let’s make a song on not selling out. Let’s make “True To The Game.”
Sir Jinx: No. That wasn’t the time, then. You talkin’ about Ice Cube. That’s like you goin’ givin’ [KRS-One] tips. Everything Cube said was good—so Cube wrote all that shit and made it all up. So we can adjust it, but when I come to the studio, he not, “Aye Jinx, why don’t you sample this beat.” It was always, “Aye Cube, check this out.” And he’d get the beat, and he’d come back, “Aye, this what I made on it.” But Cube never made songs that you would [dislike]. I’ma tell you something: me and Cube had a disagreement on the “Fuck you Ice Cube” [from “The Wrong Nigga To Fuck Wit”]. I was like, “Why would want somebody to say, ‘Fuck you?’” And he loves this… Sometimes Cube’ll ask you something, and be like, “You think I should do this: you think I should wear the red hat or the blue hat?” And you say, “You should wear the red hat,” and Cube’ll say, “You’re right, I’ll wear the blue hat.” But he makes it up. There’s no doubt about it. No one can come at that dude and say they helped the guy. I mean, everybody was—and they call it ghostwriting. We didn’t call it that, we called it helpin’ out—and people would have a word or two, but it don’t be a whole 16 bars that a person come in.
Ambrosia For Heads: In ’91, whether EPMD or the Geto Boys or Del, Funk was big in Hip-Hop, but what’s so different about Death Certificate, is also pulls heavily from Soul and Blues. How conscious and deliberate was that decision, in terms of the records you were grabbing off the shelves to chop down and bring to the album?
Sir Jinx: It was a lot of ’em. Cube had first dibs on all my beats. He always had first dibs, and if he didn’t like ’em, they’d keep goin’ down the road. So when we go on the road [for the AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted Tour], I’d go by myself and just go hit all the thrifty marts and stuff like that [for records]. Set the equipment up on the bus, before niggas had studios on the bus. [If] the bus used to make a right turn, all my equipment’ll fall on the ground. I love listening to music, so I’ll get music. I’ll get the little circle dots [stickers] and I’ll put it everywhere on the record until I get home. That’s how I’d mark the records, and then when I get home, it’s ready to go… The beat I found for “Dead Homiez,” I found that on the road.
Ambrosia For Heads: “True To The Game” was one of the breakout songs on the LP. What was it like to flip a Gap Band love song into a radical anthem about not selling out?
Sir Jinx: It’s two songs. It’s the Average White Band and The Gap Band’s [“Outstanding”]. Let me tell you the story about that. Remember I just told you the situation about Yo-Yo and “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo”? So Latifah comes up to me like, “Aye, what’s up?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” She was like, “What’s up?” I’m like, “What do you mean.” She was like, “My voice on the record.” I’m like, “Oh, [please] don’t sue [us].” I said, “Look, I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.” She was like, “Aight, Jinx…” Guess what: [on] “True To The Game,” I sampled Latifah’s [“Wrath Of My Madness”] on that song, she got the the publishing off of a platinum song, so we sewed that up. It was good, and me and her been friends ever since.
Ambrosia For Heads: In 1991, Dre’s doing his thing with G-Funk as well as Above the Law. Quik’s got his sound. You and The Boogiemen created a sound all your own. How deliberate was that, of not sounding like anyone else?
Sir Jinx: Well, the dope thing about DJ Quik is he’s a genius. He’s a mother fucking genius—a walking genius. So at some point, when you got DJ Quik, you got Sir Jinx, you got Dr. Dre, you got Warren G—we all different people, and we come from different areas, so we were adamant about putting our own sound on. And you couldn’t do other people’s sound because you couldn’t buy their equipment. A long time ago, you was only good as your equipment, so we all didn’t have the same shit—so this why we didn’t sound the same. All the peoples right now, every nigga got a Mac Pro, every nigga got a machine, every nigga got a controller, every nigga got a Reason file, every nigga got the same thing. How these songs gon’ sound different? This is why all the songs sound the same: the niggas using the same gun. DJ Quik had his clean sound with the bass line. Dr. Dre had his clean sound with the hard drums. I had mine with the congested—I call it “traffic music”… Battlecat had his funk goin’. Everybody had they own thing, and we admired each other by you doin’ your own shit. You could not steal a nigga’s shit back in the day. You would’a had a fight. You would’a had a fight on your hands. You see all the songs that came out that people were accusing people of kinda taking their concept or whatever, that went real hard in the ’90s, jack.
Ambrosia For Heads: Was there much music that you guys recorded that didn’t make the album?
Sir Jinx: Nope.
Ambrosia For Heads: Did you take much time between finishing this album and moving right in to Lethal Injection?
Sir Jinx: Yeah, it was a [break] period. Lethal Injection came later. I had less part in that. I was kinda on my way out, by Lethal Injection. ’Cause that was after Kool G Rap. I did the Kool G Rap [& DJ Polo’s] Live And Let Die album.
Ambrosia For Heads: This album came through Priority Records, which as far as I understand it, was hands-off. Do you think that creative control would have been compromised at a more traditional record label?
Sir Jinx: Being with Priority, it was a lot of freedom, because I’d dealt with different labels—A&M, Epic Records, Sony. I dealt with different things, so the liability is different when you with Priority. You’re not gonna get that backlash like if you [were signed to] Epic Records, and spewing that type of language out. They wasn’t gonna tolerate it because they had other artists that it would conflict with. They didn’t have no input on the record whatsoever. They didn’t come to the studio.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned the T.I. record, is there anything that you’re working on right now?
Sir Jinx: Word, well, I’ve been working with Rodney-O. We talked about it this weekend, but I was gon’ try to do another album with [Brother] Marquis from 2 Live [Crew]. I got my distribution company [Pipeline Global], and I’ve been releasing music—so I got my instrumentals out there. The “Dope” record, that [T.I. released], I had already released it as an instrumental [on] Beats For Food. I got four [albums]: Beats For Food, Next Man’s Treasure, The City Never Sleeps, Jinxstrumentals. And then I got two albums that I worked with a bunch of MCs like Kurupt, King T, MC Eiht and [others] called West Wing. I have an album before that called Hood World Order. Now, mind you, all these songs are songs that worked on—so at the end of the day, they brand new. You hear ’em, you’ll be like, “Oh shit!” I got one of the dopest songs with Dre’sta and Kurupt on a track together. We put out a new album on Threat called Animal Channel, and that’s up there. It’s a lotta albums, man…
Ambrosia For Heads: You produced “Life In California” on Cube’s most recent album. You two have been working together for 30 years When you are in the studio together, is there a dynamic that is a constant over all of those periods?
Sir Jinx: [I would say we are always] honest with each other—and if you don’t like something, stand on your ground. You can’t just be playing both sides of the fence ’cause you can get caught up on something else that you agreed on, and then turn around and disagree, and then you lose your credibility.
Special thank you to Chad Kiser.