Ice Cube, pioneer rapper, movie mogul and television powerhouse, is the winner of the entertainment trifecta.
He doesn’t play the numbers, he grosses them. The 22 films he’s starred in and/or produced — films like “Friday,” “Barbershop,” “Are We There Yet?” — have scored more than a billion dollars worldwide.
Next up is “Lottery Ticket,” opening Friday, an affable urban fantasy starring Bow Wow as Kevin, a young man not so different from Cube himself. Kevin thinks the lottery offers false hope — and infinite comic potential.
“It feels bad to lose and doesn’t feel good to win,” Cube (nom de rap of the guy born O’Shea Jackson) says with a sigh, kicking back in a Philadelphia hotel room. “You don’t get something for nothing,” says the soft-spoken entrepreneur whose work ethic never takes a vacation. “Nothing substantial, anyway.”
“If it’s too good to be true, then it’s not true — that’s what I try to instill in my kids.” He has four, with Kimberly Woodruff, his wife of 18 years.
This is true: It’s Cube’s trifecta season. He has something for every demographic. TBS has ordered up 90 more episodes of Cube Productions’ “Are We There Yet?,” the PG-rated family comedy based on his popular film of 2005. “Lottery Ticket,” PG-13 slapstick also featuring Terry Crews, Loretta Devine and Brandon T. Jackson, hits screens this week. “I Am the West,” his “cocky” CD (presumably not for youngsters), arrives in stores on Sept. 24.
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Cube, 41, got his nickname as a teenager from his big brother who thought he was working too hard to be cool.
It was while watching his father, Hosea, working long hours as a machinist at Western Brass — “a dirty place dark as a coal mine” — that he resolved to “work with my hands, not my back.”
After getting his high school diploma from Taft High, Cube enrolled in an architectural drafting course that molded his professional thinking.
“Didn’t want to do the four-year college thing because my music was taking off,” he recalls. “So I enrolled at the Phoenix Institute of Technology for a year, so I would have some skill to fall back on.”
For the youth known for his caricatures and graffiti tags, “drafting required precision. And planning. I learned that you have to start with a plan.”
“In the entertainment business, you gotta build the tracks and drive the train. I learned that from drafting.”
Cube didn’t need to fall back on drafting as his Plan B. The music not only took off, it also lifted him and N.W.A. posse-mates Dr. Dre and Eazy-E to the top of the charts. The pioneer gangsta rappers had a monster hit with a rap called “(F — ) tha Police,” earning them the fury of Fraternal Orders nationwide. N.W.A.‘s lyrics, many of them Cube’s, likewise incited the wrath of women, Jews and the Parents’ Music Resource Center, the group that lobbied for the parental guides on albums and CDs.
While it’s hard to reconcile Cube 1.0, with his permanent scowl and threatening swagger, and the multimedia mogul of today, a teddy bear who can work a deadpan like Buster Keaton, the dude contains multitudes. He might be anti-gambling now, but “It Was a Good Day,” his best song as a solo artist, includes a snappy passage about playing the dice.
Cube not only wrote the song “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” which gave its name to John Singleton’s 1991 urban drama, he also made an impressive movie debut in that film as Doughboy, a gangbanger as street-smart as he is street-dumb. Though other rappers have transitioned into film acting, like the late Tupac Shakur, no one has been as successful as Cube, who is as impressive in a drama like “Three Kings” as in a comedy like “The Players Club.”
Though rapping and acting have performance in common, the skill sets for each do not overlap.
“Rap is tricky because you have to bring a lot of ingredients to the table,” he says expansively. “Bravado. Style. Ego. Self-centered thinking. Vocabulary. Perspective. It’s not like writing a poem, it’s like painting a picture with words and music.”
“Acting is ... different,” he observes of his less expansive work on screen. “Every actor thinks he can do everything. It ain’t true. Certain actors — like Clint Eastwood — don’t go outside the box.” Neither does Cube: “I try never to act-out my chops.” He has carved a niche for himself as a deadpan comedian in such live-wire comedies as “Friday,” “Barbershop” and “Are We There Yet?,” movies that, like “Lottery Ticket,” come from Cube Vision, his production company.
Community and generational continuity are the running themes of his films, which, though set in realistic settings (“Lottery Ticket” takes place in the projects of an unspecified urban center), tend to be upbeat and escapist. “Who wants to see a movie about how bad it is?” he asks.
That’s one reason he’s developed such a strong core brand. Another: His films play across the ethnic and class spectrum because they begin with the assumption that everyone, whoever he or she is, wants the same thing: Nice home. Bills paid. Educational and economic opportunity.
“People know I can do that kind of movie,” he says. “Are We There Yet?” was initially conceived for Adam Sandler. When he passed on the project, it was offered to Cube, who had it tailored for himself.
Cube is one of a clutch of rap MCs, including Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and Diddy, who has built his own entertainment empire. “All of us have had to take a stand for our careers,” he reflects. Cube famously challenged N.W.A.‘s manager when he demanded that his lawyer review a proposed contract.
“Lots of guys tried to get me to sign without representation,” he says. “And when you alienate the people who were going to take advantage of you, you either learn the business or you don’t progress.”