On the Set of 'Straight Outta Compton'—the Pioneering Rap Biopic

A look at how director F. Gary Gray and a group of unknown actors brought N.W.A's legacy to the big screen.

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Image via Complex Original
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Two scenes being shot today at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the major motion picture Straight Outta Compton effectively sum up the divide N.W.A had on the world in the late ‘80s. In one scenario taking place outside the concert venue, a group of angry protestors bands together in hopes of stopping this gangsta rap movement they’ve deemed a menace to society. Inside, fans rejoice with almost religious zeal as they rock along to the performance of the fictional N.W.A on stage. 

The contrast between the two sides becomes clearer in between takes. The extras posing as protestors try their best to relax. A few of them sit on the ground, visibly tired. The fans inside, however, buzz with energy even during breaks in the action. Many of these extras don’t look like they were born yet when The World’s Most Dangerous Group was causing chaos in real life. Considering how mainstream rap music has become it’s possible they might not entirely grasp just how shocking N.W.A was. 

So much about the group was confrontational. There was the volatile name, Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes, which even today can easily offend or make people —both black and white—uncomfortable. They wore clothes that fell in line with gang affiliated attire. It was a simple yet striking look that made people who saw them have an immediate reaction. 

The controversy they generated was unforgettable. It was startling to witness how news spread (without the benefit of Twitter) that the FBI had sent a letter condemning their song, “Fuck Tha Police.” Then just a few years later when video footage of the Rodney King beating was broadcast everywhere it became apparent to those in denial that the song’s stance against police brutality was a real issue. 

The music itself was powerful. Dr. Dre’s early production reflected his DJ roots and sounded like an extension of the mixtapes he made and then sold at the Roadium Swap Meet in Gardena, CA, with the help of his record dealer friend, the late Steve Yano. His already dope tracks then evolved (with the assistance of studio musicians) into sophisticated madness. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren spit lurid, explicit, and sometimes darkly humorous rhymes that incorporated slang like “cluck,” “bellin’,” and “hoo ride.” It was language that spoke directly to their ‘hoods. 

They were not the first to speak the n-word on wax, but the majority of rap records released before them usually refrained from using it. By putting the word in people’s faces, it opened the floodgates. There’s no question that hip-hop, and particularly N.W.A, popularized the taboo word amongst white kids. Ice Cube agrees, to a certain point. 

“It depends on how far you go back because [white people] was saying [the n-word] before N.W.A came on the scene,” he says with a laugh.

Although many of their early hits never had music videos due to the temporary ban of the “Straight Outta Compton” clip (“This was pre-Internet, so it didn’t make no sense to spend $70 [to] $100,000 [on a video] and have nowhere for it to be shown,” says Cube), the songs were still highly visual. Who can forget the Chicano rapper Krazy D vowing to bust a cap in Eazy’s ass at end of “Dope Man,” or the crooked white cop (voiced by Ice Cube) screaming for justice during “Fuck tha Police”’s frenzied finale? In a way, N.W.A were always making movies. 

“We focused on the brotherhood.”
—F. Gary Gray

Although N.W.A made controversial headlines, that wasn’t what motivated the filmmakers. “We didn’t focus on whether the group was shocking or not,” says director F. Gary Gray, who worked with Ice Cube on Friday. “We focused on the brotherhood.”

A sense of closeness has permeated the Straight Outta Compton set as several key, behind-the-scenes figures in N.W.A’s history, like The D.O.C. and Laylaw from Above The Law, as well as other friends and family, have been present throughout the film’s production. Backstage behind a curtained area, Ren and Cube (who is chewing sunflower seeds like popcorn at a matinee) sit in directors chairs behind Gray, watching the action on the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium stage via monitors as the movie version of N.W.A runs through another hit. 

In order to look convincing while performing music on camera, actors Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Ice Cube), and Aldis Hodge (MC Ren) underwent coaching from rapper WC, who was part of Westside Connection. The cast even went into the studio to re-do N.W.A songs as part of their training. Jackson, Jr. had the most previous experience, having rapped as OMG (a name he stopped using a while back). Neil Brown, Jr., who plays Yella, took up DJ lessons: “I can actually scratch and mix now,” he says.

“Dub C was a great trainer for us,” says Jason Mitchell. “We worked with him maybe a month just on mechanics.” The well-respected veteran rapper also took the cast around different Los Angeles neighborhoods to “really [get] into the streets and really [figure] this out because [this movie is] not just the motion of Eazy-E, it’s the motion of a culture.”

Each principal actor, who Gray says were chosen out of thousands who auditioned, spent time before filming with the person he’s portraying on screen. (In the case of Mitchell, he talked with Eazy’s family.)

Having long gained the reputation of being a perfectionist, the role of Dr. Dre was an intimidating one for Corey Hawkins, who admits to being nervous before meeting the famous producer. 

“But as soon as I met him, it felt like old times,” says Hawkins. “In this short amount of time he’s become like a huge mentor [to me].” 

Indeed, Dre knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it in the treacherous entertainment industry, having overcome unfavorable conditions before segueing into ventures worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The actor believes Dre’s discipline is the key to understanding him.

“He’s detailed oriented, and that’s why he is on top of his game still today,” says Hawkins. “He’s a private person. He lets his work speak for him. His work is a microcosm of who he is.”

DJ Yella, who back in the day spent countless hours with Dre in clubs like Eve After Dark and then toured with him as part of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, has a theory about the origins of Dre’s commitment to excellence. 

“[Dre being a perfectionist] comes from DJing,” says Yella. “You like your mixes to be clean and tight—no sloppiness.” This dedication continued in the long studio sessions at Audio Achievements in Torrance, CA working on various Ruthless Records projects. “Dre was a person who could see ahead of the beat,” says Yella. “He could see the beat before it was even there. He’s like a rare person. Very rare.” 

Neil Brown, Jr. heard studio stories directly from Yella: “[When] he and Dre worked together they had like this eerie thing about them where they didn’t even have to talk. They would sit in the studio for six hours before everybody else came in to lay down tracks. So it was just them most of the time, and they kind of fed off each other. Dre was lookin’ towards the future, and Yella was lookin’ at the present, finding like the best cuts, the best scratches, the best music that they could find.”

As much as Dr. Dre is celebrated for his production brilliance, MC Ren is someone who has not always been given his due credit—even within his own group. A few months before the release of Straight Outta Compton, The Ruthless Villain took to Twitter and Instagram to complain that one of the movie’s trailers and some of the promotional posters highlighted only Dre, Cube, and Eazy. 

“How the hell [you] leave me out after all the work I put into them records?” he tweeted in June. 

Ironically, six months earlier when speaking to Ren, he had said: “[After] all the hard work we did, I never thought [there] would be a movie. So this is like re-igniting it, man, to let people that wasn’t there learn the whole N.W.A story.” 

Ren’s fans let him know on social media that his contributions to N.W.A and his solo achievements (like his 1992 solo single, “Final Frontier,” off the Kizz My Black Azz EP) can never be erased. Looking back, MC Ren was like having James Worthy on your squad, a consistent and talented team player who knew how to take the lead when necessary. It was Ren who maintained things with his commanding rhymes and ghostwriting skills after Cube left the group. He remains a quintessential rapper’s rapper: Big Pun covered “Quiet On Tha Set” in 1998 and Andre 3000 name checked him on “Aquemini.” 

Speaking with Ren it’s obvious he’s a dude with an old school mentality. One of the things he values most about N.W.A, he says, is that “we got respect from all our peers in the game.”

“What surprised me the most [about Ren] was that we [both] have a similar vibe when it comes to his attitude and his candor,” says Aldis Hodge, who portrays the MC. “He’s deliberate with his words. When he speaks he means to say something. He has a big presence about him that’s kind of quiet and subdued because he’s a cat that is just chillin’ until it’s time to turn up, and then you see a whole different side of him.”

By now the world has seen many different sides of Ice Cube on the big screen, from Boyz n the Hood to family fare like Are We There Yet?  Watching him on set it is clear that he is proud of his son playing him. 

“[My dad] calls me every day before I get to set to talk about where his head was at in the scene that I’m doing,” says O’Shea Jackson Jr., who has studied acting for two years with three different acting coaches. “[But] me being his son, I pick up his mannerisms anyway. That’s just the way of nature, y’know? So a lot of the things that people say I do just like him, like the way I walk, the way I say certain words, are things that I don’t even notice.”

As crazy as N.W.A could be, Ice Cube was actually more hardcore after he left the group. Transforming himself into “The Nigga You Love To Hate,” he was the most intimidating man in hip-hop, not for physical toughness, but for his hostile and unflinching views on classic albums like Death Certificate that matched his perpetually flared nostrils and permanently rendered scowl on his face. Rappers aren’t scary anymore, but he was. 

(By the way, Cube has seen the I Was Like This… Now I’m Like This… meme of himself that’s floated around the Internet for years. His reaction to it is reminiscent of his no-nonsense ‘90s incarnation: “One picture is real life and one picture is a movie. Movies are movies. That’s acting. That’s not real life. I’m a real person. I’m not a gimmick, I’m not an image. I’m the truth.”) 

Since the role of Ice Cube is being played by his son (the Jackson family resemblance is striking), many of Eazy-E’s fans wanted to see his eldest offspring, Eric Wright, Jr. (aka Lil’ Eazy-E), play the role of his father. Jason Mitchell is well aware of that. 

“For those who were upset about it, I totally understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “Like who doesn’t want the legacy to live on through the legacy? That’s totally comprehendible. But [Lil’ E] … he gave me the blessing. This is a serious thing. We’re doing this for Eazy. Because even though he made mistakes and things went wrong, [N.W.A] had a brotherhood.”

Seasoned music manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti) has shouldered a lot of the blame, along with Suge Knight, for the group’s break up. Heller helped Eazy establish Ruthless Records in 1987. The label quickly became one of the most successful independent companies to ever exist in the rap game. But Heller was also accused of short-changing N.W.A members. 

Radio icon Greg Mack, former music director at KDAY, one of the few stations that gave N.W.A airplay, feels like the music vet has gotten somewhat of a bad rap.  

“You have to understand the wizardry of Jerry Heller in making Eazy a company,” says Mack. “[Eazy] wasn’t just a record label. I know many times Eazy would say, ‘Greg, look at my stocks.’ And out of the top 10 stocks, he always had 6 out of the 10 that he owned stock in. So I think Jerry got criticized because he was looking out for Eazy instead of the rest of the guys.” (Heller declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Eazy-E was a master of self promotion, like when he claimed on his 1988 song “Eazy-Duz-It” that he was born in 1973. Since he stood only 5’ 6” (with his Compton hat on), implying that he was a teenager was perhaps his way of joking around. But Eazy was shrewd. He knew that creating a mystique could lead to record sales. Eazy was also a visionary. He signed platinum-selling acts like J.J. Fad and R&B vocalist Michel’le, but he also took risks with unique artists like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Atban Klann (who would eventually morph into Black Eyed Peas). The importance of Ruthless Records being a black-owned independent company shouldn’t be overlooked. It wasn’t even five years after “Fuck Tha Police” that Dre (now doing business with Interscope Records, which was affiliated with Time Warner at the time) was forced to take the incendiary, anti-cop “Mr. Officer” off The Chronic due to pressure from major record distributors. 

Everyone by now knows the story of how a reluctant Eazy-E, who paved the way for rappin’ CEOs Puffy and Master P, was coaxed into recording “Boyz-N-The-Hood” when the rappers it was originally intended for turned it down. Knowing that Eazy didn’t set out to be a “star"—and that he didn’t act like one—only makes him cooler. Getting the right actor to play Eazy was perhaps the most crucial casting in the entire N.W.A movie. In person, Jason Mitchell radiates a cool confidence underneath the black hat, locs and Jheri Curl. He might not look that much like the icon physically, but Mitchell certainly has zeroed in on the late rapper’s magnetism. How does he do it? 

“It’s all in the Curl,” he says, joking. “Don’t let ‘em tell you nothin’ different.”

But the actual secret to channeling Eazy’s energy is understanding what made him tick. 

“He always had ambition and was never satisfied,” says Mitchell. “So he always pressed for the best. When it came to the ladies he would try to get the most. And when it came to the money, he would try to get the most. And that’s impressive when you see somebody live that much life in such little time.” 

Later that night on set, four of Eazy’s sons and daughters gather backstage, sticking close together. Eric Wright, Jr. is among them, carrying his child, who after a long day has fallen asleep in his arms. 

For those who have questioned Yella’s contributions to N.W.A—aside from rewindin’ and kickin’ the break in—he probably had one of the most important roles any artist in the music industry could have—he was a genuine friend. Yella has tried to look out for Eazy’s kids since the “hip-hop thugster’s” death from AIDS in 1995, and has done Sons of N.W.A shows with Eazy and Dre’s sons (Lil’ E, E3 and Curtis Young). After N.W.A broke up, Yella remained loyal to Eazy, but he also never participated in the Dre disses during the Ruthless vs. Death Row war. 

In case you’re wondering, hip-hop beef can lead to awkward moments later in life. Having torched his old crew with the inflammatory “No Vaseline” all those years ago, Ice Cube, who has no remorse about going solo (“I’m glad that N.W.A broke up. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it didn’t.”) finally had a chance to sit down and talk about the dis track with his former foes: 

“I had to ask [them], ‘Well, how did you feel when you first heard it?’ Even though it was dissin’, Dre said he liked the song. Yella was like, ‘Fuck, he got us good.’ I think the only person who was probably mad or upset about it was Eazy, and maybe Ren a little bit. But for the most part they looked at it as good hip-hop.”

Not all the past drama was left behind. The bad blood between Dr. Dre and his former business partner Suge Knight (almost 20 years after the producer left Death Row Records) seems to still be there, at least on Knight’s part. In January, a dispute on the set of a commercial for the film later continued at a Tam’s Burgers parking lot in Compton. In an instance of surreal horror, video captured Knight, once the most feared man in the rap industry, running over and killing Terry Carter (who started Heavyweight Records with Ice Cube in the late ‘90s) and injuring Straight Outta Compton technical advisor Cle “Bone” Sloan. Knight currently faces murder charges. 

The N.W.A story is a reminder of what has and hasn’t changed the last three decades. There’s still violence in the streets, but like before, some of the criminals wear badges. As evidenced by numerous recent cases caught on tape, law enforcement continues to wage a war on people of color, and this is no time to remain silent. 

F. Gary Gray feels that although N.W.A never claimed to be leaders they spoke up when it mattered most: “People were afraid to hear the truth. They didn’t gloss over some of the things that most people wanted to sweep under the rug.”

“Before us, it was like a guideline you had to follow [in hip-hop],” says Ren. “Our legacy will be changing the game. Saying what you want to say, how we said, ‘Fuck tha police.’”

And we should keep saying it until we don’t have to say it no more. 

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