Actor Neil Brown Jr. on his Straight Outta Compton journey
“I’ve been really, really busy, my phone has never rung so much,” says actor Neil Brown Jr. post Straight Outta Compton. Between the exchanges of exhales and laughs, the quip about the state of his week goes without saying.
It’s understandable, considering that he played DJ Yella in a film that has now become the highest-grossing musical biopic ever.
Over the past few months, his likeness has become culturally linked to DJ Yella, often known as the comedic backbone of N.W.A. – often characterized as chill, quick witted and plum funny, words that easily describe the Florida-born actor.
It’s been hectic man, but also joyful, looking at my wife and kids knowing that their life is changing for the better.
This profession is all Neil Brown Jr. has ever known; he’s grateful that the marathon that is his profession is beginning to become truly fruitful.
“It’s been hectic man, but also joyful, looking at my wife and kids knowing that their life is changing for the better.”
SO WHAT WAS IT LIKE ACTING AS DJ YELLA? It was dope … after I did my research and then I hung out with him every day. He was probably the most fun guy to be in a lot of ways because he never really had real conflict. He was just always about, ‘let’s get the money, these girls, let’s go eat good, let’s have a good time, let’s make great music.’ He was a happy go-lucky, funny guy, always joking around. Except when you saw him in pictures, he had to put on the costume and put the straight N.W.A. face. Outside of that, when that went off, he was just all smiles and jokes. It was a lot of fun, a dream come true for me.
I’d ask him about everything, about his life and realized what type of character and what type of person he was. He was impressed that I had already kind of hit the nail on the head before I met him.
OBVIOUSLY YOU’RE PLAYING A REAL PERSON IN DJ YELLA, SO GO INTO MORE DETAIL AS TO THE KIND OF PREPARATION YOU WENT THROUGH IN ORDER TO BE AN ACCURATE VERSION OF THE MAN HIMSELF. Man, I saw every bit of video, every bit of footage. Universal provided us with footage as well as interviews that people didn’t have. All the magazines, all the music, which I knew of already. I researched all the stories and kind of got a feel for who he was. Then we would have private sessions where we just talked and I’d ask him about everything, about his life and realized what type of character and what type of person he was. He was impressed that I had already kind of hit the nail on the head before I met him. I did open up to him, he was very humble, very open, and I learned how to DJ (laughs) and mix records and all that stuff just to get a feel for the exact type of person he was. It was easy from there on out to just be him and to respond how he would respond, because I knew who he was essentially.
APART FROM THE FILM, TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOU AND YOUR JOURNEY THAT LED TO ACTING. I had won a bunch of championships in karate, boxing and Muay Thai, and I was getting ready for the AAUs (Amateur Athletic Union) – I was 14. Then a producer came in from Universal, I got a long history with Universal. They came in and they had a show called “WMAC Masters” and they needed a kid that could do all this stuff, but also look like he was from some kind of rough area, and I got the part and once they gave me some lines they realized, ‘OMG you can act,’ and then I realized that I could act and I caught the acting bug and I’ve just been doing it ever since.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE AN INTERESTING STYLE. BASED ON SOME PAST ROLES IT SEEMS LIKE YOU FAVOUR THE COMEDIC SIDE OF THINGS. WHO INSPIRES YOU AS AN ACTOR? Ninety-five per cent of what I played has been drama, tough guy. I only recently started doing anything funny, because people didn’t believe that I could be funny so even if I played a bad guy I made him funny. The actors that inspired me were really all the ones that really just make you feel something. I love people like Daniel Day Lewis, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle and Tom Hardy right now. I also grew up listening to the records of Richard Pryor and Redd Fox, Eddie Murphy; these guys were inspirations to me, just because they made me feel something, whether it was laughter, anger, compassion.
N.W.A., what they were saying was labelled as ‘gangster rap’ when it was just telling the truth of what was going on every day, but people hated truth back then right, so they labelled them as gangsters.
N.W.A. ONE OF THE THINGS I NOTICED, MUCH LIKE THE REAL N.W.A., YOU GUYS HAD SOME GREAT CHEMISTRY ON SCREEN. TAKE ME THROUGH THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH O’SHEA JACKSON JR., COREY HAWKINS, JASON MITCHELL, ALDIS HODGE AND THE REST OF THE CAST. Aldis Hodge, who played MC Ren, and I were already friends for five years, but O’Shea, Corey and Jason had been together for a month or two and already built a natural chemistry. Once we came in, it was just easy, because we all had the same thing going on. We liked to cut jokes, and we all liked to mess with people. Once you all got jokes and they’re actually funny, it’s fairly easy for you to figure out everything else, even get along. We all had a similar type of humour and everybody was open and willing to do all the work that was necessary. I mean we didn’t sit down for 15-16 hours a day, and nobody complained. That was one of the most beautiful things about it. All the guys are great. They’re all very open and willing to put in the work and laugh at it.
THIS MOVIE HAD A LOT OF FUNNY MOMENTS, DRAMATIC MOMENTS, WHICH WAS A BIT SURPRISING. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR FAVOURITE SCENE IN THE MOVIE, AND WHY? There’s a favourite scene and then there’s a hardest scene. Probably the hardest scene was during Eazy-E’s death, where I bring in the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony tape that Yella had produced. My favourite scene would have to be the Eazy-E performance that we did. Because we had recorded on the records with the real N.W.A. voices, so when you see us come out in front of 2,500 to 3,000 extras, you get high off of the performance and being out there in front of the crowd and really rocking it. After we did it and had to take off running, Cube and Dub C did an improv performance of four songs, gave a mini concert after being hyped off of our performance, so that’s one of my favourite parts of the movie – the performance and the riot.
DESPITE YOUR PAST IN THE FILM INDUSTRY, THIS COULD BE THE BIGGEST FILM YOU’VE BEEN A PART OF. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO ULTIMATELY TAKE AWAY FROM THIS EXPERIENCE? It very well could be. Domestically and on the budget like this, there’s never been anything this big. What this movie is meaning to people, it’s very exciting. These moments are precious. This career is a marathon; it’s not a sprint. It’s been a long time, I mean 21 years, so what I’m taking from it is the joy and the peace that I get from being in something that really affects people. I’m completely grateful that Gary and Universal gave me a chance to play with these guys and make something that truly puts feeling into people. I’ll take the lessons Gary taught me from it especially about how precious a film like that, and moments like that in film, are.
If it’s something you love to do, work at it and don’t just say you work at it. Actually work at it. Always be doing something, getting you one step closer to being a better storyteller.
NOW THROUGHOUT NORTH AMERICA, #BLACKLIVESMATTER HAS BEEN A GROWING MOVEMENT, ALL OVER THE WORLD REALLY. GIVEN WHAT N.W.A. STOOD FOR, FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE A FILM LIKE THIS COME OUT DURING THIS PERIOD OF TIME? It just so happens that it came out and the same stuff that was going on then, is going on now. They set this release date like three years ago. Little did they know that all this stuff would be going on now. The thing of it is that we’re talking about it and as it pertains to back then. N.W.A., what they were saying was labelled as ‘gangster rap’ when it was just telling the truth of what was going on every day, but people hated truth back then right, so they labelled them as gangsters for saying, ‘hey, this is what the police are doing, this is what we’re going through.’ But now the difference is that we’re talking about it, we’re having actual dialogue and it’s not being labelled as just the anger of a particular people. Some people still try to label it, but most are seeing it as truth because we have video, so it meant a lot for this movie to come out, for me especially, N.W.A., to finally be able to tell the story and let it provide context for why they said the things that they said. It’s really making people talk, which is a beautiful thing.
YOU’VE MENTIONED EARLIER THAT ACTING IS THE ONLY THING YOU’VE REALLY KNOWN. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO FELLOW ACTORS WHO WANT TO MAKE IT IN THIS BUSINESS, WHICH I IMAGINE IS PRETTY DAMN TOUGH. I’ve been in this for 21 years and you’re just noticing (laughs). It’s gotta be one of those things when you gotta know that it is a marathon. Don’t have any pre-conceived notions in the way you think making it, or not making it, is. If it’s something you love to do, work at it and don’t just say you work at it. Actually work at it. Always be doing something, getting you one step closer to being a better storyteller. Learn to write, get into a class, always be working and appreciating each audition, because it can go away tomorrow. Appreciate every job that you get. Don’t compromise yourself just because you feel you’re not where you need to be, because you’re never going to be [where] you think you should be.
LAST QUESTION. FAVOURITE N.W.A. TRACK AND WHY. It would be, “F*ck Tha Police” and not because all cops are bad or anything like that, but it’s just the fact that there’s a gang out there called the police and they’re more ruthless than any Blood or Crip you can find (laughs) because they’re doing it legally. To have a song that you can bounce to and learn something from is just dope for me. I just love the fact that somebody said something and it got popular and now it’s getting popular again … F*ck the police that do those things to people just because they’re not from the same class [or] skin colour. People in power like to use it. A lot of cats that used to get beat up in high school are cops now; it’s nothing nice.