Straight Outta Compton: Making of Movie–and Cultural Phenom

Ice Cube

In 2009, Ice Cube came across a script that proved too tempting to overlook, and for the first time he jumpstarted the idea of a viable feature-film biography based on the group’s experiences, ones that began almost three decades prior. For Cube, there was no doubt that the filmed version of the N.W.A story would be dedicated to group founder Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, who had passed away in 1995.

straight_outta_compton_3Cube reflects: “Thank God for Eazy, who had the vision and saw this music as the future, the records that people want to hear. He was so adamant about putting Compton on the map. He used to be like, ‘Everybody, y’all in Brooklyn. Everybody, y’all got Queens in the house, the Bronx, uptown. Nobody here on the Compton. What about Compton?’ He was adamant that he would put Compton on the map if that’s the last thing he did.”

With the participation of key players—including fellow N.W.A member Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, who would come on board as producers, and original group members MC Ren and DJ Yella, who joined as consultants, the team knew that they could do it right and pay homage to their story.

Screenplay

straight_outta_compton_2The screenplay, entitled Straight Outta Compton, originated after several years of interviews and research compiled by music documentarian S. Leigh Savidge (Welcome to Death Row) and screenwriter Alan Wenkus. That early draft would lay the foundation for what would become Andrea Berloff ’s working version, who along with screenwriter Jonathan Herman’s work, fine-tuned the material into the shooting script.

Incorporating an abundance of recollections information garnered from all fronts, the writers’ collective work was an expansive look at the life and times of N.W.A. At the forefront of everyone’s minds was the belief that telling their story would uphold the legacy of their friend Eazy-E as the magnetic visionary he was.

straight_outta_compton_1Eazy-E was the core of this group’s foundation and would be depicted with respect.  From the beginning, Eazy’s goal was to portray life in the ’hood with frank lyrics by Ice Cube and infectious beats by Dr. Dre and create a new movement that evoked their experiences in Compton with an honesty that had never been expressed.  He knew that they had something special, and together with DJ Yella and MC Ren, the five would make iconic music that would explode well beyond the poverty stricken urban centers of America and attract attention around the world.

Woods-Wright

Woods-Wright, with her unique insight into Eazy-E’s personal life and understanding of the man behind the music, was invaluable to the production.  The producer discusses what she wants fans of N.W.A and audiences new to their life story to know about Eazy-E: “Eric was an authentic realist who exemplified the true meaning of perseverance. Eazy’s legacy is a profound reflection of the essence behind the metaphor never judge a book by its cover…and if given the opportunity to read all the pages you will acquire the knowledge and insight, which will leave an everlasting impression.”

Andre Young, better known to millions around the world as Dr. Dre, was much more hesitant than the others about having their story brought to the big screen. For the artist/producer, whose albums “The Chronic” and “2001”continue to heavily influence West Coast rap and hip-hop, those early years were incredibly personal, defining moments in his life, and he was skeptical about whether those moments could be captured with accuracy and integrity.

After reading through the material and several conversations, first with Ice Cube and then his own family, Dr. Dre came on board to help produce the film that would share with the world the roller-coaster ride that was N.W.A.

A longtime champion of the material and an integral part of its development at Universal Pictures, Scott Bernstein, former executive vice president of production at the studio, remained a part of the project as he left the studio to start his own film production company and produce Straight Outta Compton.

He explains what drew him to the tale: “N.W.A’s story does not only encompass the universal themes of friendship, brotherhood and triumph, but it also shows the darker element of betrayal and tragedy that surrounded the group. I was fascinated that at the same time the guys were pursuing the American Dream, they were experiencing a Greek tragedy. To that end, Eazy is the one character who is the most tragic in this story. He starts out with all this guile and energy, and at the end of the day he is betrayed by his own ego and belief in Jerry Heller that Ruthless Records and Eazy-E were more important than the group. By the time he realizes his own faults and makes amends, it’s too late. Cube and Dre set out to make this film to honor their fallen brother and to celebrate his legacy of fighting back.”

Ice Cube’s production partner, Matt Alvarez, who has worked with Cube’s production company since Next Friday, agrees with his fellow producer. He notes: “Cube and I’ve worked together a long time, and we’ve never developed a project that is so important and so personal to him. To see how all of this has come full circle for him and the other members of N.W.A is incredibly moving.  I’m honored to have a part in telling their real story.” The man who would be responsible for guiding the team in finally bringing this complex story to theaters would be director F. Gary Gray, whose roster of feature credits crosses genres from actioners like The Italian Job and dramatic thrillers such as The Negotiator to comedies like Be Cool. Deeply involved with the project since 2011, Gray views Straight Outta Compton as the most important movie of his decades-long career, and truly the culmination of his life’s experiences and work.

The director’s relationship with the material explored in the film is extremely personal, and a subject Gray embraces and feels in his core. As a child, he grew up on the same streets as the young men we follow in this story, watching the influx of crack cocaine and imported automatic weapons in the 1980s destroy homes and families. Their tale is his: one of memorizing details of the makes and models of undercover police cars that entered Compton, watching as the department’s battering rams annihilated homes in the neighborhood, and discovering that your art could be the ideal outlet to express daily frustration and anger.

Gray, who also serves as a producer on the drama, began his movie career when he was 23 with a short film called Legacy, which explored the social ills of violence and would set the stage for his lifelong fascination with using this medium to tell the kinds of stories he and the people he knew and loved lived.

His relationship with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre is characterized by a long-standing kinship and mutual respect. As a young director, Gray helmed music videos for hip-hop and R&B artists, including Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and used that experience as training ground for his burgeoning film career. His work includes Ice Cube’s hit “It Was a Good Day” and the Ice Cube-Dr. Dre collaboration “Natural Born Killaz.” In fact, he would make his feature directorial debut with the 1995 comedy classic Friday, which was written by and starred Ice Cube.

Motivated by his long history with these two artists, Gray’s primary goal was to create an authentic film that chronicled the enduring friendship and told how money, fame, ego and tragedy would challenge and transform the brotherhood of the groundbreaking group. He was also keen to demonstrate N.W.A’s impact on today’s pop culture and draw from his own experiences and relationships within the artistic community, so many of whom knew this life just as intimately.

“Reading the script for the first time, it felt like a coming-of-age story, and that was unexpected,” reflects the director. “It felt like the beginning of history with these five brothers. I didn’t expect the emotion that made me want to delve deeper. N.W.A’s music is great, but I wanted to tap into the humanity. Everyone knows Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E; they’re icons, but they’re also people. In one of my first conversations with Ice Cube, I said, ‘If you give me access to O’Shea Jackson, Andre Young and Eric Wright, then I’m interested in telling this story.’”

Gray explains that this is so much more than a movie to him: “Straight Outta Compton is the story that’s been brewing in me since I was a boy and the movie that I was born to make. When I look at the faces of the actors in the film, I see the kids from my streets 30 years ago. This is our coming-of-age story, and you can feel the passion of everyone involved and the heart we’ve all put into the film. We knew we had to get it just right so audiences who aren’t from this neighborhood could have a glimpse at what we went through and those that are from here feel we are doing their story justice. From my first short to this film, I feel like I’ve come full circle and am honored to tell our truth.”

As much a N.W.A’s raw lyrics personified black life on the streets of South Los Angeles, they also seeded the birth of a new generation of street artists, whose socially conscious messages remain relevant and powerful decades later.

The story behind the group’s iconoclastic music spans over a decade in Straight Outta Compton—from the origins of the teenage emcee who became a voice for the disenfranchised, the deejay who had the skills and drive to become a mega-producer and galvanize the rap world, and lastly the street hustler whose vision brought them together, along with two other enduring talents from the streets of Compton. Together, they galvanized a genre that would become one embraced by audiences across the globe and endure for decades.

“We wanted everyone to take notice. I call it ‘shock-hop,’” Dr. Dre explains. That shock extended to a very deliberate moniker for the group, which matched their incendiary message. “We wanted to make a statement with our name and music, make everybody pay attention and listen to what we had to say.”

From the group’s inception, the members of N.W.A knew they had chemistry and each discovered their respective roles, effortlessly creating a synergy within the group. Ice Cube and MC Ren possessed the lyrical talent; Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, who got their start deejaying together in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, handled the sound and producing; and Eazy-E stepped into the role of front man onstage and off, marketing their signature look and sound not only to their peers, but ultimately to mainstream music lovers across the globe.

Lorenzo Patterson’s alter ego, MC Ren, was a young teenager rapping on the block when he first got to know Eazy-E, a fixture in his neighborhood. Says MC Ren of the group’s early days performing at small local venues: “I wanted to perform; I wanted to be a rapper. E gave me the platform to do it and do it differently.”

For his part, after Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby had been spinning records at the clubs alongside Dr. Dre for a couple of years, both were ready to make a move. The perks of pretty girls and partying were overshadowed by the lack of money and the desire to make better music.

“Back in the ’80s, it was all East Coast rap; the West Coast didn’t have nothing,” recalls Yella. “Dre and I had seen a couple of Run-DMC shows, and it got us thinking about what we wanted to do outside the Wreckin’ Cru. I thought: ‘Are we going to stay here and be broke or start something new?’ That’s when Eazy came into the picture.”

But as optimistically as N.W.A came together, the group’s demise was a tumultuous disintegration—one marked by feelings of mistrust and betrayal that tore away at their friendships. The complicated relationship between Eazy-E and group manager Jerry Heller prompted the turning point in the N.W.A story and precipitated their decline.

The trust began to unravel when Ice Cube questioned Heller over his contract with Ruthless Records—the label that Heller and Wright founded to release N.W.A’s music—and left the group in 1989. Dr. Dre soon followed him out the door. For his part, Dre would start his chart-topping solo career at Death Row Records and ultimately his own label, Aftermath Records.

It would take several more years of dis records and estrangement, but eventually, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E would bury the hatchet. The reconciliation that occurred just prior to Eazy-E’s illness was a testament to the founding members that their bond is stronger than the rivalries that drove them apart.

“I think it’s just as simple as maturing. Okay I did my thing, I was successful with it, and let’s let bygones be bygones. We were brothers. We came up together; we started this together, and I’m not going to hold a grudge, let’s just get back in there and do what we do, and have some fun with this thing that we love.”

While the reunion was unable to occur before Eazy-E’s passing, the music continued to live on and inspire new generations of disenfranchised youth with a soundtrack to not only their frustration and anger at authority, but their sheer joy and being young and reckless.

The business of music is one that can eat inexperienced talent alive, and for the most part, the members of N.W.A were no different. Looking back, they agree that they were so focused on making the most of their opportunity to make music, perform for audiences and enjoy the fruits of their labor that they overlooked the fine print of the business side. For Dr. Dre, that time was all about being creative.

Until then, he never had access to state-of-the-art recording studios and equipment, and the possibilities were endless. He offers: “I was so focused on the music; I wasn’t really paying attention to the business that was going on. I wanted to be in the studio and keep that creative energy going. Looking back, I should have been paying attention, but it’s simply a matter of maturity and we were young. I just wanted to get in the studio, do what we do and have some fun with the hip-hop we love. That’s what it was all about for me.”

DJ Yella echoes Dr. Dre’s comments, noting, “We were just young and dumb and were taken advantage of. Some of us realized it sooner than others, and finally the group broke up. It’s a shame, but honestly, I feel N.W.A was made to break up. That’s the only way we all got to this point.”