Ice Cube: “You can change the law faster than you can change people’s hearts”

Two weeks before America erupted in protest over the homicide of a Black man by a White police officer, the rapper who taught the world to say “fuck the police” told us about his 30 year journey from ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ to ‘Boyz n the Hood’, ‘Friday’ and new music biz comedy ‘The High Note’

Last Thursday, Ice Cube was due to appear on one of America’s most-watched breakfast shows. He’d been expected to crack a few jokes to promote glossy music biz comedy The High Note but in the early hours he pulled out of the interview. “I apologise to everyone expecting to see me on Good Morning America today,” he wrote on Twitter at 5:37AM. “But after the events in Minnesota with George Floyd I’m in no mood to tell America, good morning.”

You will probably know by now, but it bears repeating, that George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, had been killed three days earlier in broad daylight in downtown Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, a White cop who kept his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck for a horrifying eight minutes and 46 seconds. Two other cops, Thomas Lane and J Alexander Kueng, held Floyd down while a fourth, Tou Thao, stood guard. Chauvin was arrested and initially charged, leniently, with third-degree murder. Until yesterday, the other three had not even been charged. In the days since Floyd died hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets in cities across the country to protest this latest brutal act of state violence and to proclaim the simple truth, which must be repeated until it is heard, that Black lives matter. These protests against police brutality have in turn been met by yet more police brutality: tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests. “They’d rather arrest hundreds of American citizens than three of their own,” Cube tweeted on Sunday. “Very telling.”

“I don’t know why people don’t realise that we’ve got to do this together”

Two weeks ago, when NME spoke to Cube via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, George Floyd was still alive. Such is the frequency of racist murders in America that at the time we were discussing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25 year-old African-American man from Georgia who was shot while jogging. Three decades have passed since Cube described young Black men as an “endangered species” on his first solo record ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’. Precious little is different now. “Progress is slow,” says Cube. “Things have changed, but not fast enough. You can change the law faster than you can change people’s hearts.”

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In 1988, Cube put the LAPD on trial in the lyrics of NWA’s ‘Fuck tha Police’. “Police think they have the authority to kill a minority” raps “prosecuting attorney” Cube, before the jury finds the cops guilty of being a “redneck, white-bread, chickenshit motherfucker.” The incendiary protest anthem captured the tension between police and civilians in Los Angeles, which four years later boiled over into rioting after the acquittal of the four officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. The parallels to today are obvious. Cube argues that the only way out of this perpetual cycle of fear, pain and violence is through unity. “I don’t know why people don’t realise that we’ve got to do this together,” he says. “Nobody wants a whole community just full of them. That ain’t how it works. We’ve got to mix and mingle. We’ve got to help each other. That’s the only way it’s gonna work.”

Ice Cube
Credit: Zuma Press / Alamy

Cube, now 50, has been speaking out about police brutality for over half his life. Early records like ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ and ‘The Predator’ are the sound of a man wrestling for control of the narrative about his own community. “We’ve always had opposition, because we are distributing information,” Cube told an interviewer from ABC News in 1993. “The big distributors of information don’t like it when you distribute uncut information, especially to their children.” Asked what he meant by ‘uncut’ information, he added: “Without going through the censor that this interview might do… without White people making the decisions. It’s nothing but the truth.”

In recent years, however, Cube has become best known as an actor, often playing gruff, streetwise authority figures in big-budget popcorn comedies like 21 Jump Street (2012), Ride Along (2014) and Fist Fight (2017). In his latest film, The High Note, he plays Jack, the cynical manager of superstar singer Grace Davis (not too much of a reach for Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of superstar singer Diana). Jack is more than happy to take the money and run, much to the chagrin of Grace’s ambitious assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson). Cube gets the lion’s share of the film’s funniest lines. “Don’t nobody want to go to some yankee doodle Springsteen concert and see him play ‘Wrecking Ball’ folksy bullshit,” he complains when someone suggests Grace might play new material. “People want ‘Thunder Road’.”

The Internet has long been bemused by Cube’s wholesome reinvention as an actor. You’ve probably seen the meme that juxtaposes an AK-47-toting shot from Cube’s NWA days with a still from the 2007 family comedy Are We Done Yet? where he’s sat in a kayak holding a fishing rod and grinning like he’s just invented breakfast. How did the “crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube” get here?

“At first, I was about as interested in acting as I was in a damn ham sandwich”

Born O’Shea Jackson on 15 June 1969 in Baldwin Heights, South Central LA, Ice Cube was an athletic kid who played high school football but had his head turned by hip-hop in the early ‘80s. As a teenager he started rapping with a trio known as CIA before joining NWA after meeting Dr Dre while performing at a barbecue. “Nothing happens without that meeting,” says Cube. “It took him hours to come in the backyard and hear us. Thank God he came back there or I would never even be in the equation.”

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Cube’s acting career began with an even more fortuitous meeting. In 1989, a year after the release of NWA’s game-changing debut ‘Straight Outta Compton’, Cube turned up at the Arsenio Hall Show to personally complain that Miami rap group 2 Live Crew had performed on the show while NWA hadn’t even been invited. “I was about to give him a piece of my mind,” Cube remembers. “You let 2 Live Crew shake booty all on the screen, but I can’t come up there? What the hell are you doing?”

Boyz n the Hood
Ice Cube’s film debut was in John Singleton’s ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991). Credit: Allstar Picture Library Limited / Alamy

Fate had other plans for Ice Cube that day. Instead of meeting Arsenio, Cube got blindsided by one of the show’s assistants. The guy was only a year older than him and still a student at the University of Southern California, but he kept insisting Cube would be perfect for this film he was writing about the reality of growing up in South Central. “I was about as interested as I am in a damn ham sandwich,” says Cube, who – just to clarify – doesn’t eat pork. “I said: ‘I don’t act, man! I’m trying to be the best rapper in the world.’ That was my focus. Thank God he was persistent, and that I trusted him. The rest is history, man.”

The assistant was the late John Singleton, who would become the youngest person ever – and the first African-American – to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for that film he was writing with Cube in mind, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. It was in many ways a filmmaker’s version of the same world Cube was already so vividly capturing in his music. “The first song I ever wrote was ‘Boyz-n-the-Hood’ for Eazy-E, the first movie I was ever in was Boyz n the Hood for John Singleton,” points out Cube. “In the early work it was important to try to convey a message in movies. Then I got to a point where I felt, you know, my music is hardcore. I’m talking about a lot of shit that’s real depressing. People want to laugh, man!”

“I started to lean towards comedies because people want to escape when they go to the movies”

Cube had the epiphany to focus on making funnier films after writing classic 1995 stoner comedy Friday, his screenwriting debut. “I started to lean towards comedies after that because I felt like people really want to escape when they go to the movies,” he says. “They don’t want to be in a hip-hop record.”

Friday – Cube’s first script, remember – is responsible not only for giving the world the best ‘DAAAAMN!’ GIF on the internet but also for coining the devastating sign-off “Bye, Felicia”. Cube has an ear for quotable dialogue. There are few deeper displays of pathos than the late, great John Witherspoon – who plays Cube’s father, a dog catcher – delivering the line: “Got bit in the ass today, son”. It is the universal human condition. We live. We strive. We get bit in the ass. “His delivery was second to none,” says Cube. “He could say anything and make you laugh. No matter how bad a script was, John Witherspoon would save it with his delivery and his way of being real, being somebody you root for.”

Friday
Ice Cube and Chris Tucker in ‘Friday’ (1995). Credit: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

Tragically, Witherspoon’s death from a heart attack last October seems to have put the kibosh on plans for a fourth and final Friday, tentatively titled Last Friday. “We would love to do it,” says Cube. “We had a script ready, and to us it was ready to shoot. The movie company New Line Cinema kind of dragged their feet for months, and then John Witherspoon passed away. We would have to go back to the drawing board and almost start from scratch, because without him the story we have probably doesn’t work.”

Not content with merely rapping, acting and screenwriting, Cube cut his teeth as a director with 1998’s The Players Club. It’s very ’90s, like Quentin Tarantino doing Showgirls, and worth watching today if only for the unforgettable scene in which a Black stripper spanks a drunk White cop in front of a room full of his White cop colleagues. “One more time for Rodney King,” she shouts as she paddles him. “Say it loud!” Bent over, the White cop bleats back: “I’m Black and I’m proud!”

“No matter who the president is, you’ve still got to get your ass up and go to work in the morning”

“It was a movie that was saying a lot,” says Ice Cube now. “It’s about a pretty hardcore situation that a lot of women find themselves trying to figure out, but I wanted to have fun with it and not just make a horror story. I think it’s a good balance of comedy and drama. I was a fan of Pulp Fiction and shit like that, so I was trying to throw stuff in there that was unusual and crazy, like the guy rolling the bouncer’s head up in the car window and driving him around, or blowing up the club with a grenade launcher. Just cool stuff.”

An acclaimed role alongside George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in David O. Russell’s Three Kings followed in 1999, but since the turn of the century Cube has generally been seen in lighter fare, including the wildly successful Barbershop and Are We There Yet? franchises. The High Note is another in that vein, elevated by a killer soundtrack that includes The Staple Singers doing ‘The Weight’ and Cher’s version of ‘All I Really Want To Do’. There’s also a handful of Tracee Ellis Ross-as-Grace Davis original numbers, and Cube says those tunes were a big part of his decision to take the role. “The music works,” he says. “That’s important. If the music don’t work, nothing works. That was my concern. When I saw that [Whitney Houston producer] Darkchild was doing the music I was like: ‘OK, the music is in good hands.’ Tracee is playing a fictional character but she comes from pedigree. The songs felt big, like she’d had a career full of hits.”

Ice Cube
Ice Cube as high-flying artist manager Jack in ‘The High Note’. Credit: Universal

It’s not the film’s fault, but the fact is The High Note already seems as though it were filmed in a dreamlike alternate universe. Dancing at bougie single release launch parties – were we ever so young? It’s jarring to switch from slickly-soundtracked shots of Sunset Boulevard back to rolling news coverage of President Trump threatening martial law in the midst of a global pandemic. When we spoke two weeks ago, Cube seemed unconvinced about Joe Biden’s chances of stopping Trump winning a second term in November. “Who knows what goes on when the doors close? Ain’t no telling, man,” he pondered, before counseling against putting too much faith in political leaders. “I figure you’ve gotta think for yourself. No matter who the president is, you’ve still got to get your ass up and go to work in the morning. Nobody is gonna tell you that all your bills are paid and everything is free just because I’m the president! At the end of the day, we all on our own. We gotta look out for ourselves.”

Back then, Ice Cube was ready to go back to work himself, saying he had a “head full of ideas” for more movies and more records. Right now, all of that is on hold. As America cries out for justice, Cube fears the worst instincts of the White House. “Will Trump be the first president to nuke a US city?” he asked on Twitter on Monday night. “Stay tuned.”

‘The High Note’ is available to stream online now

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