It's a rare that an artist manages to maintain successful careers in both rap music and acting. Whilst there are similarities – both are concerned with storytelling and strong characters – they are in many ways the complete opposite. Acting is just that, pretending to be someone you're not, and in hip-hop this is considered blasphemous.
While many have tried, things normally go one way or the other. Will Smith hasn’t put out any music for some time (and when he did, did we ever take it seriously?), and there aren’t many Drake fans out there whose affections took hold due to his role in Canadian teen drama Degrassi. But Ice Cube is a rare beast, one that manages to maintain credibility in both callings.
The man who once spat, “F*ck the police coming straight from the underground / A young n*gga got it bad ‘cause I'm brown,” on N.W.A’s ‘F*ck Tha Police’, is currently on set in Los Angeles shooting the movie Ride Along 2, where he reprises his role as undercover detective James Payton. Simultaneously, he is promoting his forthcoming album ‘Everythang’s Corrupt’, as well as working alongside Dr. Dre as a producer and consultant for the long awaited N.W.A movie, Straight Outta Compton, expected in cinemas next year.
“I want to let people know why we did that kind of music,” he says of his personal agenda for the biopic. “It was our only weapon at the time against everything that was going on around us. Everything that was going on as far as drugs, gang banging, police brutality, Reaganomics, aids, riots, freedom of speech. Dealing with all of these things is why N.W.A was the world’s most dangerous group.”
The actors for the roles depicting the young N.W.A members were recently announced, and Cube is delighted with the studio’s decision to cast his son O’Shea Jackson JR to play his part.
“The coolest thing about it is that my son auditioned to play me and landed the part,” says Cube, with obvious enthusiasm. “We put a lot of actors through the running, and he just came out the best one to represent me. So it is kind of surreal, it’s really a dream come true. Universal Pictures had to sign off, and when they did it was a proud moment for me.”
He isn’t worried about his son having to re-enact any negative behaviour from his youth, nor does he hope that such events are hidden for cinema-goers. “It’s cool, it’s history,” he explains. “They would see it anyway if somebody else played it. I’m not ashamed of anything I did when I was young. I mean, I am, but if it happened then it’s fine to show it. I don’t mind that.”
Right now, Cube has 36 acting credits listed on IMDB, including three movies in production. To put it bluntly, he doesn’t need to be making music anymore. With multiple bona-fide classic albums under his belt, both solo and as part of N.W.A, he has proved his worth critically and sold millions of records. And yet he continues to release music – between hiatuses – on his independent label, Lench Mob Records.
“I’m a B-Boy at heart,” he responds when asked about his drive to continue life as a recording artist. “This acting thing – I’m still trying to get a grip on that. But in music I can do what I feel. At this point, being independent, I don’t have to adhere to anything. I don’t want nobody telling me what to do, especially at this point. It’s not really about selling records at this point – it’s about being an artist and doing it how I grew up doing it. It wasn’t about the money, it wasn’t about the business – it was about having fun with the music. So that’s what I reverted back to.”
Not that anyone has ever told Cube what to do. His early albums were always controversial, with titles like ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ (1990) and ‘Lethal Injection’ (1993), but he says that he still felt a responsibility to please labels.
“When people put up so much money, you do feel an obligation to get them what they consider a hit, even if it might not be a hit to you. It’s like a movie: you gotta please the studio a little bit, because they’re giving you all this damn money. So you wanna make sure that you’re giving them what they want. But sometimes that leads you in different directions that you might not want to go in.”
With the title of his forthcoming album, ‘Everythang's Corrupt’, it feels like Ice Cube is returning to the kind of bashing of the system that his rap career was built on. I ask if he believes things have improved since the release of his solo debut, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’.
“There’s just new ways for people to take advantage of each other, that’s all, like new technology. I don’t think the world has gotten any better or any worse. Public relations and people getting along has really been pushed through music and sports. It was like that in the 1990s and it’s like that now. Entertainment is what keeps the people from tearing each other apart.”
Don’t get it twisted, though: his album won’t be the hardcore gangsta rap that we heard on those early records. Cube’s career has opened his eyes to the value in being entertaining, and he sees the placement of his new single ‘Drop Girl’ on the album as just that.
“I don’t want to just be totally political, because that becomes a drag,” he explains. “So I’m sprinkling it here and there, but most of the songs are dedicated to feeling the moment, being creative, having the metaphors right and being entertaining. Everything’s corrupt – it ain’t just politicians, it ain’t just money. It’s about living in a world where nobody gives a f*ck about nothing. So to me ‘Drop Girl’ is all about, ‘Shit. Fine girls shaking they ass and it ain’t nothing else to it.’ It’s just a fun hip-hop song.”
Having created such a vast body of work that features everything from statements like ‘F*ck Tha Police’ to fun party tracks like ‘Drop Girl’ – not to mention movie roles as different as Boyz N The Hood’s Doughboy and Are We There Yet’s Nick Persons – Cube’s artistic growth could be accused of being somewhat contradictory, but this doesn’t bother him.
“Ice Cube ain’t no image – that’s who I am. So I never care about that. A real artist don’t care if you like what he’s doing, all he cares about is that you look. And as long as I keep ‘em looking then I’m satisfied. I’ve been in the game over 25 years so some people are going to love what I do and some are going to hate what I do at times, but that can’t stop me from doing what I do.”
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask whether he will be marrying the two facets of his career together again soon, perhaps by recording some new music for the soundtrack of the N.W.A movie.
“I believe that there will be new music [on the soundtrack], as well as the old music. It really comes down to Dr. Dre. Even though a lot of the old tracks are hot, we gotta have a few new ones.” He pauses and then adds: “I don’t want to put no pressure on, I know you gon’ write this. But I don’t want people start to hit me with all these, ‘Aww, do some new shit!’ So I’m a bit wary of this question. But I’m confident that it’s what the people want.”
Whether the Straight Outta Compton soundtrack brings new N.W.A music to fruition or not, Cube certainly has us looking. And at this point in his long and prosperous career, that’s all he needs to stay satisfied.