In the long-awaited N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, a young Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.) sits at a press conference — long ringlets of his jheri curl hanging out the back of a black cap — and fixes his eyes on a reporter who’s just suggested that his group make music that glamorizes gangs and drugs.
“Our art,” Jackson Jr. (the rapper’s real-life son) replies in perfect Cube cadence, “is a reflection of our reality."
Cube’s reality involved being harassed by cops in Torrance, California, in the late ’80s while N.W.A recorded their major label debut, Straight Outta Compton. The rappers were profiled as gangbangers and forced to lie on the sidewalk, their food slapped out of their hands.
It was a common occurrence, and one that inspired Cube to write the song “Fuck tha Police.”
“It was just built up,” DJ Yella said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “We're standing out there in Torrance, at a studio, and that's how they was. You know, ‘What are we doing here in this city?!’ It was crazy.”
Onscreen, Cube’s genius strikes immediately. Eazy-E, formerly the badass, Uzi-wielding dope man, is the one who’s hesitant. Can they really get away with saying the words Cube just penned?
"Fuck the police / Coming straight from the underground / A young n***a got it bad 'cause I'm brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority / Fuck that shit, 'cause I ain't the one / For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun / To be beating on, and thrown in jail / We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell / Fucking with me 'cause I'm a teenager / With a little bit of gold and a pager / Searching my car, looking for the product / Thinking every n***a is selling narcotics."
“It was more than just a song that was insulting the police. It was a revenge fantasy, like Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino,” Cube told BuzzFeed News. “I think that's really what made people feel scared [like] we was really wanting to fight the police, you know? It's just one of them things where that song was doing a little more than just expressing our anger: It was telling what we would do if you wasn't a cop, if we could have a fair fight. All these things just scared the shit out of people.”
So much so that the group was banned from performing “Fuck tha Police” on their first major tour in the summer of 1989 — and the only one with all of the original group members intact. In the film, this plays out with a dramatic scene where the group members sit outside Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena and get a talking-to from local police. Under no circumstances are they to perform “Fuck tha Police.” In real life, that happened at just about every show on the tour. It was the one song that was off-limits.
“Every city we would go to, the police would come backstage, and they would read us all these obscenity laws … they would read us any ordinances they had regarding profanity onstage,” Cube said. “They probably used to tell Elvis Presley [the same] when he performed. … The promoters said flat out, ‘The tour is not going to happen if you guys perform that song.’”
By the time the tour reached Detroit, three N.W.A members had had enough: How can you be an act that dares to tell you the realities of their streets, police brutality chief among them, and not perform the song that best illustrates that life? Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Dr. Dre went rogue and hatched a plan to play the one song everyone wanted to hear — the song that had government officials shaking in their boots.
“We got fed up in Detroit; we was just tired of them coming backstage. We was tired of outside forces trying to dictate who we were and what we was going to do. And then we was just like, ‘Tonight's the night,'” Cube said. “When we started the song off, we heard what we thought was gunshots. Then we saw these undercover police rushing the stage. So we just took off running. They gaffled us up and tried to really lecture us on what we can do in Detroit and what we can't do. They just wanted to wreck the show.”
And they did. Yella said the group never got paid for that performance.
Eazy-E, the charismatic leader of the group and the head of its label imprint, Ruthless Records, didn’t want to have any of it. He was furious the guys defied the order they all agreed to, according to Cube. They’d anticipated that, which is why they left him out of the potentially game-changing decision.
“We knew Eazy would veto us performing because he was so business-minded,” Cube said. “Me, Dre, and Ren, we were like, ‘Yeah, we should do “Fuck tha Police” tonight.’ You see it onstage. Everybody like, ‘You ready? You ready? Let's go! Let's do it. Let's do that shit! Do that shit!’ It was mayhem after that.”
In the cinematic version of events, a group of plainclothes cops slowly walk toward the stage, brandishing badges and reaching for what we’re to guess are guns. The sound of gunfire erupts. Frantic concertgoers scatter in various directions, and the rappers stop performing and run backstage, where they’re met with a line of Detroit police officers before being thrown in a police van.
“It's a pivotal moment because it's one of the many moments where they stood up and they had the courage to say, ‘Freedom of speech applies to everyone in America, and we are not going to take this abuse. We're just not going to do it,’” said Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray. “It was a pivotal moment in their brotherhood, it's a pivotal moment in American history, and it just showed how unfair things are.”
Twenty-seven years after the Straight Outta Compton album was released, not much has changed. N.W.A’s music — and “Fuck tha Police” in particular — felt like a foretelling, drawing a direct line to the way that black kids were being treated in major cities. Cube, who wrote the song when he was a teenager, is now 46 years old, yet he can’t say he’s surprised to look around and discover that the social discourse committed to tape back then is still relevant now.
It cements the importance of rappers who made an album that gave a voice to a population nobody seemed to care about: kids in the ’hood.
For better or worse, “Fuck tha Police” still works today. Lyrics written nearly three decades ago feel contemporary as activists assemble in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, taking on local police and demanding answers for the body count of young black men at the hands of police officers.
“Nothing has changed with their behavior with our community. That's why it's so poignant, like the song was written yesterday. It's really up to us as a society to hold these dudes more accountable and get them indicted and prosecuted and arrested and thrown in jail for breaking the law,” Cube said. “We got a movie about history that feels like it's present day. I don't want, 20 years from now, we look at this movie and say, ‘Damn, this was predicting the future.’”
Cube paused, letting those words sink in.
“Now is the time to put our energy into getting these dudes prosecuted,” he continued. “It's always been sad. It was sad in '89, you know? It's sad now, it's uncalled for in a lot of cases. For all the statistics they have on crime, you still got a majority of people in the ’hood that don't do crimes. So stop painting us all with the same brush and treat us like law-abiding citizens that most of us are.”
The rapper hopes that the film will emphasize the lack of progress that’s transpired all these years later. In Straight Outta Compton, he thinks it’s clear why he wrote “Fuck tha Police” and gave voice to the kids who needed it most.
“We wanted to highlight the excessive force and … the humiliation that we go through in these situations,” Cube said. “So the audience can know why we wrote ‘Fuck tha Police,’ and they can feel the same way.”