Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A kid-friendly Ice Cube

Former race-baiting rapper Ice Cube is now making cuddly kids’ flicks. A map to his career, from South-Central to the Valley.

Ice Cube
By Chris Lee
Times Staff Writer

April 5, 2007

Over the last two decades, he has extolled the virtues of race baiting, cop killing and "street knowledge" in rap songs; blazed fat blunts in the "Friday" film trilogy and cocked the hammer of semi-automatic weapons in such movies as "XXX: State of the Union," "Boyz n the Hood" and "Three Kings."

And now, Ice Cube is keeping it real ... for the kids?

"Should anybody be surprised? No," Cube says, seated behind a heavy wooden desk at the Sunset Strip offices of his production company, Cube Vision Entertainment. "You can't pigeonhole me into anything."

For evidence, look no further than the rapper-turned-actor's "Are We Done Yet?," a movie he also produced, which hit theaters Wednesday. A sequel to 2005's PG-rated family comedy "Are We There Yet?" — through some strange twist of fate, the biggest hit of Cube's mostly R-rated movie career — he's a newly married stepfather of two, and hell-bent on repairing a crumbling suburban fixer home. Where the earlier film (originally intended as an Adam Sandler vehicle) subjected the character to spatterings of pee-pee and barf, near-fatal traffic accidents and one particularly traumatic fistfight with a wild deer, the kiddie slapstick in "Done Yet" involves Cube's bumbling interactions with a zany building contractor and the local wildlife, a leaky roof and a pregnant wife. Not quite the metaphorical middle finger he gave mainstream pop culture in an earlier rap incarnation as "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted."

But then, such a resistance to categorization could as easily explain his recent moves as a multi-hyphenate performer, producer and burgeoning media mogul — the latest career chapter for one of the most revolutionary musicians Los Angeles has ever produced.

In the last year, Cube, 37, has also independently released a gold-selling gangsta rap album, "Laugh Now, Cry Later," on his Lench Mob Records label. And "Good in the Hood," a new reality TV show that he executive produced, is in the offing for A&E.

"I keep the fire in me," he says, hunching forward beneath a framed poster of the 1983 Al Pacino gangster flick "Scarface." "You gotta be able to survive in whatever environment you find yourself in. Ain't no guarantee that I'm going to have this life 30, 40 years from now. The people in New Orleans never thought they'd have to start over."

And to hear the South-Central native (O'Shea Jackson to his family) tell it, his childhood stamping ground — specifically, the gang-infested blocks between South Van Ness Avenue to the west, Imperial Highway to the south, Western Avenue to the east and 108th Street to the north — remains an abiding muse.

Ageographic trip down memory lane does much to explain his drive to expand his entertainment empire. "The 'hood means everything to me," he says. "Everything I know is in South-Central. You never know when you could wind up back there."

Ice Cube didn't invent gangsta rap. But with a discography that includes "Gangsta Gangsta" and "A Gangsta's Fairytale (Parts I and II)" he is widely regarded as having split the atom, genre-wise, giving voice to a uniquely Angeleno street level worldview.

As N.W.A's primary songwriter (producer Andre "Dr. Dre" Young provided its musical component and Eric "Eazy-E" Wright was its mastermind), Cube was responsible for the intellectual content of the group's most notorious songs, 1989's "F--- tha Police" chief among them. By age 17, he had grafted underclass indignation and hustler braggadocio, ribald humor and a quasi-oracular ability to drop the F-bomb into songs like no one before him; a legacy that has carried over to a new generation of rap superstars like the Game, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.

"That rage comes from where I grew up," he says. "People you know are getting shot. There's unchecked police harassment. You're sitting on your bike at 8 years old, the cops throw you against the hot hood of the car asking, 'Are you a Crip?' They think they're training you for something. It's traumatic."

With his gift for narrative storytelling, the N.W.A co-founder came to be viewed as something of a ghetto soothsayer for chronicling black exasperation in the city in the years leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riot. And he became one of the most forward faces of West Coast hip-hop — albeit a glowering visage with a mop of Jheri-curled hair glistening beneath a Los Angeles Raiders baseball cap.

But if not for a Reagan-era public school initiative, Ice Cube might never have discovered the sense of perspective that made him question his surroundings.

"I saw my community go from a slight gang problem to gang-infested in the '80s to a place with a major gang problem in the '90s," Cube remembers. "It was all I knew as a youngster. The turning point was being bused to Woodland Hills."

Beginning in 1981, the school bus left South-Central each morning, traveling west down Imperial Highway, then north up the 405. It connected with the 101 in the Valley, then headed west to DeSoto Avenue, dropping young O'Shea Jackson, along with a veritable United Nations of lower-income students from across southern and eastern L.A., at the doorstep of Parkman Middle School.

The green lawns of suburbia and middle-class torpor left a strong impression. "It was an environment I had only seen on 'The Brady Bunch,' " Cube recalls. "I started seeing that people out there were living better than we were. Nobody seemed to have a worry in the world. It might as well have been the moon."

Ironically, it was in Woodland Hills — among the surfers, Valley girls, Mexican gang members and sheltered suburbanites — that the rapper realized he could become an organic voice of the ghetto. Accordingly, he began writing rhymes at age 14. "It let me know my place in the world," Cube continues. "You didn't have to worry about gang-banging there — I didn't even know how abnormal that was. My next question was: Why it ain't gotta be like that for us?"

Although Cube is from South-Central and the rest of his N.W.A cohorts are from Compton, Dr. Dre's semi-regular appearances in Cube's neighborhood led to their creative collaboration. "Dre had a cousin who lived down the street from me named Sir Jinx," Ice Cube says. "Dre took me under his wing. That's how I wound up in Compton."

Even though his records have sold millions of copies and his movies have combined to gross more than $861 million, according to the box-office data website, 'hood fealty is a driving influence behind Ice Cube's hourlong reality series "Good in the Hood," set to go into production later this year. The rapper-producer plans to introduce each segment, profiling a reformed criminal (former gangbangers, drug dealers and robbers among them) who has taken helping others turn their lives around.

"We're showcasing people who are doing good in bad neighborhoods," he explains, "people who started out on the wrong side of the law who were able to change their ways."

Cube is gently reminded that such subject matter represents an abrupt departure from his N.W.A-era glamorization of carjackings, looting, home invasions and crack dealing.

"It's time to shine light on the do-gooders," he says. "You always hear about the kids going to jail, doing crimes. But they never profile the ones who are not screwing up. Here's our chance to profile people who against all odds are being good."

So does this signal the arrival of a kinder, gentler Ice Cube? He concedes that playing a "cool dad" in "Are We Done Yet?" — a guy who probably lives in a community not unlike the now Valley-dwelling Cube — is a change of pace. But he warns against reading too much into his kid-friendly demeanor.

"You shouldn't mistake me for Mr. Rogers — by no means," Ice Cube says. "I'm just a person who has different sides just like anybody else."

With a flourish of gangsta alacrity he adds: "I'm sure if you got Mr. Rogers mad enough, though, he'd have put a foot in your ass."

'You shouldn't mistake me for Mr. Rogers — by no means.'