The two sides of Ice Cube
Author Justin Goldman Photography Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In 1988, O’Shea Jackson made the kind of debut that few artists past or present can match. Then just 19 years old, he kicked off the title track of rap group N.W.A.’s seminal album with the line, “Straight outta Compton, crazy m*********** named Ice Cube,” and he and the rest of the group proceeded to kick in the door of the national consciousness. N.W.A. was controversial (the group received a warning from the FBI about their violent lyrics) and successful (Straight Outta Compton went triple platinum), and Cube continued to be both of those things during his pioneering solo career, selling millions of records while rapping about the social ills that led to the 1992 LA riots.
Then, a funny thing happened: Starting with the classic 1995 film Friday, which Cube wrote and starred in, the gangsta rapper embarked on a massively successful career as a movie star. In the last 20 years, he’s made the comedy franchises Barbershop, Ride Along, and Are We There Yet?, and he even appeared on Sesame Street to do magic tricks with Elmo.
Some might call such a career transition a magic trick all its own. This month will highlight Cube’s fascinating duality, as N.W.A. is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just one week before the release of Barbershop: The Next Cut (April 15). Even Cube, now 46, can’t help but wonder at it, telling Hemispheres, from his home in Los Angeles, “How do you get to that point—to stay relevant for so long without falling off? I always pinch myself.”
Hemispheres: When you were a kid in Los Angeles in the 1980s, rap music was mostly a New York City phenomenon, and it rarely got radio play. How did you discover hip-hop?
Ice Cube: In the neighborhood, we had DJs that would buy a lot of records, and they’d be in the garage mixing all the time, so you’d hear the new records. I remember in elementary school, we had this playground guardian, Mr. Lott, and he would bring pop lockers and breakers, and have them perform for us in classrooms. He’d bring a radio, and he would have Zapp & Roger, “More Bounce to the Ounce,” he would have “Planet Rock,” Afrikaa Bambaataa. These things were new and fresh when I was just getting into music at 10, 12 years old.
H: You went on to form N.W.A. with Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. You were the primary writer in the group, and even when you were a teenager, your lyrics were so socially conscious. Where did your awareness come from?
IC: Being from South LA and being bused to a predominantly white school, race was at the forefront. Not every day, but things would come up that would heighten your awareness. I think that’s what put my antennas up to social situations between blacks, whites, Mexicans, whatever. But my big influences were people like Chuck D, Melle Mel, Ice-T. These guys were doing hit records, but it wasn’t nursery-school rhyming. It was rapping with a purpose. It was educating. It was street knowledge. And that was the mantle that I’ve always been proud to run with, the fact that we was kicking street knowledge—kicking rhymes so the streets can understand the politicians, and so the politicians who’s listening can understand the streets.
H: You definitely paved the way for the next generation of socially conscious hip-hop artists—like Kendrick Lamar, who’s from Compton and who’s inducting N.W.A. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month.
IC: Maybe slightly. I don’t look at it like that. I just feel like we’re all a continuation of one thought, which is equality. We’re all a constant reminder to the world that we have a long ways to go when it comes to treating people equal. I’m proud that somebody’s out there pushing the message in the music arena, on the top level. That’s a beautiful thing.
H: Still, N.W.A. was such a groundbreaking group. Did you have any idea how big you were going to be?
IC: We didn’t know. We thought we were going to be local artists. There weren’t a lot of big national West Coast artists anyway. I think you had one, which was Ice-T. He was the only one that was starting to break through those barriers. So we figured we’d be local heroes, and only people in Compton, Watts, and South Central Los Angeles would really understand what we were talking about. I think the moment it hit us was MTV banning “Straight Outta Compton.” When that song got banned, I knew that this group was about to be bigger than anything we could imagine.
H: And this month the group has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. What does that mean to you?
IC: It feels like the industry finally gets us. You know, we are rock ’n’ roll. We’re the kind of music that pushes the envelope. We challenge you with reality, we challenge you with art—and your parents probably hated us. I think that right there is a few qualifications that N.W.A. deserves to be there. Because we’re everything rock ’n’ roll.
H: You also had the opportunity to tell the story of the rise of N.W.A. with the movie Straight Outta Compton, which was a smash hit last year. Was it strange for you shooting a movie about your life?
IC: Oh, without a doubt. Especially seeing those concerts put together and filming those and watching the guys up there. You know, I’ve never seen N.W.A. perform. So I got a chance to know what the crowd felt like, and the visual was so powerful for 2015—so just think how powerful it was for 1989. I really kinda absorbed the moment. I took time to really stop and smell those roses while we were shooting.
H: It must be a trip watching your son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., play you.
IC: It is. You gotta think about the history: I wrote a song when I was 16 years old called “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” and that snowballed into a record called Straight Outta Compton, which snowballed into me doing a movie called Boyz n the Hood. Twenty years later, me doing that movie snowballed into me doing Straight Outta Compton, the movie. And Boyz n the Hood was my first movie, and Straight Outta Compton is my son’s first movie. So it just turns in and in and in on itself.
H: There was a lot of controversy about the lack of African-American Oscar nominees this year, much of it in reference to Straight Outta Compton. How did you feel about the movie being largely passed over? (It received one nomination, for Best Original Screenplay.)
IC: I knew we had a movie good enough to contend. Of course you’re a little disappointed, but that lasted maybe 24 hours, and then I was good. Because, to me, it’s nothing but a pat on the back, and we got a lot of accolades for Straight Outta Compton. People love the movie, and we heard that all summer, so for us to cry to get another layer of icing on our cake would just be ridiculous.
H: Speaking of movies, this year also marks the 25th anniversary of Boyz n the Hood. You’d never acted before being cast as Doughboy—how did you get the part?
IC: I ran into John Singleton when he was an intern at The Arsenio Hall Show. He was like, “I’m a junior at USC, and you’re perfect for this movie that I hope I get to make when I graduate.” And I’m like, “All right, man.” And then I got a script one day, didn’t even remember the guy until I walked into the production office and it was him sitting there. He said, “Man, I told you.” John Singleton saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself at the time.
H: It’s interesting that, after inciting so much controversy during your music career, so many of the movies you’ve done have been comedies and family-oriented films.
IC: I made a decision that my movies are there to entertain the people that go through [bad stuff]. I can’t show them how bad it is all the time. My music is there to talk about what’s going on, and my movies are there
H: It seems like Friday, which you wrote and starred in and which had its 20th anniversary last year, was your first step in that direction. It’s a ’hood movie, but it’s not tragic—it’s fun.
IC: After doing Boyz n the Hood and after seeing movies like Menace II Society and South Central, I was like, people think we really grew up in a hellhole, and I just want people to understand how we looked at our neighborhood. Because if you shoot Friday as a hardcore movie and not as a comedy, there’s some pretty raw [stuff] going on: breaking in houses, strong-arm robberies, selling weed off of an ice cream truck, drive-by shootings, crackheads stealing clothes—it looks like a hellhole. So what I wanted to show was how, as youngsters, we viewed the neighborhood.
H: But you don’t have to be from South Central LA to enjoy Friday, or from the South Side of Chicago to enjoy Barbershop. They’re universal.
IC: Of course, because at the core, Friday, when you really think about what the movie’s about, it’s just the day that the bully gets his ass whupped. Everybody remembers that day. And also, anybody can sit on their porch and trip off their neighborhood. Anybody can make a Friday movie. Anybody can be in a Friday movie. All you gotta do is kick it with your homeboys and talk about what’s going on around the neighborhood. It’s so relatable. Even with Barbershop, everybody got that place where they go where you can be yourself. You can fuss, argue, and cuss, and ain’t nobody holding you accountable for your views when you leave. It’s kinda cool to have that movie that can go there and laugh about things that might be a little politically incorrect.
H: Aside from being a relatable comedy, Barbershop: The Next Cut addresses the problem of gang violence in Chicago. Was it important to you to talk about that?
IC: Definitely. When you’re doing a third installment, you want to have a reason. You don’t want to do it just because the title can make money. I was like, “Yo, if we’re gonna do a Barbershop, we gotta talk about what’s going on in Chicago.” It ain’t no laughing matter. So how do we incorporate that into a comedy? Some things just ain’t funny, so you gotta deal with them head-on—then we can get back to the jokes. I think the movie has a great balance of laughing but also looking at problems that’s facing young people not only in Chicago but all over America, all over the world. And it’s cool when a movie can do that without making you feel like you just went to social studies class.
H: You appeared on Sesame Street in 2014. If you could go back and tell 18-year-old Ice Cube that would happen, what would he say?
IC: The 18-year-old Cube liked Sesame Street, too. He would ask, “How do you do it? How do you get to that point—to stay relevant for so long without falling off?”
H: I can’t think of anyone who has had a career quite like yours.
IC: I always pinch myself. Like, why was I blessed with such a great career? Just being part of N.W.A. would be enough for most people, and for it to just continue to redefine itself and continue to grow, and for me to continue to do things that people dig and like and are interested in, I feel blessed and grateful—and overwhelmed at times.
Ice Cube’s 1992 album, The Predator, was Hemispheres managing editor Justin Goldman’s middle-school soundtrack.