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It has been 20-plus years since Ice Cube busted straight outta Compton, alongside his notorious "Gangsta Rap" crew N.W.A, and scandalized the media and electrified corners of the burbs far beyond the imagining of South Central L.A.
But that was then.
Dude has long since found star power in film and TV, beginning with gritty crime dramas New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood, and he has continued to evolve his "image" from hardcore gang-banger to family man. You wonder why people aren't pointing at him and crying "sellout!"
As an actor, writer and producer, he's successfully moved from action into broad comedies, such Friday and Barbershop. His latest — as performer and producer — is Lottery Ticket, featuring former child-star rapper Bow Wow as a nice kid from an Atlanta housing project who wins a mega-million-dollar jackpot, and must keep two steps ahead of all the con men, hustlers, needy family members, gold diggers and neighborhood thugs, long enough to cash in.
Metro Times: These days, can you even make an urban comedy without Mike Epps?
Ice Cube: [Laughs] You shouldn't.
MT: And Charlie Murphy is right behind him.
Cube: It's magic. It's like these guys really haven't been given a whole movie, but they've always come in and made movies better.
MT: And the audience expects to see certain actors.
Cube: I hope so. It's cool when everyone has their clique of actors ... Ben Stiller has his guys, Adam Sandler has his guys ...
MT: Adam's been carrying about a half-dozen guys.
Cube: Yeah, for a long time. And I have my guys — Keith David, Terry Crews, guys I've worked with in the past.
MT: Playing the numbers is an old tradition; is this Lottery Ticket story a new spin on a familiar old barbershop tale?
Cube: It has that whole feel. Once you do a movie about the neighborhood, the neighborhood is what it is, you know? The sad thing about it is that it don't change. The good thing about it is that it don't change. So you can always do these movies that feel like you're back home. With this movie, we wanted to take a dude from the projects, the absolute bottom, and then skyrocket to the top. That's every kid's dream and fantasy: to make all that money that quick. But you don't know what comes with that, all the hassle, the alienation. You can be alienated from the people you love because you're an outsider now.
MT: This is almost a personal story, because in your career you've seen people hit overnight and seen it change people ...
Cube: I've actually seen people who want to put the genie back in the bottle. Who've gotten famous and then said, "Man, I don't want this shit no more." It's a sad thing ... there's pros and cons to everything.
MT: Since you started, how much more sophisticated have people gotten about the business, in terms of career planning?
Cube: We didn't think we would ever get our shot. So we just did records how we felt them. And then we caught on. From there, my pops always told me, "Recognize your opportunities when they come. Doors only stay open for a little minute, then they close on you."
MT: Well, Bow Wow seems to have had a plan to move each step — from music to the movies, etc. That template wasn't there when you started.
Cube: No, not at all. I didn't know anyone who was doing both. Ice-T was the closest person I knew who had done a record and a movie, so it was all new.
MT: He did Breakin', right?
Cube: Breakin'. [Laughs] I think he did both of them. Breakin' was the best one; that second one was, ugh. [Laughs] Man, you made me lose my thoughts. You know the template has been there from fucking Elvis to Nat King Cole to goddamn Bing Crosby.
MT: But it seems now that many rappers have become successful actors, even more than pop musicians, that it's part of the strategy and business plan.
Cube: Rap is so damn near day-by-day. ... If you've got enough flavor to get to the top of the rap game, you got enough flavor to act. It matters how seriously you take acting. ... I love how Will Smith did it.
MT: Though there are people who accused him of being an actor who got into rap.
Cube: Well, we're all sponges from the community. To be able to deliver the shit, we need to be very observant. And you have to bring different flavor on the record — different style, different technique. Being as cool as you are can get boring. Nobody wants a one-trick pony.
MT: Is that how you got from rapping about using your AK to chasing a raccoon around a roof? [as seen in 2007's Are We Done Yet?]
Cube: I mean the AK is real-life shit. The raccoon was a character in a movie — that ain't real life.
MT: Now you're doing more family entertainment, which nobody in 1991 would have believed was possible.
Cube: Not at all. But everybody gotta know that I'm just as normal as anybody else. I mean, John Gotti had a family.
Cube: Everybody in America seems like they want the same things. Some people use legal means, some use illegal means to do it — or entertainment. But we all want the same things. We all want family, life, love, a couple cars and shit, and all that. All the necessities of what's called the American dream.
MT: Hip hop and rap have become so mainstream that Snoop's almost a beloved family icon. It's bizarre. Is the world different now?
Cube: Uh, Slightly. It's slightly different. I think people can be themselves now, I don't think the pressure is on to be something you're not. You can be who you are and people gonna accept you. I mean, when we put out "Fuck tha Police," I mean, we had lawyers and real professional types liking that shit, liking the song, wanting to talk to us, wanting autographs. People you never thought would listen to something that hardcore; it was stuff they wanted to say too.
MT: But when you guys and Public Enemy and Ice-T did your thing in the '80s and early '90s, it hit people in the face. Is rap too accepted to shock anymore?
Cube: Before, America could peek into the black community but never felt the black community. You might peek in and get a little flavor, but with the music you could get a chance to feel. It was new — a whole new world, an underworld so-to-speak. ... But that music educated a whole generation on what that was. There's more education about the black experience. So when the records come out it's not shocking, because I think white America knows a lot more about black America than they did in the '80s.
Lottery Ticket opens nationwide on Friday, Aug. 20.