Photo via Getty / Jason Merritt
“What up, this is Cube.”
That’s how Ice Cube says hello when he calls. No bullshit. Straight to the point. Not even his full name. This is Cube, motherfucker. It’s time to listen.
The reason for his call is to talk about the first time NWA is performing in concert in 15 years. It’s happening this weekend at the BET Experience in Los Angeles, where they’ll do renditions of tracks from their seminal album Straight Outta Compton in celebration of the upcoming film of the same name based on their story.
And how is he feeling about it?
“Getting on stage with those guys is going to be just like riding a bike. We’re NWA, you know what I mean,” the 46-year-old rapper, actor, producer, and filmmaker says. “We’re going to make it as ferocious as we can.
“Ferocious” may not be the side of the group that people immediately think of in 2015, when Dr. Dre is better known as a wildly successful tech entrepreneur, Ice Cube’s IMDB page is longer than his discography, and NWA shirts are standard sale items at malls around the country. But it’s a fitting word to describe NWA (an abbreviation for Niggaz Wit Attitudes) because that’s what they were. They terrified people. And they changed the world.
Since the group’s beginning, the members—Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, the late Eazy-E, and, of course, Ice Cube—were figureheads for a movement of not only music but race and culture in America. They were a political lightning rod and musical revolutionaries who changed the way people within the genre of hip-hop thought about it. “We made it OK for every artist to be themselves,” he says. “You don’t have to be squeaky clean to be bigger than the squeaky clean guys.”
And Cube’s right. NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which released in 1988, pointed music into a direction of uncharted territories. Songs like “Fuck Tha Police,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Gangsta Gangsta” took hard stances on police violence and the social economic struggles of being a black man in Los Angeles in the late 80s. They, quite literally, invented gangsta rap. They made hip-hop a West Coast thing. Moreover, the sound was incredibly progressive—becoming some of the first rap music that resonated not only across the States, but the world. It’s easy to forget how immediate that sound was—shoving these thoughts and opinions straight into your face. They didn’t give a fuck. And you felt it. And you wanted more.
Like all legends, the inevitable significance was beyond anything Cube or the rest of NWA expected or could’ve dreamed of. Now, a movie, with Cube’s assistance in producing, attempts to tell the story. Will it succeed? Maybe. “I didn’t nobody had the balls to do it,” says Cube. So that’s why he got involved, and he believes that they, despite telling a ten-year story in two hours and 20 minutes, have a “great” movie.
So what does Cube think of NWA’s significance a week before their first performance in 15 years? I asked him.
How do you see NWA fitting into the culture now versus when you started?
You know, I think we definitely changed the trajectory of music and a lot of things. We, to me, go beyond music. We gave a lot of artists the free themselves and to not feel like they had to be a certain way. That they have to be clean. We made it OK for you to say what you wanna say, be who you wanna be, and still be famous. There were groundbreakers before us, but we had one of the most devastating impacts worldwide with our approach.
Did you feel that happening at the time?
Yeah. You can feel your life change. You can feel your perspective change. You go from being a local dude in the hood to a nationwide spokesman for a certain style of music to a global example with a song like “Fuck Tha Police,” which, you know, is true in every country so to speak. So you know, we changed.
What’s your perspective like now, so many years later?
Hm. Well, you know at the time when you’re going through it, the initial explosion, and this is the aftermath. This is what’s left years later after a major explosion. There’s always gonna be—it’s like the world before NWA, and then it’s the world after NWA. The world is a big thing. Let’s take pop culture. It’s just, that is one page turning moment.
How do you think culture has changed in the past 25 years?
When you look at Straight Outta Compton and stuff like that, really “Fuck Tha Police”—which was really 400 years late as far as we’d been treated in this country as far as day one to now—so now ain’t nothing’s changed. The complexity of it has shifted. But to the guy who’s getting beat up by the cops, he doesn’t think nothin’ has changed. But to the guy who don’t get beat up by the cops, he might think everything’s changed. It’s all in perspective. Our music is the raw truth. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. We set a lot of things in motion that are happening today and are acceptable in society that wasn’t acceptable when we did that record. The language on TV has changed—even though it’s bleeped out, it’s changed. You wouldn’t have a lot of shows that came on if NWA didn’t crack that taboo fault of what you can do and what you can say and how you can act.
What is the legacy of NWA?
We opened it up. To me, we gave freedom to a whole new side of entertainment. Without NWA, there’s no Eminem. Without NWA, there’s no shows like South Park. Without NWA, do we have any reality shows? Would you be bleepin’ out the cuss words when you say “Bitch I kick your ass.” Those come off the NWA records. All that set that in motion to not be so scared of human nature, human interaction, human communication. Made it OK for all that to be accepted.
What’s it like knowing you were part of something that changed the course of history?
It’s a dream come true. Artists, you wanna leave a mark, you wanna leave a legacy, you wanna be mentioned with the greats. You want your entertainment to be forever lasting. You gotta think I’ve been striving for it my whole career, and I’m still striving for it.
Did you ever think you’d see a film made about NWA?
No. I didn’t nobody had the balls to do it. It started off with Toby Ehrlich and then for whatever reason they couldn’t make the movie for whatever they wanted to make it for. But that’s some corporate shit. But then Donna Lane at Universal, she had the balls to really make this movie and make it real and not try to sugar coat it. So you have courageous people like that making decisions and it moves something, you know? I didn’t think anyone would have the balls to make Straight Outta Compton.
Do you think the film accomplished telling the story?
Yeah, we got it. That’s why me, Dr. Dre, Tomica Wright, F. Gary Gray, Scott Brownstein, Ed Alvarez—this is why we put in all this effort, time, and money, to get it right. There was no reason to do it and have it in my hands and have Cube make it and get it wrong. It’s not easy trying to put ten years into two hours and 20 minutes. It’s just not easy. But we managed to do it. And we got a great, great movie coming up.
Did you feel pressure?
Oh yeah. But that don’t mean nothing. Pressure’s good. Pressure can make it better.
What do you hope the legacy of the film is?
It’s a slice of life. It shows a moment in time. It’s a sign of the times. It just chronicles a turning point in music, a turning point in—let me put it this way. This is the only movie that deals with gang banging, dope dealing, aids, Reaganomics, police brutality, freedom of speech, the FBI, and oh yeah we got a little hip-hop in there. This is the only movie that’s going to do that.
Eric Sundermann is Noisey's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter.