Ice Cube on ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and Whether Hip-Hop Still Has Something to Say

Also: Could the film have been more honest in its depiction of the rise and fall of N.W.A?

Ice Cube NWA Bet Experience
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Hip-hop trailblazer Ice Cube has been in the movie business for close to a quarter century. Only now, however, have he and colleague Dr. Dre been able to bring the story of rap pioneers N.W.A to the world. “Straight Outta Compton” has made a definitive mark, chalking up the highest domestic box office tally for a film directed by a black filmmaker (F. Gary Gray) and penetrating beyond its target audience. The film picked up a Screen Actors Guild nomination Wednesday morning for best performance by a cast in a motion picture, maintaining great footing as a possible best picture Oscar nominee.


How has this ride felt for you, to get your story out there in such a massive way?

Dream come true stuff, man. First, to get a movie made like “Straight Outta Compton” is an incredible feat. To get it made at that quality. So just doing that, I would have been happy. If the studio tanked the marketing and we didn’t do so well, I’d be, like, “Yo, it’s still a dope movie. Whoever sees it.” But for Universal to do everything in their power to blow this movie up and for all of our marketing ideas to work to a T and to have the No. 1 grossing movie by a black director is pretty awesome. And now, people that I never thought would even care about a movie like “Straight Outta Compton” are inviting us to celebrate the movie and it could be nominated on a lot of different levels. So it’s just, like, “Whoa.” That’s something you don’t really plan for. You do all the right things and it just happens.

And not just any black director, by the way, but a guy you’ve worked closely with for a very long time. How has it been to have F. Gary Gray on this journey with you?

That dude right there, I knew from the first time I met him — he was directing my homeboy WC’s video called “Dress Code” — I just knew he had talent. And I knew that he knew us. We didn’t have to teach him who we are, because he was from the same neighborhood that I was from. That, to me, is the reason why he was the perfect director for “Friday” when I first worked with him and now all these years later, we’ve honed our skills to be able to put a movie together like “Straight Outta Compton.” I’m 25 years into the business so it’s just cool. And to do it with Dre, too. To make history with Dr. Dre again with “Straight Outta Compton” — we made history the first time with a record and now we’re doing it with a movie. That’s special, too.

The rally cry for this movie is, “We got something to say.” It feels like we’re far removed from the era of N.W.A and Public Enemy and the hip-hop revolution that was all about expression and making a statement. What do you think about hip-hop today? Does it still have something to say, and if so, is it saying it?

I think it’s always going to have the potential to have something to say. It’s really up to the artists. The “something to say” has been really kind of drained out of hip-hop. It started to lose its steam in about ’93 and escapism rap became the top dog. When I say “escapism rap,” I mean talking about weed, getting high, cars, women, jewelry, money — a whole bunch of excess. Don’t worry about your real problems, just go to the strip club and smoke them away. So that started to take over and we ain’t really came out of that, because all that stuff is fun. It’s cool to do. There ain’t no struggle in it. It ain’t hard. Anybody can do it. So I think hip-hop heads have taken the easy way out.

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t taken that easy way out to you, who have something to say and are saying it?

Some artists hold onto their integrity as much as they can. New artists, sometimes they’re just going to do what they hear on the radio. Until the airwaves start to promote music that is saying something and show the young rappers that that’s where it’s at, then they’re going to continue to talk about what’s being played, which is booty strip clubs, get your drink on, get high. Artists have to make a decision. Do you want to hold onto your integrity and maybe starve, or do you want to go with the flow? Few artists hold onto their integrity. But a lot of artists doing records, they’ve got to deal with the record companies and they’ve got to conform in some kind of way to keep their budgets coming in, so it’s a catch-22.

I don’t know if you can even address this since it’s an ongoing legal situation, but what did you think of Jerry Heller’s lawsuit? Was it expected?

I didn’t really know what he was going to do. I wasn’t really concerned with it. I know he doesn’t have a case. It’s somewhat to be expected from a guy like that.

What did you think of seeing your son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., play you in the film? Did you cringe at all, like, “I really do that? I really sound like that?” Was that a trip for you?

It was awesome, man, on all levels. And I think he knocked it out of the ballpark. He morphed into me in a few of those scenes, totally. So I just thought he did an excellent job. I’m so happy for him and I’m happy that the people in the industry realized that he was the best guy for the job and didn’t just put him in the movie because he was my son, because I could have done that years ago. I’ve done a whole lot of movies before “Straight Outta Compton,” so just the fact that he’s getting his props for doing such a great job, people are happy with his performance, for me it’s just great to see that he’s going to have a long career and will continue to pick great projects.

Was making the movie a cathartic experience for you at all? Sometimes when you have an opportunity to really mine your own story and present it like this, you can start to see that story in different, illuminating ways.

Yeah, but not really on my tip, you know? I knew everything about Ice Cube. But I didn’t know everything about N.W.A. I didn’t know what happened after I left the group. I didn’t know how fragile the group really was when I left and that it was coming apart anyway. These are things I discovered making the movie. So I learned about the history of N.W.A in the process of making this movie and learned what was happening when I was on the other side of town not caring about N.W.A. It was a learning experience, and that’s how I knew we had a great movie. Because if I’m in N.W.A and I don’t know the whole story, then I know everybody else don’t. So we put it together to the best of our ability and told a comprehensive story about what happened to N.W.A.

On that note, I have to ask about the choice not to include certain unsavory elements in the film. Dee Barnes has noted the exclusion of Dre’s alleged violence toward women. Michel’le has said “this is Cube’s version of his life.” So let me just ask you point blank: Is this film not as honest about the history as it could have been?

I believe trying to put 10 years or more into two-and-a-half hours, there’s no way in the world you’re going to be able to tell everybody’s story. I didn’t put this together by myself. I put this together with the blessing of [MC] Ren, [DJ] Yella, Easy[-E]’s widow Tomica [Woods], Dr. Dre — and Gary wasn’t going to just take my version of what happened. He did his own research and his own interviews. So to me, the movie is an accurate account of N.W.A, the rise and fall of the group. I’m pretty sure you can probably make nine, 10 different versions of the N.W.A movie. They’ve done about seven Elvis movies. So I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of different versions of what this movie could have been, and everybody is more than welcome to have a crack at it. But to me, we put together the best N.W.A movie that’s ever going to be put together, and if we left some people out, we left some stories out, there’s just too much to tell in two hours and 20 minutes.