Re-creating N.W.A’s Los Angeles
In the late 1980s, the album Straight Outta Compton made N.W.A the first superstars of reality rap. With their vivid tales of police harassment, gang life, and dealing drugs, the Southern California group were street-level narrators, establishing a point of view that still largely dominates West Coast hip-hop.
F. Gary Gray spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles. As a young filmmaker in the ’90s, he directed music videos for Ice Cube and Dr. Dre after they left N.W.A, and in 1995 he teamed with Cube on Friday, Gray’s feature debut. Now he’s directed a film about the rise and splintering of the group, also titled Straight Outta Compton, set for release this month.
Early in preproduction, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre invited the film’s department heads to Dre’s top-secret recording studio to go through the script and ask nitpicking questions, from the address of Cube’s father’s house when the rapper was in high school to the exact recording equipment Dre used to make their earliest tracks.
“[N.W.A’s] music was authentic, raw, and, like it or not, honest,” Gray says. If he had the opportunity to tell N.W.A’s story, he and his crew wanted to get the details right.
The film opens
In the film’s first scenes, Eazy-E is selling drugs, Dr. Dre is living with his mom, and Ice Cube is still in high school. Production designer Shane Valentino says that aesthetically he was influenced by Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and early ’50s, when the postwar country was in economic ruin and filmmakers relied heavily on amateur actors. Valentino saw similarities in Straight Outta Compton’s depiction of a struggling African American community and Gray’s casting of relatively unknown performers. “We were looking at the poor and working class of L.A. and how they dealt with their conditions of everyday life,” says Valentino.
Gray admired costume designer Kelli Jones’s work on the biker drama Sons of Anarchy. She was used to the scrutiny of an authenticity-obsessed community: Every day, her work had to get the approval of Hell’s Angels consultants on set.
To prepare for Straight Outta Compton’s scenes, Jones put together five potential looks for each of the actors playing a member of N.W.A. Then she sent photos to Gray and the producers to scrutinize. “One time I had O’Shea [Jackson Jr., who plays Ice Cube] wearing two gold chains and [Gray] was like, ‘I don’t think Cube ever wore two gold chains,’” says Jones. “And I was like, ‘I’ve seen a picture of him in two gold chains one time.’ And he was like, ‘I want to see that picture.’ And I had to go back in my 4,000 photos and find the picture.”
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre performed together for the first time at Dooto’s, a short-lived venue tied to West Coast DJing pioneer Alonzo Williams. The club is long gone, but a researcher unearthed old photos, and Valentino searched Los Angeles for another spot that could pass for the original. Ultimately he chose Catch One, a disco that served L.A.’s African American LGBT community for the last four decades before closing down this July. Once his team added 1970s-style paneling and curtains and draped the stage, “it looked eerily similar,” says Valentino.
N.W.A played their first official show at Skateland U.S.A. in Compton, a popular venue for local and touring rap acts. The original Skateland U.S.A. closed years ago, and was in such disrepair that the production team didn’t have time to rehabilitate it. Instead Valentino used Moonlight Rollerway, a rink in Glendale where he’d set a date scene between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in the 2010 Mike Mills film Beginners. Valentino’s crew hid the rink’s gaudy outer-space-themed décor behind painted wood paneling so it matched Skateland’s bare walls. Then they brought in arcade games like Centipede and Galaga, disco balls, and flashing lights.
They also reproduced the posters from the show, made by L.A.’s recently shuttered Colby Poster Printing Company, whose iconic work — Day-Glo inks, loud, blocky type — was for decades a frequent sight, stapled to telephone poles across the city. “These posters were so popular with our film crew and extras,” Valentino says, “I don’t think we wrapped the set with the same number of posters we came in with.”
To capture N.W.A’s first national tour in 1989, the production used the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to stand in for smaller arenas in Houston and Huntsville, Alabama. The Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena was made to look like multiple bigger venues — with subtle changes in lighting and stage design — as the group played to larger crowds and faced more protestors, culminating in a riot at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena when they were almost arrested onstage for performing just a few lines of “Fuck Tha Police.”
Looking for reference material, the production team learned about a stash of personal photos that DJ Speed, a member of N.W.A’s posse, had shot during the tour. Valentino’s stage design — trash-can stands for the DJs, streetlamps, and yellow police- line tape across the front — drew heavily from these photos. But he also embellished, adding dumpsters, flashing police lights, and an N.W.A banner. Valentino explains that they needed a way to convey, visually, N.W.A’s growing popularity and that the actual staging of their tour was too stripped-down to get the point across. “They tried to bring some of those street elements to their stage performance,” says Valentino. “I riffed on that and made it a little bit bigger and exaggerated.”