On the Trail of a Hollywood Hyphenate
His first thoughts about control, his first memories about ownership and self-reliance, take him back 20 years. He was just a kid, a young boy with intense eyes, bouncing a basketball against a worn kitchen floor and listening to the idle talk of two old men huddled over J&B.;
Their conversation likely made the usual stops: sports, women, the latest neighborhood drama in their corner of South-Central. The drinks left thick halos of water on the tabletop before the conversation ran dry.
One of the men was the boy’s grandfather, the other a family friend whose name is forgotten now as the boy approaches his 31st birthday. But the friend’s words still linger.
“Do you like to play basketball?”
“Yeah, I wanna grow up and be Magic Johnson. I want to play in the Forum.”
“Why do you want to do that? Magic Johnson isn’t the Lakers, he’s just a Laker. Don’t be a guy playing in the Forum. Why don’t you be the guy who owns the Forum?”
The boy with the intense eyes was named O’Shea Jackson, better known today as Ice Cube, the soulful elder statesman of gangsta rap and, increasingly, a franchise in a new forum, the film industry. There were many characters in O’Shea Jackson’s hardscrabble neighborhood that shaped Ice Cube’s angry art as a rapper: The gangbangers, dope dealers, bad cops and young corpses created a grim gallery to inform his music. But it was this brief counsel from his grandfather’s friend, he says, that set him on a path to becoming a businessman and empire builder in Hollywood.
“Strive to be more than just the one in front of the camera, more than just the one rapping,” Cube explains. “Don’t just be the player. Be the owner, right? Sit back for years and make money and don’t worry about using your body to survive. Ownership, control.”
Ice Cube’s thick frame is draped across an overstuffed chair in the lounge of a recording studio in Burbank. The body language says “relaxed confidence” but the famous scowl never seems too far below the surface serenity. Don’t ask about the wife and kids, his handlers warn; they’re off-limits. He has been the target of death threats, after all, and has long dealt with a sometimes smothering, single-note public persona as the angriest young man among rap’s many angry young men.
Ask about his music, his acting, his screenwriting and Ice Cube is unfailingly polite, earnest and seemingly without any of the affectations one would expect from a man who has sold millions of albums and seen his own face peering down from movie billboards.
On this chilly Sunday night, Cube has seemingly mastered the art of being a Hollywood hyphenate and music star. The gut-vibrating bass from the lone unfinished track on his upcoming album echoes through the floor from downstairs to remind the rapper that he’s pushing a deadline. The watch on his wrist is ticking toward his Monday morning departure time for the Berlin Film Festival to hype “Three Kings,” the frenetic movie that marked a new commercial viability for Cube as an actor. He also needs to check early reports on “Next Friday,” a film he wrote, produced and stars in, to see if it’s still No. 1 at the box office after three weeks. Then there’s his production company, his record label, his interest in launching an Internet venture, an N.W.A. reunion album and tour. . . .
“I got a lot on my plate,” he says. And then he sighs.
O’Shea Jackson got the first inkling of his future persona as he tapped away on a Smith-Corona in a high school typing class. He was being bused to Taft High School in the West San Fernando Valley, where one day a classmate suggested that they try to type their own raps instead of the tedious class exercises. The rhymes quickly filled the page. It was a pleasant surprise, as was the attention O’Shea received from buddies who read the boastful, lurid lines.
He worked on his craft, and by age 16 he was rapping under the name Ice Cube with a group called CIA. One of the CIA members had a cousin named Andre Young whose mother lived down the block from the Jackson family. Young was a DJ with a massive vinyl collection, a gig at a local skating rink and some advice for O’Shea and his crew: Sing dirty versions of popular rap hits to work a crowd into a frenzy. So Cube sang Run DMC’s “My Adidas” as “My Penis” and began a long relationship with Young, who worked the turntables under the name Dr. Dre.
In the months that followed, Cube would meet Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, a diminutive Compton kid with limited rap skills but big plans. Cube would write the songs, Dre would provide the bull-beats, Eazy-E would contribute his pinched vocals and play impresario. In 1986, they launched a career with a Cube-penned rap called “Boyz N the Hood” that was shocking for its violence and drug imagery. This nascent rap outfit, selling 12-inch singles out of car trunks, gleefully added to the shock with its new moniker: Niggaz With Attitude.
N.W.A. would become infamous, acclaimed and reviled with “Straight Outta Compton,” a firefight of an album in 1988 that offered one of the genre’s seminal raps in “F---- Tha Police.”
A young nigger on the warpath
and when I finish it’s gonna be a
of cops dying in L.A. . . .
An FBI official pronounced it a call to arms against law enforcement, police groups across the country refused to provide security at N.W.A. concerts and parents’ groups were predictably apoplectic. Newsweek magazine called it “appalling” and old-school music critics were beside themselves. Young music fans, most of them white, were absolutely thrilled.
For those fans, the face of N.W.A. was Ice Cube. His brow didn’t knit in rage so much as it coiled, and his every move suggested menace.
“I was angry a lot when I was younger. I had to channel that,” he says. “I have things in perspective better now. When you’re young, you think you know everything. The day you find out you don’t know everything, it humbles you. The day you find out you’ll never know everything, that humbles you. Or it should. You’re a damn fool if it doesn’t.”
O’Shea Jackson fell in love with film long before rap came along. One of his first memories is piling into a 1975 Monte Carlo with his family for a double bill of “Coffey” and “The Mack” at the Century Drive-In Theatre in Inglewood. The recollection makes him laugh. “I was in the back and I could barely see over those big-ass seats, and jets from LAX kept flying over so you couldn’t hear everything.” Still, the shimmering images on that vast, peeling screen up in the night sky had a powerful pull on the boy with the intense eyes, and by his teen years he was hitting the Hawthorne Mall every weekend to see movies.
By then, the movie-going experience had changed. The black films of the 1970s, the flicks such as “Coffey,” steeped in inner-city imagery and the culture of the streets, were much harder to find in the 1980s. “As black people in America, we’re used to seeing the white experience on film,” says Cube, so “it’s no problem for us to go see an all-white film. But there is also a hunger to see the black experience.”
That hunger was especially strong for another South-Central kid named John Singleton. In 1989, Singleton was a USC film student interning on “The Arsenio Hall Show” when he met Cube and defused a confrontation between the glowering young rap star and a security staffer who hadn’t recognized him. Singleton and Cube ran into each other a few more times at local concerts; Cube even gave Singleton a late-night ride to his dormitory when the would-be filmmaker was abandoned by buddies at a Public Enemy show at the Palace. At every encounter, Singleton would tell Cube about a movie he hoped to make, a film of action and emotion that would tell their story, the South-Central story, just the way Cube’s music did.
By 1989, Cube’s role in the meteoric N.W.A. was disintegrating. The group was seeing very little of the cash being generated by its album sales and touring, and Cube’s cut was especially paltry. He says he took home about $32,000 for their two biggest albums even though he was hanging gold and platinum records on the walls of his mother’s house, where he still lived.
So he walked away from the group and embarked on a solo career. Proving the naysayers wrong, his albums “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and “Death Certificate” were huge commercial and critical hits. But none of that was certain when a film script from “that college kid” showed up in the mail one day. The kid wanted him to play Doughboy, a doomed, hair-trigger homeboy in his movie.
“I read for the part and I was terrible,” Cube says. “But I got better.”
Unlike other rappers who had ventured into television or film, Cube found that his street cred was enhanced. The role of Doughboy in “Boyz N the Hood”--a movie that borrowed its name from Cube’s own lyric--also won him wide praise and the Chicago Film Critics’ award for most promising actor. Suddenly, he was the face up on that silver screen, and he liked it.
Singleton says that in the months after the “Boyz N the Hood” money rolled in, he and Cube each did what “black people in L.A. do when they make money”--they bought homes in Baldwin Hills. Now neighbors, the pair became even closer, with Cube making frequent, often unannounced visits to the director’s home. Singleton shared his favorite films with Cube and noticed the rapper’s hunger to study the structure and rhythm of the movies. Back in the N.W.A. days, on the cusp of the group’s success, Cube had taken a year off to study architectural drafting at a trade school in Phoenix (“something to lean back on,” he would call it later) and the same blueprint sensibility that had helped him map out rhymes and mix music was now coming to bear on film.
Singleton recalls that Cube would work on scripts on a laptop and began taking a stronger interest in his music videos. The efforts paid off with a script he called “Friday,” a ribald comedy about a single-day slice of life on one block of South-Central. The compressed time and location were a shrewd way to keep the budget down on what Cube expected to be an independent film. Instead, New Line Cinema stepped in to cover the $2.5-million budget. The film, with Ice Cube as writer, producer and star, went on to gross $28 million and, as a cult hit on video, launched the career of co-star Chris Tucker.
To Cube’s mind, the video success reflects the interest that white audiences had in the film coupled with their reluctance to visit the urban theaters that primarily handled its big-screen run.
“I think the white audience does want to see ‘Menace II Society,’ ‘Friday,’ ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ whatever,” Cube says. “With video, DVD, laser disc, more white people are giving these movies a chance. There’s other reasons why they won’t go on opening night at the theater.”
He points to the perception of danger at showings of films that dwell on gang-related topics and, perhaps, white unease in an audience that is more black than white. Whatever the reasons, Cube has reached a point in his life where he can discuss racial issues with a detached calm that might surprise someone familiar only with his incendiary rap.
The causes, he says flatly, are “understandable. There’s a lot of theaters that won’t handle this kind of movie. A rural theater thinks its audience won’t be interested, and the prints cost $10,000 each, so there is an investment there. . . .” If all this is racist, he says, “it’s not in the typical way. It’s subconscious.”
“Friday” played on 800 screens; the sequel, “Next Friday,” opened on 1,100 and had grossed $55 million in North America by the time this article went to print. But the increase in the number of screens was not enough to suit Ice Cube. “I expected more, I wanted more,” he says. “But it’s a problem we’re working on. The success of ‘Next Friday’ will help.”
Cube also is building on success as an actor. While he describes himself as a “mixture” of the Doughboy in “Boyz” and the laid-back Craig of the “Friday” films, he has shied away from roles that felt foreign, such as the simple Southerner Bubba in “Forrest Gump,” which he declined. He found more range in “Three Kings” as Chief, a religious Gulf War soldier who provides the film’s soulful center.
“When you go from music into movies, [your fame] might get you in the door, get you a role, a movie, but that’s it. And then you’re stuck on the bottom in a way,” he says. “You have to work your way up. Up to the C-list and then to the B-list, which is where I believe I am now. I might not be the first person they call, but I’m bankable, a player.”
Singleton says he hopes Cube will participate in an upcoming independent film that he is calling an unofficial sequel to “Boyz N the Hood.” Meanwhile, Cube (whose music career continues; a new album was due in stores last week) is kicking around the concept for a horror film he thinks might further broaden his bankability. Cube also wants to helm another film to follow his directing debut on “The Player’s Club.”
That movie, told from the vantage point of a woman forced to strip for money, might have surprised those who have winced at the portrayal of women in Cube’s music over the years. But Mike DeLuca, production chief of New Line Cinema, says there are plenty of surprises in store for those who assume Cube is easily cataloged or a dilettante in film.
“He’s a natural-born filmmaker, he’s precise and controlled as an actor and he’s got this quiet ferocity paired with integrity,” DeLuca says. “Even in ‘Anaconda,’ a pretty far-fetched movie--you have to believe there’s this big snake just eating people--he’s very centered and real and he helps you accept all this stuff going on around him.”
Cube also wants his production company, Cubevision, to pave the way for younger black filmmakers. The hope, he says, is that some kid at some drive-in may see “Next Friday” and come up with his or her own plan to become a franchise player, to take over a forum.
“Yeah, I hope that happens so that someday they can make movies,” he says. After a pause, a broad smile wipes away any trace of the scowl. “And then they can give me a role in them. . . .”