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You've said before that you never thought you'd pursue acting, but Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton changed your mind. How did he convince you to try it?
He showed me, for one thing, that it's a creative space, like writing. I've been trying to create movies [in song form], but here was a way to have a three-dimensional canvas that moves. I just got bit by the acting bug after doing Boyz n the Hood and the success of that. That was a hell of a ride for me.
Which craft has been the toughest for you to hone?
Music is like my lifeline, and it's the easiest for me to do. As far as acting, it's difficult to stay that consistent all day in a scene or in a role.
Were you a fan of the TV show 21 Jump Street before getting involved with the movie?
When 21 Jump Street was really going on, I was running around too much to be a true weekly fan, but I enjoyed it. I'm glad we just took the premise of the show and almost spoofed it in a way. To me, that was the thing that was fresh about this.
It's funny: Your old rap group, N.W.A, had a big hit with the song "Fuck tha Police," and now you're portraying a cop in this film. What was it like playing Captain Dickson?
It was cool. He's a stereotypical loud captain—mad about everything. It's kind of fun to play that guy and put my take on it. He's over the top; he talks a lot of shit. That can't be bad.
Would you ever want to go back to high school undercover?
No, no, never. [Laughs]
Undercover? That's like a lowlife, a trickster. That ain't cool.
If you had to go back, which crowd would you hang with?
I would look for the go-getters, the ones who are trying to do big things even though they're still in school. The people who've got aspirations outside of what's going on in the lunch line.
Why that clique?
I always liked people who had other things going on outside of school, who were progressive. I came up at a time when we were the freaks—the ones who loved hip-hop. The crazy outsiders that everybody was like, "What the hell? Why you carrying that cardboard, what's break dancing, [what's] rapping?" We were the freaks because people didn't understand it, so they didn't want to be a part of it. I was always [going at] my own pace, doing my own thing anyway.
Would you do another comedy?
What I've learned is that you've got to jump on the good projects no matter what the genre is. I don't want to pigeonhole myself. Comedies have just been the path of least resistance.
That kind of fearless attitude is good.
I think so. If you become a one-trick pony, if they figure you out, then you're done.
21 Jump Street opens Mar 16.