Leimert Park is the intellectual center of African American life in Los Angeles — jazz clubs, coffeehouses, bookstores, art galleries, a theater in a fine old movie palace, the restaurants that draw people from all over town. Neatly suited Muslims stand on the street corners, offering newsletters and bean pies for sale. Reggae blasts from the record shops. Hip-hop blasts from the cars.
Here, in an Ozzie and Harriet-like Leimert Park neighborhood just a few blocks from the swank black-owned mansions of Windsor Hills, rap star Dr. Dre, wearing a black Ben Davis shirt, baggy pants and a marijuana-leaf baseball cap that advertises his best-selling album The Chronic, shrugs himself into the driver's seat of a black '64 Chevrolet Impala convertible and reaches under the dash. Suddenly, the parked car leans sharply to one side, the right body panel striking the asphalt with a violent thunk. Just as abruptly, it rights itself, and the front end of the car begins to hop up and down, just as you've seen it do a thousand times on MTV. Dre glances back at his entourage with the classic "Look, no hands" smirk of a guy who has always been Mom's favorite, and the Impala rears like a spooked stallion.
A tall man wearing a black Dodgers cap snorts and shakes his head. "Damn," he says. "Nigga can't get enough of that shit."
Dr. Dre — the ex-N.W.A member whose Chronic LP, eight months in the Billboard Top 10, is already the most popular hardcore rap album in history (two million and counting), with a huge crossover audience — is directing, producing and starring in his third video for The Chronic, which will see him through his extensive fall tour. He also produced, performed and co-wrote the song "Let Me Ride," on which this video is based. However you look at it, Dre is carrying a lot of hyphens today.
A full-on film crew, the kind you'd expect to see doing second-unit work on Terminator III or something, follows his every move with a giant camera crane and a phalanx of big lights. Dre finishes the take, springs out of the car and wanders over to the truck for a video playback of the scene. He peers in the direction of Interscope Records co-head Jimmy Iovine, who smiles and waves. Dre is apparently in control, and Iovine is pleased.
"There aren't three people like him in the music business," Iovine says, stabbing the air with his forefinger. "He can rap, he can produce ... and he can direct a video with humor. Do you know how hard that is? Famous movie directors can't do that."
Dre, who signs his checks Andre Young and who is the chief architect of what is known as West Coast gangsta rap, is an enigma: Though he created one of the most profitable genres in rock & roll, he is better known for his out-of-control episodes than for his absolute control in the studio, better known for his criminal record than for his many platinum records. Mentions of Dre in the Los Angeles Times, his hometown paper, tend to include the phrase "surrendered to police," and he is perhaps the first recording artist since Sly Stone whose name shows up almost as often on the police-report page as it does in the entertainment section. Plenty of newsprint has been devoted to his thuggishness, relatively less to his artistry — which may be on a par with Phil Spector's or Quincy Jones'.
Gangsta rap tends to be a producer's medium: The talent on Dre's million-selling albums has included a pal of his cousin's, his girlfriend and a former buddy, Eazy-E, who intended to finance Dre's records instead of rap on them. Record-industry buzz has it a sure bet that the upcoming record he's producing for his kid brother's best friend, Snoop Doggy Dogg, will be the first debut album to premiere at the top of the charts. From Snoop's cameos on The Chronic and from his rap on the theme song for last year's Larry Fishburne vehicle Deep Cover, Snoop's lazy, vicious drawl has become one of the most familiar voices in rap. Dre's records make you bounce even as they scare you with their intensity.
The Dre sound is clean but edgy, deeply funky, featuring slow, big-bottomed, slightly dirty beats and powered by guitar and bass work that is not sampled but recreated in the studio, so that — unlike East Coast rap productions — the fidelity of the final product is not inflected by the fidelity of scratchy R&B records that have been played too many times. It is Dre's production work — on Eazy-E, on N.W.A, on rap legend D.O.C., on Pomona group Above the Law, on Snoop Doggy Dogg, on himself — that made gangsta rap among the most vital pop genres to come along in the last few years ... and, not incidentally, set hundreds of thousands of 12-year-old white kids to talking about niggaz, bitches and hos, 12-year-olds who may not even know what a G thang is.
Check out the junior high school around the corner, where the video shoot continues — lights, screens, music, people and dozens of hopping lowrider cars, chugging, smoke-spewing old relics burnished to a high shine, bounding and rebounding higher and higher, tossing their passengers about like so many extremely urban cowboys. If you peek into the trunk of any of these cars, you will see 14 car batteries hooked up in series and a row of hydraulic motors mounted where you'd expect to see the spare tire, but you'd better get out of the way when it starts to jump. One of these cars bounds so high that its owners operate it from the outside with a stalk-mounted remote-control device as if it were a Revell model — instant whiplash — and the crowd scatters when the car lurches sideways after a particularly wicked bounce.
Pounding, P-Funk-derived hip-hop beats boil out from the bank of speakers a few yards away, and a camera-equipped helicopter circles closely overhead. Dre stands on the front seat of his convertible, glorying in the noise, surveying his flock as if he were the grand marshal of a parade, and he crosses his arms in smug satisfaction.
An assistant director hands him a megaphone. Apparently Dre is now obliged to direct. "I don't know," Dre the auteur says. "I guess everybody should do their own thing and shit."
The beat starts up, Dre mimes rapping along with the tape, cars jiggle, Snoop Doggy Dogg sleepily bobs his head, and all around are men and women, Mexicans and blacks and even a few white guys, dancing, holding car-club insignia aloft, throwing gang signs both real and pretend, passing around piss yellow bottles of malt liquor that seem to bob like zeppelins above the crowd. Over to one side, a craps game is going on; make-out couples writhe here and there.
It's kind of groovy out here under the golden late-afternoon sun, free barbecue, dancing to the ambling music, feeling like just another boy in the hood. This is the sort of idyllic, Arcadian vision of inner-city Los Angeles that everybody wants desperately to exist, where crooked C's and flashed eight-treys are less signifier than signified, where ancient convertibles bounce around the playground like fleas on a hot griddle. Abruptly, the music grinds to a halt.
"Hey, hey," an assistant director barks through a megaphone. "I've just been told that nothing we shot is usable, because y'all were throwing gang signs. MTV won't play anything with gang signs. And if y'all want to throw them, you'll have to go home."
Everything is silent for a moment, and you can feel the tension in the crowd, the good times threatening to implode. Then the music starts up again even louder than before, a couple of people start to dance, and the anger dissolves into relief. No more gang signs, no more today.
Iovine nervously checks his watch. "See that kid over there?" he asks nobody in particular, gesturing toward a boy scampering on the basketball court. "That's my 12-year-old nephew from Staten Island. You couldn't get more white and suburban than him. But Dre's record is all the kid listens to. When you sell this many albums, they are not all going to the South Bronx."
"It's my business to know these things," Interscope's promotion director Marc Benesch says later, "and there's no difference between the people that are going out and buying the Dre album and people that are buying Guns n' Roses."
To get to Dr. Dre's house, you speed west from Hollywood, past the miniature golf courses, past the replica of a French château that hovers over the freeway like a mirage, out over the hills at the west end of the San Fernando Valley into a dusty Western scrub-land where the old Tom Mix films used to be shot. Dre's oversize French colonial is located deep in this landscape of greasewood and brand-new condominium complexes, behind the well-guarded gate of an exclusive residential community. Dre lives among doctors and attorneys and prosperous Valley businessmen on a street of million-dollar homes.
Like any West Valley homeowner, when Dre gets home, he parks his car in the garage, hangs up his jacket and settles back with a glass of nicely chilled white zinfandel, listening to the twilight crickets and lounging in a patio chair by the pool. Dre has been playing hooky today, installing an aquarium in his house and tooling around nearby mountain roads in his Ferrari while his mastering guy was wondering where he was and, across town, the musicians were watching Cosby reruns in the recording-studio lounge. The video for "Let Me Ride" is far from finished, and Interscope is whining for the half-finished album by Snoop Dogg, and there's a lot to be done for the once-postponed Chronic tour with Onyx and Run-D.M.C., which is now less than a month away from starting.
"I can remember when I was just like about four years old in Compton," Dre says, gazing out at the moon, "and my mother would have me stack 45s, stack about 10 of them, and when one would finish, the next record would drop. Do you remember those old record players that played 45s? It was like I was DJ'ing for the house, picking out certain songs and stacking them so this song would go after that song. I would go to sleep with headphones on, listening to music. My mom and my pop — they would have music so loud, loud enough to shake the walls.
"I've got a son, Marcel," Dre continues, "not even three years old, but he gets in one of those roller chairs at the studio and pulls himself to the board and starts fucking with the knobs, rocking his head and shit. He don't even know what he's doing, he's just been watching me, but he has crazy rhythm for a two-year-old.
"The music is just in me now, you know. That's the only thing I can say. People ask me how I come up with these hits, and I can only say that I know what I like, and I'm quick to tell a motherfucker what I don't like and know what people like to play in their cars."
Dre takes a pull at the wine and puts his glass down on the table.
"When I was older," Dre says, "and I DJ'ed at [the Los Angeles dance club] Eve After Dark, I would put together this mix shelf, lots of oldies, Martha and the Vandellas and stuff like that, and where normally you go to a club and the DJs play all the hit records back to back, I used to put on a serious show. People would come from everywhere, just to see Dr. Dre on the wheels of steel.
"A little later, I used to take Ice Cube up to Skateland in Compton — he was in a group with my cousin at the time — and I would tell him that with this crowd you'd better get up and rock, because if you didn't, they'd throw these full cups at your ass. I would have Cube and my cousin change the words to certain songs — like 'My Adidas' became 'My Penis' — and the crowd would get going, and I'd be mixing. That was the dope."
Inside the house, someone has turned on the stereo, and out in the yard, it is loud, deafening, like sitting in the front row at a Megadeth concert, enough to make the fillings rattle inside your teeth before Dre has it turned down.
"Do your neighbors ever complain?" I ask.
Dre thinks for a moment. "They try to," he says, "but I slam the door in their face. I paid a mil-plus for this house, so I figure I can do whatever the fuck I want to do in it."
He gestures to either side, where the leviathan luxury homes crowd in like so many Levittown tract houses. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "this house right here is the only house on the block."
What's important in hip-hop is to capture the pop moment, to cop the right attitudes from your peers and the right records from your mom's record collection, then put them together with the right beats. Nothing else really matters, not verbal virtuosity or deftness on the turntables, neither 48-track studios nor high-tech production skills.
Dre, tall, round cheeked and in his late 20s, a founding member of N.W.A, was until last year the house producer for Eazy-E's Ruthless Records, and seven out of the eight albums he produced for the label between the end of 1983 and the middle of 1991 went platinum. Ruthless used to be called hoodlum Motown: Gangsta rap, the funky, breathtakingly vulgar street sound inspired by the gang-infested Los Angeles suburb Compton, is the most successful California export since the Stealth bomber, and N.W.A are acknowledged as the Sex Pistols of rap. Dre pretty much singlehandedly steered Ruthless from the first gangsta single, Eazy-E's "Boyz-n-the-Hood," J.J. Fad's simple-minded novelty hit "Supersonic" and N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" to a hip-hop diva album for a girlfriend, Michel'le, and the ghetto Götterdämmerung of N.W.A's Niggaz4life, which shocked America when it topped the pop charts. Dre caught the moment pretty well.
Many observers thought gangsta rap had reached its pinnacle with the brilliant though unlistenable Niggaz4life, where side one includes a song in which a common vulgar epithet for African American is repeated nearly 100 times in the course of three minutes and where the misogynist tenor of the second side may be summed up by the titles of the first two tracks: "To Kill a Hooker" and "One Less Bitch." Inspired by N.W.A, Ice-T, 2Pac and various other California rappers wrote so many songs about killing policemen that the subject threatened to become a subgenre as pervasive in hip-hop as the she-done-him-wrong ballad is in Nashville pop.
After breaking with Ruthless over what he perceived as severe underpayment for seven platinum albums, Dre was seen by many outsiders as living out the violence that previously he had only rapped about. Rap TV-show host Dee Barnes filed a yet-unresolved multimillion-dollar assault suit against Dre after he allegedly slammed her against the wall of a Hollywood nightclub a couple of years ago. "I was in the wrong," he angrily told me not long after the incident, "but it's not like I broke the bitch's arm."
Comments like these propelled Dre to No. 1 on hip-hop feminists' hit list as well as the Billboard ones, and the merry gangsta banter on The Chronic, which refers to a potent strain of marijuana, is not precisely redemptive. Even the most politically correct of hip-hop fans may occasionally, to their horror, find themselves humming such undeniable Dre hooks as "Bitches ain't shit but hos and trix," giggling when the women in his videos get sprayed with malt liquor by a couple of G's, even if they recoil at the constant gunplay and the reflexive homophobia. On Dre tracks from "Boyz-n-the-Hood" to "Let Me Ride," life is truly nothing but a G thang, a constant B-boy house party where male bonding is the rule, women are attractive nuisances, and enemies are something to wave guns at from a safe distance. Dre dismisses concerns about sexism and ultraviolence as so much media paranoia.
Last year part of his house burned down in a conflagration that injured two firefighters. Later he was arrested by mounted police in a New Orleans hotel lobby after a fracas that allegedly resulted in the battery of an officer. His former colleague Eazy-E sued him under federal racketeering laws — the suit was recently dismissed for the third time by a U.S. district court judge. Then Dre was convicted (misdemeanor assault) of breaking the jaw of an aspiring record producer, shackled with a tracking device and sentenced to house arrest.
Dre has perfectly rational explanations for most of these incidents, and he seems believable when he tells you that his part in each of them was minor at best, but it is clear that for Dre, 1992 was a lost year of John Lennon-like proportions.
"I needed a record to come out," Dre says. "I was broke. I didn't receive one fuckin' quarter in the year of '92, because Ruthless spent the year trying to figure out ways not to pay me so that I'd come back on my hands and knees. If I had to go back home living with my mom, that wasn't going to happen."
When called for a response, Jerry Heller, the general manager of Ruthless and the white man satirized in the "Dre Day" video, rustled some papers and pulled out Dre's 1099 tax form for the year. In 1992, Heller claims, Dre received $85,603.81 from Ruthless. Still, when Dre thinks about Ruthless, his face contorts with rage.
"I went to a lot of record companies, tried even to get a little production work to pay for rent and shoes," Dre says, "but nobody wanted to take a chance on me because of all that legal shit, all the cease-and-desist letters — Ruthless did anything and everything they could to fuck me up, and I have hate for everybody there. Then at Interscope, I talked to Jimmy Iovine a lot, and he is like the smartest motherfucker in the business; I came to him with the album, the artwork, the concepts for the videos, everything, and Jimmy made it happen."
Dre got the label, Death Row, he'd always wanted, the money to run it and carte blanche to make all the albums he wanted.
"I did record The Chronic in 1992," Dre says. "The year was not a total loss." Like this and like that and like this and a...
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rapper in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a posse.
There are Hugg and Nate Dogg and Kurupt around Dre, and a rapper who calls himself That Nigga Daz, also preteen Lil' Malik, a peculiarly coifed woman named Rage and Dre's younger brother Warren G, who just signed a solo deal with Def Jam. Over there on the couch, playing Nintendo, that's D Ruff: David Ruffin Jr., the Detroit-born son of the late Temptations singer, who's come to California to make himself a star. D Ruff's friend Tony Green is Dre's bass player, a world-class R&B pro.
Suge Knight, it is known, is a first among equals, the soft-spoken CEO of Death Row, a former professional football player who looks every bit the part. Suge partially subsidized the Chronic album with monies he received from his ownership of certain publishing rights to the 14-million-selling Vanilla Ice LP, which would mark that artist's sole contribution to the art of hardcore rap.
The guy in the hat is Ricky Rouse, a guitarist with a quick temper and some of the dandyish flair of Jimi Hendrix; Malik is the compact, heavily muscled bodyguard who speaks in carefully measured tones; the D.O.C. is a large, graceful man who was once among the world's best rappers — he played the English language the way Itzhak Perlman plays a Strad — until his carer was cut short by a freak automobile accident that crushed his throat and left him unable to rap.
The most famous member of the Death Row entourage is Snoop Doggy Dogg, a tall, slender young man with milk-chocolate skin and cornrows as thick as cobs, who is Robin to Dre's Batman, Boswell to his Johnson, Gilligan to Dre's Skipper. Impossible to take your eyes off of, Snoop is as endearingly awkward in front of a camera as a 10-year-old forced to model his new Sunday-school suit in front of all the aunties. Where Dre is aloof and unapproachable in public, children swarm around Snoop as if he were driving an ice-cream truck. Snoop wrote the rhymes for — and rapped on — about 60 percent of The Chronic.
How eagerly anticipated is Snoop's album Doggystyle? Two weeks before the album is scheduled to hit the streets, Dre refuses to let even Iovine listen to more than two songs outside of the Studio, and the tenacious Compton bootleggers have been stymied in their quest to pry loose more than a few rhymes, but every hip-hop fan you talk to already knows the names of the album tracks by heart: "Who Am I," "Gin and Juice," "Death After Visualizing Eternity," "G's Up, Hos Down."
The answer to the musical question "Who Am I," the first single from Doggystyle, turns out to be "the nigga with the biggest nuts," which may be a little closer to Beavis and Butt-Head than to the defiant acts of African American self-assertion postulated by hip-hop theorists. Snoop is this year's version of the teenage B-boy Everyman, not a suave fellow insinuating his prowess with the ladies, but a G just like you.
And as he perches on a stool inside a darkened studio utility room, talking in a whispered drawl and inhaling chicken wings from a bucket like a man who hasn't eaten for a week, Snoop does indeed seem more like the cutup in the back of your algebra class than the gangsta feared by millions.
"Everybody wants to know something about Snoop," Snoop says. "What is it about Snoop? What makes Snoop click? It's cool being a mystery."
Snoop peels back the flesh from a wing: "I wasn't no gangster-ass type of nigga to be starting no shit, but there's just all kinds of little ghetto stuff that's easy for a young black man to get into. The hard-ass gangbanger life ain't the bomb at all, period. The other day I was looking at an old picture from back when I used to play Pop Warner football, and like of 28 homies on the team, 12 are dead, seven are in the penitentiary, three of them are smoke out, and only me and Warren G are successful. I love my homies, but damn, I don't want to stay down there with y'all."
When he was only a couple of weeks out of high school in Long Beach, Snoop was sent up after a drug bust, and he spent three years in and out of jail. He came to the realization that rapping might be a more profitable endeavor than crime. His first single with Dre, from the Deep Cover soundtrack, included the chorus "187 [murder] on an undercover cop," rapped with perhaps a bit more gusto than one might expect, and the single spent several months on the rap charts.
"Now I do all right," Snoop says. "I feel like I'm one of the power speakers, like a Malcolm X figure now. But you know, a lot of times little white kids come up to me, and it makes me feel damn good and even better because it's the feeling of a straight ghetto man finally proving his stuff to the whole society. Sometimes I ask them if they really listen to the tape, and they know every word. I'm not prejudiced in my rap, I just kick the rhymes."
One of the nine places from which Dre's posse has been ejected in the course of recording the Snoop album is a large, comfortable studio complex in the deep San Fernando Valley, the kind of place where the mixing boards stretch into the middle distance, where the couches are real leather, where platinum albums from Thriller dot the walls. A freaky drum track pumps from the giant studio speakers, and Dre, headphones on, hunches over his turntables as intently as a neurosurgeon, surrounded by hundreds of records: Three Times Dope, early Funkadelic, Prince's Dirty Mind, even a tattered Jim Croce LP.
Listening to a Dre beat take shape in the studio is like watching a snowball roll downhill in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, taking on mass as it goes. Dre may find something he likes from an old drum break, loop it and gradually replace each part with a better tom-tom sound, a kick-drum sound he adores, until the beat bears the same relationship to the original that the Incredible Hulk does to Bill Bixby.
A bass player wanders in, unpacks his instrument and pops a funky two-note bass line over the beat, then leaves to watch CNN, though his two notes keep looping into infinity. A smiling guy in a striped jersey plays a nasty one-fingered melody on an old Mini-Moog synthesizer that's been obsolete since 1982, and Dre scratches in a sort of surfadelic munching noise, and then from his well-stocked Akai MPC60 sampler comes a shriek, a spare piano chord, an ejaculation from the first Beastie's record — "Let me clear my throat" — and the many-layered groove is happening, bumping, breathing, almost loud enough to see.
Snoop floats into the room. He closes his eyes as if in a dream and extends both hands toward Dre, palms downward. Dre holds out his hands, and Snoop grazes his fingertips with a butterfly flourish, caught up in the ecstasy of the beat. Somebody hands Snoop a yellow legal pad. The rapper wanders over to the main mixing console, fishes a skinny joint out of his pocket and tenderly fires it up. He inhales deeply. He picks up a pencil and scribbles a couple of words before he decides to draw instead, and he fills the sheet in front of him with thick, black lines. He looks around the room for something more interesting to do than draw, and his sly canine leer settles on a visitor to the studio.
"You like this beat?" Snoop asks. "Think it's going to work? I think I'm going to call this one 'Eat a Dick,' about all the punk-ass niggaz who ain't down with the Row."
Daz and Kurupt, who have heard this before, convulse into laughter.
Daz and Snoop and Kurupt slouch over their legal pads, peeking over each others' shoulders like three kids cheating on an exam. Daz gets to practice his new rap in a back corner away from the others; Kurupt wheels his chair over toward Snoop and says, "I've got the shit, man. I've got the crazy shit." Snoop listens to his friend rap for a bit, shrugs and goes back to his own rhyme. Kurupt is crushed. Dre comes in from the lounge, twists a few knobs on the Moog and comes up with the synthesizer sound so familiar from The Chronic, almost on pitch but not quite, sliding a bit between notes.
The people in the crowded control room bob their heads to the beat in unison, the way baby pelicans do in nature films just before their parents regurgitate a fish. It's too funky in here. Dre puts his feet up on the console.
"Everybody who walks has something he or she can do in the studio," Dre says. "Every person walking has some kind of talent that they can get on tape. I can take anybody who reads this magazine and make a hit record on him. You don't have to rap. You can do anything. You can go into the studio and talk. I can take a fuckin' three-year-old and make a hit record on him. God has blessed me with this gift.
"Sometimes it feels good for me to be able to mold an artist and get him a hit record and to show him something that was inside of him that he didn't know about. It feels good to me. Everybody in the business has called me to try and do some tracks, but I can't see myself doing anything for somebody who already has money, you know. I get more joy out of getting somebody like Snoop. And it excites the shit out of me to see the reaction on a new artist's face when he gets asked for his first autograph. I tell Snoop all the time: He is going to be the biggest shit, Snoop is going to be the biggest thing to black people since the straightening comb."
Tomorrow, Dre will throw away this Doggy Dogg beat and start on another.
"Did you see," Dre asks, "all those reels that are in the studio?"
They are unavoidable, piled up as thickly as an adobe wall.
"There's 35 or 36 reels of Snoop in there," Dre says. "Each reel holds three songs. So far, I have five that I like. That's just a small example of how ... how deep I'm going into this album. I feel that the tracks that I'm doing for him right now are the future of the funk.
"I've never heard the perfect hip-hop album, but I'd like to make one. The Chronic is about the closest. Public Enemy's Nation of Millions was dope as hell. Eric B. and Rakim, their first album, I really liked a lot, and Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded was def."
It is suggested N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton is a pretty good album, too.
"To this day," Dre says, "I can't stand that album. I threw that thing together in six weeks so we could have something to sell out of the trunk."
Still, Straight Outta Compton codified the myth of the urban black gangsta and sold that myth to America.
"People are always telling me my records are violent," Dre says, "that they say bad things about women, but those are the topics they bring up themselves. This is the stuff they want to write about. They don't want to talk about the good shit because that doesn't interest them, and it's not going to interest their readers. A lot of the motherfuckers in the media are big hypocrites, you know what I'm saying? If I'm promoting violence, they're promoting it just as much as I am by focusing on it in the article. That really bugs me out — you know, if it weren't going on, I couldn't talk about it. I mean, you will never hear me rapping about Martians coming down and killing motherfuckers, because it's not happening. And who came up with that term gangsta rap anyway?"
"Dre," I say. "You did."
"Oh, maybe so," Dre says. "Never mind, then."