THE JHERI CURL is long gone, and the scowl, well, Ice Cube still has that, but he uses it selectively now. It was 20 years ago this month that the group N.W.A -- with Cube as its most vital lyricist -- released the shocking "Straight Outta Compton." They called their music "reality rap," but everyone else just called it gangsta, and music history was made.
On a recent morning, in a hushed Burbank music studio, Cube sat down in a solitary corner with a Sharpie in his hand and a pile of posters showing his famous scowl. Over and over, without even looking down, the man born O'Shea Jackson signed his more famous name. "I can't tell you," he said, "how many times I signed that name in my life. . . ." The rapper and actor will have a new album in stores on Tuesday and a new film in theaters three days after that, but most of the posters in front of him were from years ago. He had just come back from a European tour, and the loudest cheers were for his oldest, angriest anthems. It was 20 years ago this month that the N.W.A album "Straight Outta Compton" changed the course of American music, and somehow 21st century kids in Amsterdam and Leipzig are bellowing along to its vintage black rage and uniquely Southern California sound.
"They know every word," Cube said with a bewildered sort of pride. "That music is still echoing, which nobody could have predicted. That's what I'm proudest of, the impact that we had. N.W.A changed the rules."
Hip-hop came from the clubs and sidewalks of New York City as a party music made with turntables and rhymes by performers who usually couldn't afford music instruments. It was party music, but then it came west and got a beat-down by a swaggering collective that called itself N.W.A. Run-DMC gave rap its commercial shape and Public Enemy provided the politics, but it was N.W.A that took the genre to the dangerous side of the street.
There was that one song in particular, that one with a three-word title: The first word began with the letter F and the other two were "Tha Police." It was a sonic Molotov cocktail. There were protests and outrage, and, not surprisingly, police officers refused to provide security for their concert tours. It's hard for music fans today, who are accustomed to gangsta rappers as corporate pitchmen on television, to understand how jolting it was when N.W.A hit the scene. An assistant director of the FBI famously sent a letter to Ruthless Records, the label for N.W.A, in 1989, excoriating the music and its message. If you want to read it, it's on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
The group's lineup was as stacked in its own way as the Beatles: Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and MC Ren would all go on to be platinum-selling solo artists. Yella worked on Eazy's albums. The lineup's time in the spotlight was as fleeting as the Sex Pistols'; "Compton" was the group's second album, and Cube, angered over the royalties split, went solo the year after the landmark release. Now, as an elder statesman of rap and a film star, he can look back without anger.
"I'm proudest of the impact of the record," Cube said. "The thing that people don't talk about, really, is that it opened artists up to being themselves in a lot of ways. They didn't have to try to figure out what to do or be to become stars, they could just be themselves. . . . After N.W.A, you didn't have to put on the polish to be a star."
That's an interesting statement considering that while Cube may still snarl on his albums, his film persona is often very polished and mass-audience safe, especially in clean family fare such as "Are We There Yet?" His upcoming film is another family-minded project, "The Longshots" (directed by, of all people, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit fame), which has Cube as a somewhat unsavory guy who, through coaching his niece in Pop Warner football, learns some life lessons.
Cube's new album, "Raw Footage," on the other hand, is intense, laced with social commentary and, compared with contemporary rap releases, far more spare and funk-minded in its production. He may be going to the center in movies, but he's looking for the edge in rap. Rolling Stone gave the album 4 1/2 stars out of five and said of Cube that his new music "proves that even though he's middle-aged, he's still hungry."
Cube turned 39 in June, which seems young, really, considering how long he has been in the public eye and ear. He was 16 when he wrote N.W.A's anthem against cops and authority and was ill-prepared to become a political figure before age 20.
"We were coming from a straight, pure place," he said. "We thought our music was going to land on the shelves with the dirty comedy albums. The blue stuff. We never thought our music could possibly get above the underground. That wasn't part of the plan, believe me. Did we expect to get rich or turn the industry on its ear? We were doing music we thought our buddies up the street might like.
"When I was 16, if someone asked me what kind of career and life I wanted to have, I would have shortchanged myself. If I wrote it out then, it wouldn't have come close to the reality. There was no template then, no way to picture where hip-hop was going to go."
As he talked, Cube continued scrawling his moniker across the posters, some of them emblazoned with the logos of "War and Peace" or "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," albums that came out years ago. He started talking about Dre, the other kid-turned-titan from N.W.A. Cube is contributing to Dre's upcoming (and oft-delayed) album, and it's clear that he's happy old rifts have healed. He reminisced about their scruffier days, toiling on "Straight Outta Compton."
"I think about going to Audio Achievements at the end of Van Ness right there in Torrance. That's where we recorded. It was a textbook '80s studio, the wood paneling on the walls. It was cold in there too. We were used to working out of the garage, man, where it was sweaty and muggy. We were in jackets, and our teeth are chattering."
What made the album so special? Cube said it was a moment in time bottled up and shaken until it exploded. The inner-city black experience, in the land of palm trees, was suddenly given a sound, and it was like an air raid siren. "You can hear the frustration with the situation. We tried to have fun with it, but the music was reflecting what was going on in the neighborhood. Living in the 1980s: Just trying to get by day-by-day in places where crack was huge and the police were crazy."
Cube said history showed that that raunchy, wildly violent album might have been plenty of pulp, but it also wasn't entirely fiction. "Then the Rodney King thing happened a few years later, and then all over the world people looked and said, 'Hey, those guys from Compton were right.' "
Cube isn't a fan of the rap on radio these days -- it's too formulaic, escapist-minded and predictable, he said. He went back recently and listed to the old record one more time. He winced when he heard his old cadence ("Do you like everything you made when you were 17?") but marveled at Dre's music architecture.
He grinned: "Looking back on things, you know, it's not the healthiest thing to do, right? Especially when you're only 39. I still feel like my best work is ahead of me. But going back and listening, I understand why people liked N.W.A. I understand why it changed things. I liked it too."