You’ve seen trailers and posters for months. You’ve seen the memes all over Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Maybe you’re even one of the thousands predicted to flood the box offices this weekend, as "Straight Outta Compton" hits theaters across the nation after months of hype. Even for those of us too young to remember when “F--k Tha Police” shocked the nation and changed the face of hip-hop in the late 1980s, there’s so much of the story of the N.W.A’s rise to fame that feels fresh, powerful, and—particularly in the wake of so many recent social justice tragedies in our country—uncomfortably timely.
We’re also straight into all of the amazing fashion on display in the film and couldn’t wait to get the behind-the-scenes look with designer Kelli Jones, who joined us to talk about what it’s like to work with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, how '90s hip-hop artists and motorcycle gangs have a surprising amount of style overlap, and why it’s just never a good idea to feature acid-wash jeans on screen.
MTV: We’re so thrilled to have you here to talk to us! Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you came to become a costume designer?
Kelli Jones: I’ve been a designer for about a little over ten years, and I pretty much started just knowing that I wanted to work in television and movies. I really just started so bare-bones and worked my way up—I designed short films that had no budget, I did movies that had no budget, I did music videos that had no budget… you just meet people from there, and you create kind of a network around you. The great thing about being in LA is everyone kind of comes up together. So, a lot of the people I worked with ten years ago are now huge actors or directors or producers, but they started out the way most people start out, which is just doing s--t for free.
MTV: I mean, that dovetails so nicely into my next question–I was wondering how you got the job as the designer for "Straight Outta Compton."
Jones: So, I used to be the costume designer for this show "Sons of Anarchy"...
MTV: Um, yes! I love that show—your work is amazing!
Jones: Thank you! So, that’s actually how I got the job. Gary [F. Gary Gray, director and one of the producers] rides motorcycles, he’s a huge fan of the show. The producers were ping-ponging ideas around about who could take on "Compton," and they saw a lot of parallels between our project and "Sons of Anarchy." I’m used to designing a rougher look, and Gary wanted someone who understood that these guys are iconic without being slaves to fashion. I’ve gotten pretty good at honing in on creating characters even when they really all primarily dress the same, especially those very gangster styles. There’s some overlap between "Anarchy" and the way N.W.A used to dress—a lot of Dickies, a lot of Levis. A lot of surprising parallels.
MTV: So, how do you begin to research a project like this? After all, it’s a time period that isn’t too long ago, especially because the lives are lived by people who are still very much alive and might have their own ideas about how they want to be portrayed on film.
Jones: Well, the research started online—the kind of thing just anybody could look up, old photos. We had this meeting with Cube and Dre that was basically a Q & A for defining the looks—what they wanted us to hit, what was accurate. I’d seen some videos. I had some research photos that Dre and Cube emailed us, old-school photos they had lying around. I met with Tomica, the widow of Eazy-E, and she actually let me go through some of their vacation photos—things that no one else has seen. I saw some of the real-deal research, got down to the nitty-gritty.
Cube and Dre were around a lot. Yella was on set all the time, but when it came to [deceased band member] Eazy-E ... I mean, I talked to Tomica, I talked to a lot of people, I went through old photos. The thing about Eazy is that he looked young. And he was a drug dealer before N.W.A—they show that in the movie—and the thing is that he would get away with s--t because he looked young. So, he’d wear baggier jeans than most people wore then, he wore the Charlie Brown polos. So, I felt like I had to completely nail it. He had such a fun vibe of dressing—he would dress more costume-y than the other guys, and I wanted to make sure that he had a different flair than the others. He would wear a jersey that he’d write in big block letters across the front, “EAZY.”
I also needed to make sure they all looked different. I really wanted to be truthful to the way they actually dressed, but I also needed to differentiate them from one another. Like, Cube was definitely into Dickies. Dre did a lot of the sweatshirts and some Carhartts. Eazy did the polos. Yella had a little bit more of a colorful, funky flair. Ren layered his stuff. So, I started with that, and then it became a wild goose chase to actually get those pieces.
I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of places I went, the times I had to get things embroidered, the amount of pieces I made—I mean, I had to pretty much do a Powerpoint for Universal Studios that showed the guys’ actual photos from the ‘90s next to our fitting photos, and the images had to match up. I got very lucky—I found vintage shops that you wouldn’t believe had so many of the things I had wanted Eazy to wear—I mean, the exact polos and the exact button-downs.
Nike was awesome with me—they probably gave me $20,000 worth of shoes and gear. Same with Adidas—any time I called them, I just needed boxes of stuff—and, no question, they went right back in the archives for me. I had someone working for me with a connection to Karl Kani, who was an old friend of Dre’s who made some stuff for him back in the ‘90s. So, there’s a couple scenes where we had him make some stuff for us. It was a crazy amount of clothes—866 total changes in the movie—and down to the shoelace, I had to get it right. I’m still exhausted! But it was so, so worth it.
MTV: So, the best thing about fashion in some ways is that it really has the ability to reshape itself, to recycle and repurpose old ideas into new trends. Do you see any of the iconic N.W.A looks making a comeback?
Jones: I mean, I’m hoping that in seeing these guys, these looks on the big screen again, just how badass it looked that it gets to become a little more mainstream, that we can really bring that back. The truth is, Dre and Cube still dress today the way they dressed then.
There was a day on set where I had Corey in a long-sleeved black T-shirt, black jeans, white Air Force Ones, and Dre walks on the set, and he’s wearing the exact same thing. I think Cube wore Dickies to the premiere. I think it’s such a strong, awesome statement about them—that they didn’t ebb and flow with fashion, that they’re bigger than that, and because of that, they’re trendsetters. So, I’m hoping that people see this and think, "There’s no bells and whistles. It’s just cool. It’s just a cool, badass style of dressing.”
MTV: For so many people, they remember this time in American culture so vividly. Was this something far outside of your own cultural background or experiences, or did you have a personal connection or memory of hearing N.W.A’s music, experiencing this part of fashion history for yourself?
Jones: Honestly, I’m a bit younger than these guys–I was in junior high when ‘F--k Tha Police” came out. I could tell you all the songs off The Chronic, but it wasn’t until Dre went off on his own that I really started listening to rap and hip-hop. I didn’t have an association with this, and I actually think it gave me an advantage. That’s exactly how it was with "Sons of Anarchy"—I’d never in my life been on a motorcycle, and so I had the advantage of not having things set in my mind. I could look at things with a wider scope. If I went into this process and said things like, “Well, this is what I was wearing!” it’s so subjective. So, I think it was my advantage that it was all based on research, on talking to Dre and Cube every day. Gary and I were bouncing ideas off each other constantly.
I want this to be relatable to people who aren’t in their forties and fifties, who are the people who will know and remember this time. I want this movie to be seen and loved by the people in their twenties and thirties, who won’t remember where they were when “F--k Tha Police” came out because they were so little. So, we had to make sure that it accessed the past without making it too stereotypical, without leaning too far into the ideas of what younger kids see when they look at ‘80s and ‘90’s movies.
Those ‘80s and ‘90s fashions, they can look a little corny. So I wanted to make sure I left out—even though everything is still very realistic—those pieces that are distracting. The ‘80s were distracting! I mean, you can get distracted by, “Holy s--t, look at that acid wash!” but that’s not what the movie’s about. The movie is about how strong they were with their voices, how solid they were with their look.
MTV: So, talk to me about the female characters! I know that the film focuses primarily on the men, but I’m interested in how you approached those characters, particularly in the wake of many accusations of the N.W.A’s lyrics as being misogynistic, anti-woman.
Jones: Well, you’re right, there really are only three female characters that are focused on at all. It’s Kim, Nicole, and Tomica, who come in halfway through the film, and they’re only in a few scenes. There are so many other women in the backgrounds before that—scenes at pool parties, hanging out at the studios—and these guys, they had women throwing themselves all the time. So, those women, I chose a lot of booty shorts, crop tops, bike shorts, stilettos, and I wanted to style Nicole and Kim and Tomica in a different way. Those ladies stayed with these men. Cube and Kim are still together, still crazy in love, and so are Dre and Nicole. They were so sweet to see when they came to set. So, I wanted the dress to reflect that, to ask us to take them seriously.
MTV: Any favorite moments from on-set or favorite looks you created?
Jones: We did montages of the concerts, some of which got cut from the final film. We used this huge venue downtown, five thousand people there. I had to change the guys five times a day for three days, so we could film imagining they were on tour in different cities. So, to see them all onstage—that’s when Cube would wear the satin Raiders jacket, Eazy had the glasses and net gloves, Dre had the chains—it gave me chills. It’s insane. I mean, I never went to an N.W.A concert, but I watched every single one of their concerts on YouTube when I got the job, so just to see it in real life—it was such a sick experience.
People ask me what I’d like to do next, and I think, how do you top this? I honestly have no idea. I mean, one day Cube gets up on stage on set and just starts performing for the audience and extras, really doing it—it was unbelievable! It was just something that you can’t even believe was real. Those moments were just so amazing. It was extraordinary. I couldn’t be more happy and lucky and blessed.