N.W.A was revolutionary, and not just because of their mark on music. The group’s signature hit — the one that had Tipper Gore calling press conferences and the FBI writing them ominous letters — was “Fuck Tha Police.” And it was more than just a song: When four LAPD officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King on video in 1992, and riots broke out, the track became the unofficial motto, spray-painted on walls around South Central L.A. That real-world impact is one of the biggest takeaways from Straight Outta Compton, the new movie about N.W.A. and easily the best hip-hop biopic to date.
The film makes it clear who the group’s most powerful mouthpiece was: Ice Cube (and son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. plays his dead). Not only was he N.W.A.’s main songwriter, frequently penning verses for Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, but he was seemingly its conscience. The group’s music became decidedly less political after he left, while his solo material — starting with the self-explanatory, mission-statement 1990 classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted — saw him become more outspoken than ever. In 2015, although he does drop a surprise verse on Dre’s new album Compton, Cube’s more known recently for his outsize Hollywood footprint — acting, screenwriting, directing and producing in hit movies including Friday. Speaking to Billboard a week before Straight Outta Compton’s Aug. 14 release, he’s still as vociferous as ever, speaking his mind on police brutality then and now and N.W.A’s history and legacy.
Straight Outta Compton took over 15 years to get done. What was your goal in pushing it through?
I’m pretty proud of the movie. I’ve been honing my producing skills to get to this moment. To just deliver on such an important time in American history and time in the group’s history, just show the origins of the group. A lot of people grew from the N.W.A family tree and I just wanted to show people where we came from.
Why did the movie use the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots as such a prominent backdrop?
We wanted to show, why did we make this kind of music? That was the first thing: What made us N.W.A? That’s what we wanted to show. We wanted to show the neighborhood affecting us, but then we had an effect right back on the neighborhood. We wanted to show that when we did a song like “Fuck Tha Police” that it wasn’t just about us, it wasn’t just about what happened to us. It was more of an anthem for people to be able to fight back and to have a song they can all rally around that feels the same way they feel. We wanted to show that our music had an impact on the community as a whole.
How did seeing the riots affect your music and what you wanted to do?
You can hear on The Predator, you can hear on Death Certificate: I was trying to really warn people what was coming and what was the feeling of the community. As an artist, I first tried to be even-handed. I didn’t want to just be the grim reaper with all the bad news. I wanted to do all kinds of different records. I just wanted to show my versatility as an MC. But I felt like I had to speak on the riots in songs like “We Have to Tear This Muthafucka Up.“ I was working on my records when the riots happened, so I kind of switched reels a little bit.
What significance do you think “Fuck Tha Police” has today?
I think it just shows the problem at hand. The problem is, first of all the police are trained to win no matter what. Win an argument, win a situation — that’s how they’re taught. You add racism to that and it’s just an evil combination, and people are starting to recognize that. The camera phones, social media, everybody’s more in tune with each other. Things are shown instantly, so it’s really up to the prosecutors and the judge and the politicians to start holding these officers more accountable. Even captains, lieutenants and chiefs have to hold their own officers more accountable for what they do and not always [have] just tons of excuses.
Do you think things are getting better or worse when it comes to police brutality?
I think it’s the same. What we got to do is hold these dudes more accountable. We need body cameras on all these cops and we need it to be a federal offense if they tamper with those cameras, manipulate those cameras in any kind of way or obstruct those cameras. And we need these good cops to start snitching on these bad cops. They talk shit about our neighborhoods for having a no-snitch policy, but they have a no-snitch policy in their department, and that’s the problem. The good cops need to point out these bad cops, get them out of here and get your dignity and respect back from the community.
Did you watch the video in Cincinnati with Samuel DuBose? What was your reaction when you saw it?
Yeah. The cop overreacted. The cop stuck his arm in the window. And if a guy takes off in a car, that don’t mean you have to shoot him up. You don’t have to shoot him up just because he’s not listening to your orders. This kind of stuff seems like it don’t happen to white guys. You know, the officer is trigger-happy. I just don’t understand it. Somebody can kill nine people in a church or shoot up a movie theater and they’ll treat that motherfucker like the president. They’ll have him in bulletproof vests. “Nobody touch him, leave him alone, don’t nobody hurt him!” But a kid smarts off at a cop and he gets his nose busted and his face broke, eye sockets fractured. I don’t understand it. It’s like, we treat mass murderers like the president and you treat kids, youngsters, like a criminal and murderers. It’s just ass backwards. Police have become our worst bullies. They talk about bullying, but police are the worst bullies that we have to deal with in society.
N.W.A infamously received a threatening letter from the FBI in the wake of “Fuck Tha Police.” What was going through your head when you got that letter and what made you guys react the way you did — by defiantly taking it public?
When we got the letter, I was 18 years old so I was real naive to the FBI, I didn’t care at all. I didn’t know what they did. They wasn’t really my concern. The people we were worried about was LAPD, Compton police, the sheriffs. That’s what we was worried about. So, you know, we didn’t really trip off the impact of that or the ramifications of that. We were just like, a letter, really? Put that shit away, let’s keep doing what we was doing. And it was easy to say, “Nah man, we need to tell the world that these motherfuckers are trying to intimidate us and just show what our government is doing to rap artists, citizens. They’re trying to intimidate us.” We didn’t care about that letter.
Would you still react that way if you were to get that letter now?
It depends. But the FBI don’t have to worry about me.
Do you think that would even happen now in 2015? If someone were to do a song like “Fuck Tha Police,” would there be that same uproar?
When an artists strikes a chord like that, it can happen. Ice-T came right behind us and did the same thing. I wouldn’t doubt that politicians in very high places would try to discredit us and make us sound like we were just inflammatory loudmouths. Rappers can definitely still strike that chord; it’s just if they choose to do so.
Do you think there could ever be another N.W.A? Could a new act ever duplicate that effect that you guys had now?
Of course. Music can be anything it want to be; it just takes the artist to have the inspiration. Groups don’t form like they did back when I started rapping. People come out solo. They don’t really want to divide that money. Before us, it was Public Enemy. Before them, it was people like Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. So there’s always room for a group like The Roots after us. There’s always room for a group to come out and have something to say, and when they do it people respond to them if they great.
What effect does N.W.A have on Compton today?
We give it a sense of pride. Compton — you can say it with pride. Before it came out, people wouldn’t even admit they was from Compton. It was just so rough. People would think you was just too hood. Now, people wear it with pride. They have it on their T-shirts and shit. They have it on their hats and everything. That’s what we do for Compton.
Listen to music from Ice Cube, N.W.A, and more artists from this issue in the Spotify playlist below:
Excerpts from this full interview with Ice Cube originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.