When I was a freshman in high school, I begged my parents to buy me N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton.” At the time, the only other rap album I owned was “I’m the D.J., He’s the Rapper” by D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. The continuous loop of “Parents Just Don’t Understand” that played in my bedroom was then replaced by “F-ck tha Police” (played very softly so my parents couldn’t hear it, I should add). When Ice Cube was recording those lyrics, as we discuss, he was fairly certain that Midwestern suburban white kids would never get a chance to hear them.
Ice Cube co-stars in the Jonah Hill-Channing Tatum comedy, “21 Jump Street,” as Captain Dickson — a character that owns every stereotype of a fictional police captain, but also realizes that he owns those stereotypes. I chatted with a surprisingly poignant Ice Cube (surprising, in the fact that I wasn’t expecting this open and honest of a conversation at a film junket) about his career — everything from his early days with N.W.A. to Internet rumors about his “Good Day” (which you can read here) to breaking down the now-legendary fight between George Clooney and David O. Russell on the set of “Three Kings.”
I like that your character owns every stereotype of a movie police captain.
That’s the fun of this whole movie. I mean, even in the part where they tell Channing, “Dude, you look old,” all of these are the things that the audience is probably thinking. And by breaking that fourth wall and telling the audience, “Yo, you’re in on it with us,” I think that’s the appeal and the connections.
Before filming, did you re-watch anything like “Beverly Hills Cop”?
I mean, I already knew it. I’ve seen “Beverly Hills Cop” so many times. And “Starsky & Hutch” [the television series] and all of this stuff. So, I knew this dude. I just knew that he is mad about something. This cat is probably mad that he feels a little demoted: that he has to have his headquarters in a fucking Korean church. You know what I’m saying? And he’s dealing with these baby-faced cops. And now he has to deal with these two: Channing and Jonah. He’s just mad at the world.
Did you ever watch the TV series?
I used to catch it every now and then because it was a hot show at the time.
It was. And you really didn’t know if the future superstar was going to be Johnny Depp or Richard Greico.
Yeah, you really couldn’t figure that out. And, you know, Holly Robinson wasn’t bad, too. So, I saw it a couple of times and I thought it was a cool premise.
This is a nerdy question, but do the events of this movie take place in the same universe as the original show?
No. [Laughs] No. It’s a whole new breed of kids that’s going to watch this thing who have never seen “21 Jump Street” and will never have to. This is its own movie, with a borrowed title and a borrowed premise. And that’s what you want, because you don’t want to hang your hat on 40-year-olds and 30-year-olds to feel nostalgic and go see this movie.
When you wrote “Friday,” were you confident that it was going to be as successful as it turned out to be? Switching from music to film?
I was confident that… I was like, “Cool people are going to get this movie,” and everybody else was going to be like, “Why did they make that movie?”
Did you ever feel like you were over your head?
Nah. Because I had worked my way to that point through videos, through directing, through writing treatments, through my acting in “Boyz N the Hood.” So cameras were all around; I was not intimidated by the thought of jumping into a movie. What I really was thinking was that we’re doing something that only a few people are really going to “get.” That’s kind of where I was. But I know those few people were going to love the shit out of it. I didn’t anticipate everybody else kind of loving it — people that were unfamiliar with that world. And, you know, “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society” and this other movie called “South Central” kind of showed our neighborhoods kind of in a nightmare scenario. Like, “Oh, shit.” But we didn’t feel that way growing up. You know, it was just “the neighborhood.” So you found a way to laugh at things that most people would cringe at or find unable to live with. That’s all that “Friday” is doing: laughing at the crazy shit that goes on in the neighborhood.
On the set of “Three Kings,” did you get along with David O. Russell?
Well, after hearing that George Clooney got into a fight with him on set — or that Mark Wahlberg appears to not want to work with him anymore…
Is that right? Wahlberg and Russell?
Yeah, he’s hinted that he doesn’t really want to work with him again.
David O. is a demanding director. And he sees it in his head, man. And he want’s that exact performance. He’s not going to move the camera until he gets it. So, that, to me, the work is to figure out what he wants and give it to him exactly. And to be ready for him to make changes on the fly. While you’re acting, he’ll yell, “No, no, no, no! Say it this way!”
That’s a good impression of him, by the way.
[Laughs] It’s nerve-wracking to some actors. And the shit with George was just, you know, I don’t think David O. wanted George to be in the movie — because he was trying to get other actors.
And George Clooney wasn’t “George Clooney” yet.
No. And he was never satisfied that his star was George Clooney.
He was still best known as Dr. Ross on “ER” when that was filmed.
Yeah! So, that was the first problem. And it could never come out as he’s seen it in his head — so they would have to work on that all of the time. George Clooney had all of this technical dialogue and medical shit he was talking. Tactics and stuff. Then an extra fucked up this big helicopter scene — an extra was in the wrong place. And David, all he did was [mimes grabbing a shirt], “Man, come on. Get over here!” That made George go crazy. He’s like, “Dude, you can’t run in there and fucking put your hand on these extras and push them around, yelling.” And David was like, “Man, just worry about your fucking acting.” And that’s when they went at it. It was like two bulls forehead to forehead.
Did they actually fight?
They didn’t actually fight, they just kind of got forehead to forehead and were about to fight. And you could tell that somebody was about to throw a punch, but they just broke it up. So it was kind of yelling and shit, and I’m sitting there, “Damn, is this really happening?”
I was a freshman in high school living in the suburbs of Kansas City when “Straight Outta Compton” was released. Were you surprised how well that album did with people like me? Suburban Midwestern white kids?
Yeah. You know, we thought [pauses]. We didn’t think like that, like “suburban kids aren’t going to listen to this.”
But at the time, I know that was rare in my high school.
Yeah, but I think the Beastie Boys broke all the walls for me — that white kids were already down without the music from that era. To me, it showed, “OK, this is more than a black thing.” So by the time we came out, we thought we were not going to get exposure for other reasons. We thought that the record was just too dirty and raw to get any kind of light. That it would be in the back of the record section, back behind the Eddie Murphy comedy albums and shit. You know what I mean?
Yeah, hidden behind “Raw.”
Yeah, in the “dirty” section. So that’s where we thought our records were going to be. We had no idea that they were going to actually blow this shit up to the world. And that’s kind of what happened. We thought that we were just an underground group.
Did it feel like things changed overnight?
It felt like a big buildup because I had been working and writing with Dre since, like, 1984. And he was in the Wrecking Crew, I was in my own group, we were all trying to make records like Run DMC and get on the radio. And that shit was just selling. I was like, “Man, we’re never going to be them. They’re already superstars in the game. Let’s just do records that our homies like.” And that’s kind of what we reverted to. Once we decided, “Let’s put our dreams on the shelf. Let’s just do hip-hop and have fun with it for the people in the neighborhood.” That’s when it blew. And it was like, “Whoa.”
I convinced my parents to buy “Straight Outta Compton” for me on the notion that it was the same thing as D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper.” So, personally, I had never heard anything like that before. Other than Beastie Boys. To a point…
Well, Beastie Boys, to me, was the introduction of rap is for everybody. You know, it’s not just a black thing. And then from there, when we came out, it was already a foregone conclusion that all types of life listen to rap. All cultures. But we never knew that “Straight Outta Compton” would get promoted enough to blow like it did.
What happened with your version of “Welcome Back Kotter”?
It’s not going to happen. I really wanted that movie to go, but it got into development hell with The Weinstein Company, and it just sunk it.
And no plans to do anything along those lines?
There are no plans right now. That would have been good because it would have been a lot different then the show. We were going to neighborhood schools and deal with some real Sweathogs. Some kid that people are scared…
So, not John Travolta.
Nah. These would be kids that people were going to be frightened to teach and frightened to be around. And I was going to be the only teacher that realized that these kids are normal and they’re funny. So that, to me, was where we were leaning. That was kind of what the essence of the show was, but we were going to take liberties and make it into something in my neighborhood — but they just kind of sat on it.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter
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