Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ice Cube

As a solo artist and as a member of the influential West Coast group N.W.A., Ice Cube was a driving force that helped put gangsta rap on the map. He stood out from his peers as a great - if controversial -storyteller with a tremendous presence onstage. It was only a matter of time before filmmakers recognized his potential. Much as Ice Cube made his mark representing the tough streets of South Los Angeles in his music, his early film appearances likewise cast him as familiar characters from the 'hood. He showed great screen promise with his debut in John Singleton's Academy Award-nominated "Boyz 'n the Hood" (1991) and built up an acting resume with a string of thugs before taking the helm as a screenwriter and producer of the successful "Friday" film franchise, including "Friday," (1995) "Next Friday" (2000) and "Friday After Next" (2002). From that more lighthearted take on urban life, Ice Cube stretched his range with an acclaimed performance in David O. Russell's war film "Three Kings" (1999). Despite the unruly image of his continued musical output, Ice Cube was able carve out a different onscreen persona, breaking through to the mainstream with the hugely successful "Barber Shop" (2002) franchise and family films "Are We There Yet?" (2005) and "The Longshots" (2008), earning the respect of fans and critics alike, proving this former rapper had the versatility to take on any part Hollywood asked of him.

O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson was born on June 15, 1969 and raised in South Central Los Angeles. By the time Ice Cube was a pre-teen, his working class neighborhood was deteriorating into a gangland overrun with drugs and weapons. Ice Cube was skeptical of the dead-end life around him and was fortunate enough to have a solid two-parent family who encouraged him to pursue his interests and education. He spent his early years occupied with Pop Warner football and music - first, the soul and funk his parents listened to until the 1979 history-making single "Rapper's Delight" captured his attention. When Ice Cube hit his teens, his parents tried to boost his chances at a better future by bussing him to a suburban high school in the San Fernando Valley. It was an eye-opening experience for Ice Cube, as he realized for the first time how rough he really had it in South Central. And even though there was a growing wave of rap music emanating from New York, he began to wonder why no one was telling the story of life in his very different world of Los Angeles. As Ice Cube began to watch more and more of his friends end up strung out, murdered or in jail, he became even more determined to find a way out of his bleak surroundings.

When Ice Cube began to write his first raps in high school, he never had his sights set on fame; he was just looking for a way to express himself and entertain people. Rising local hero Dr. Dre took a liking to the rapper and served as his mentor, eventually teaming Ice Cube with Eazy-E and himself to form the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude). Keeping his future options open, Ice Cube spent a year studying architectural drafting while the group released an early underground recording and began to build a reputation. But by the time their debut wide release album Straight Outta Compton was released the following year, it was clear that Ice Cube, who wrote a significant amount of the lyrics on the album, had a bankable future in music. The album's breakout single "F*ck the Police" did not win them any friends among the men and women in blue, but it made a huge impact with its vivid, realistic imagery of gangsta life in the 'hood, peppered with frank social commentary. Radio stations would not touch the expletive-riddled songs with their controversial perspective on racism, cops and women, but the influential album became a huge seller that put the West Coast on the map and helped establish gangsta rap as a new music subgenre.

The successful rapper left the group in 1989 over royalty disputes, and made two extremely explosive solo albums - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted (1990) and Kill at Will (1991)- angry accusatory records that decried social conditions. But Ice Cube was also ready to prove that the man behind the trademark scowl was much more than the message. He got the opportunity to tell the story of his world in a new way when he was approached by another ambitious neighborhood force, filmmaker John Singleton, who asked him to play a sensitive, doomed ex-con gangbanger in his low budget South Central masterpiece, "Boyz 'N the Hood" (1991). The title for the film was taken from Cube's N.W.A. song of the same name and the part of Dough Boy written for Ice Cube by Singleton. The collaboration of neighborhood veterans resulted in a powerful cinematic portrait of a specific time and place, earning such far and wide praise as nominations from the Academy Awards and the Political Film Society. Not surprisingly, Ice Cube followed up his acting success with a string of urban-themed films, including Walter Hill's "Trespass" (1992), where he played a hotheaded subordinate to fellow rapper Ice-T's crime lord.

After releasing Billboard number one solo albums The Predator and Lethal Injection, which received generally high critical marks, Ice Cube shifted his focus to film for the remainder of the decade. In 1995, he played a man unjustly accused of murder in "The Glass Shield" and reunited with Singleton for "Higher Learning." And thanks to the encouragement of Singleton, who told him that if he, Ice Cube, could write an album, he could also write a screenplay, the wrapper-turned-actor set his sights on selling his own script. He teamed with musical cohort DJ Pooh and wrote the screenplay "Friday" (1995), a more lighthearted look at neighborhood life that, instead of gangbangers, focused on a pair of stoner buddies, owing much in tone to the lunacy of old Cheech & Chong movies. The low-budget movie directed by F. Gary Gray became a cult favorite and brought in more than ten times its original investment of $3 million. With several acting, writing and producing projects in the works, the rapper who once had little mainstream appeal was beginning to prove a different and far more rare crossover-a musician who could make his mark both in front of and behind the movie camera.

Onscreen, Ice Cube began to venture outside of the gang genre with roles in the corny horror film "Anaconda" (1997) and "Dangerous Ground" (1997), where he played a South African living in Los Angeles who returns to his homeland to find his missing brother. Ice Cube executive-produced the former and continued acquiring production experience at the helm of 13 music videos, including those of Prince and Color Me Badd. In 1998, he unveiled his solo screenwriting and directing debut, "The Players Club" (1998), about a lovely African-American single mother who lands a job stripping at a club to pay for her college tuition. The director demonstrated his growing command of the film medium, convincingly evoking the seedy strip joint milieu in a comedy-drama that made up in vigor what it lacked in polish. The same year, the creative powerhouse was back in record stores with the first of a double album set, War and Peace, Vol.1, which scored a number one single with "Pushin' Weight."

Ice Cube pushed the boundaries even more onscreen, proving his crossover appeal and real talent as one of a group of disenfranchised U.S. soldiers in David O. Russell's acclaimed Gulf War comedy-drama, "Three Kings" (1999), holding his own onscreen with George Clooney and another rapper-turned-actor, Mark Wahlberg. The following year, his success as a screenwriter, producer and star of "Friday" proved no fluke when his humble follow-up "Next Friday" (2000) brought in $19 million in its opening weekend - without the help of its predecessor's co-star Chris Tucker, who was replaced by the lesser-known comedian, Mike Epps. Ice Cube again turned in a solid straight man performance in the often very funny sequel. The soundtrack featured the single "Chin Check" by the newly-regrouped N.W.A., with Dr. Dre's protégé, Snoop Dogg, standing in for late original member Eazy-E, who had died of AIDS in 1995. Ice Cube's old N.W.A. cohorts also made an appearance on the second disc of his ambitious set, War & Peace Vol. 2 (2000).

Though the misfire sci-fi thriller "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" marked Ice Cube's only acting outing of 2001 - the same year the rapper released his long-awaited Greatest Hits collection - he more than made up for it the following year by writing, producing (under his new Cube Vision production shingle) and starring in the comedies "All About the Benjamins" and "Friday After Next." Both films reunited him alongside Mike Epps, with the duo playing a bounty hunter and bumbling criminal in the former and reprising their "Next Friday" roles in the holiday-themed latter. Cube's next effort, "Barbershop" (2002), was a turning point in his film career. He played the middle-class owner of a South-Side Chicago barbershop where colorful local characters gather to exchange gossip and opinions. The film visited similar "neighborhood character" territory as his "Friday" franchise, but appealed to a broader audience than the stoner successes, earning $75 million at the box office and becoming a bona fide crossover to mainstream audiences. The runaway hit spawned the 2004 sequel "Barbershop 2: Back in Business," which found Ice Cube's character contemplating whether or not to sell his property to a developer for quick cash or to maintain it as an important, if not so lucrative, community magnet.

In 2004, Ice Cube provided one of the few precious merits of the lame videogame-like motorcycle action flick, "Torque"(2004) before turning in his first family-friendly performance in the appealing road comedy "Are We There Yet?" (2005) - a kind of urban "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983), with Ice Cube taking on the Chevy Chase role. Ice Cube toned down his hard image and came across as charismatic and extremely watchable per the usual, and though the movie failed to warm the hearts of critics, "Are We There Yet?" opened at number one and subsequently took in nearly $100 million at the box office. The same year, Ice Cube produced the "Barbershop" spin-off "Beauty Shop" and took the lead as super spy in the big budget actioner, "xXx: State of the Union" which was a modest box office success, if overshadowed by a superior predecessor, "xXx" (2002). After a long absence from the recording studio, Ice Cube unleashed Laugh Now, Cry Later, which many considered his comeback, following a string of creatively underwhelming releases. The album was marked by a more positive focus and reached No. 2 on Billboard's R&B/Hip Hop album chart. Ice Cube continued to explore new avenues and expanded into television as the executive producer of the reality TV show, "Black.White." (FX, 2006), which had black and white families trading places in an effort to explore issues of racism.

Cementing his image as a new figure in family-friendly entertainment, Ice Cube returned to the big screen in the successful comedy sequel "Are We Done Yet?" (2007). He fared less well in the predictable neighborhood heist "First Sunday" (2008) before tackling the sports comedy, "The Longshots" (2008), first-time musician-director Fred Durst's clichéd story about a rag-tag Pop Warner football team who turns around town spirit, thanks to a female recruit (Keke Palmer) and a new coach (Ice Cube). He also released the album Raw Footage in 2008, and the following year, addressed the rap arena on film with the comedy "Janky Promoters," which he wrote and starred in as a crooked music promoter. The same year he took a starring role in the big screen adaptation of the beloved 1970s sitcom, "Welcome Back, Kotter: The Movie."


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