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EMPIRE BUILDERS: They green-light big-budget features
and produce niche films. They schmooze with Julia Roberts
and market the Rugrats. And they're changing the course
of Hollywood.

On the Trail of a Hollywood Hyphenate

Rapper/Actor/Writer/Producer/Director. Is There Room For Anything Else on Ice Cube's Resume?

March 26, 2000|Geoff Boucher

His first thoughts about control, his first memories about ownership and self-reliance, take him back 20 years. He was just a kid, a young boy with intense eyes, bouncing a basketball against a worn kitchen floor and listening to the idle talk of two old men huddled over J&B.

Their conversation likely made the usual stops: sports, women, the latest neighborhood drama in their corner of South-Central. The drinks left thick halos of water on the tabletop before the conversation ran dry.

One of the men was the boy's grandfather, the other a family friend whose name is forgotten now as the boy approaches his 31st birthday. But the friend's words still linger.

"Do you like to play basketball?"

"Yeah, I wanna grow up and be Magic Johnson. I want to play in the Forum."

"Why do you want to do that? Magic Johnson isn't the Lakers, he's just a Laker. Don't be a guy playing in the Forum. Why don't you be the guy who owns the Forum?"

The boy with the intense eyes was named O'Shea Jackson, better known today as Ice Cube, the soulful elder statesman of gangsta rap and, increasingly, a franchise in a new forum, the film industry. There were many characters in O'Shea Jackson's hardscrabble neighborhood that shaped Ice Cube's angry art as a rapper: The gangbangers, dope dealers, bad cops and young corpses created a grim gallery to inform his music. But it was this brief counsel from his grandfather's friend, he says, that set him on a path to becoming a businessman and empire builder in Hollywood.

"Strive to be more than just the one in front of the camera, more than just the one rapping," Cube explains. "Don't just be the player. Be the owner, right? Sit back for years and make money and don't worry about using your body to survive. Ownership, control."

*

Ice Cube's thick frame is draped across an overstuffed chair in the lounge of a recording studio in Burbank. The body language says "relaxed confidence" but the famous scowl never seems too far below the surface serenity. Don't ask about the wife and kids, his handlers warn; they're off-limits. He has been the target of death threats, after all, and has long dealt with a sometimes smothering, single-note public persona as the angriest young man among rap's many angry young men.

Ask about his music, his acting, his screenwriting and Ice Cube is unfailingly polite, earnest and seemingly without any of the affectations one would expect from a man who has sold millions of albums and seen his own face peering down from movie billboards.

On this chilly Sunday night, Cube has seemingly mastered the art of being a Hollywood hyphenate and music star. The gut-vibrating bass from the lone unfinished track on his upcoming album echoes through the floor from downstairs to remind the rapper that he's pushing a deadline. The watch on his wrist is ticking toward his Monday morning departure time for the Berlin Film Festival to hype "Three Kings," the frenetic movie that marked a new commercial viability for Cube as an actor. He also needs to check early reports on "Next Friday," a film he wrote, produced and stars in, to see if it's still No. 1 at the box office after three weeks. Then there's his production company, his record label, his interest in launching an Internet venture, an N.W.A. reunion album and tour. . . .

"I got a lot on my plate," he says. And then he sighs.

O'Shea Jackson got the first inkling of his future persona as he tapped away on a Smith-Corona in a high school typing class. He was being bused to Taft High School in the West San Fernando Valley, where one day a classmate suggested that they try to type their own raps instead of the tedious class exercises. The rhymes quickly filled the page. It was a pleasant surprise, as was the attention O'Shea received from buddies who read the boastful, lurid lines.

He worked on his craft, and by age 16 he was rapping under the name Ice Cube with a group called CIA. One of the CIA members had a cousin named Andre Young whose mother lived down the block from the Jackson family. Young was a DJ with a massive vinyl collection, a gig at a local skating rink and some advice for O'Shea and his crew: Sing dirty versions of popular rap hits to work a crowd into a frenzy. So Cube sang Run DMC's "My Adidas" as "My Penis" and began a long relationship with Young, who worked the turntables under the name Dr. Dre.

In the months that followed, Cube would meet Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, a diminutive Compton kid with limited rap skills but big plans. Cube would write the songs, Dre would provide the bull-beats, Eazy-E would contribute his pinched vocals and play impresario. In 1986, they launched a career with a Cube-penned rap called "Boyz N the Hood" that was shocking for its violence and drug imagery. This nascent rap outfit, selling 12-inch singles out of car trunks, gleefully added to the shock with its new moniker: Niggaz With Attitude.

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