Tomorrow, TBS will air the first of 10 episodes of Ice Cube's new TV series, Are We There Yet?, the small screen version of his hugely successful movie by the same name. The show, starring Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris) as Nick Parsons, the character portrayed by Ice Cube in the film version, picks up where the movie left off, with Nick and his new wife (Essence Adkins) and kids (Coy Stewart and Teala Dunn), starting down the road toward blended family bliss with a nice slice of hilarity thrown in for good measure. The movie was cute enough for me to give the show a whirl; I mean, I've always loved Ice Cube—the gangsta rapper and the family movie producer—so that's a plus. And seeing as Everybody Hates Chris, The Bernie Mac Show and The Cosby Show reruns are pretty much the only nighttime sitcoms I'll allow Mari and Lila to watch, it'll be nice to have a new family show they can glom into. It looks kinda cute—check out the clip:
Here's what I love about this thing: Ice Cube, one of the originators of gangsta rap—one of the most anti-family musical genres on the planet—is firmly ensconced in family entertainment. Talk about reinvention! I can't be mad at the brother; it's a brilliant move for a 40-something rapper doing what he can to stay relevant and paid. This is a point I made years ago in a piece I wrote for Entertainment Weekly; the story, about rappers who were trading in their gangsta roots for mainstream family fare, never ran (despite the assignment, the editors ultimately thought the story was a non-issue). Still, I saved it, partly because I liked the piece (and T.I. and Ludacris, both then new to the game, gave good quote), and partly because I wanted to see if my revelations would come true. I'm pleased to share it now as Ice Cube takes over the little screen—five years after I predicted he'd succeed in the family genre. Gangsta!
By Denene Millner
So, it’s not like we can’t appreciate a warm and fuzzy Ice Cube. It’s just taking us a minute to reconcile that the hip hop gangsta who once proclaimed himself “the wrong nigga to f--- wit’” is up on the big screen, having random objects slammed in his crotch by two brats who barely come up to his waist. Equally hard to swallow: Snoop Dogg, former murder trial defendant, professed gang member, cannabis aficionado, and purveyor of big booty pornos, giving voice to a character in a “family” flick people rushed their children to the theater to see. Seems running around Compton wearing a Jheri curl and a flannel shirt and waving a gun isn’t good for business anymore.
Surely, that’s what’s driving some of the hip hop generation’s most acerbic, sexually-charged, hood fabulous, and, at times, downright scary black entertainers to cross over to the PG side—there’s good money to be made when Wal-Mart America recognizes you for something other than your rap sheet, sexual bravado, and battle scars. And now, everyone from geriatric morning television hosts to nursing moms to 1st grade movie enthusiasts with allowance to burn are welcoming the likes of gangstas like Snoop and Ice Cube with open arms.
Funny thing is, just a few years ago, the most discriminating rap enthusiasts would have marked all of their chests with an “S,” for sellout. But not in the ’05. Rappers who used to get off on being anti-establishment want more than a gold album and hood respect. They want platinum sales and the huge single at the top of the rap and pop charts. Reebox, Sprite, and Dry Idea endorsements. And a development deal with Sony. Anything less, and you’re nothing but a one-hit wonder. “At first, cats wasn’t really shooting for all of that—they hadn’t seen anybody doing it before,” southern playalistic rapper TI tells EW. “But when you see Cube, Puff, Jay go on beyond the obvious, beyond what we would have normally thought was successful, they set the bar higher and higher and cats keep reaching farther and farther.” And for those who don’t get why Ice Cube would make (SS: the name of the movie SS talked about here), or Jay Z would trade in his violent pimp tales from the hood for more bourgeois pursuits? “A lot of artists are being more experimental,” explains Ludacris, a rapper who recently graced Regis & Kelly’s stage, and later stomped all across the Saturday Night Live stage with Sum 41, just a few years after some of his racier lyrics cost him a lucrative Pepsi endorsement and earned him an earful of public scrutiny. “There’s so much of the same thing going on, and everyone wants to try something new. If people accept it, good. If not, the hell with ‘em.”
Which, no doubt, is the attitude a reformed gangsta rapper would have to take to justify making family-friendly comedies like Are We There Yet? and Racing Stripes. Both Ice Cube and Snoop have said repeatedly over the past few years that they’ve felt the call to diversify their entertainment portfolio, particularly as they’ve gotten older (Cube is 34; Snoop is 33) and had children. “You can hide for only so long,” says Ludacris, who has a 3-year-old daughter. “Your kids really have an influence on your life, make you open to certain things. The new generation is changing who we are and how we think.”
The power that comes with crossing over is an incentive, too. Consider this: How sick is it that Jay-Z retired from rapping at the top of his game, only to become part owner of an NBA franchise, the president of a legendary rap label that boasts hip hop heavyweights like Luda, LL Cool J, and Ashanti, and sit front row at the Oscars in a tux between his sizzler girlfriend Beyonce and her daddy? And no one doubts that the success of Ice Cube’s Friday and Barbershop series (the latter pulled in a total $141 million at the box office), and the strong opening of Are We There Yet? ($18 million-plus) have given his production company, Cube Vision, more leverage to greenlight films with big Hollywood studios than some well-known black producers, including Denzel Washington, who saw his prequel to Scarface nixed, and movie directors John Singleton and Spike Lee, both of whom have earned critical acclaim but haven’t had a hit in years. “He may be the only rapper out there who understands how to get things done, because he started out making his own music and not waiting for permission,” says independent film producer Rueben Cannon, who cast Will Smith in his first feature (Made in America) and is now producing independent black movies (Woman Thou Art Loosed, Diary of a Mad Black Woman).
Ice Cube and Snoop’s position in Hollywood is bolstered by the fact that the studios, and the media that cover them, are full of young executives who were raised on a steady diet of West Coast gangsta rap, and would have k-i-l-l-e-d to be in the dangerous, weed smoke-filled air of the badass rappers. To illustrate the point, film historian Donald Bogle, who has written several books on blacks in cinema (among them, January’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood), points to the sheer giddiness that spreads across Jimmy Kimmel’s face when he’s sitting next to Snoop—the guy who, a decade ago, would have gladly backed over the late night talk show host with his classic Caddy. “Young white males see these stars who are controversial as a masculine ideal,” Bogle says. “They’re tough, they don’t take anything from anybody, they’re outlaws.” Snoop plays right into it by grabbing his guest seat, and, with a wink to the camera, using his chummy charm to make Kimmel feel like the coolest kid on the block.
It makes sense that Kimmel and his peers want to cozy up to their favorite Old Gangstas. But you have to admit that it’s still a little strange to see daytime hosts like Regis and Barbara Walters cozying up with them in front of a viewing audience of AARP card carriers and new moms who, in another era, paid attention to hip hop only after an artist was arrested or murdered. Chances are that because Ice Cube has seemingly distanced himself from gangsta rap, Regis’ audience may not know how he got down in his pre-Are We There Yet days. And Snoop was quite charismatic during his appearance on The View. Indeed, their mere presence on those shows means that they’ve hitched onto something, and now seniors and mommies want them in their space, too.
But then, what’s hip hop anymore if Snoop can “drop it like it’s hot” on daytime TV and 6-year-olds can go check out an Ice Cube flick? Used to be you could count on a good rap song to have a message, delivered by a fearless messenger who was big, blacker than black, and got off on scaring the crap out of you. The irreverence, the “I don’t give a damn about C. Delores Tucker and her Senate hearings” attitude, the ready-to-die bravado that was the foundation of hip hop, today has a really limited life-span. A badass rapper lasts about as long as a rookie baller with decent knees—about three years (or albums) tops. Then it’s time to consider the options.
For those hip hop enthusiasts longing for the days of unabashedly street lyricists, the new generation will hold you down: 50 Cent, who’s still walking on the dark side with his new album, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Compton-born The Game, a protégé of N.W.A/Snoop Dogg architect Dr. Dre, kept it good and grimy recently when their respective entourages engaged in a gunfight outside a popular New York hip hop radio station. Apparently, the New York-based 50 Cent was upset that the Compton-born Game, a former drug dealer who boasts a teardrop tattoo under his left eye (a sign that he’s either killed someone or served a long stint in prison) and a backstory that includes being shot seven times in a botched robbery, wasn’t giving him his due respect. Game, it seems, didn’t see the need to bow. (On the TK anniversary of the shooting death of the Notorious B.I.G., the two shook hands and called it a truce.)
And don’t sleep: The architects of gangsta rap can still take it back to the streets when they need to. In the Li’l Jon & the East Side Boyz video for “Roll Call,” featuring Ice Cube, the former N.W.A. frontman, wearing his trademark Raiders cap and black button down, comes across menacingly as he grabs a bat and snarls into the camera. Gangsta rap father Ice-T still proudly proclaims he’s a pimp, despite his successful role as a cop on Law & Order. And Snoop’s shady history and questionable-but-über cool business dealings cost him a gig in The Muppet Movie in 2002 (perhaps it was the porn flick that did him in), and could come back to haunt him as he fights sexual assault charges by a stylist who claims she was scared to tell the police the artist and his cohorts fondled her because of Snoop’s alleged affiliations with the Crips. He’s walking a thin line between legit and grimy, and only time will tell whether Wal-Mart America will catch on to the fact that he’s still a little seedy. But Snoop just wouldn’t be Snoop without a little dirt on him; his longtime music fans need him that way. “Snoop is always going to be ghetto,” says Minya Oh, a morning show deejay for New York’s top hip hop station, Hot 97. “He’ll never be in St. Tropez with a butler holding an umbrella over his head. He still wears metallic sunglasses, his hair is still in greasy pigtails. But the day I see him super dapper donned out in a crazy GQ look, that’s going to be a sad day in hip hop.”
She should keep the Kleenex handy.
Editor's Note: Ice Cube's Are We There Yet? debuts Wednesday, June 2, at 9 p.m. on TBS.