In the late ’80s, Ice Cube hit the hip-hop scene with N.W.A. sporting a mean mug that would make even the most malicious tough guy melt in his Adidas. Was it an act, or was the South Central, Los Angeles-born O’Shea Jackson really as cold and hard as his moniker? One thing was for sure, Cube had “it,” the intangible element that you can’t quite put your finger on, or maybe you can. Cube could rap (more on that shortly), and he had diabolical good looks, like an African-American version of Jack Nicholson, with arched eyebrows and a prosperous smile (when he chose to show it). While his rap career was still hot, Cube decided to delve into the land of cinema, transitioning into the medium quite nicely with a bevy of hits under his belt. It was a smart maneuver on Cube’s part because, although they say rap is a young man’s game, the old adage about evolving with the entertainment business holds even stronger. It started with rhyming, though.
“All I wanted to do was rap back then,” Cube told Terry Gross on a 2005 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air.
Still a teenager and barely out of high school, Cube linked up with Dr. Dre through Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx — Cube’s first producer — and the duo formed the C.I.A., releasing the single “My Posse.” The sound was similar to hot hip-hop at the time like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, but it would be just a launching pad for an even bigger group of MCs that would establish themselves as one of the biggest hip-hop acts of all-time.
Shortly after “My Posse,” Cube and Dre linked up with Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella to create the seminal N.W.A. In 1988, the group would release the massively successful Straight Outta Compton, which boasted tough urban tales of crime while dousing the entire effort with politically charged pinchers that would rouse several government groups including the F.B.I. The group championed the “gangsta rap” music scene, and it introduced a whole new element to the culture of hip-hop that’s still being rapped about today.
Cube’s stay with N.W.A wouldn’t last long, though. As the primary writer on Straight Outta Compton, as well as Eazy-E’s debut record, he rightfully felt he should have been paid more. Cube left the group, and N.W.A. soon retaliated with a diss track called “100 Miles and Runnin.” With Public Enemy’s production team behind him, Cube released his first solo album in 1990, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. It went gold within two weeks. While he would release four more albums during the ’90s, the decade would lead Cube down another path that was already established in his youth. “I’ve seen everything. There was a movie theatre that wasn’t too far from my house… we would live at the movie theater almost every week,” he told Gross.
In 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, Cube played up his hip-hop persona, embodying a youth trapped inside the crime-ridden streets of Los Angeles. He would play these characters for much of the early ’90s, with his animal magnetism shining through his characters and his trademark snarl selling his believability. But Cube, being the smart, visionary mogul (he doesn’t like that term) that he is, knew that in order to make a career in the film business — at least one bigger than the trajectory he was on allowed — he would have to try something different. In 1995, he did just that: He wrote, executive produced, and starred in Friday. The film, on a budget of just $3.5 million, grossed more than $28 million, it remains a hit on DVD, and it’s led to Cube producing a slew of hit films.
Unlike other rappers-turned-actors, Cube could actually sell his acting, and part of his charm came with his performance in Friday, in which he allowed his persona to slightly soften, actually seeming vulnerable. It allowed Cube to become a multifaceted artist, not just in the realm of cinema, but in the whole of entertainment. He could rap, and now he could act in several genres. Cube would continue to switch amongst forms, starring in films as an action star (XXX: State of the Union, Ghosts of Mars), a comedy straight man (Barbershop), and drama (Three Kings). Through all the changes in genre, Cube has shown a hunger to succeed in any format he’s placed in, and he’s allowed himself to conform to the norms that each cinematic category holds. But Cube has truly found his footing in comedy.
“In Hollywood, it seems like the path of least resistance. People rather laugh than cry,” he said in his NPR interview.
These days, Cube isn’t crying. A movie portraying his days in N.W.A is on the way (a biopic may be the signal of success), and he’s become something of a Hollywood magnate, which is a strange dichotomy to the hard-spitting youngster who tried to rhyme his way out of a life surrounded by crime in South Central. Still, he remains defiant in nature.
”’Mogul’ just sounds too corporate to me,” he said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. ”It sounds like I should be on Wall Street selling funny money. Those titles don’t do anything for me.”
Ice Cube is a multi-hyphenate now, one who spans generations. To the younger crowd, he’s Ice Cube the actor-producer. To those who remember his musical career, he’s Ice Cube the “gangsta” rapper. Despite his divide in careers, though, he’s all of these things. But, more than that, he’s a success, no matter what avenue he chooses to pursue.