Talking Pictures: Up close

Talking Pictures: Up close

Piper’s one-man show explores multiple perspectives

Jinho "The Piper" Ferreira is a rapper, actor and deputy sheriff. Film still courtesy of Vincent Cortez.

by David Templeton

“I thought there was a chance that Straight Outta Compton would be a powerful, truthful film,” remarks rapper, actor and police officer Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira. He’s called me up on his way to his son’s soccer practice to talk about the sensational hit film describing the foundation and social impact of the seminal rap group N.W.A., and the recording of their groundbreaking tunes, “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck the Police.”

The film was the number one film in America for three weeks in a row, and is being mentioned as a possible Oscar nominee for best film. “I knew that at least two of the actual members of N.W.A. were involved in the making of the film, behind the scenes,” says Piper, “so I thought that would lead to something powerful and honest … and when I saw the movie on opening weekend, it was everything I hoped it would be.”

Piper (he prefers to be called by his rapper-DJ name) grew up on the streets of Oakland, where he experienced many of the things that led the members of N.W.A. to create their remarkable string of insightful, angry, politically and socially fueled songs. In his critically acclaimed one-man show, Cops and Robbers, now playing at The Marsh Arts Center in Berkeley, Piper tells the story of an officer-involved shooting from the perspective of 17 different people, including witnesses, community members, the suspects at the center of the shooting and the police officers involved.

Piper is particularly suited to tell such a story, in part because he’s seen it up-close from many of those perspectives, including that of the officers. Several years ago, in the wake of the Oscar Grant protests in Oakland (Grant was the unarmed black youth who was shot and killed by a BART officer at the Fruitvale BART Station), Piper decided to be part of the solution by putting himself through police academy. He’s now a deputy sheriff with Alameda County, continuing to perform as an actor and rapper in his spare time.

As for Straight Outta Compton, Piper is right that much of the film’s power comes from the fact that it was executive produced by original N.W.A. members Ice Cube (who is convincingly played in the film by his own son) and Dr. Dre, plus Tomica Woods-Wright, the wife of Eric (Eazy-E) Wright. Messy, and ambitious, and furiously driven, “Straight Outta Compton” plays like a thriller or an action flick more than it plays like a typical musical biography.

“I think Straight Outta Compton is a classic for my generation,” Piper says. “It’s a film that defines a time and a place, and has something to say about that time and place, and the people who were shaped by it. The movie is every bit as powerful as the music was, for me, when I was growing up.”

Piper believes that the film managed to effectively tell the individual stories of the N.W.A. members, and that many younger audiences will be surprised to see the real lives, struggles and mistakes that stand as the history behind the music.

“The movie didn’t focus as much on the gang-banging culture and the crack epidemic that Eazy-E rose up from, but it was there enough to give real truth to the story,” he says. “I grew up in the same kind of a culture, though not in Southern California. I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley. My next door neighbor—we tried out for Pop Warner football together—he ended up selling crack. I made it, he didn’t. Next door to him there was a girl who was murdered. Her cousin was selling crack. A guy two doors down ended up robbing backs. He went to the penitentiary for eight or nine years, and the last time I saw him, he was a drug addict. Those are just some of the stories from my block, and our block wasn’t even considered a ‘drug block.’ There were prostitutes on the corner, but it was considered a pretty good block, and still there were a lot of people who didn’t make it. That’s the kind of reality out of which N.W.A. was formed.”

Piper rattles off a list of names of other friends and neighbors whose stories culminated in addiction, imprisonment or death.

“People think Oakland is dangerous now,” he remarks, “but when I was going to school, in 1992, there were 175 murders in Oakland that year. Last year there were eight. So the movie did a good job of capturing the story of N.W.A., but it didn’t need to focus on the crack epidemic or the gangs any more than it did. Everyone knows those stories already. We lived those stories.”

The film has been criticized by some for its downplaying some of the wort behavior of various N.W.A. members, notorious for excess, violence and poor treatment of women. That said, there is enough of that behavior on display in the film to give audiences a strong picture of the best and worst aspects of these rap icons’ characters.

“Their problems have been well documented,” Piper says. “It’s not new. And if you think about how those guys produced this movie, they might clean it up a little, but they still reveal a lot that no one else would if they were making a biographical movie. They show their vulnerability. They show their lack of knowledge about the music at the beginning, and how they were manipulated and taken advantage of. That’s not something a lot of guys in hip-hop would admit freely.”

The film is full of powerful scenes, including the moment of jaw-dropping police harassment that inspired the song “Fuck the Police,” and later, the moment when N.W.A. defies orders from authorities in Detroit to cut the song from a concert appearance in that city. But for Piper, the most powerful scene in Straight Outta Compton is the one that starts the film.

“At the beginning of the film, Eazy-E is in a crack house,” Piper recalls. “He’s in there with drug dealers and gang-bangers, and he ends up with a gun pointed at him, and there’s this stand-off, where everyone is threatening the lives of everybody else’s family members. And then the police come down the street with the battering ram, to break down the door of that house he’s in.”

“Think about that scene,” Piper continues. “Eazy has to get out of that house. Period. He’s kickin’ open doors, running all over, knocking people down, trying to get out of that crack house. That’s not just the story of Eazy-E at that moment. That’s the story of that entire generation, the generation out of which the music of N.W.A. arose.

“They had to get out of the crack house. They had to get out any way possible. And that meant kick open doors … and the music of N.W.A., it kicked open a lot of doors, not just for the members of the group, but for an entire generation.”

That scene then, according to Piper, was more than just an effective action scene to open a film, or set it in a particular time. It’s a metaphor that holds tremendous power.

“Our generation did not put ourselves in that house,” Piper says. “But it was up to us to find a way out. Some have. Some haven’t. That’s what this movie is about. That’s why it’s so important.”

NOW PLAYING: Cops and Robbers runs on Saturdays at 5pm through October 3 (no performance on Sept. 19) at The Marsh Arts Center, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley; $20-$100; 415/282-3055.

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