Straight Outta Compton has been the runaway sensation of the year. A sprawling two-and-a-half-hour cultural time capsule made for a $29 million budget, the film has gone on to gross over $200 million worldwide. F. Gary Gray’s biopic of the seminal rap group N.W.A. is at once very specific in its focus and very broad in its appeal, covering universal themes of friendship, loss and triumph over extreme adversity. One of the original members of N.W.A. and an iconic figure of American music, Ice Cube—real name O’Shea Jackson—was a producer on the film, shepherding the project to make sure the resulting film was worthy of those whose story it brought to life. Below, Ice Cube elaborates on the origins of the project, his role as a producer, his pride in his son O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s work in the film, and his current thoughts on the state of race, politics and filmmaking in the United States.
You’re one of the members of N.W.A. who was pushing this project forward. Was there ever any reluctance on your part, and why did you decide to produce this film?
This was a dream-come-true project and I felt like N.W.A.’s story is more than what people know. It’s an American story in every which way, from five guys pulling themselves out of the situation we were in through creative means. You can find your way in America if you have something people want. So that story’s in there, and so many others that, to me, were what movies are made of. I knew my story, personally, is what movies are made of, and with N.W.A. it was the same feeling because it’s triumph and tragedy. It’s break-up to make-up. It’s brotherhood. It’s death. It’s everything.
You came up with director F. Gary Gray—he directed many of your music videos and other projects. Were you involved with shepherding him into the director’s chair and what made him the right one for the project?
Yeah, I was involved in picking the director. We had a very short list of people that wanted to do the movie. I was hoping Gary would take on the challenge because I wanted a director that I didn’t have to teach what N.W.A. was, and what N.W.A. means to pop culture. I wanted a director to know that, feel that, and feel like he was not only telling our story but he was telling his own story, because he grew up during that time. Gary knew all of us during that time, so he was right there in the mix. It’s incredible that he was able to hone in on his skills to help put together such a great movie.
How did you decide what your role would be as a producer on the film?
My thing was to protect the project, support the director, and I think that’s my main job as a producer. Being a producer is like being a G.M. on the football team, and the director’s your coach. The studio is the owner, but you have to make sure everything gets done, not just the filming of it, but how to proceed, put together, market it. So in doing the movie my main job was making sure the integrity of the story stayed intact—make sure that we were paying attention to detail and to hold the project together, because it wanted to unravel at many different times.
The film’s scope is sprawling and incredible for its relatively small budget. Was it difficult to secure the funds for the film, even though Universal ultimately stepped in?
Yeah, it’s never easy. You never have as much money as you need and I believe it’s the studio’s job to know how much money they want to spend on the movie. They were set on a number, and we did everything to make that number but also make sure that the movie felt bigger than that number. So that was our job—just to make it big.
The film has been a huge commercial and critical success, and it’s unusual for any film released earlier in the year to stick around in the awards conversation like Straight Outta Compton has. Did you ever have concerns that the film wouldn’t play successfully to a mass audience?
I was never concerned that it wouldn’t play because we were doing everything that great filmmakers do to try to make sure a project is interesting to all audiences. We knew that we were dealing with a niche subject matter when it comes to the music, but we had a thousand universal stories that anybody can relate to. As long as we kept the universal stories in the foreground, and music as the backdrop, we knew we’d be fine.
Your son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., portrays you in the film, and despite his striking resemblance to you, he still had to audition for the role.
We wanted the best actor for the job. Watching him, I felt he was the best guy for the job, as he brought up his acting chops to where they needed to be. He had to work extremely hard in a short amount of time to be able to be up to speed enough to take on the role. It’s funny because for my daughter’s 16th birthday, he and his friends jumped up on stage as N.W.A. and did a little routine. It was fun and cool, but I never thought in a million years that five years later or so, we’d actually have him going for the part. What’s cool about the whole process is that I didn’t have the last word. It wasn’t just my decision. I first had to convince Gary, and I told him the idea because he looked at me, and said, “Man, what kind of movie we trying to make?” I was like, “Man, we’re trying to make a great movie, and he’s going to be a great actor in the movie.” We then had to convince the Universal top brass, and that, to me, made me feel that much more proud for him and of him, because he went through the basic chain of command that every actor in the movie went through.
Were all the recordings of your tracks in the film recreations, or did you use some of the originals?
We had to recreate a lot of it from scratch because some of the masters were misplaced. Those guys did have to record the whole record. It was a mixture because when he had to go live, it was (Jackson Jr.’s) voice. You see him early in the club, when he had to go live. After we made the record in the movie, then some of the recordings were a mixture of original recordings and then sometimes we had to go with their voices. It’s stunning.
The film is honorable in that it seems to go for the truth, inconvenient as it may be. You’re not always portrayed in the most flattering light, though you were shown to be the first group member to call out manager Jerry Heller for his abuse.
I think that was really our job, to make it authentic, you know—the good, the bad and the ugly. We weren’t able to show all of our blemishes; it’s hard to get everything in a 10-year span in two-and-a-half hours. So, of course, a few things were left out. But, you know, that was our vow: “We got to let it all hang out. Why are we the ones putting this together?” So that’s what we did to an extent, and you also have to show a comprehensive story, which is a hard thing to do, to do a true story with the scope that we tried. We didn’t want to just do a movie about N.W.A. We wanted to do a slice of American history from one point of view, right here in South Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy to get in everything, but we didn’t mind whatever we got in.
The film was a tribute to Eazy-E, who dies of HIV at the end of the film, at the height of the AIDS crisis. What do you think he would think of the film?
I think he would love it. Of course, he wouldn’t like the ending. (Laughs.) But he wouldn’t want us to hold back. What’s cool about the movie is that we were living our dream. With all the controversy and with all the this, that and the other, we were having fun. We never thought we were going to achieve these heights in hip-hop. It’s like, only New York rappers were professional rappers. Everybody else were amateurs until Ice-T and N.W.A. came along. We were living our dreams but at the same time, we had to grow up real fast and deal with major, controversial, First Amendment, front-line shit, and that just made us defend more what we believed in, which was, “This is real, and you’re lucky we making records and not doing this shit in the streets today.” That was our look at it, like, “Y’all lucky we just making records today.”
You were certainly thrust into a position of responsibility very quickly. In the Detroit concert scene and in others, you took on the police very directly. Was that boldness always a part of who you all were?
I just think it’s the neighborhoods we come out of—you just got to be down for yours, you know? You got to be down for what you believe in, and that’s how we was bred in the streets of Compton and South Central Los Angeles and Long Beach. Sometimes it’s the gang. Sometimes it’s your family. Sometimes it’s your point of view, but it’s better, to me, to face the consequences of the world than to face the consequences of the man in the mirror when you can’t live up to who you believe you should be.
It seems like this film will be looked back upon as a time capsule of a culture and a way of life.
Yeah, that was the whole purpose, to show people what it was like back then, how it felt, and to really take people back who were there and try to be as accurate as Oliver Stone tried to be doing Platoon. I was like, “You want people to feel it, smell it, and feel the danger. Feel the danger that’s around every corner in the ’hood.” That was the whole purpose: to be a “sign of the times” movie.
In some ways, it seems like the world has moved forward since the time in which the film takes place—the late ’80s and early ’90s—yet in some ways, it seems like nothing has changed at all. What do you think of the way race is handled today versus back then?
To me, it’s just kind of shuffling the deck—not changing anything, just coming with the same excuses, asking the same questions that we know the answer to. It’s just this forever examination of the situation but never a proper solution, because nobody really wants to deal with the root of the problem, because the root of the problem is very overwhelming.
Along those lines, what do you think of the current state of African American-driven cinema, and the ways in which the black community is advancing, or not, in the filmmaking world?
It’s a constant struggle to get the budgets. We really need to tell our stories, and not just the sensationalized, funny stories that get the big laughs or fit into a propaganda, but also average, ordinary stories that are interesting to the world and deserve to be told. And period pieces, you know? These are the kinds of things that we still got to fight to be able to do—to tell those ordinary stories not just the super sensationalized ones.
You have a number of projects coming down the pipeline as a producer and actor. What’s happening for you at the moment?
We got Ride Along 2 coming in January. Barbershop 3, which will be April 16th. I just did a movie with Charlie Day called Fist Fight. That’s funny, great, and then we got a couple of other things that we’re trying to work on and ain’t really nothing to speak on because you know, they can either stay or go away. You never know in Hollywood until you get it in lights.
For a behind-the-scenes commentary featuring the members of NWA, click the link below:
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