"I can remember when I was just like about four years old in Compton," Dre says, "and my mother would have me stack 45s, stack about ten of them, and when one would finish, the next record would drop. It was like I was DJ'ing for the house, picking out certain songs and so this song would go after that song. I would go to sleep with headphones on. My mom and pop — they would have music loud enough to shake the walls.
"The music is just in me now. 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.
"When I was older," Dre adds, "and I DJ'd at [the L.A. club] Eve After Dark, I would put together this mix, lots of oldies, Martha and the Vandellas and stuff like that, and 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 [Run-DMC's] 'My Adidas' became 'My Penis' — and the crowd would get going. 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. "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. Dre, tall, round-cheeked and in his late twenties, 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. Dre pretty much single-handedly steered Ruthless from the first gangsta single, Eazy-E's "Boyz-n-the-Hood," and N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" to the ghetto GÖtterdämmerung of N.W.A's Niggaz4life, which shocked America when it topped the pop charts. Dre caught the moment pretty well.
After breaking with Ruthless over what he perceived as severe underpayment, Dre was seen by many as living out the violence that previously he had only rapped about. Rap TV-show host Dee Barnes filed a multimillion-dollar assault suit against Dre after he allegedly slammed her against the wall of a Hollywood nightclub. "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."
Despite comments like these — and the merry gangsta banter on The Chronic — 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 ho's 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.
In 1992, Dre was involved in a number of altercations: He was arrested for the alleged battery of a police officer in New Orleans; Eazy-E sued him under federal racketeering laws; and he was convicted (misdemeanor assault) of breaking the jaw of an aspiring record producer. Dre has perfectly rational explanations for most of these incidents, but it is clear that for him it 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. Then at Interscope, I talked to Jimmy Iovine a lot, and he is the smartest motherfucker in the business; I came to him with the album, the artwork, the video concepts, 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."
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 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. D Ruff's friend Tony Green is Dre's bass player, a world-class R&B pro.
Suge Knight, the soft-spoken CEO of Death Row, is a former professional football player who looks every bit the part. Suge partially subsidized the Chronic album with monies he received from ownership of certain publishing rights to the fourteen-million-selling Vanilla Ice LP.
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