In the opening scene of Straight Outta LA, two globally franchised multihyphenate multimillionaires stroll around a deserted theater of public spectacle, talking about the iconography of cultural revolution. If that descriptor conjures up an image of old white guys in suits and ties offering an academic address of an anthropological tidal wave, think again. The moguls in question are Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, two gangsta rappers–turned-actors-turned-corporations; the empty public space is the L.A. Coliseum, once home to the Los Angeles Raiders, whose silver-and-black pirate aesthetic was co-opted by Cube and his fellow members in pioneering hometown rap group N.W.A.
"The patch on his eye, the sword, the shield," says Snoop of the pirate in the Raiders logo. "It just seemed like, 'We here to take what we come to get.' By any means necessary." The rappers donned Raiders gear as both fashion statement and political provocation. The "added layer of menace" that the Raiders brand gave them helped Cube and Snoop (as well as Dr. Dre, Ice-T and other rap icons featured in the film) rise from the hood to the top echelon of mainstream culture, even as the team itself declined, and eventually defected back to Oakland.
Straight Outta LA, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week and will debut on ESPN May 11, marks the documentary directorial debut of Ice Cube. With the rapper providing first-person narration and interviewing difficult subjects like Raiders owner Al Davis himself, the film feels surprisingly handmade and intimate, telling the story of the Raiders' relatively brief but spectacular stay in L.A. from his perspective as a fan.
"Nothing impacted me more than when the Raiders moved to L.A.," Cube tells the Weekly. From Compton teenager busing to Taft High in Woodland Hills by day and gangbanging by night, to his days with N.W.A, Cube's Raiders cap was a constant, and when Straight Outta Compton went platinum and tours through the hood were broadcast to the suburbs via MTV, a kind of thematic synchronicity between the gangsta lifestyle and the Raiders brand was broadcast with them, to audiences far outside L.A. In Cube's subjective memoir, the romance between the team and the increasingly pop stars could only last so long. He's defensive but straightforward in dealing with the perception that the ensuing "gangsterfication" of the Raiders scene — increased violence at games, the banning of Raiders gear in L.A. public schools for its supposed criminal connotations — may have hastened the team's departure.
Cube effectively makes the case that when Los Angeles lost the Raiders, the city lost more than its last pro football franchise. In the mid-'80s, when the team came to town, L.A. "felt like the center of the universe," Cube says in the film, which closes with sports columnist Bill Plaschke describing the team as the "heartbeat of L.A., the kind of L.A. you don't see on TV," an embodiment of the repressed rage of outsiders brought together within the city. "And just like that, it was gone."
If directing a documentary seems an unlikely move for Cube, it's just the latest twist in a remarkably diverse career, encompassing X-rated rhymes and action heroics (he starred in David O. Russell's Three Kings and replaced Vin Diesel in the sequel to xXx ), the stonerz in the hood Friday franchise and the family-friendly Are We There Yet? series. Immediately after L.A.'s ESPN premiere, Cube will shift into promoting his new TBS series, based on Are We There Yet? You don't get much more middle-of-the-road than a sitcom on basic cable; at the very least, Cube has come a long way from the time when, as his lyric goes, not having to use his AK would make it a good day.
Cube, for his part, insists that his current dayjobs as G-rated sitcom star and all-purpose entertainment mogul bear no impact on his credibility as a spokesman for the streets.
"I still do gangsta rap. I just went from being a boy to a man, that's what changed," Cube says. "It don't seem like the world's changed, looking at what my family, friends and cousins still have to go through, living in South Central Los Angeles. The world is still as real as it was back in 1989, when [N.W.A] first came out. Movies are just movies — make-believe."
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes