"Straight Outta Compton" starts in the mid-1980s, long before band member Dr. Dre had become a music industry mogul and Ice Cube had started making movies. Along with MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E , Dr. Dre and Ice Cube formed N.W.A. in their South Central neighborhood of Compton.
The meteoric rise of N.W.A. from Dr. Dre and Suge Knight’s Death Row Records is a classic American dream story. But "Straight Outta Compton” was not an easy film to get off the ground, and after Warner Brothers declined to make it, Universal Pictures grabbed it. The film was ultimately produced by Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright-- each with their own memories of the past and hopes for what the film would be.
When filmmaker F. Gary Gray came on to direct, he seemed like a natural choice because he’d directed music videos with Dre and Cube in the 90s, and made the movie “Friday” with Ice Cube as well. But Gray told The Frame's John Horn that he was drawn to the story for personal reasons...
It’s partly my story as well. I grew up a few miles away from Ice Cube in South Central L.A. in the 80s and 90s and experienced the whole culture, counterculture, subculture in Los Angeles and the good times and the bad times. It was very violent at the time. There was an influx of drugs and military weapons and things like that that changed the culture. And it inspired a lot of things in art and I was a part of it. And so not unlike Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, you know, I came from nothing. I had to build a career in film without going to college or having mentors or anything like that and it was extremely hard. So the story is very close to me.
F. Gary Gray goes on to discuss having forgo a scene in the movie that depicts how the rappers came up with the name N.W.A. (because Dre and Cube couldn't agree on what happened), how he cast Ice Cube's son to play his father, and how he wanted to show the love in hip-hop.
Do you remember the first time you listened to N.W.A. or was there a song that won you over to the group?
Absolutely. I was on Normandy and 126th St. You know when I heard the music I thought, ‘Damn, they’re talking about us. This our environment. This is crazy.’ And I couldn’t believe the honesty. I didn’t know it at the time to kind of describe it as something that was politically incorrect or, let’s say, honest. You know if a world of homogenized packaged entertainment, I was just floored.
You also directed music videos with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube in the 90s. So how did your relationship with and knowledge about their lives shape this movie?
It's less research because I was there. You know, when Dr. Dre and Ice Cube left N.W.A and started their solo careers, I ended up working with them. So working with Cube on arguably one of his best music videos, “Today Was a Good Day,” and directing that. He becomes more mainstream as a solo artist. And then with Dr. Dre over at Death Row Records, doing “Natural Born Killaz” with Cube and Tupac, that was one of the biggest videos, one of the more cinematic videos that I ever directed.
You know, I was very careful though, not to rely on my memory... There’s a lazy approach to that. I grew up in South L.A. I know the culture. I know the music. I could have just walked in and said “Hey listen I already know everything.” But I really worked hard, even researching just to double-check my own facts because I’m getting old.
So who did you talk to in doing research for the movie?
I talked to everybody. I talked to MC Ren. I talked to DJ Yella. I talked to Dre for days. I actually took a boat trip with Dre in Italy. No, we started in Cannes and we went to Monaco and Capri and a bunch of places in the Mediterranean for two weeks. And [I] really grilled this guy. And you, know, a ton of details came out of that trip and I actually convinced him to do this movie because he wasn’t on board at first.
You have a lot of people who have mixed feelings about this story. And not only that but they have different versions of what happened. So how do you negotiate that and how do you figure out what is the authentic movie and keep everybody happy at the same time?
I wasn’t interested necessarily in keeping everybody happy, because this is the world’s most dangerous group. If you sanitize this movie, the fans would smell it coming. You know, hip hop, in a lot of ways, is about authenticity. N.W.A., just thematically, if you look at their story, is about telling it like it is. So the movie has to live up to that.
And so, yeah, there were fights and stuff. And there were different versions of the same story. But it was my job to take all this information from everyone and make the best movie. And I think we did.
What did you fight over? What were the kinds of ideas or scenes that you felt you had to preserve if it pissed everybody else off.
This is something that didn’t end up in the movie because Dre and Cube had a different recollection of how they came up with the name of the group. And that’s something I really wanted in the movie. I wanted a whole scene of how you come up with N.W.A. and what it stands for. And Dre kind of recalled one thing and Cube recalled another. So I just kind of stayed away from that because I wasn’t there. I can’t make the choice.
Is it inevitable that some people who were close to the situation are going to be unhappy. Do you worry about what people are going to say or is that just part of the game?
You know, I don’t know what they’re gonna say. I can only say I focused on making the best movie. Everything we put in the movie came from someone who was there... So I don’t know what others are going to think about it. I just know that we pushed really hard to make it great and compelling and true.
What was the story you wanted to tell?
Brotherhood. That was the thing because a lot of times you don't associate humanity and love with hip hop especially with what they call gangsta rap. You hear a lot of bravado and a lot of macho lyrics so when you peel it back you try to understand it a little bit and I wanted to kind of focus on the why. But beyond the why, they would write these lyrics and make this music, where were the relationships? And how did they form? And what made them disband and what made them get back together? It's like the brotherhood. It's the love in gangsta rap.
Some people call it 'reality rap.'
Well, that's what they called it originally. They didn't call it gangsta rap. I believe Cube said that there was some news anchor in Los Angeles that coined the term 'gangsta rap' which made it a little more interesting and a little more salacious and a little just it made it a little more interesting for people to hang onto.
They called it reality rap.