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“Whether you’re making music or you’re making a movie, you do whatever you have to be great, and make it memorable,” says Ice Cube. “Whether it’s cassettes, wax, or digital downloads, VHS tapes, satellite TV or Netflix, people don’t care what format it’s in as long as the content is quality.”
Actor, writer, producer, director, rapper, father – reigning renaissance king could be a good term to describe the one and only Ice Cube. Coming of age in 1980s Los Angeles, Cube experienced the roiling stew of street knowledge, sports fanaticism, and social injustice in a city at the forefront of hip-hop’s expansion from local sound to global phenomenon.
Twenty-seven years after N.W.A – the group Cube co-founded with Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella – released their archetypal gangsta rap masterpiece Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless/Priority, 1989), the group’s 2016 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with an introductory speech by their spiritual heir Kendrick Lamar, is a mark of how far Cube has come.
If there’s an irony in this, it’s that the mean mug that originally made Cube so formidable as a rapper is the same face that often makes him so entertaining as an actor. “I perfected my scowl a long time ago,” says Cube. “I perfected it long before I ever thought of being in a movie. Although I admit that it does work great in the movies.”
The distance between, say, a brutal dis track like “No Vaseline” (from 1991’s Death Certificate) and a star turn alongside Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 2014’s hit comedy 22 Jump Street might seem like a million miles. But with Cube’s range, it’s not far at all.
Music fans of a certain vintage will ride hard for Cube, perhaps placing premium preference on his unimpeachable first three solo albums, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990), Death Certificate (1991), and The Predator (1992). Their children may know Cube as the loveable patriarch from such popcorn-friendly fare as Are We There Yet? (2005), and as the voice of The Candle Maker in the Golden Globe-nominated animated feature The Book of Life (2014).
“I didn’t put myself in the movie industry, it was John Singleton who discovered me at the right time,” Cube says of his film debut as Doughboy in the Singleton-directed 1991 hit Boyz n the Hood. “John brought me into this industry and got me looking towards Hollywood. Coming from making music, I understood that movies were a cool way to be creative on a whole other level.”
From that auspicious beginning, Cube has become one of the most bankable, likeable names in Hollywood as a writer, actor, and producer. His production company, Cube Vision, founded in 1995, has now passed two decades making memorable films. He has been part of films that have cumulatively grossed over $1 billion at the box office. The N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton took in box office receipts of over $200 million worldwide. In 2009, Cube received BET’s Hip-Hop Icon Award, and 2014 BET’s Honors Award For Excellence In Entertainment. Although Straight Outta Compton was snubbed by the Academy, it won NAACP Award for Outstanding Motion Picture and ABFF Film of the Year amongst numerous other accolades.
Cube’s successful film franchises include Friday, Are We There Yet?, Ride Along, and Barbershop. With Ride Along 2 and Barbershop: The Next Cut smashing the box office in the first half of 2016, these are enviable achievements in a Hollywood system increasingly geared towards sequels and franchises.
“I don’t want to give away all the herb and spices,” Cube says, “but one key to a successful sequel is to treat it like its own standalone movie, not like just a piece of a franchise. It’s about creating a whole new movie, and not relying too heavily on what made the first one great. A person might not have seen the first one or the second one, and you don’t want them to be lost. That’s what we’ve done with Friday, Ride Along, and Barbershop.”
Cube’s filmography is compelling. A scroll through IMDB reveals as much. But the 2015 film that brought together his incendiary hip-hop past and his current box office clout was something extra special.
On the song “Growin’ Up” from his 2006 album Laugh Now Cry Later (the most successful indie hip-hop release that year), Cube made peace with the late Eazy-E (“I like your son too/ He got his name from you”). As Cube explains, the rapprochement that set the stage for the movie Straight Outta Compton had already been made: “Making peace with Eazy was easy. I had done it while he was alive, so it wasn’t a revelation to put it on a record. Throughout my whole career, I’ll be thanking Eazy-E and Dr. Dre one way or another. With Straight Outta Compton the movie, a lot of things set the stage for that to become a reality. I directed the ESPN 30 for 30 film Straight Outta L.A., and then VH1 did a Behind The Music on me, and one on Dre, then a special came out called The World’s Most Dangerous Group. N.W.A was nominated to The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago, while Dre was having enormous success with Beats, and all these things together put N.W.A back on the map in terms of popular consciousness. Everything happened at the right time to make people understand how interesting and special this group was, and this movie could be.”
Multiple generations of Ice Cube fans were now on the same page. Never had a history lesson felt so fresh.
“I don’t want you to have to tell your kids who I am, or how cool I used to be,” says Cube. “It’s there for them to know themselves. Straight Outta Compton helped the younger generation understand what we went through. For the older generation it gave them a better understanding of why we made that hardcore type of music. It was a love fest to go back in time and see the history preserved and properly retold.”
A significant generational twist is that the role of Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton was played by Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. Cube is understandably proud of his son’s superb performance: “He was perfect for the job. The coach’s son always gets it the hardest, so he had to step up, and he did. I’ve encouraged my kids to get involved in the entertainment industry if it’s something they want to do. I have a nice foothold in the industry, I’m respected, I can get movies made, so it’s a beautiful thing for them to build on.”
Having sold over 10 million albums as a solo artist, Cube is now back working on his next album, Everythangs Corrupt. “I promise you it will be great. It’s not about where you are in the charts, it’s about where you are in the hearts. Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye didn’t top the charts with every record they released, but every record they released was a great record. My music is always satisfying to my fans, that’s the important thing.”
As far as satisfying himself, Ice Cube has a simple formula. “If you stay positive, you can stay creative, and you can be happy,” he says. “That’s my experience, and that’s my message to the world.”