Nearly 30 years on since its release, we take a look at why Ice Cube's retort to his former NWA collaborators is still heralded as the greatest diss track of all time.
Not long ago, XXL posed users a succinct but open-ended question: “What's the best diss track of all time?” Hip-hop’s internet community sat back and watched feverish debate ensue. Built from a cross-section of younger fans and older heads, suggestions flew in thick and fast. With no discernible parameters, everything from “Hit Em Up,” “Second Round KO” and “Ether” to Drake’s “Back To Back,” “Story Of Adidon” and MGK’s polarizing “Rap Devil” were put forth for consideration. Amid the broad sample of answers that were there to be extracted, one scathing assault became a recurring theme in the replies:
"No Vaseline. 1 v 4," replied Ice Cube’s own flesh and blood O’Shea Jackson Jr. "1 man versus the group the world was scared to diss. And it got no response to it. And yes. I am for sure biased. The man gave me life. But my points cannot be ignored."
Thirty-years later, the aftershock of Cube’s "No Vaseline" is akin to the lingering effects of a nuclear fallout. Although it might not be contaminating today’s rappers in an overtly harmful way, “No Vaseline” set a benchmark that every smoke-seeking artist strives to live up to in order to enter the canon of “classic” diss tracks. Rather than silently presiding from the throne or even disowning the track after the wounds had healed, Ice Cube headed to Twitter last year to dispel a short-sighted comment from one fan that claimed “Machine Gun Kelly just passed Ice Cube” with “Rap Devil.” “Yeah right,” declared the Compton vet, “one on one will never beat one against four (plus Jerry Heller). Murdered the track, killed the group. Game over.”
After leaving NWA at the height of their post-Straight Outta Compton fame, O’Shea Jackson sought to blaze his own trail. As the group’s primary songwriter, Cube knew he had all the raw ingenuity to flourish on his own two feet, consolidating all of the money for himself in the process. Said to be owed “over $120,000 in royalties” by 1991, his lawyer Michael Ashburn went so far as to claim to Spin Magazine that “Ice Cube wanted to continue with NWA, but he just wasn’t getting paid."
A newfound free agent, the rapper decamped to New York to record The Bomb Squad-produced AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Contented to operate in his own bubble, it was NWA’s own hubris that proved to be their undoing. From creative force to persona non grata, “The World’s Most Dangerous Group” opted to poke the bear on “100 Miles And Runnin,” effectively severing any unspoken truce that may have been upheld to that point. Leveled with unflattering comparisons to Benedict Arnold, their EP’s title track and a series of subsequent jabs on their sophomore LP Efil4zaggin galvanized Cube into action.
“Then they came with another like, a couple of little disses," Cube informed The Breakfast Club in 2017. "I said, ‘Okay man, I’m tired of this. I’mma end this real quick. We gon’ set it all the way off.’ So that’s when I wrote 'No Vaseline.' And I didn’t know that at the time they was already fragmented, breaking up anyway. I guess that knocked ‘em down like bowling pins.” A visceral takedown of Dr. Dre, Eazy E, MC Ren, Yella and Ruthless Records’ founder Jerry Heller, the beloved record proved implosive in nature, bringing the preexisting fretfulness and unease to a boiling point. Emboldened by the success of the Mr. Jinx-produced diss track and his second solo project Death Certificate, Cube returned to his own lane with newfound spoils and solidified his legacy.
Dr. Dre, F. Gary Gray and Ice Cube, 2015 - Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon
But where F Gary Grey’s 2015 biopic depicted an apoplectic Eazy-E telling Heller that they’d retreat to the studio and “end his whole career,” DJ Yella recalled that they bypassed the grief or anger stage altogether, instead beelining to acceptance. “Nobody really got mad," Yella claimed to VladTV. I even told Cube a couple of months ago like “you got us” (laughs)… I didn’t talk to Cube again until after Eric’s (Eazy-E’s) death. That was the first time since 89.”
Among hip-hop’s many unsolved mysteries, few fueled speculation more than NWA’s ceasefire in the face of “No Vaseline.” Where the expected response would be an immediate counter, MC Ren claimed that the depleted force was already in disrepair by that point. “We was never like, we gonna do a record on him,'” Ren says. “We was doing the N****z 4 Life album and Dre came up with the idea to do a commercial, like a skit or whatever. But it was like, nah, we weren’t in there like ‘We finna do a diss record.' Shortly after that, when Dre left, that was it. I knew when Dre left, we can’t do a record without Dre. He wanted to bring in other producers to try to, I was like, man, that’s not gonna work.”
Notoriously omitted from the scattergun attack, The D.O.C-- who had essentially taken up the mantle as NWA’s chief wordsmith-- was able to look at things objectively and see “No Vaseline” for what it was. “I was rolling with it, man," he said in 2015. "It was a great record and I loved it. Cube knew ‘you’re not a part of that even though you’re a part of that.’ I was just doing my job. All those guys are old friends, I just came in to help manifest the dream.”
Within months of the track hitting airwaves, Dr. Dre made inroads with Death Row Records. Now bankrolled by Suge Knight, Dre began to expand upon the G-funk blueprint he’d teased on NWA’s swan song. Elsewhere, Eazy-E and Heller dusted themselves off and recruited new talent for Ruthless, including B.G. Knocc Out and the legendary Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. In fairness, both Dre and Eazy may have undertaken these decisions regardless of “No Vaseline.” However, the track’s unrepentant destruction of the entire NWA mythology meant that they had to evolve or essentially die.
NWA reunited at Coachella 2016 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Sadly, life got in the way of any full NWA reunion long before they’d ever grace the stage at Coachella 2016. In 1996, Eazy E would be struck down by complications relating to AIDS. That said, in an interview with Billboard, Cube suggested that harmony had been restored by the time of Eazy's passing. “We was on great terms," he revealed. "We had finally got it all the way back to where it felt like not just a truce -- not just going along to get along because we in the same space -- but we was actually enjoying each other and talking about old times and laughing at how we did on the bus or making records. It felt like that the last time I seen him. I thought we were really about to get N.W.A back together and rekindle everything back up. And then he passed away.”
At the end of the day, there’s ultimately no way of knowing if Eazy had made peace with “No Vaseline” and the chaos it sparked before his untimely death. But if you ever needed clarification of how those psychological wounds may never fully heal, look no further than Ruthless Records’ impresario Jerry Heller. Nine months before his own passing, the mogul— who was waging his own war against his portrayal in Straight Outta Compton at the time— was asked to listen to “No Vaseline” on the “White Label Radio” show.
After he sardonically referred to it as his “favorite song,” the ailing manager did his best to cloak his true feelings, but was quick to let his opinion known afterwards. “When I look at it clinically, it’s still the most anti-Semitic, racist piece of literature I’ve ever heard," he maintained. "I think it’s awful." After suggesting that he’d be point-blank unwilling to reunite with Cube, it’s only natural that the legendary MC was nonplussed by the news of his passing. “I ain’t gonna pop no champagne, but I ain’t gonna shed no tears either,” the rapper told HOT 107.5. “It is what it is. We come here to pass, and he’s outta here. Like I said, I’m not losing no sleep over that one.”
Still carrying the same lofty weight it did when it first hit the streets, what separates “No Vaseline” from the competition is that, for once, there’s absolutely no debate over who emerged the victor. Cube drove the final nail through his opponents’ coffin in one irretrievable strike. In this respect, it is and will remain the standard-bearer for diss tracks for years to come.