“Let’s keep it gangsta tonight,” Ice Cube announced as he took the stage Friday before tens of thousands of fans in Douglas Park.
But gangstas were in short supply on the opening night at Riot Fest, a three-day festival that leans heavily on the vintage appeal of bands that ruled decades ago. Cube is no exception. With his notorious Compton, Calif., hip-hop group N.W.A, he established the language of gangsta rap and terrified mainstream America in the late ‘80s. The band’s music was considered so extreme that it brought warning letters from the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service. The group’s music was banned from commercial radio for its explicit content, but sold millions of albums anyway.
Cube and the rest of N.W.A – Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E – are having the last laugh. “Straight Outta Compton,” a Hollywood movie about the group’s early years, is already the highest grossing music biopic of all-time and has raked in more than $160 million since its release last month. The group’s 1988 debut album, also called “Straight Outta Compton,” re-entered the pop charts in the top 5, and Dre’s recently released solo album, “Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre,” debuted at No. 2.
Now it was Cube’s turn to grab some glory with a mini-N.W.A reunion at Riot Fest that included Ren and Yella. But Cube, author of the group’s most cutting and incisive lyrics about the brutalities and indignities of everyday street life in one of America’s most notorious ghettos, is no longer on the FBI’s radar. He’s become a movie star, playing a put-upon dad in “Are We There Yet?,” and a cuddly celebrity who hangs with Elmo on “Sesame Street.”
In the incendiary N.W.A track “F--- tha Police,” he rapped in vivid detail about the intricacies of a shakedown. In this world, a black kid feared the scrutiny of a black officer most, “cause they'll slam ya down to the street top/Black police showing out for the white cop.” In “Dopeman,” he strung together a series of verbal snapshots from the life of a “young brother gettin’ over by slanging ‘caine.”
Everything was in its place, as Cube – dressed in trademark black with Ren at his side and Yella on the turntables – barked about the tools of the gangbanger’s trade: AK-47’s, “gats” and “sawed-off’s.” His voice retained its stentorian command, but the anger that made N.W.A so fearsome had been tempered and the group’s overt misogyny was brushed aside. In “Gangsta Gangsta,” Cube once sneered the line, “Do I look like a mother------ role model?” in a way that evoked Robert DeNiro’s “You lookin’ at me?” in "Taxi Driver." But on this night, Cube was more role model than outlaw, and he treated gangsta rap as nostalgia.
There was an opportunity for Cube to expand the political dimension of N.W.A’s debut album, especially in light of recent events involving the deaths of African-Americans such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Indeed, as much as “Straight Outta Compton” was transgressive catnip for white suburban teens, it also was a document of inner-city turmoil that presaged the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. But Ice Cube was more interested in celebrating the success of his old group’s new biopic. A reprise of Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” amid Cube's hand-waving "Bop Gun" replaced the cloud over Compton with a rainbow.