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— by Larry Carroll

Don't ever tell Ice Cube that there's something he can't do. An actor, rapper, director, producer and writer, the boundary-breaking star has worn so many different hats that his business card needs to be continued on the other side. As "XXX: State of the Union" lands in theaters on April 29, some are describing the actor's decision to take over the Vin Diesel franchise as risky. Cube sees it as just another day at the office.

MTV Overdrive Exclusive: First 10 minutes of "XXX: State of the Union"

Hard as it is to believe that the man once known as O'Shea Jackson is 35 years old, it's even more difficult to recall a time when he was simply a rapper. "My mindset when I was making Straight Outta Compton," he recalls of N.W.A's groundbreaking 1989 debut, "I was trying to get some money in my pocket, rapping about the things in my neighborhood that I thought people would want to hear about."

The album made Cube, Dr. Dre and their fellow gangsta pioneers an overnight sensation; it also earned them their very own FBI files. "We was just starting to become celebrities," he remembers, grinning. "Yeah, getting an FBI file. That wasn't fun, but we weren't never scared of that, because where we come from, we had to deal with police more than anybody. The FBI was somebody you see on TV that you never really had to deal with. We was really worried about the LAPD [and] sheriffs more than the FBI."

When Cube decided a year later to walk away from N.W.A, he took the first in a long string of career risks. "I took a lot of crap from my group," he admits. "The fans, they dug it. I think it's inevitable when you got that much talent in one place, people are going to want to do their own things. I don't think nobody who can get into this position can get into it by being a follower."

The path-less-traveled paid off big, as profane but profound solo albums like AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and Death Certificate sold millions. Next, Cube raised more eyebrows by taking his messages of black rebellion to the alternative-rock crowds of the Lollapalooza Tour. "I didn't want to neglect any fans that was down with the music," Cube says of the decision to play alongside such groups as Soundgarden and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "It was a big discovery — something I knew a long time ago, but around '92 people started discovering that all people like rap music."

See the complete Ice Cube interview in Overdrive

It wasn't long before Hollywood took notice of Cube's crossover appeal. "I met John Singleton when he was just an intern over at 'The Arsenio Hall Show,' " Cube says of the writer and director of "Boyz N the Hood." "He had a vision and he kind of put me on his back. We did the movie — and I really haven't looked back since."

His vivid portrayal of the tough but loyal street thug named Doughboy stunned critics who had made a habit of easily dismissing rapper/actors like the clownish Kid 'N Play or the scenery-chewing Ice-T. When the film's success inspired an onslaught of movies from the 'hood, Cube was offered numerous opportunities to cash in on his street cred. Against the advice of many, Cube decided to show a different side of life in South Central L.A.

"It's definitely the film equivalent of 'It Was a Good Day,' " Cube says, comparing his comedic film "Friday" to his feel-good hit single. "Just showing that it ain't all bad in the 'hood. We didn't grow up crying because we lived in a hell hole; we just grew up dealing with it. It was life — we didn't know nothing different."

"Good Day," now considered to be a hip-hop classic, had a tough-talking Cube maintaining his attitude while pausing to enjoy a few moments blissfully devoid of carjacking and ho-hassling; with the film equivalent, Cube showed off a gift for comedic timing. "At the time I did 'Friday,' there was so many movies about the 'hood: 'Boyz N the Hood,' 'Menace II Society,' 'South Central,' they was coming out of the woodwork talking about how bad our neighborhood was," he says of the time shortly after the 1992 L.A. riots. "It was a movie where we wanted to show how we grew up, how we felt about growing up in the 'hood. Bad stuff was still happening — if you look at 'Friday,' a lot of bad stuff is happening throughout the movie — but we always looked at it with a comedic eye."

With little fanfare, "Friday" became a cult classic and one of the first great triumphs of the home-video era. Cube used the film's unexpected success to keep pushing away those who wanted to fence him in. "[I was] just trying to run from being typecast," he says. "I didn't want people to think of a 'hood movie and call Cube. I wanted people to look at me and see I can play anything that I really focused on. At the time, I did 'Dangerous Ground,' which was a South African movie, then 'Anaconda.' I just tried to spread it out and not get caught up in one thing."

In the years that followed, Cube became a director ("The Player's Club"), a writer ("All About the Benjamins"), a critically acclaimed thespian ("Three Kings"), a sci-fi star ("Ghosts of Mars") and a bankable star of family fare ("Are We There Yet?"). Now, as he takes on the "XXX" role of Darius Stone, the government's latest secret agent, he's positioned himself to become a full-on action star.

"I'm not trying to play a version of Vin [Diesel]," Cube says, referencing the star of the first "XXX" movie. "It's not just this popcorn movie with weak dialogue where you're just waiting for action. It's a thriller you can get caught up in, and a story that holds up. Our villain is Willem Dafoe — we stepped it up tenfold on that side of the fence — and Samuel L. [Jackson] coming in, making sure the movies hinge together. To me, we have all the perfect ingredients for a hit sequel. I think we got it."

Once again, Ice Cube has chosen his own direction while waiting for the world to catch up. But as he jokes about the film's title, he reminds anyone within earshot that the South Central street thug isn't too far away. "I would have thought 'XXX' was a porno when I was 14 or 15," he laughs.

Ice Cube as a porn star? Let's just hope that nobody tells the man it's something he can't do.


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Photo: Columbia Pictures, New Line Cinema, Priority Records and Warner Bros.


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