This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
I’m mustering the nerve to ask Dr. Dre and Ice Cube about the slaying that happened during the shooting of a Straight Outta Compton trailer — about the day in January when Suge Knight turned up on the set and allegedly plowed his pickup truck over two men, including a technical adviser on the film — when the lights go out.
We’re in a photo studio in Hollywood in mid-July, a month before the release of Universal’s $29 million movie telling the (mostly) true story of N.W.A, the groundbreaking hip-hop group that Dre, Cube and three other rappers — Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella — formed during the 1980s. Dre, now 50, is sitting on a comfy sofa, fussing with the cuffs of his designer jeans. Thirty years ago, he was producing N.W.A’s signature song, “F— tha Police”; today, he’s a headphones tycoon who lives in Tom Brady‘s former mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Cube, now a 46-year-old comic action actor-producer (Ride Along, 21 Jump Street), is leaning against a wall, sipping a cappuccino with extra sugar. A few others are picking around the Caesar salad with grilled chicken at a snack table when suddenly — wham! — there’s a loud popping sound and the place goes completely dark.
From left: MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), Eazy-E (Mitchell), Ice Cube (Jackson Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Hawkins) in ‘Straight Outta Compton.’
“What the f— just happened?” asks a voice that sounds like Dre’s.
“This is the zombie apocalypse,” says another. “It’s The Walking Dead: The N.W.A Edition.”
It turns out a transformer has blown on nearby Cole Street, and the whole block is without power. It will remain so for the better part of an hour. Which is how my interview with Dre and Cube and some of the actors who star in Straight Outta Compton — Corey Hawkins (who plays young Dre), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (also known as Cube’s son) and Jason Mitchell (as Eazy-E) — takes place entirely in the dark. With the only flicker of light coming from Dre’s gleaming Rolex, the producers and stars of the film talk thoughtfully — sometimes angrily — about the difficult 13-year journey it took for Straight Outta Compton to get to the screen. How it went through two studios, overcame decades-old feuds, underwent countless rewrites — not to mention an alleged vehicular homicide (“a really tragic incident,” says Dre) — and still was filming in North Hollywood as little as three weeks ago to finally emerge intact for its Aug. 14 opening date.
“It’s crazy how we were getting criticized for this years ago,” says Dre of N.W.A’s provocative songs about inner-city life. “And now, it’s just like, ‘OK, we understand.’ This movie will keep shining a light on the problem, especially because of all the situations that are happening in Ferguson and here in Los Angeles. It’s definitely going to keep this situation in people’s minds and make sure that everyone out there knows that this is a problem that keeps happening still today.”
The seminal ‘Straight Outta Compton’ album cover.
In 1986, it was morning in America. Ronald Reagan was in the middle of his second term. Top Gun was breaking box-office records. Bill Cosby was the most beloved TV star in the country. But in Compton, Calif., five black kids, including Andre Young (Dre), O’Shea Jackson Sr. (Cube) and Eric Wright (Eazy-E), were inventing gangsta rap in South Central clubs, creating a wholly new form of music made up of shockingly raw stories of police brutality and other urban blights. Their incendiary lyrics (“a young n—a on the warpath, and when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops, dyin’ in L.A.”) landed N.W.A (which stands for “N—az With Attitude”) on FBI watch lists, incurred the moral wrath of media crusaders like Tipper Gore and got their music banned from scores of radio stations and record stores. Still, their first album, 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, managed to sell 3 million copies and go triple platinum. If hip-hop had one Big Bang-like birth, an explosive moment when it first emerged as a serious, sustainable art form, this was it.
“It was always about free speech, being able to express yourself, whether people like it or not,” recalls Cube of N.W.A’s early raps (the group made four albums before they broke up in 1991). “That’s the great thing about being in this country, is to be able to speak your mind and not be censored.”
Clockwise from top left: N.W.A’s Dr. Dre, Laylaw from Above the Law, The D.O.C., DJ Yella, MC Ren, Eazy-E and Ice Cube posed for a photo before their performance during the Straight Outta Compton tour in Kansas City in 1989.
Of course, a lot has changed in three decades. America has an African-American president; Cosby no longer is so beloved (nor lecturing rap stars on how to behave). Yet a lot has stayed the same. There’s still police brutality and race riots; Tom Cruise is developing a Top Gun sequel. But the world has changed enough, it seems, that a major Hollywood studio could decide to spend $29 million on a film about a musical group that once rapped in favor of violence against the police and wrote songs with titles like “One Less Bitch.” Somewhere between the ’80s and the 2010s, N.W.A went from being public enemy No. 1 to marketable mainstream entertainment in multiplexes in every neighborhood in the country.
“I’ve always been very intrigued by the [N.W.A] story,” says Universal chief Donna Langley. “It was really just about finding a rational business model with which to greenlight it.”
Long before Universal was on board, one of the obstacles to a rational business model was the fact that the N.W.A members aren’t always on speaking terms, let alone willing to collaborate. They’ve been involved in feuds upon feuds, the biggest dating back to 1996, when Dre walked away from his ownership stake in Death Row Records at the height of its ascent, leaving a reported $50 million on the table and infuriating his Death Row partner Suge Knight — bad blood that clearly lingers today. N.W.A founding member Eazy-E, who started the group’s label, Ruthless Records, and controlled the rights to N.W.A’s music, died in 1995 at age 31 of AIDS. He left his wife, Tomica Woods-Wright, in charge of the group’s musical legacy as well as his own life rights. Anybody interested in making an N.W.A movie would have to get her on board first, then the rest of the gang. (“Ultimately, I’m very pleased with the film,” says Woods-Wright, who is a producer on Compton.)
Tipper Gore spoke at a Washington hearing aiming to put warning labels on content with explicit lyrics.
The first ones to try were a writer named Alan Wenkus and documentarian named S. Leigh Savidge. They began writing a Straight Outta Compton screenplay together in 2002, focusing mostly on Eazy-E’s story, got Woods-Wright to sign on and sold it to New Line in 2006. Cube joined the project in 2007 as a producer, but wanted the character based on his life to have a bigger role in the plot (naturally). Cube hired a new writer (Andrea Berloff, who wrote Oliver Stone‘s World Trade Center), brought Dre aboard and turned it into a drama with three equal leads — Eazy-E, Dre and himself. (DJ Yella and MC Ren, the fourth and fifth members of the group, are in the film but only as peripheral characters.) F. Gary Gray, director of The Italian Job — and a South Central native who had been collaborating with Cube since his 1991 solo video “True to the Game” — was hired to direct. It looked for sure as if a green light was imminent.
“I sat with Dre for hours, sometimes days, going over what happened,” says Gray. ” ‘Tell me the story again. Tell me who was there. Tell me why this happened and what were you thinking and what was your motivation and what do you think Eazy was thinking.’ I didn’t want people to watch the movie and feel like they didn’t learn anything beyond what they could find on Google.”
But just as it was all coming together, New Line ceased to exist as an autonomous studio. In 2008, its distribution operations were absorbed by parent company Warner Bros. And the guy who was then running Warners, Jeff Robinov, didn’t want to make an N.W.A movie for more than $15 million. The prevailing wisdom at that time was that movies about African-Americans didn’t play well overseas. Cube told Robinov where he could put his $15 million. “It wouldn’t be worth doing,” he says of New Line’s budget. “We wouldn’t be giving the project the justice it needs.”
Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995.
Warner Bros. decided it wouldn’t make Straight Outta Compton at the budget Cube and Dre were envisioning. But it turned out Langley at Universal would. “I would argue that everybody knows hip-hop,” says Langley, explaining why she’s convinced Straight Outta Compton will fill theaters overseas as well as at home. “There probably isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t engage with [rap] in some way. We were looking through that lens, as opposed to handicapping it as an ‘urban’ film.”
Langley put her money where her mouth was, ponying up a budget of $29 million for the R-rated film and keeping Gray on as director. But she did have a problem with the script: It wasn’t edgy enough. She brought in another writer, Jonathan Herman, to do a major overhaul. Ironically, it was Herman, a 42-year-old gay Jewish scribe from Greenwich, Conn. — seemingly a background as far as one could get from the Compton origins story — who finally cracked the story. He spent weeks with Dre and Cube, coaxing out their memories and learning their speech patterns. Dre, for one, took the additional research in stride. “It had a great potential of being done wrong and f—ing up our legacy,” he says. “Our legacy is something that’s very important to me.”
Dr. Dre (left) and Ice Cube
Filming began even before Gray had found his cast. To qualify for California tax breaks, Gray had to shoot at least one day of footage before April 2014. So he shot an interview with Cube and Dre in South Central (it plays over the film’s closing credits). Of course, many hip-hop biopics cast the rappers themselves in the lead roles — Eminem in 8 Mile, 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — but by 2014, Dre and Cube were too old to play themselves as rising stars. Instead, Gray held a nationwide search for an unknown to play Dre; the role went to Hawkins, a classically trained Juilliard actor from Washington, D.C. But to fill the part of Cube, they didn’t need to look far: “I know a lot of people thought I was just throwing him in there ’cause I could,” says Cube of the casting of his 24-year-old son. “But that wasn’t the case. I knew he was right for this.”
Says Jackson: “My father would call me before each scene to let me know what he was thinking. A lot of it was getting me to not act. I have so much of his mannerisms and things already in me that I wouldn’t want to be onscreen doing an impersonation. You can do an impersonation or you could become the character. I really was trying to break down those acting walls and just let everything flow.”
Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays his rap star dad (picture here in his younger days) in the film.
Principal photography — with actual actors, not just the producers interviewing one another — began in August 2014 in Compton. “I haven’t lived in Compton for quite a while, but it felt great,” says Dre, who was on the set as a producer nearly every day of the production. “Everybody was really excited about the fact that we were not only making a movie but making it in Compton. It feels like Compton is another character.”
Sometimes an unpredictable character: Although production went smoothly for the most part, there apparently was a random drive-by shooting early on in front of the set that left one civilian injured.
One of the biggest challenges of making Straight Outta Compton, it turned out, was cramming three decades’ worth of N.W.A’s struggles, triumphs, infighting and eventual breakup, as well as Eazy-E’s death, into a two-hour, 22-minute film. Initial cuts clocked in at more than three hours. A scene referencing Cube’s sister, who was killed by her police-officer boyfriend in 1981 — a fact that adds some context to his anti-police lyrics — ended up on the editing-room floor. “We had to make sure we wasn’t going off into those nooks and crannies,” says Cube with a shrug.
But even as important B-stories were being sliced from the final cut, it became clear to Gray and Cube and even Universal that something was missing: Test audiences were confused by Dre’s big split with Knight’s record company in 1996. Why did Dre leave Death Row and spark the historic, still lingering feud? It was not made clear. So, in late June, with two weeks before the movie had to be locked for its August release, Gray filmed a scene in which Dre walks into a room and witnesses Knight (played by R. Marcos Taylor, a stunt man turned actor with a strong resemblance to the real Knight) calmly smoking a cigar as he uses a vicious pit bull to terrorize a cowering man in his underwear. “I was like, ‘What the f— is going on?’ ” recalls Dre of the actual event that inspired that last-minute scene. “I was ready to leave anyways. This was the extra push. The guy in the underwear — all this shit actually happened.”
A young Dr. Dre
A judge recently declined to lower the $10 million bail for Knight (left) for the January slaying of a ‘Straight Outta Compton’ adviser near the set of a trailer for the movie. It was “a really tragic incident,” says Dre.
As far as anyone knows, Knight never tried to get onto the set of Straight Outta Compton. But the 50-year-old rap mogul did show up during filming of a promotional trailer being shot in Compton on Jan. 29, a few months after production had wrapped on the movie. Knight was ushered away from the premises by security. But he didn’t go far. A few blocks from the set, he got into a confrontation with Cle “Bone” Sloan, a technical adviser on the trailer. At one point during the argument, Knight allegedly climbed into his pickup truck, turned over the engine and deliberately ran over Sloan as well as Terry Carter, a former business associate of Cube. Sloan was hospitalized but eventually recuperated. Carter was killed at the scene.
“I was there. But I was just leaving, so I didn’t know what happened until I was halfway home,” says Dre, who shares his Brentwood mansion with his wife of 19 years, Nicole Young. “I heard about it over the phone. Everybody was supportive everywhere we went, and we didn’t have one issue throughout the entire filming of the movie. It’s crazy that this happened during the f—ing filming of the commercial.”
Cube, who wasn’t on the set, takes a more philosophical view. “It’s the dangerous part of living in South Central,” he says. “Some people don’t care if you’re making a movie or not. It’s unfortunate because the movie is so good, so creative, so many talented people involved.”
Knight, who has clashed with the law many times in the past — including serving a five-year sentence for parole violations — claims he accidentally ran over the men while attempting to flee the confrontation. He’s currently being held in L.A.’s Men’s Central Jail, awaiting trial on murder and attempted murder charges, with the possibility of life in prison if convicted. His most recent hearing was July 17, when a judge refused to lower his bail from $10 million. His next hearing is Sept. 17. No trial date has been set.
“It’s just a really unfortunate incident,” says Dre. “Maybe [Knight] was looking for trouble. I don’t know.”
From left: Jackson will play Ice Cube, Mitchell will play Eazy-E and Hawkins will play Dr. Dre.
The tragic episode underscores what a delicate line Universal must walk with Straight Outta Compton. The founders of N.W.A may be respectable members of society nowadays — indeed, one earned $500 million for selling his headphone company, Beats, to Apple, another is a movie star who has shared the screen with George Clooney and Kevin Hart — but the rap group they created 30 years ago still carries echoes from its violent past. And that past reverberates with today’s headlines, from the Ferguson unrest to Eric Garner in New York to Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. “It shows that we were not only ahead of our time, but right on time,” says Cube. “It’s a constant situation between the powers that be and the neighborhoods we’ve come from. And most of the time you look and you see that it’s a thing where someone is abusing their authority or abusing their power and they’re shitting around.”
Langley agrees “there are things in the movie playing themselves out in the news today.” But she’s quick to point out that “the movie is not a call to arms against the police or anything like that. It’s a very classic story. You fall in love with these boys. You love the characters. You’re so on their side. You see that the music was born out of a frustration about their surroundings and environment.”
Asked if members of law enforcement will find the film controversial, Cube responds sarcastically, “Oh, they’re gonna love it. True story. Inspired by them. I mean, why wouldn’t they love it? It’s what they do. They’re not misrepresented. True that.”
Controversy or no controversy, Langley is so gung ho about the film that her studio is planning on doing something nobody in the rap world thought was possible — reuniting N.W.A for a European tour to promote the movie, with Eminem (who performs on the film’s soundtrack, along with Dre and Kendrick Lamar) sitting in as an honorary member. “We don’t have anything settled yet with everyone’s schedules,” she says. “But we think it can create a lot of buzz.”
After the lights finally flicker back on in the photo studio, Dre marvels about the past, about where he comes from and how remarkably far his music has traveled. “We were just trying to entertain our neighborhood, just us trying to be hood stars,” he says. “It just became something that was much, much bigger than we ever thought, than I ever imagined.”
10:25 am, July 23 Updated to clarify album sales figures for 1988’s Straight Outta Compton.