Two ’90s-Era Hip Hop Films Revive L.A.’s Rap Glory Days

<em>Straight Outta Compton</em> and <em>Dope</em> recall a time when west was best

For the generation too young to know the gangsta rap act N.W.A, Ice Cube is better known as a box office-topping film star, Dr. Dre is a multibillionaire producer who makes $200 headphones, and their buddy Snoop Dogg is a Rastafarian marijuana-legalization advocate. Even South Central—the oft-cited geographical nexus of 1990s West Coast rap—has undergone an image overhaul. The 51-square-mile cluster of 28 neighborhoods was renamed South L.A. in 2003, an ambitious effort to undo negative stereotypes that Compton mayor Aja Brown has described as “disheartening.” (Not to mention inaccurate: Despite the persistent pop culture conflation, Compton and Inglewood aren’t part of South L.A. but rather nearby municipalities.)

Two upcoming films are revisiting the era—and its groundbreaking sounds—with a tinge of nostalgia. The long-awaited N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton (in theaters August 13), will recount the rap stars’ early years establishing the controversial genre, including how Ice Cube’s anti-law enforcement lyrics spurred FBI interest. His transition from “Fuck Tha Police” to Are We There Yet? is epic, but it seems the music legacy of Cube (who left N.W.A in ’89) continues. One of his sons, O’Shea Jackson Jr., will play the teenage version of his father in the film.

Three Inglewood teens (played by, from left, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, and Shameik Moore) are rap music geeks in Dope
Three Inglewood teens (played by, from left, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, and Shameik Moore) are rap music geeks in Dope

Then there’s the Sundance favorite Dope (premieres June 19), a John Hughes-meets-John Singleton coming-of-age tale about a trio of geeky high school seniors in present-day Inglewood who are obsessed with all things old school. These retro hip-hop fans may have been born after the first wave of West Coast rap, but the film’s 41-year-old writer-director, Rick Famuyiwa (best known for 1999’s The Wood), drew inspiration from his teen years in the city. He also sees his past in the current crop of successful L.A. rappers. “I listen to a lot of the younger artists like Tyler, the Creator, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt,” he says. “Many are from the Inglewood area, and that’s a big reason I kept up with them. In their early videos I’d see the locations they were shooting, and they were the same spots my friends and I had hung out 20 years earlier. It’s been interesting to see this new energy, this new voice, this new point of view coming from the same place that I was from.”