In the late '80s and early '90s, rapper Ice Cube and his Los Angelesbased group, N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude), introduced America to "gangsta" rap. Songs like "Express Yourself," "Straight Outta Compton" and "F___ tha Police" spoke for the urban disenfranchised, both rattling the white establishment and spurring imitators in suburban shopping malls throughout the country. During that era, N.W.A. took its attitude and fashion cues from the Los Angeles Raiders, the NFL franchise draped in black whose outlaw image and bandit fans served as a near perfect metaphor for the hardcore-rap movement. Ice Cube is now taking a fond and fascinating look back at that era in Straight Outta L.A., a new ESPN documentary that he directed (the film debuts on Tuesday at 8 p.m. E.T.). TIME talked to the media mogul about the movie, the impact of N.W.A. and why Los Angeles needs an NFL team (the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995).
What did the Raiders mean to you and to Los Angeles?
Doing it your own way, not having to go exactly by the book to be successful. It seems like I've been doing that my whole career, doing unconventional things and becoming successful. I've taken that attitude a lot from the Raiders. The Raiders represented the L.A. that I knew. I didn't know even though the Forum in Inglewood was maybe seven, eight minutes from where I grew up the glitz and glamour of the Lakers. It might be the L.A. I know now. But growing up, it was South Central, the '80s, the drugs, the police. And the Raiders looked like they could be my uncles. And they played right there in South Central, right there in the hood.
How did the Raiders help N.W.A. change America's musical landscape?
With N.W.A., we were looking for our niche. We almost got to the point where we were going to give up trying to be on the radio. And we were like, "Yo, let's just do what we see around us. We'll be neighborhood stars." And that's what we did, and it took off, man. We were like, "Black is the color," and we being sports fans, we just started wearing the colors, the hats, the Raiders shirts, the Starter jackets that were new and fresh. By the Raiders moving here and us being able to put a true image with a sound, put a visual with something that was audio, it cemented what we were doing. The message we were trying to get across was, "This is the '80s: the stock market, them dudes on Wall Street is snatching and grabbing you need to do a little of that in your own life." Not saying you gotta be illegal. But you don't gotta be by the book.
You guys scared a lot of white folks, but at the same time, you introduced a lot of them to hardcore rap. A large part of that population picked up on it and wanted to imitate you. Think that's an accurate assessment?
Yeah. You know, it's the thing where America loves the outlaw, the gangster, from Billy the Kid to Al Capone. It's something that America feels very romantic about. It was the same thing with us. We were saying the things people wanted to say. Everybody wanted to say "F___ the police" all around the globe. They finally said the things we wanted to say. The world to me is a lot more outspoken because of N.W.A. Would you have The Osbournes? Would The Sopranos make it to television without N.W.A. saying "F___ it" and having that be in pop culture? Because the only people who were talking like us were comedians. Our records, if you have a dark sense of humor, were funny, but our records weren't about comedy. They were about protests, fantasy, confrontation and all that.
Do you have any regrets about using the N word in the name of your group?
Nah. This is a word that is a reminder of where we come from, and how far we've got to go. I don't regret it.
After N.W.A., you moved on to a successful movie career producing and starring in the Friday and Barbershop franchises. On June 2, a sitcom that you executive-produce and appear in, Are We There Yet?, will debut on TBS. If anybody told me 20 years ago that Ice Cube would be in a cable ad for his new family sitcom, I would have thought they were crazy.
[Laughs.] It happened because of a series of movies that got a broader audience than we anticipated, which caught everybody a little off guard. When something is happening in your career like that, you'd be a fool not to run with it. That being said, my thing is that if John Gotti can be a family man, so can Ice Cube, 'cause I'm 10 times a better citizen than that guy. So it's not that far-fetched.
In Straight Outta L.A., you interview controversial Raiders owner Al Davis, who doesn't look like he's in great health. What were your impressions of Davis?
I was honored to meet him. I once heard a guy say that getting old is like a shipwreck. You've got this luxury boat or ship and it's starting to run aground a little bit. I feel like his mind is there, as sharp as a tack, but his body is breaking down. My impression is that he's a very loyal man, and he's a man who wants to do good with the position that he's in. He keeps a lot of people around him who have been around the organization for years. He's the first owner to hire a black coach and a Latino coach. This man has done a lot. He gets a bad rap because of the Raiders image, but he does it his way. To me he's as good as [Frank] Sinatra was.
N.W.A. helped popularize the Raiders Starter jacket to the point that people were stealing and in a few cases, even killing to get their hands on one. What's your reaction to the social cost of your success?
America is caught up in materialism. People will fight over anything. When a man comes and robs a man for a bag full of groceries, we don't say we should ban groceries. People are always going to take things from each other. When something like that happens, I'm not like, "Aw, maybe we need to tone it down, maybe we need to wear purple and gold." You've got to chalk that up to the sick materialism we're all caught up in.
Does Los Angeles today need a football team?
We need one bad. The NFL means little to us here in Los Angeles right now. But we want it to mean everything to us. We don't want to be sitting on the sidelines. It's kind of like going to your friend's son's Little League game. You watch it, it's cool, but it's not your son. We want our son out there. We want a team, we deserve a team. L.A. is a big market, and all those old owners need to not worry about a young, rich owner coming in here and making a lot of money. It's like, "If we can't make all this money, nobody can."