Outside Ice Cube’s interview suite sit three large men. They laugh easily as they tell stories about relatives and mutual friends. And they wait patiently until a hotel worker arrives with chairs; they’re going to be sitting outside this room for a while. It’s what they do. Inside, O’Shea Jackson stands to greet his visitor. He offers coffee, then settles back in a plush chair, attentive and soft-spoken.
He’s here for business, to talk about his new PG movie, Are We There Yet?, in which the 35-year-old MC and actor plays Nick, a nice guy who agrees to drive two kids (Aleisha Allen and Philip Daniel Bolden) from Portland to Vancouver. During this road trip, he’s the victim of all sorts of John Hughes-inspired abuse, and he still comes back with a sweet smile. That, and a mini-lesson for the boy on how to use the “snarl” to intimidate bullies.
PopMatters: It strikes me that something in the universe has changed when your famous snarl is now the basis of PG jokes.
Ice Cube: [laughs] I don’t really put too much on the “image.” I’ve been around so long it seems like, that it would be kind of crazy to plan my career around an image. For acting, in films, it’s all about giving up of yourself, emotionally, being in the moment. You kind of owe it to the story that you’re telling to play it like it should be played, without thinking about in the back of your mind, “Oh, I’ve got this image to keep.” With records, you can be one kind of way, and records show one slice of my personality I’ve chosen to make public. But with movies you have to open up. I don’t want to be delegated to just doing hood movies, you know, trying to keep it real, so to speak. I’ve been in the game a long time, and my place in hip-hop history hopefully is in stone somewhere, with NWA, and it’s all about growing and expanding my audience. The Friday movies were R-rated, Barbershop PG-13. And here, Are We There Yet?, is a PG movie. Kids love those other movies, but they’re not geared for them. But I’m not trying to be Eddie Murphy and just kind of do kids’ movies, and be a wholesome actor. I want to do a range of things, and this is just part of it.
PM: Are you still working up that animated series [“Grandmaster Freak & the Furious 15,” focused on a 1980s hip-hop crew from Englewood, New Jersey, produced by Cube Vision in league with Futurama creator David Cohen]?
IC: Yeah, it’s gonna be real cool.
PM: On some level, hip-hop has become so integrated into pop culture, it’s like wallpaper for young kids. So how does this work out for hip-hop as an alternative to mainstream or even conservative culture?
IC: A lot of people talk about hip-hop without really breaking down the essence of what it is. What does it mean to be a rapper? It’s a way to get people’s attention. In rhyming and rapping, you’re bragging, boasting, it’s about ego, bravado, being witty and clever and ironic. A lot of people say hip-hop is focused on being angry or rappers are just talking about what they got. But that’s how it started. Rap to me is a direct offspring of Muhammad Ali’s reign, as champ in the ring and out. He’d say, “I’m gonna kick your ass,” and he could go do it. The bravado, the bragging on who you are and what you’re about. That is the seed that sprouted what we have today. The essence of rap is to beat your chest. If you don’t do some of that, you’re not playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Now with the youngsters and me, I feel like, if you don’t do something for the youth, you’re jeopardizing your longevity. Because my fans that’s grown up with me, or even the generation before me, you have to make that attempt to connect with the next generation. I want to make sure that they stay fans.
PM: And you keep a balance, with his movie in theaters at the same time that the Lil Jon single [and video, “Roll Call”] is rotating.
IC: Yeah, I always separate the two. I can’t necessarily do in a movie what I want to do. There are so many people you gotta collaborate with, to even agree. It’s like you have this big machine that you’re trying to steer, and it can’t really be done like when you’re on the mic, where you’re more of a freelance, freestyle, live-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of artist. For movies, you have to be structured, there’s plans, people gotta sign off on stuff. So you can’t really parallel the two.
PM: Did your early experiences making music videos help you when you came to acting?
IC: Yes. Not only acting, but everything, the producing too. Because back then, we did everything, we would write the treatments, find the directors, go shoot the video, go in the edit bay. So this was my training, my film school. So when it was time to do Boyz N the Hood, I wasn’t totally lost.
PM: Your character, Nick, talks to a Satchel Paige bobblehead doll through the new movie. Can you talk about the connections between sports and hip-hop, how they both keep connections with history?
IC: I think hip-hoppers admire sports players and they admire us, being on stage. I remember meeting Deion Sanders, like in 1991, when he was playing for the Falcons, and he was just starting to become the man, in football and baseball. And I played a little sports in high school, and I was always telling him, “Man, I wish I could get out there and be playing football in front of thousands of people.” And he looked at me and said, “Hey, I wish I was doing what you’re doing, because you don’t have to use your body. It’s hard when your body is your instrument.” So, I always thought about that, and see that there’s mutual admiration. We’re both looked up to by the community. I think we can always respect a pro, trying to do it at a high level. It’s not like we’re doing something that nobody else wants to do. We respect each other for being at the top of a game that everybody wants to be a part of. Hip-hoppers, they into they jerseys and all this sports stuff, and sports stars, they got bling, and they fixing up they cars. So I think it’s interwoven. I think we’re closer to the athletes than singers or rockers.
PM: And then there’s the flipside, when folks call out hip-hop as causal for rude athletes, or for that Ron Artest scene.
IC: There’s always been brawls in sports way before hip-hop.
PM: Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.
IC: Exactly. There’s a lot of social things that we’re all afflicted by, we’re all suffering from social anxieties and sometimes they pop out.
PM: So does the mainstreaming of hip-hop change its potential, for challenges or changes to those social conditions?
IC: You have hip-hoppers running companies. And they’re putting their heroes in places where we’ve never been before. Who would have expected to hear Latifah doing the Pizza Hut commercial, or deodorant sold by Method and Red. You hadn’t seen that before, but that just tells you that the music has grown up, and the people have grown up. I remember growing up in a time without rap. My kids don’t. To them, it’s like television was to me, I thought it had always been here. So as the music generation gets older, it’s just natural, this shift, because we’re grown up and injected into the mainstream. And it’s not catering ourselves for that. I think the mainstream has bent their rules for us. We haven’t lessened the essence of the music, and so we’re still healthy. If you lose that essence, then I think we’re in trouble. It’s a way for young people to be able to get it off their chest. Simple and plain, rapping is good therapy.
PM: And hip-hop is about bringing along other people, educating and supporting a community.
IC: That’s why the cartoon is so cool, because we go into the history of the music, for those who have no way of connecting with how it started. I’m working with story and characters. When I get back in town [L.A.], we’re gonna be doing some of the backgrounds, how the school’s gonna look, how the apartment building is gonna look.
PM: And look how far we’ve come.
IC: I know. I remember when I was about 10, my friend would do these drawings. He was a graffiti guy, so he was drawing everything. But I would never have thought that we were gonna make a cartoon someday, with these crazy-looking B-boys, who in the ‘80s were so full of color and personality.