One of the films kicking off the Tribeca Film Festival is Ice Cube’s Straight Outta L.A., his made-for-ESPN documentary that details the cultural and economic impact his late-eighties gangsta-rap group N.W.A. had on one of professional sports' most iconic franchises: the Raiders. N.W.A. liked the Raiders’ silver-and-black uniforms and menacing pirate logo and appropriated the team’s ruthless on-field attitude as the group’s own image. At a time when hip-hop was enjoying its first global fan base, N.W.A. sported Raiders gear, on every album cover, promotional or video shoot, and, as a result, the team went from making several million dollars a year in merchandise sales to $3 billion a few years later. We spoke with Ice Cube recently about the Raiders' knowledge of N.W.A., how his group launched the era of music selling sports, and Snoop Dogg's pickup skills.
Do you realize that if a gangsta-rap group aligned themselves with an NFL team in this day and age, [league commissioner Roger] Goodell would have a conniption fit.
I’m pretty sure. I don’t know what he could do about it, but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t be as favorable as it was back then. I don’t even know if it was favorable back then, it was just something that took a life of its own.
One of the powerful parts of the film is seeing how much the NFL has changed since the eighties.
The Raiders moving to L.A. and us taking on their shield — we had the same image as they had, the NFL and hip-hop. To me, we ushered in this whole new "you can be a year-round fan, you can have all this merch.” But with rap music — not just N.W.A. — but rap music in general, seeing these artists wearing these team logos all the time started bringing a synergy and energy about having to rep your city, your team, everywhere and all the time. Music and sports merged. That’s why the Jordan brand took off — not just because he was hot on the court, but because he was hot on the street.
The economic impact that you had is impressive.
To me, that’s the underlying story. Sports without music, it's nothing but a game. Music adds the emotion. It galvanizes this whole feeling of what your team is doing. Music enhances all that; it plays a complementary role in making sports what they are. Without this connection, I think that sports is still on the outside looking in. Music brings it home for a lot of people.
The film shows a lot of outrage against N.W.A. Did you get a sense that the Raiders organization was turning a blind eye?
I never heard them discouraging us in the media or anywhere. From what I hear, they gave us gear. When they saw their merchandise go to No. 1, they let the wheels turn and stepped back and said, “Wait, what’s going on?”
Al Davis seemed like a tough interview.
Nah. He was cool. I was happy I was getting the interview and happy that I got to ask
these questions. There’s stuff that couldn’t make it in the film, where I ask him about the colors, or people saying that he’s losing his step as the owner. After this comes out, I’m going to post the entire interview on my website. It lasts 60 to 90 minutes.
Nowadays it’s pretty common to see musicians being friendly with pro athletes. Did you hang out with the Raiders?
It was totally separate. They had no idea what we were doing. I don’t know how much anyone in the room cared. It was just something that worked. I’m a football freak, so I was happy to wear it. But it just blended with the rest of the guys [in N.W.A.]. You know, “it looks right, it’s the shit. The team has the same attitude as we got.”
You talk with Snoop Dogg in the film and he seems to love the game as much as you do. Now, if you’re playing pickup, do you pick him first?
Depends on what we’re playing. If we’re playing basketball, then yes.
I haven’t seen him play, but I’m sure he can play. He played quarterback in high school, so I’d probably pick him first. I’ve seen him play basketball and he has one of those wirey frames. Sharp elbows.