Note: This article originally appeared earlier this week in Houston Press sister paper LA Weekly.
Back in September, on the set of the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, cameras rolled in the parking lot of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium as actors playing prudish protesters hoisted signs ("Crap Rap N.W.A") and ran over a pile of the group's records with a steamroller. A little later, a group of young extras — many of whom weren't yet born when Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E were challenging the status quo with N.W.A's politically charged, invective-filled rhymes — formed a line outside the auditorium, preparing to shoot a concert scene. An old-school tour bus and retro TV news van helped establish the late-'80s ambiance, and the extras sported their favorite throwback haircuts and wore the thick, gold-plated "dookie rope" chains that were popular back in the day.
Dr. Dre was holed up in his plush trailer, and another producer, Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E's widow), was barely seen on set at all. But there were good celebrity-spotting opportunities nonetheless. Director F. Gary Gray walked by reading some notes — he'd collaborated with Cube on Friday — and then came Cube himself, a producer as well, ambling by in dark shades. Preparing for a scene nearby was Cube's lookalike son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., who plays his dad in the movie. (Junior was in good spirits but declined a reporter's request to snap his photo "while I'm wearing the Jheri curl wig.”)
Naturally, nepotism was alleged in this casting choice; Jimmy Kimmel sarcastically asked Cube if his son had to audition. But Dre's eldest son, Curtis, tried out and didn't get the part, nor did Eazy-E's eldest son, a rapper who goes by Lil Eazy-E. TMZ reported that Lil Eazy was upset about this, but he denied the claim, adding that he helped coach the actor who was chosen, Jason Mitchell. Mitchell visited him at the Compton home where both Eazy-E and his son were raised, and Lil Eazy gave him notes.
Not everything behind the scenes was as cordial.
For vérité's sake, the movie had to be filmed at least partly in Compton, and since gangs are still active there, they had to be negotiated with. Unwittingly, the film reignited old vendettas, renewed simmering gangland tensions and even led to one man's death. Observers couldn't help but be reminded of the bad old days, when West Coast hip-hop was a brutal, contact sport.
While striving for authenticity, Straight Outta Compton became a whole lot more real than anyone intended.
In the popular consciousness, the film could well be the final word on N.W.A, its members and its offshoots. The stakes are high for the $29 million movie, which N.W.A member MC Ren, a fan of the film, calls "80 percent" accurate. But the first hurdle was simply getting it made.
"You have to look at this movie as a miracle," says S. Leigh Savidge, who began writing the Straight Outta Compton script in 2002. "Given the complexity of the relationships involved, it's a miracle that it got done."
N.W.A were only together for a snap of the fingers. About a year after the release of their debut album, 1988's Straight Outta Compton, star lyricist Ice Cube bolted — and following 1991's Efil4zaggin, the group was entirely kaput.
When it was over, they pretty much hated one another. Cube had released rap's ur-diss song, "No Vaseline," calling the other members Uncle Toms and trashing their manager, Jerry Heller. ("Get rid of that devil real simple, put a bullet in his temple/ 'Cause you can't be the Nigga 4 Life crew/ With a white Jew telling you what to do.") N.W.A's leader, Eazy-E, and its star producer, Dr. Dre, fought in court and on record, and representatives of their labels got into physical altercations. When Eazy died of complications from AIDS in 1995, some of those hurt feelings were smoothed over, but his death ultimately set off a battle over the group's legacy that continues to this day.
In the late '90s, Savidge, a white filmmaker, wandered into the middle of all of this. He began interviewing N.W.A affiliates for a documentary that would later inform the Straight Outta Compton screenplay. Released shortly after 9/11, the documentary, Welcome to Death Row, has shipped hundreds of thousands of copies and has been widely shown over the years on cable networks including Starz and Fuse.
Putting the documentary together was a harrowing ordeal from start to finish for Savidge and his Hawthorne-based company, Xenon Pictures. Attempting to tell all sides of the story, the crew unwittingly found itself in the middle of a long-brewing dispute between Death Row Records founder Suge Knight, who was trying to revive his label (Death Row had released Dre's solo debut, The Chronic, in 1992), and Michael Harris, an incarcerated drug kingpin who claimed to have provided seed money for the imprint.
Savidge says he was threatened by people he believes were in cahoots with Knight and that he moved the documentary's editing facilities to a new, secret location. On the eve of the film's release, a lawyer for Death Row Records sent letters to retailers including Walmart, claiming the documentary contained unauthorized elements. "Suge mounted nothing short of a herculean effort to halt the making and release of it," Savidge says of Welcome to Death Row.
Savidge nonetheless wanted to write an N.W.A biopic, so he and his collaborator, Alan Wenkus, continued doing research. They were buoyed when N.W.A's manager, Heller, agreed to talk to them, but even Heller grew wary of the pace of development; all told, the writers penned some 20 drafts of the script. "[Heller] said, 'This is never going to get made, is it?'" Savidge recalls.
Savidge wasn't sure, but he knew one thing: The support of Eazy's widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, was critical. Eazy and Tomica married just weeks before his death, and she was left in charge of his entire Ruthless Records empire, which had released platinum albums from artists including Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, The D.O.C. and Eazy himself. Most critically, she inherited the rights to N.W.A's music, which were needed in order to draw a major studio's interest in the film.
Through a connection, Savidge was able to get the script into Woods-Wright's hands. He says that, amazingly, she was on board. And he recalls that she told him: "You captured Eazy. For us to be in business, it must be God's will.”
It was also owing to some savvy screenwriting. Savidge and Wenkus knew their draft had to play up Eazy's role to get his widow to green-light it. But after New Line snapped up the script, the studio insisted Dr. Dre and Ice Cube become involved. Cube is a Hollywood mogul, while Dre remains a tremendously influential tastemaker. (Eventually, Universal took over the project.)
Cube had long been game for an N.W.A movie. But he and Dre weren't really speaking. There were a few reconciliations over the years: Cube popped up in Dre's 1993 "Let Me Ride" video, they started on a never-released album called Heltah Skeltah, and a short-lived N.W.A reunion around 2000 resulted in two new songs. But, as Cube put it on his 2013 track "The Big Show": "Did I talk to Dr. Dre? Have I seen MC Ren? Every now and then, please don't ask me again.”
Dre initially expressed his distaste for the film project. "I don't want anything to pour water on my legacy, so I was against it at the beginning," he said recently on his Beats 1 radio show. "I read a few scripts that were just, like, kinda corny." But eventually Cube talked him into it, and Dre was fully sold when F. Gary Gray signed on. "Now that Gary is on board as director and it's at Universal, I think it's going to be incredible," Dre told this reporter two years ago.
But behind the scenes Dre was, by his own account, quietly managing the process to ensure he and his group were portrayed favorably. Two more writers were brought on, and Dre oversaw their work. Even if it's not exactly a historical re-enactment, the final product is "the way Dre and Cube want to present this," Savidge says.
Heller believes this may be to the detriment of other principals — including him. Dre and Cube publicly accused him of skimming some of their earnings; he maintains he did no such thing, and is still at odds with them. As Eazy-E's former right-hand man, he's angry he wasn't consulted on the project and fears that, as portrayed by Paul Giamatti, he will come off as a monster.
"I will be there in the front row with my lawyer and looking to make sure it is an accurate movie," he told the Murder Master Music Show in March.
More recently, Heller told LA Weekly that he "wasn't invited to any previews. I'll have to pay like everyone else. I'm sure that I'll have plenty to say in a couple of weeks.”
Following Eazy's death, Heller and Woods-Wright fought in court for years, with Heller claiming unpaid management fees and Woods-Wright accusing him of fraud and misuse of Ruthless Records' funds. In the end, they settled and signed mutual non-disparagement agreements.
Throughout filming and postproduction, the public relations problems continued to mount. In August 2014, a casting call seeking actresses was widely denounced as racist. The memo requested "A Girls" ("hottest of the hottest") who could be any race but must have "real hair — no extensions." "B Girls," meanwhile, "should be light-skinned," while "D girls" were expected to be out of shape and "medium to dark skin tone." The message seemed to be: the darker the skin, the uglier the actress.
Meanwhile, MC Ren was publicly unhappy with Straight Outta Compton's marketing, which didn't prominently feature him or DJ Yella. "Fuck these bitches at universal pictures leaving me out the movie trailers tryin to rewrite history," he tweeted. He seemed to get the marketing department's attention: Subsequent posters featured all five group members' names and likenesses.
But even if the film makes money and helps rightfully cement N.W.A's place in the music pantheon, it also has caused damage that goes well beyond bruised egos.
Around the time of N.W.A's birth in 1987, gangs were on the ascent. The rise of the Crips and the Bloods and the influx of crack cocaine made the streets of Los Angeles increasingly dangerous.
N.W.A embodied this rough-and-tumble world, with Cube even calling them a "gang" on their single "Straight Outta Compton." But he wasn't in an actual gang, and neither was Dr. Dre or DJ Yella. Eazy-E and MC Ren were Crips, but neither was particularly hardcore about it. N.W.A wanted their appeal to extend beyond particular gang boundaries, which is why they adopted L.A. Raiders colors — silver and black.
Even if their colors were neutral, that didn't mean they could always avoid trouble. They faced minor gangland skirmishes over the years, and when Dr. Dre joined forces with the Piru Bloods–affiliated Suge Knight to form Death Row Records, there was serious conflict. Knight and his associates used force to get what they wanted, and Dre eventually tired of his collaborators being shaken down, intimidated or even beaten. So in the mid-'90s, he left the label and started his own imprint, Aftermath.
This is when Dre seems to have ridden off into the sunset. He produced Eminem and 50 Cent — two of the best-selling rappers ever — and, with partner Jimmy Iovine, sold headphone company Beats to Apple for $3 billion in 2014. Having long ago left Compton, Dre moved into Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen's old house in Brentwood. Yes, it was a nuisance that Knight still felt entitled to a cut of Dre's continuing success — one court document said Knight felt Dre owed him $300 million. But at least Dre was protected by his mansion's gates, not to mention a restraining order.
Still, it's hard to escape your past.
Compton's turf is divided with great precision. Dre, along with Eazy-E and MC Ren, came up in the southeastern part, Crips country. The group members would often practice in the garage behind Eazy's mother's house on South Muriel Avenue. In fact, Eazy's son Lil Eazy hoped the Straight Outta Compton filmmakers would shoot these scenes in the actual house, which is still owned by Eazy's mother. But they declined and, in fact, mostly avoided locations on the east side of Compton.
Gangland negotiations played into this decision; ultimately the filming was done in neighborhoods controlled by Bloods, largely on the west side of town. "They didn't have a pass to come in our 'hood," says Arnold White, a close friend of Eazy-E's who grew up nearby. (It's unclear what role, if any, such negotiations had in a drive-by shooting that occurred near a set in front of the Compton courthouse shortly after filming began in August 2014. Gang signs reportedly were flashed, but though one bystander was injured, the cast and crew escaped unharmed.)
Dre did his best to endear himself to the community, donating headphones and football uniforms and, most recently, announcing that his royalties from his new album, Compton — a companion to the movie — will go toward funding a performing arts center in the city.
But the filming itself required a fixer, so to help navigate the Compton terrain, the filmmakers hired a Bloods affiliate named Cle "Bone" Sloan. An actor from the movie Training Day, he was tasked with keeping the film authentic — and keeping local heads cool. According to a lawsuit, Bone's specific duties included recruiting "known gang members to serve as cast members and extras for the filming, as well as to provide security for on-location shooting in gang-controlled neighborhoods.”
Bone had a long-simmering beef with Knight, a "more than 10-year history of ill will and harsh feelings against each other," according to the suit. One of Bone's specific tasks was keeping Knight away from the set.
Hiring Bone, however, appears to have been a deadly decision. Following the January taping of a Straight Outta Compton promotional spot at Compton barbershop Holiday Styles, the crew broke for lunch and headed to their trailers on North Bullis Road, in a Piru-controlled area.
Knight showed up in his red Ford F-150 Raptor. His arrival panicked Dre's handlers, Bone would later tell police. Knight spoke calmly to Ice Cube's security staff leader, known as Kebo. "First thing he said was, 'I come in peace. I didn't come down here to start no problems, that's why I came by myself,'" Kebo later told Esquire U.K. "'I want to request a meeting with Cube, and it don't have to be today.' He was not out of control, he was not irate, he was not hostile.”
One insider who asked to remain anonymous says Kebo assured Knight that his check — compensation for his willingness to allow an actor to portray him — would be in the mail. But before things could be resolved peacefully, Bone emerged and got in Knight's face, according to court documents; the pair had an angry exchange before sheriffs intervened, and Knight left the scene. He was headed home when he received a call from Terry Carter, a local guy who had his hand in a lot of different businesses. He worked on lowriders and had formed a record label called Heavyweight with Ice Cube. Carter offered to help resolve Knight's issues with the filmmakers, according to the insider.
The two met near Tam's Burgers on West Rosecrans Avenue, speaking through their car windows. Bone, who had apparently trailed Knight, arrived as well, hopping a fence and proceeding to beat Knight through his truck's window. Knight drove off quickly, in the process running over Bone's ankles — and killing his friend Carter, who'd stepped out of his car.
Ultimately a jury will decide if Bone or Knight was the aggressor. Now locked up downtown on $10 million bail and a murder charge, Knight is trying to convince authorities that he was simply fleeing for his life — not attempting to run anyone over.
Straight Outta Compton's filmmakers face a wrongful-death suit filed by Carter's widow, Lillian Carter, seeking unspecified damages against Universal Studios, Dre, Cube, Tam's Burgers and others. The suit alleges that the defendants knew, or should have known, that Knight and Bone were likely to engage in "violent confrontation" if they encountered one another, and that their dispute could lead to collateral damage.
While Knight's arrest dominated headlines about the film during its creation, other tragic events gave N.W.A's messages a new urgency.
Following the deaths of unarmed black men including Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of cops, the debate about how American law enforcement polices minority populations has been reignited.
The national mood recalls the one that followed the acquittal of LAPD officers involved in the 1991 Rodney King beating. N.W.A's lyrics — as well as those on early Ice Cube albums — anticipated the outpouring of anger, and "Fuck tha Police" was blasted from cars during the L.A. riots. Similarly, the song became a rallying cry at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and Baltimore.
While N.W.A's messages became more timely, they also complicated the movie's marketing. Universal and its ambassadors insist that the film does not encourage strong civic action.
"[T]he movie is not a call to arms against the police or anything like that," Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley, who green-lit the film, told The Hollywood Reporter.
"Our music was our only weapon. Nonviolent protest," Ice Cube told Rolling Stone earlier this year.
N.W.A in its heyday likely wouldn't have put things in such delicate terms. "Fuck tha Police" wasn't about gathering peacefully or writing your congressperson a strongly worded letter. "When I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath," Cube rapped.
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Certainly no one begrudges him the right to mellow with age. After all, he himself has been affected by the fatal intersection of art and reality. At a 1991 opening-night showing of Boyz N the Hood, in which Cube starred, a Chicago man was murdered. Numerous theaters subsequently pulled the film.
The creators of Straight Outta Compton face a delicate balancing act: they aim to inspire their audience but not incite it.
"Speak a little truth and people lose they mind," Cube's character says in ads for the film. Speak too much of it, and your lessons could backfire.
Straight Outta Compton is now playing in Houston-area theaters.