In a world where hip-hop has become the mainstream, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always so. Put simply, from writing NWA’s most groundbreaking tracks, to starring in films like Boyz n the Hood, the list of people who’ve had a bigger impact on their genre, and the wider music world, is a very short one.
It’s now almost 25 years since NWA’s seminal record Straight Outta Compton, with tracks like Fuck tha Police and Express Yourself, hit the streets, redefining rap music in the process. It made overnight stars of Cube and other NWA members, like producer Dr Dre, but more importantly it was Cube and MC Ren’s writing that pioneered the lyricism of gangster life that not only shifted the influence in US hip hop from the east coast to the west, but also paved the way for rap’s future chart domination.
So looking back, did Cube, born O’Shea Jackson, have any idea the album would go so big?
“We didn’t think it was going to go no bigger than the hood,” explains Cube, chatting on the phone from his LA home. “We didn’t think nobody cared about how we was growing up and how we was living. We thought it was just all on us and that this was going to be isolated from the world, dealing with the LAPD. Nobody cared, that’s how we felt. For one thing, being a west coast hip-hop artist at that time was a long shot, you know all the rap had come from New York, Philly, so we didn’t think we had a chance.
“We knew we was going the long way, from being from the west coast and the language we was using, we were going to be underground forever and we was happy with that, satisfied with that. And I think that’s why it was, because we was coming from a pure way of thinking. It wasn’t like let’s do something shocking to shock everybody and get noticed. We had no concept of that, we didn’t even know how to do that.”
However, while being unaware of what they were creating, there’s no taking away from that early success of NWA, who were still teenagers at the time. Straight Outta Compton went double platinum, the first album to achieve the feat without any airplay or major tours as support, practically giving birth to west coast hip hop as a commercial entity in the process.
“Maybe I’m over-romanticising this,” explains Cube, “but I think NWA made every artist feel like they could be themselves, like they didn’t have to conform to sell their work. Even shows like The Osbornes, you know. That show wouldn’t be on TV, with the cussing and talking and shit through the whole show. NWA said all that isn’t as terrible as people say it is, it’s just language. Now you’ve got people calling each other bitch on TV all day. I’m not saying that that’s a good thing. But people are so uptight, people aren’t being real. NWA showed people how to be real, to be themselves.”
Despite that impact, however, Cube’s involvement with NWA proved short-lived, and he quit the group over money issues way back in 1990. But that was not to be the end of Cube, not by a long shot. He’s had nine solo records since, with another on the way this year. So what can we expect. An older, calmer Ice Cube?
“Hardcore gangster rap, man. It’s street knowledge you know. I’ll be talking about political shit and I’ll be talking about street shit, so it will be a mixture of that. I think that’s what people have grown to expect, and if that’s what they want, that’s what they’re gonna get. Hopefully by the time I make it to Australia, you guys should have it, you should definitely be banging it, or at least some of the songs as I’ll definitely start releasing some of the songs on my website and my Facebook and stuff.”
However, while Jackson found the limelight with his lyrics, it was his film work that secured his a-list status. At a time when it hadn’t yet become the norm for rappers to make Hollywood appearances, Cube first tested his acting chops as Doughboy in 1991’s iconic Boyz n the Hood, for which John Singleton became not only the first Oscar-nominated black director, but also the youngest person, at 23, to ever be up for the award.
Since then, Cube’s appeared in dozens of films, including the critically-acclaimed Gulf War tale Three Kings, right up to 21 Jump Street, which is in cinemas now. He was also the main force behind the ghetto-based Friday comedy trilogy, writing and producing all three films, as well as starring in them alongside Chris Tucker. Indeed, ever since Friday After Next came out way back in 2002, rumours of a fourth installment – and Tucker’s supposed lack of desire to be involved – have refused to go away.
“Right now we’re still in talks with New Line to get a deal. Then I’m going to start writing a script, inviting everyone back. Everyone’s going to be written into the script. [Tucker’s] a definite possibility, and he’s definitely going to be written into the script. I want him to do it.”
However, another project which Cube is producing, one likely to get fans swarming to the screens, is much further along in the development process – a biopic of the NWA days. “Yeah, we’re working on a revision of the script, so once we get the script perfect, then we can cast the movie, we can budget it out. That’s when the movie’s really in motion. You can’t really do nothing until the script is right.”
But with casting just around the corner, that begs the question, who will play the men themselves. Could one of Cube’s sons, OMG, himself a rapper on the rise and a spitting image of his old man, be in line to play his dad?
“Well, I hope so. It’s really on him. The best actor’s gonna win. If he goes in there and does his thing then he’s a shoe-in. But if he doesn’t, somebody else is gonna get it.”
The comments reflect Cube’s clear desire for both OMG, and his other rapper son, Doughboy, to become successes
in their own right, without trading on his name.
“I wanted to make sure they were b-boys, not Ice Cube’s sons,” he explains. “At first I really stepped back. They would go to the studio without me, come back and play it to me, raps and beats. They showed me they were in love with it, and that it wasn’t about the money or fame or anything, they just loved rapping and expressing themselves. You’ve got to love it to get in it. If you get in it for the money, you’re going to have a lot of heartache. Now I’m starting to get more instrumental. They still go and record without me, they write without me, they do their beats without me. All I do is maybe make sure it’s polished perfectly before the public hears it, that’s all.”
So, would it be fair to say music is still the Compton man’s first love? “Acting in movies is creatively satisfying, but if I had a chance to pick, go to the set or go to the studio, I’d pick the studio 90 per cent of the time because I have the freedom to do what I want to do. Music is my love.”