Production Information Witness the rise of the world’s most notorious group.
In 1987, five young men—Ice Cube (O’SHEA JACKSON, JR.), Dr. Dre (COREY HAWKINS of Non-Stop), Eazy-E (JASON MITCHELL of Contraband), DJ Yella (NEIL BROWN, JR. of Fast & Furious) and MC Ren (ALDIS HODGE of A Good Day to Die Hard)—using brutally honest rhymes and hardcore beats, transformed their frustration and anger about life their inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood into the most powerful weapon they had: their music.
During the late ’80s, the streets of Compton, California, were some of the most dangerous in the country. The plague of crack cocaine was escalating at a rate as alarming as the violent, gang-driven business that propelled its use. The LAPD and its specialized gang unit were leading the charge on the war on drugs with an unchecked mercilessness, one that left residents of the Southern California community not merely tense, but shell-shocked, distrustful of authority and sorely embittered.
Eazy-E, a charismatic dope-selling hustler with the smarts to see a future in L.A.’s burgeoning rap scene, had a plan. Deciding to leave the street life behind, he reached out to his friend Dr. Dre, a local deejay who spun regularly at Compton clubs with counterpart DJ Yella. They, too, were tired of dead ends and hungry for change, and Eazy-E had the resources and connections to make a change happen. Joining them in the venture were two young emcees from the block: MC Ren and Ice Cube, a talented 16-year-old whose explosive rhymes caught Dr. Dre’s attention. It was time to use their frustration as fuel for their art and give their people the one thing they desperately needed: a voice.
Taking us back to where it all began, Straight Outta Compton tells the true story of how these cultural rebels—armed only with their lyrics, swagger and raw talent—stood up to the authorities who meant to keep them down and formed the world’s most dangerous group, N.W.A. And as they spoke the truth that no one had before and exposed life in the ’hood, their voice ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today.
Straight Outta Compton is a lifelong passion project directed by F. GARY GRAY (Friday, Set It Off, The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen) and based on a story by the film’s co-executive producers, S. LEIGH SAVIDGE (Welcome to Death Row) & ALAN WENKUS (Private Resort), as well as ANDREA BERLOFF (World Trade Center). The drama’s screenplay is by newcomer JONATHAN HERMAN and Berloff.
The drama, co-starring Golden Globe Award winner PAUL GIAMATTI (HBO’s John Adams), is produced by original N.W.A members ICE CUBE and DR. DRE, who are joined by fellow producers TOMICA WOODS-WRIGHT, MATT ALVAREZ (Ride Along series), Gray and SCOTT BERNSTEIN (upcoming Ride Along 2).
The Straight Outta Compton behind-the-scenes creative team is led by director of photography MATTHEW LIBATIQUE (Black Swan, Iron Man 2), production designer SHANE VALENTINO (Beginners, HBO’s The Normal Heart), editor BILLY FOX (Hustle & Flow, Four Brothers), costume designer KELLI JONES (TV’s Sons of Anarchy, Homefront), composer JOSEPH TRAPANESE (Oblivion, The Raid 2) and music supervisor JOJO VILLANUEVA (Horrible Bosses 2, Black or White).
WILL PACKER (Think Like a Man series) serves as executive producer of the drama, alongside ADAM MERIMS (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), DAVID ENGEL (Saint John of Las Vegas), BILL STRAUS (The Last Rites of Joe May), THOMAS TULL (Jurassic World) and JON JASHNI (Godzilla).
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION “Straight from the Streets”:
A Story Decades in the Telling
The tale of N.W.A is multifaceted, encompassing the compelling personal stories of its members, while weaving in the social tapestry from which the group’s revolutionary music emerged over its 10-year span.
Even amid his thriving and long-sustained career as a chart-topping music artist and a quadruple threat in entertainment as an actor, writer, producer and director, Ice Cube, aka O’Shea Jackson, has always kept the notion of chronicling the rise of N.W.A tucked in the back of his mind.
In 2009, Ice Cube came across a script that proved too tempting to overlook, and for the first time he jump-started 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. Cube 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.
The screenplay, entitled Straight Outta Compton, originated from 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. Eazy-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, 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 the 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’s 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 ’80s 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.
In particular, 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 as 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,” says Dr. Dre of the reconciliation. “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.”
World’s Most Dangerous Group:
Casting the Brothers in Arms Casting for the key roles of a complex, emotional, real-life street drama like Straight Outta Compton was highly personal for all and took an immense effort by Gray, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Woods-Wright and their fellow producers. Of course, their goal when casting the five coveted roles was the full package of triple-threat performers—who could act, look the part and perform with an unfiltered intensity that channeled Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren.
Gray discusses their process: “The most important aspect of casting N.W.A was authenticity. Hip-hop is about being authentic, and when you have Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella—who come from a very specific place—it’s an even bigger challenge.” When it came to casting, the director and his fellow producers knew where their priorities were with talent on screen. “Our mandate was performance first, then street cred and likeness to the member of N.W.A they were portraying. Your story has to be correct, and that lives and dies with performance.”
What started with traditional casting in Los Angeles and New York soon branched out to numerous open-casting calls across the country to the cities of Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta, among others.
The roles of Eazy-E and Ice Cube were the first to be cast. As the early development stages of the project began to take shape, Ice Cube could easily envision his then-20-year-old son stepping into the on-screen role of Cube’s younger self. One look at O’Shea Jackson, Jr., and there’s no mistaking he is his father’s son. It’s not just the striking physical similarities between the two, but subtle nuances that genetics can’t deny—like a confident swagger that comes from a deep and strong sense of self.
Call it parental intuition, but Ice Cube knew his charismatic son had the talent. He just needed the proper training and tools to be considered seriously for the acting role. With no prior acting experience, Jackson was admittedly nervous about taking on any role, let alone one that was as personal and high-profile as portraying his father in a long-touted, highly anticipated biopic about the seminal rap group.
Ice Cube was straightforward with Jackson about what was expected of him in preparing for the role, but assured him he would guide him through the whole process. Yet just like his father, Jackson adheres to the tenet “go big or go home,” and once he made the decision to audition for the role he was all in.
“It started to become an obsession,” says Jackson. “I knew I couldn’t go see Straight Outta Compton and watch somebody else play this part. It would have drove me crazy because I feel that no one can play this part like I can. When you think about it, I’ve basically been studying for this part for over 20 years.” He laughs: “I’ve become super method with my approach to the role.”
For Jackson, developing that “super method” form of acting began after multiple auditions to prove himself and win the role. To draw out the deep fire from within him, Jackson began to work with director Gray for close to two years of continuous acting classes and coaches in Los Angeles and New York. Like the majority of his fellow cast members, the young performer utilized the ultimate resource: their real-life N.W.A counterparts. As filming commenced, the artistic exchange between father and son was a vital and integral part of Jackson’s stepping into Ice Cube’s younger persona with ease.
“Dad has told me these stories my whole life, so to be able to re-enact them on screen is the coolest thing in the world,” relays Jackson. “He’s always accessible; he’ll call and talk to me and let me know where his head was for certain scenes…so I can use that knowledge to make the scene pop and be as authentic as possible.”
When it came to the musical and performance aspects of the role, Jackson’s DNA kicked in and he was completely at ease…whether filming concert scenes on stage in front of thousands or laying down tracks in the recording studio. Jackson, who did his own rapping in Straight Outta Compton and sounds uncannily similar to his father, cites years of traveling and performing with his dad on tours around the world for contributing to his comfort level while performing in the film. Little did he know then that those years of getting the rare opportunity to soak in the stage presence of the rap impresario would lend itself to this new endeavor.
For the role of Eazy-E, actor Jason Mitchell, who was living in New Orleans at the time, submitted an audition tape that wowed the filmmakers from the get-go. Mitchell’s physicality, coupled with his intensity, made Gray and his fellow producers stand up and pay attention. With only a handful of acting credits to his name and no formal training, the 28-year-old made an indelible impact. He fully embodied the man known as the Godfather of Gangsta rap.
“It’s a gift and a curse to not have Eazy here to coach me along this ride,” Mitchell reflects. “I want to be able to re-humanize him and be what people remember of him. But the ultimate challenge as an actor is to re-create and really embody that person. If I’m able to tap into even a smidgen of something that his family or friends may have remembered, then it’s all good.”
Actor Corey Hawkins, a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, is perhaps best known for his stage work, including the role of Tybalt in the Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet opposite Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, and a small role in the Liam Neeson actioner Non-Stop. He would be the next performer to be cast in the film, in the role of rap pioneer Dr. Dre.
Hawkins’ almost derailed on the road to that part when he got the call to audition. The actor, an ardent N.W.A fan, at first believed he didn’t possess the voice, the physicality or even a passing resemblance to portray Dr. Dre, and he didn’t want to jump into the casting fray if he wasn’t a serious contender. Ultimately, he chose to submit an audition tape, and based on that powerful audition he was offered his first major leading role.
“The casting process was intense,” recalls Hawkins, “but Dre shared a lot with me and became a huge mentor throughout the whole process. I remember him saying, ‘You don’t have to imitate me; you don’t have to mimic me. I’m not looking for you to do any of that. I’m looking for you to represent N.W.A and what we stood for. If you put that first, then everything else will follow.’”
One of the defining moments for the filmmakers in casting the film was one of the final chemistry tests, which gathered the top contenders for the roles of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. In front of the cameras, Jackson, Hawkins and Mitchell had a rhythmic interaction that excited everyone.
It was evident to everyone in the room as they watched the trio settle into an easy, relaxed camaraderie behind the scenes that this energy ultimately and seamlessly informed their collective performances for the cameras. As nerve-racking and arduous as the process was, the actors admit they felt that kinship. That connection sustained the three as they began the journey of transforming themselves into the poetic artist, the epic music producer and the legendary icon.
The filmmakers had their Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, but they still needed to reinforce their efforts to pin down their top picks to play MC Ren and DJ Yella. The goal as the search continued for the final pieces of the casting puzzle was to complement the undeniable dynamic already established with the casting of these three N.W.A members.
Soon after, Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. stepped into the final two roles and completed Gray’s dream team, cementing the real-life brotherhood of actors. Hodge, perhaps the best-known member of the core cast, co-starred in the TNT television series Leverage and portrays MC Ren, while Brown, who has had small roles in films like Fast & Furious and Battle: Los Angeles, plays DJ Yella.
As with Jackson and Hawkins, one of the bigger bonuses for Hodge and Brown was the access they had with their real-life counterparts. Not many young actors land a potential career-defining role and get the personal phone number and email for rap royalty. Their entrée into N.W.A was immediate and immersive, and the group of five bonded during the process.
“Very rarely do you get a cast that you vibe with naturally, and genuinely like,” says Hodge. “We all came to this with the same mentality that N.W.A had—to lean on one another to make their dream happen—and we would do the same,” says Hodge. “We’re a team, and that’s how it’s been from day one. These are my boys.”
Mitchell, too, utilized the resources of the surviving members of N.W.A, but more importantly, he had the privilege of spending quality time with Woods-Wright, some of the Wright family and friends who shared their memories of Eazy-E. The family, in turn, accepted the filmmakers’ invitation to visit set to watch filming of select scenes and to see firsthand how the story was being told.
Eazy-E’s daughter, Erica, and son, Eric Wright (also known as Lil’ E), were both particularly helpful and came to the Los Angeles film set several times. “I tried to find every video I could,” explains Mitchell. “Tomica was a big help with that, since she had access to unseen footage and all kinds of behind-the-scenes material. Then there were the little things that you get from conversations that were helpful to piece together the character.”
Gray, a stickler for details, mined all he could from N.W.A to re-create as much of their world as possible. On set, it afforded him the luxury of turning around from his seat at the video monitor to ask Ice Cube or Dr. Dre, or their wives Kim and Nicole, respectively, their thoughts on a particular scene or mood or hairstyle at that point in time. Likewise, the director used bonding strategies he’d developed with the cast in his earlier actioners that made it easier for each member of his core ensemble to slip into character and truly feel the brotherhood that they were portraying.
In addition to Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Woods-Wright, both DJ Yella and MC Ren joined in to give their recollections and assist in the production and costume design—from their general thoughts on their first tour or performance at Skateland to the more emotionally driven subtext of the period leading up to Eazy-E’s HIV diagnosis…and his death soon after. Even procedural elements, like how DJ Yella approached working the mixing board or Dr. Dre’s distinctive style spinning on his turntables, it all mattered, and the cast was schooled until they got it down.
Bernstein discusses the active involvement of the group’s original members: “Their presence on set added a deep sense of authenticity and realism to the film. Having Dre and Cube involved from the get-go, and then Ren and Yella on the set during production, allowed us to capture their nuances. It allowed the actors to have one-on-one time with them all and understand the essence of N.W.A.”
With the five core members of N.W.A set, it was time to round out the supporting roles. One of the bigger coups for the filmmakers was casting Golden Globe Award-winning actor Paul Giamatti for the role of N.W.A manager Jerry Heller. Giamatti, who had previously worked with director Gray on the 1998 thriller The Negotiator, was a student at Yale University when he first heard N.W.A. As such, when he got the call about the project, he was well aware of their innovative music and their societal impact.
“Nobody had ever heard anything like N.W.A before, and for them to achieve such a level of commercial success and become this cultural moment in history is remarkable,” offers Giamatti. “They are fascinating guys, so when I read the script I was not disappointed. It’s an exciting story; it’s epic in all different kinds of ways.”
As Giamatti has done with previous roles in which he portrayed living people, he opted to rely on the material at hand and go with his gut instinct as he approached the role. He purposely did not want to get sidetracked by the controversy swirling around the veteran music manager, who managed big acts like Elton John, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Ike & Tina Turner and The Who.
“The filmmakers treat Heller pretty evenhandedly,” says the performer. “It was interesting to be able to play that, because he was genuinely into the music and really did hear something unique and important in N.W.A. He genuinely thought this was important music.”
Establishing a rapport between Giamatti, an experienced actor with decades of critically acclaimed film, television and theater performances, and acting newbie Mitchell, whose scenes together lift the curtain a bit about Eazy-E and Heller’s dynamic, was key to the filmmakers’ goal of exploring all aspects of the relationship. As with the rest of the cast, the pair settled into an easy working relationship, despite the intense material with which they had to work.
From the start, Giamatti was impressed with Mitchell. “The second I shook Jason’s hand the first day I got to Los Angeles, I thought there was something very special about this guy,” Giamatti commends. “He’s extraordinary, and I don’t know if he realizes how good he is. But he’s the real deal, and it was interesting to watch him work.”
As much as N.W.A’s brotherhood put them on the map, a stalwart anchor of women alongside them sustained them through the tumultuous ride. Kim Jackson, wife of O’Shea and mother to O’Shea, Jr., is played onscreen by ALEXANDRA SHIPP (Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse). Jackson was a fixture on set with her husband, proudly watching her son re-create moments from their shared past in a film that spans their courtship to the birth of their children. Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow and the curator of the legacy he left behind, is portrayed by CARRA PATTERSON (Why Did I Get Married Too?), while actress ELENA GOODE (TV’s As the World Turns) stepped into the role of Nicole Young, Dr. Dre’s wife of 19 years.
Supporting roles in the film are played by up-and-coming and seasoned talent alike, including KEITH POWERS (Yahoo!’s Sin City Saints) as Tyree, Dr. Dre’s little brother; LAKEITH LEE STANFIELD (Selma) as Snoop Dogg; TATE ELLINGTON (TV’s Quantico) as Bryan Turner, Ice Cube’s former manager; COREY REYNOLDS as Lonzo Williams, club owner and fellow member of World Class Wreckin’ Cru, with Dr. Dre and DJ Yella; and R. MARCUS TAYLOR (Life of Crime) as Suge Knight.
Music of the Film In the late ’80s, the East Coast rap was at the forefront of rap with such artists as Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. & Rakim and Beastie Boys touring and garnering radio airplay nationwide.
The previously unheard style of reality/gangsta rap had a distinct West Coast flavor that was born and bred across neighborhoods through South Los Angeles. N.W.A’s lyrics laid against stylized beats would simultaneously repel and galvanize the music game. What set N.W.A apart from East Coast rappers was their visceral, no-holds-barred social commentary, which at times melded straight-up candor with bawdy gallows humor about black urban life.
This trailblazing combination is what appealed to Ice Cube about the group. “At the time, I looked at our music as our only weapon and our only way to bring some attention to the ’hood,” he states. “Other than the little blips on the news, nobody really knew or cared about what was going on with the LAPD or the rock problem all around us. The political aspects of the records turned me on just as much as the gangster aspect, just as much as the flowing beats and rhymes. But we also made a point to lace our music with some comedy because we laughed at shit that would make most people cry. Everything we had going on excited me about being a part of N.W.A.”
Their music was made for the people in their ’hood, and no one was more surprised than these five guys were when their music made it onto the airwaves. “Boyz-N-the-Hood” and the title song of the group’s 1988 debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” were the country’s first introduction to N.W.A, and it evoked a wide range of emotional reaction: from recognition and intrigue to outrage and fear.
The album itself took a little over a month to record in Torrance, California, and decades later it is still relevant both musically—continuously topping Best Rap Album lists—and socially, as the nation grapples with the rising numbers of young black people who die at the hands of police officers.
While the album may have sparked interest in N.W.A, the song “F*ck tha Police” ignited a firestorm with the FBI leading the charge, citing the song’s lyrics as incendiary. The song protested the police brutality and racial profiling that the group’s members saw everywhere around them, while “Gangsta Gangsta” painted the worldview of inner-city youth caught in the crosshairs of gangbangers.
“I had no idea ‘F*ck tha Police’ would have any kind of impact worldwide,” says Ice Cube. “I knew people in every ’hood, every ghetto, every poverty-stricken area was feeling the same frustration and would feel the song. But worldwide? I just thought it all was relegated to America.”
The group got blowback from all fronts. They had to contend with church leaders, law enforcement and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center). The group was well known for its Parental Advisory sticker, also known as the “Tipper sticker”—referring to Tipper Gore, co-founder of the group and wife of then-Senator Al Gore, who was lobbying against N.W.A’s lyrics. But when the FBI condemned them, N.W.A willingly became embroiled in defending their right to free speech and creative expression.
MC Ren looks back on those early days: “‘F*ck tha Police’ was just like any other song on our album. But once it sparked such a controversy, it took us to a whole ’nother level. Everybody was mad about it. The FBI, preachers, politicians, everybody. But we didn’t care, we just wanted to do music. As I got older, though, I realized that it had a big impact.”
As with any movie so deeply rooted in sound, the filmmakers were faced with weighing their options when attempting to accurately capture the music. For director Gray and the other producers, it was perhaps even more difficult when it came to winnowing down the selections and capturing the singular sound of the N.W.A catalogue.
Ultimately, they wanted to celebrate the radical music of N.W.A, and in doing so it was essential that they nail the original tracks as realistically as possible. Would the actors who best fit the roles creatively have the musical chops to sound like the group? Would music supervisor JOJO VILLANUEVA (American Reunion, Black or White), along with music producer HARVEY MASON, JR. (The Help, Dreamgirls) need to digitally enhance cast vocals, or would the actors be able to perform and record their own vocals and lay them over the original tracks?
N.W.A’s vocals are all unique, and of course none of the team wanted to diminish their essence. Early on, Villanueva and Mason ascertained that most of the cast, with some vocal coaching, would be able to pull off the demands of re-creating the majority of the “Straight Outta Compton” album, as well as music from Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s solo recordings. In some instances cast vocals would be blended with the real vocals to create a balanced hybrid.
The cast was obviously aware of N.W.A’s impact, both musically and socially, and once again numerous conversations with their real-life counterparts gave them additional insight that informed the perspective on their performances. Comments Jackson: “N.W.A’s music is the voice of the people. It’s them educating others on the realities that they would not hear through the media. It’s them shedding light and taking the wool from over people’s eyes.”
The actors approached their task of working in the studio very seriously. Hawkins and Brown would also take on additional instruction on how to work the mixing board and turntables with ROBERT “DJ ROBSHOT” JOHNSON, who joined the production as a deejay coach.
“Corey and I both had to learn how to deejay,” discusses Brown. “I wanted to be able to scratch, cut records, to be able to mix. I told Robshot, ‘Teach me everything,’ and he did. From setting up equipment to tearing it down and everything in between. I kept doing it until it became second nature, so I would feel like a proper deejay.”
It was Ice Cube who suggested that they bring in fellow rapper WILLIAM “WC” (pronounced “dub-C”) CALHOUN from Westside Connection, another Ice Cube music collaboration, to coach the cast with their rap styles and stage presence. WC took time with each of the actors, showing them a methodical process that broke down the lyrics of each song…as well as each member’s signature style, cadence, tonality and delivery.
The rap vocal coach’s teachings affected them deeply. “I’m an actor. I can’t really rap, but I can act like I know how to rap,” states Hawkins. “Dub has been a huge sounding board for all of us. We all went into the studio and recorded and would be sitting there listening to each other rap. Then to have Cube and Dre right there in our ears telling us we’re doing a good job and that Eazy would be proud? It’s just a powerful feeling.”
The critical performance scenes gave the actors a sense of N.W.A’s ascension and allowed them to bond on stage. The first scene has Ice Cube taking the stage with Dr. Dre and DJ Yella’s World Class Wreckin’ Cru at Compton club Doo To’s, when he performs a rough version of “Gangsta, Gangsta,” which catches the attention of audience member Eazy-E. It was the first time on stage for Jackson on the mic, as well as Hawkins and Brown, who were both just getting comfortable with working the turntables. To add a bit more pressure, Dr. Dre was on set that day.
One of the more memorable moments on set was the scene that depicted N.W.A’s first promoted performance at Compton mainstay Skateland U.S.A., a roller-skating rink that also hosted local and national hip-hop and rap artists. “In Compton, Skateland is like the Apollo,” cites MC Ren.
Joining the cast and crew that day were Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren and The D.O.C., who often wrote for and toured with the group. Those who had grown up in Compton were admittedly stunned by the set’s resemblance to the real Skateland (production filmed at a skating rink in Glendale), as well as how much the cast had nailed their first show.
Hawkins walks us through it: “When the day came to film the Skateland show, the crowd was a lot bigger and everybody was rocking out to ‘Dopeman.’ I’m back there chopping up the samples, and we actually started to feel like N.W.A and feel each other out as a group. There was a lot on the table for our characters, but there was a lot on the table for us, too, to show that we can bring it.”
By the time the onscreen N.W.A was scheduled to film the tour performance scenes, they were completely in sync. Those scenes, a montage of multiple dates on N.W.A’s one and only 40-date tour in 1988, included dates in Houston, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; and most notably Detroit, Michigan, where a now-infamous incident ensued when local police rushed the stage after “F*ck tha Police” was performed.
Those performance scenes were some of the more nostalgic moments for both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. A few especially gratifying compliments for Jackson came during several on-set conversations with Dr. Dre, who told him how much his movements, gestures and vocal inflections were exactly like his father’s. Sums Jackson: “For Dre to have flashbacks while looking at me perform on stage, I feel like I’m doing it right.”
Lensed over two days at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, and another day at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the scenes allowed thousands of background extras and die-hard N.W.A fans to sing along, cheer and clap as Jackson, Hawkins, Mitchell, Hodges and Brown performed “F*ck tha Police,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Compton’s N the House.” Between takes, you could hear fans yelling out, “We love you, Eazy!” to Mitchell as the guys reset for another take.
Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren were all on hand for many of those performances, which energized the cast and the audience. They were long days, even for the experienced extras, but each night everyone was rewarded when Ice Cube and WC jumped on stage and performed a couple of numbers for the crowd. Ice Cube even invited his son to join him for a song, which got the crowd roaring.
All in all, everyone agreed it was a good day.
Locations and Design: While research and in-depth conversations with members of N.W.A were essential to the actors’ portrayals and laid the foundation for the filmmaker’s vision for Straight Outta Compton, telling the story correctly wouldn’t be possible without delving into the backdrop before which their turbulent tale played out.
The city of Compton circa the mid-’80s, with its violent history and its proud denizens, is as integral a part of N.W.A’s rise as any other element. N.W.A’s defiant name, coupled with hard-hitting lyrics, spoke directly to living life in this predominantly black, working-class neighborhood punctuated by gang life and violence. When clearly and simply resounded by N.W.A, the complex story of this complex city resonated with millions of people across the country.
More importantly, the group’s music became an anthem about what young black men everywhere were living, allowing them, their friends and their families to voice their rage against police brutality and injustice. Reality rap was born from it all.
As he is a product of that era in Los Angeles, Gray has his own recollections: “I grew up in South Central L.A., and it was pretty rough in the 1980s. It was the Reagan era, the economy was really bad and there was this huge shift in the culture on the streets. N.W.A just laid it out uncensored and unfiltered. At times, living life was good and at times it was dangerous, and they captured all of that in their songs. N.W.A and Compton are a historical bookmark.”
Before principal photography began, Mitchell made the pilgrimage to Compton to understand its relevance. “When I came to California for the first time, which was when I booked Straight Outta Compton, I did as much research as I could,” says the performer. “A large part of that is seeing firsthand where he came from. So if you find out about Compton you can find out a little bit more about Eazy.”
The city of Compton is part of the fabric of N.W.A, and the oft-repeated mantra/phrase “Compton is the sixth member of N.W.A” is spoken confidently by those who grew up there. And because of N.W.A, shout-outs from West Coast rappers like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, and successful homegrown rappers like The Game and Grammy Award-winning Kendrick Lamar (both Dr. Dre protégés) who hail from there, the small city is still known globally.
At the time, East Coast rappers were shouting out to their hometowns. Nobody was yelling out Compton, and that was something Eazy-E meant to change. Says Ice Cube of Compton’s importance to them all: “It was one of Eazy’s main objectives: He wanted to make good records, make a lot of money, and put Compton on the map. Compton was always on his mind and always in the forefront of what he wanted to accomplish. It was a big deal to him.”
Filming in South Los Angeles brought out neighbors who hoped to catch a glimpse of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren. The “Kings of Compton” were home to tell their story, and they were welcomed with open arms. Says Brown as he recalls the days filming in the “Hub City”: “Just like with N.W.A’s music…if you make Compton happy, you are going to make the world happy.”
Wherever the production was scheduled to film, the news spread quickly. People from the old neighborhood would wave or shout their names to Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who would stand slack-jawed as people reintroduced themselves and reminded them of a good party or so-and-so’s cousin from back in the day.
Capturing the flavor of South Central in the late ’80s and early ’90s was key to Gray’s approach to visualizing Straight Outta Compton. Working closely with his behind-the-scenes team of production designer Shane Valentino and costume designer Kelli Jones, they tapped into every resource at their disposal. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Woods-Wright and their families shared so many photos, videos and collective memories of growing up in the midst of LAPD’s crackdown/war on drugs—at a time when it seemed as if every black male was a target. The collateral damage of Daryl Gates’ war on drugs and gangbangers was the hard-working, churchgoing families who lived in the neighborhoods and were caught in the cross fire.
As much as the cast strived to inhabit their characters, the tweaks that finalized their looks would be made with hair and makeup, costumes and a diverse production design that ranged from the rough-and-tumble streets of Compton to the sleek million-dollar homes in Los Angeles’ wealthiest enclaves.
ANDREA JACKSON (Dreamgirls, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) was brought aboard the production as the head of the hair department. She oversaw the custom-made wigs that established the looks for Jackson, Mitchell and Giamatti. While Jackson and Mitchell rocked the Jheri curl, the slick, curly-styled Afro favored by many African-Americans during the ’80s, Giamatti donned a greying pompadour wig to complete his look.
Wardrobe would be the next step in reinforcing the look for all of the characters. They were in capable hands with Jones, who served as costume designer on the long-running FX series Sons of Anarchy and whose aesthetic borrows heavily from the urban street culture that gave rise to N.W.A. Still, she did copious research, including studying archival stills and video, querying close friends and reading diehard N.W.A fan blogs. Knowing that a rabid fan base still thrives, she wanted to make sure her design choices were as realistic as possible as she helped to visualize the rags to riches story of the world’s most dangerous group.
Key to her approach was maintaining the authentic look of the period while keeping a modern vibe. Luckily, she only had to look as far as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, whose current fashion choices still reflect their connections to the streets. “N.W.A’s strong lyrics spoke for how badass they were, and their straightforward style did the same,” she says. “Simplicity was the key element. They didn’t need to be flashy. East Coast styles tended to be more label-driven and ostentatious, and I wanted to really illustrate the difference.”
Not immune to the perks of fame themselves, N.W.A would soon wear their gold rope chains and link bracelets, which Jones added to the mix. Still, one caveat remained: The street wear they favored reigned supreme.
The costume designer’s go-to footwear and clothing for the principal cast were Nike Air Force Ones and Cortezes, Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, and Dickies pants and shirts. She added just the right amount of Levi’s, ProClub T-shirts, Pendleton shorts and zip-up track jackets—as well as an abundance of L.A. Raiders gear. She also had to outfit supporting cast and background actors in ’80s and ’90s attire without channeling the cheesy looks for which the era is sometimes known.
In fact, a separate wardrobe trailer was brought in to house thousands of pieces of clothing for the hundreds of background actors used for filming. “The good thing is the ’80s and ’90s are back in fashion,” laughs Jones. “I went into a store and saw an entire wall of acid-wash, high-waisted skinny jeans, and all they had in their jewelry case were bamboo earrings. It was amazing. That helped with dressing the background girls. A few would show up looking like they came straight from an ’80s music video, and I would just tweak it a little. Luckily, for the rest, we had a truck full of ’80s and ’90s awesomeness that we purchased.”
Production designer Valentino was tasked with visualizing the rags-to-riches aspect of the material. Whether re-creating 1980s Compton—from both modest family homes and crack houses to stages at venues such as Doo To’s and Skateland—or reimagining the pinnacle-of-fame excess of mansions in wealthy enclaves elsewhere in L.A., the accomplished designer had myriad looks to accomplish.
Only a handful of scenes would be filmed on soundstages, as the filmmakers wanted to take full advantage of their Los Angeles-based production and film at other practical locations throughout the San Fernando Valley, downtown and West L.A. Some of the more ambitious work for Valentino included preproduction for scenes involving the 1992 L.A. riots. While the scenes were actually filmed in one day, they took weeks of preparation.
Valentino discusses what was needed to pull off this re-creation of a historic time in L.A.: “The biggest challenge was to try and create an environment that worked for the storytelling, while staying true to the tremendous amount of historical documentation. The city of Los Angeles stands as its own character in the film; the texture and tone of this particular set needed to capture the community’s feelings of rage, confusion and protest. We needed to have a focused sensitivity to the material, as well as a strong and coordinated commitment to execution. We could not afford to get any aspect of it wrong.”
The scenes were filmed along a four-block stretch of Laurel Canyon Boulevard in northern San Fernando Valley, where existing buildings retained the look of the period. Gray’s crew designed storefronts that were burned out with broken glass and allowed for many overturned vehicles. Hundreds of backgrounds actors were shouting, “No justice, no peace!” while others playing looters ran amuck and store owners armed with shotguns held their ground on rooftops. Fire trucks, manned by actual L.A. firefighters, sped through the scene to attend to a controlled fire created by the special effects department. Passersby gathered at the blocked-off areas and were mesmerized by what they were witnessing.
The one aspect of filming that the crew and cast could not deny were the dramatic parallels between the violent clashes, pointed arrests and harassment of the young black men of the mid-’80s and the modern-day deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement around the U.S. All were in the hearts and minds of the production as the team re-created violent encounters that inspired much of N.W.A’s music.
Even as production began in South Central locations from Compton to Leimert Park and Crenshaw Boulevard, faces from a past life returned to see their history played out on screen. Once of the biggest tests for the entire production was creating art based on real people who each may have remembered the past differently.
They needn’t have worried, though. A number of their old friends—including Jimmy Iovine, Lonzo Williams, The D.O.C., L.A. Law and DJ Speed—who are featured in supporting roles in the film, stopped by the set and were stunned by their on-screen doppelgangers. Many remarked how they were transported back in time…not just by how the sets looked, but also by the energy and vibe of those early shows and encounters.
For the past several years, Compton has been looking ahead to a rebirth of sorts under the guidance of new leadership, both within the political infrastructure and outside of it. However hard it is to shake the stigma of violence and drugs that plagued the small community, it also has the strong legacy of native sons N.W.A, which looms strong and proud among its citizens.
While friendship, talent and ambition brought these five guys together, the greed that can so easily accompany fast money ultimately tore them apart. Almost 20 years later, the friendship among N.W.A has been repaired and is stronger than ever, which was more than evident throughout the filmmaking. The accomplishments and legacy of the group were celebrated daily, as Cube, Dre, Yella and Ren remembered their time together so many years ago with Eazy-E.
With production now wrapped, Dr. Dre offers some closing thoughts: “N.W.A was a perfect starting point for all of us to meet and to be able to collaborate. It is the root of this incredible tree of life. For me, it’s all about inspiration. I was having a conversation with Cube recently about how this filmmaking process has inspired me to return to the studio. I want to get back to the core of what I love to do. Everything about me is music-based, even the headphones. In retrospect, I wouldn’t change anything, the bad or the good.”