The new movie Straight Outta Compton tells the story of how the rap group N.W.A rose to fame in an America plagued by controversies over police brutality, racial injustice, and economic inequality in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
N.W.A founding member Ice Cube (né O’Shea Jackson), – who was just 19 when the hit single “F— Tha Police” ignited a furor in 1988 – says things haven’t improved enough. “I would’ve hoped they would have, but I wasn’t counting on anything,” he tells PEOPLE in the magazine’s new issue.
Following the high-profile deaths (including those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Grey) involving police over the past two years and the protests that followed, Ice Cube, now 46, says the biopic is “relevant today even though it’s talking about things that happened 20 years ago.”
His take on the controversy over police treatment of minorities: “We got to hold these officials, authority figures and officers accountable when they break the law. No more trying to hide it, cover it up, or excuse it. The solution is, to put body cameras on all these police, and make it a federal offense to tamper, erase, or obstruct the camera and the footage. Then we’ll see things start to slow down.””
When N.W.A.’s “F— Tha Police” first hit the airwaves, it sparked a powder keg of controversy, prompting one of the earliest uses of the “Parental Guidance” sticker, and signaling a watershed moment for the recording industry. Despite all attempts at censorship, the song became a battle cry for disenfranchised urban youth who felt unfairly targeted by the police.
Law enforcement officers were outraged, and sometimes forbade the group from performing the song on tour. When N.W.A ignored instructions from the Detroit Police Department to scrap “F— Tha Police” from their set list, they were all promptly arrested mid-performance. This sparked a riot from fans, who threw bottles and garbage at police while chanting the song’s chorus.
Celebrities React to the Ferguson Decision
After N.W.A dissolved in 1991, Ice Cube released successful solo albums, and eventually made the transition from rapper to Hollywood power player, starring in and producing blockbuster movies and TV shows. Now his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., 24, is following in his footsteps, starring as his father in Straight Outta Compton.
For Ice Cube, the tension between the African-American community in Southern Los Angeles and the LAPD has been unwavering for as long as he can remember. “Police issues have been a constant in our neighborhood. We show the L.A. riots [in the movie] but it was the Watts riots that happened before I was even born, and it was because of police brutality and police abuse,” he says. “So it was a constant my whole life.”
Growing up in the racial pressure cooker that was (and still is) Compton helped the rapper – and his group’s other core members: DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, and MC Ren – to create protest music that spoke to a generation. Straight Outta Compton uses a combination of reenactments of police harassment alongside real-life footage of incidents like the Rodney King beating – and the subsequent Los Angeles riots of 1992 – to help the audience understand the environment that gave birth to N.W.A.
By making this movie, Ice Cube hopes that those who criticized the group will “understand why we made the kind of music we made.”
The lyricist remembers, “When we first came out we called [our music] reality rap. Gangster rap was something that was coined by the media, that ended up being the sexy name and we ran with it.”
Despite the negative connotations many associated with the term, those who listened closely to the lyrics “looked at our music like they looked at the newspaper,” Ice Cube says.
Around 1993, outlets for rap music “decided that conscious rap was no longer cool,” he says, and marketed hip-hop focused more on materialism, sex, and drugs to listeners. “So the younger generation thought, ‘Okay, this is the type of music I should be making to get famous.’ And they stopped doing the real, honest protest music,” he explains.
“But ultimately, you can’t hold down this truth for too long,” the rapper adds. “So you’re seeing groups like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and even Kanye West starting to have things to say, and eventually it’s going to come back to that style, because that’s the music at its best.”
Ice Cube believes now is the time for the next generation’s N.W.A. “What we were was honest, and we were brutally honest. And that’s what the world needs today, total honesty, so we can start dealing with some of these problems head on, and not be so politically correct.”
With Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube hopes the story of N.W.A channeling their frustrations into something creative – “constructive, not destructive” – will inspire audiences.
“This movie’s a look at the past, hopefully it’s not a look into the future,” he says.