The Defiant Ones, set to premiere on HBO on July 9th, explores Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Jimmy Iovine’s years of collaborations. To prepare for the four-hour documentary, we’ve assembled a murderers’ row of Dre’s best tracks dating back to 1992, when Iovine’s Interscope label began distributing Dre and Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. Not every Dre production is listed here, only the gems he made under the Interscope umbrella. But save for a few stray tracks – his work on Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair” comes to mind – this list closely follows Dre’s heyday through the turn of the millennium.
According to Dr. Dre, the origins of this seminal ode to Compton party rocking lay in a stack of records he found at his mother’s house. Then he sought out Snoop Doggy Dogg, who was in jail on unknown charges. “I really wanted this demo done, so he called in and I taped the receiver of the phone to the mic,” Dre told an L.A. radio station in 2015. After Snoop was released, the two cut a proper version of the song that would help G-funk go pop upon its release, with backing musicians such as bassist Colin Wolfe replaying elements of the key Leon Haywood sample. More than its wormy keyboard melody and Blaxploitation groove, though, it’s the vocal interplay between Dre and Snoop Dogg – like a West Coast update of Run-DMC’s mic-trading sessions – that makes “G Thang” such a marvel to hear and one of the greatest songs in hip-hop history.
If “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” established Dre as a visionary exponent of L.A. sunshine, good weed and afternoon barbecues, then “Dre Day” revealed the grim underside of the G-funk era – and its promise of retributive violence. Dre’s arrangement, co-written with bassist Colin Wolfe, turns an interpolation of Funkadelic’s “Not Just Knee Deep” into a scarily ominous portent of conflict. Each verse licks shots at rivals: Dre takes aim at friend turned foe Eazy-E; Snoop clowns “Fuck Compton” writer Tim Dog; and then both mock Miami entrepreneur and 2 Live Crew leader Luke Campbell as “quite bootylicious.” Fans who sent “Dre Day” to Number Eight on the Billboard singles chart were thrilled at Dre and Snoop’s mordant battle rap. It also helped burnish Death Row’s as the world’s most dangerous record label, a reputation that eventually became its undoing.
“With so much drama in the LBC/It’s kinda hard being Snoop D-O-double-G,” begins this quintessential tale of a good day in the hood. “But I somehow, someway, keep coming up with funky ass shit like every single day.” Dre’s track made fanciful use of funk sources, from a rhythm bed he cribbed from George McCrae’s “I Get Lifted” and buried underneath his own keyboard arrangements, to transforming Slave’s “Watching You” into the song’s decidedly adult singalong chorus. Overall, it found Snoop Dogg and Dre evolving from the “lyrical gangbangs” of The Chronic to a demimonde of California sunshine, afternoon car cruises, and liquor-fueled backyard parties. When Vibe magazine asked him in 1993 if Snoop considered himself a gangsta, he responded, “Oh, I’d like to say I’m a smooth macadamian.”
With its bouncy, glitter ball-illuminated groove, “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” is Dre’s version of a boogie-funk epic. While never released as a single, it has endured as an urban radio staple and a frequent source of inspiration: Mariah Carey essentially lifted the rhythm for her “Heartbreaker (Remix)” hit in 1999. Just as famous as Dre’s disco-fried beat is Nate Dogg’s opening vocal, and the way he makes heartless pimping sound so playfully likeable. “When I met you last night baby, before you opened up your gap/I had respect for you lady, but now I take it all back,” he sings. “Cause I have never met a girl/That I loved in the whole wide world.”
This might be the closest Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg have come to making a horrorcore epic. Originally made for Doggystyle before being remixed and issued as the title single from a straight-to-VHS flick, “Murder Was the Case” found Dre ramping up the whining G-funky worm melodies to ear-piercing melodies as a backing chorus cries out, “Murder!” It’s a sensational G-funk freakout enhanced by Snoop’s tormented raps about making a pact with devil to conquer his block. The gothic tones of “Murder Was the Case” mirrored Snoop’s real life troubles: He faced allegations of conspiring to murder a rival gang member before a 1996 trial acquitted him. During a memorable appearance at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, Snoop ended his performance of “Murder Was the Case” by declaring, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!”
After Dr. Dre dominated 1993 and 1994 with The Chronic and Doggystyle, “Keep Their Heads Ringin'” kept his name on the charts during a brief period of inactivity. The track teems with ideas, from the “buck-buck-buck-booyaka shot!” vocal snipped out of KRS-One’s “Mad Crew,” to a backing trio of women that mimics the Sequence’s “Funk You Up” by chanting “ring-ding-dong/ring-de-ding-ding-dong!” The Billboard top 10 singles is a smooth and infectious G-funk party track where he “goes for your neck, so call me Blacula,” and demonstrates the good Doctor’s emphasis on quality over quantity.
“California Love” was Dr. Dre’s last great moment with the world-conquering label he and Suge Knight co-founded. New signee 2Pac, one of hip-hop’s first great workaholics and a pioneer for rap’s “make 1,000 songs” model of studio profligacy, chafed at Dre’s perfectionist tendencies. Dre, for his part, plotted an escape from Death Row, alarmed at the label’s increasingly wayward drift. (He also spent some time in prison on drunk driving charges, an experience that he later said forced him to clean up his lifestyle.) Despite behind-the-scenes tensions, “California Love” immediately became the kind of party starter that, more than 20 years after its release, can still set a dance floor on fire. Dre ingeniously mixed Roger Troutman’s talkbox vocals with an interpolation of the well-worn B-boy break, Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman,” giving the song a classic feel, and a blend of East Coast sample sensibilities and West Coast funk vibes that went unnoticed during the height of hip-hop coastal tensions. And with his deep, authoritative voice, he matched 2Pac’s more antic, fire-breathing delivery. “I’ve been in the game for 10 years making rap tunes/Ever since honeys was wearing Sassoon,” he boasts on this essential West Coast anthem.
In the wake of Dr. Dre’s abrupt departure from Death Row as well as the September 1996 murder of 2Pac, “Been There, Done That” felt like a necessary pause for reflection as hip-hop fans wondered if reality rap was worth the residual damage it seemingly caused. “You got drama, you got the gun, I got the gat/But we both black, so I don’t wanna lay ya flat,” he rapped as he bragged about million dollar homes and cars. Fans respected Dre’s call to renounce violence and focus on making money, but “Been There, Done That” didn’t quite resonate with them like his earlier work. “Most of the feedback I got from ‘Been There, Done That’ was ‘that shit is nice…now let’s hear some dope shit. And they were totally right,” he told The Source in 1999. “Been There, Done That” is an early example of what would later be called “grown man rap,” and as rap stars age and try to reconcile their maturity with their hellion public images, it deserves a special place in the Dre canon.
It should have been a triumph of East Coast-West Coast unity: A supergroup featuring Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Cormega, with Dre overseeing production. But trouble brewed shortly after the Firm debuted “Affirmative Action” on Nas’ 1996 hit It Was Written. First, the relatively unknown rapper Nature replaced Cormega, sparking a dispute between Nas and the Queensbridge OG that lasted for years. The following year, the Firm’s The Album flopped among fans and critics, and became one of the biggest casualties of rap music’s gilded “jiggy” age. The only song everyone seemed to like was “Phone Tap,” which found Dre and co-producer Chris “The Glove” Taylor stripping down his signature G-funk melody to an eerily whirring buzz. Despite that small victory, Dre would often refer to the biggest flop in his career as a “firm fiasco.”
Thanks to 1997’s The Slim Shady EP, which spread quickly in the early years of Internet .wavs and Real Audio streaming, Eminem was already an underground sensation when Dre and Jimmy Iovine signed him to Aftermath/Interscope. The trick was translating his foul-mouthed humor and complex rhyme schemes to a mainstream audience. Dre and Eminem reportedly finished “My Name Is,” the song that would introduce him to white America, in around an hour. Dre makes fanciful use of 1970s British singer Labi Siffre’s “I Got The…”, and the loping bass rhythm gives the song a shrugging, “Who me?” quality that suits Em’s vocal quirks and Cheshire cat lyrics. Eminem has a goofy irreverence that helps the listener absorb some of his more outré comments, like claiming he “ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off” and “I just found out my mom does more dope than I do.” Dre humbly plays the father figure on his protégé’s star turn: “Slim Shady, you’re a basehead.”
Dr. Dre had already launched a modest comeback with his work on Snoop Dogg’s fan favorite “B Please,” and then Eminem’s multi-platinum debut The Slim Shady LP. Yet the stakes couldn’t have been higher for the sequel to his masterpiece, The Chronic. So he recruited East Coast rap god Jay-Z to ghostwrite lyrics for the first single of what was initially known as Chronic 2000. (Counter-programming moves by friend-turned-foe Suge Knight led Dre to change the title to Chronic 2001, and finally just 2001.)
“At first, he wrote about diamonds and Bentleys,” Dre told Blaze magazine in 1999. “So I told Jay to write some other shit. Jigga sat for 20 minutes and came back with some hard-ass, around-the-way L.A. shit.” While Dre rendered Jay Hova’s rhymes about hittin’ corners on Lo-Lo’s in his distinctive baritone cool, he collaborated with rising producers Scott Storch and Mel-Man to craft an easygoing stride piano rhythm that cruises at an impressively low hum. “Guess who’s back,” Dre announced, yet he sounded like he wasn’t breaking a sweat about it.
Dre may have admitted to feeling a little pressure before the release of 2001, but save for a few key numbers, it didn’t show. One of those moments is “Forgot About Dre,” an angry pushback against critics that prematurely claimed he fell off. “All you niggas that said that I turned pop/Or the Firm flopped/Y’all are the reason that Dre ain’t been gettin’ no sleep,” he barks over a twangy bounce track he co-produced with Mel-Man. Meanwhile, Eminem plays Flavor Flav to Dre’s Chuck D by riffing a tale about killing two pedestrians and some barking dogs, and then burning down a house. It made no sense in the context of the song, but it was funny anyway.
“Xxplosive” is another Dre cult classic that didn’t get an official single release, yet became ubiquitous on urban radio anyway. Dre and Mel-Man weren’t the first to sample Soul Mann & the Brothers’ cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Bumpy’s Lament” – that honor belongs to Fabian Hamilton, who flipped it for Lil Kim’s “Drugs.” However, it was “Xxplosive’s” sensuously atmospheric reimagining of the Blaxploitation chestnut, setting it over a back-stiffening trap drum rhythm, that Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” (and too many other tracks to mention here) subsequently copied. Nate Dogg’s vocal revisits his earlier star turn on “Ain’t No Fun,” while Texas newcomer and “freakaholic” Six-Two adds to the lasciviousness. “I got these hoes clapping they hands, stomping they feet/Every now and then they put they mouth on me.”
The celebratory feel of Eminem’s signature hit doesn’t really sound like anything else on The Marshall Mathers LP. He reportedly made the track after the rest of his dark, tortured masterwork was finished, and his management team decided they needed a lead single. “We began with a drumbeat that Dre programmed into an MPC3000,” Mike Elizondo told Sound on Sound in 2006. Elizondo co-produced the track with Dre and Tommy Coster Jr., the latter who devised the track’s memorably “harpsichord-like” melody. But it’s Dre’s thumping bass drum that makes the track bounce and gives Eminem fuel. When Eminem descended on the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards with dozens of white boys in white T-shirts “that look just like me,” this hit single felt like a call to arms, and everyone wondered what would happen next.
Eminem’s D12 project is truly underrated. Despite coming up in the same thriving 1990s Detroit rap scene, Em’s friends never quite shook their underserved reputation as bandwagon riders on his supernova fame. “Fight Music” was a highlight of the group’s solidly effective Devil’s Night debut, and a key moment for rap fans that couldn’t stomach some of their other shock-inducing horrorcore tracks. (That’s excepting the typically misanthropic Bizarre’s verse, and his decidedly nasty bars about his grandmother.) Dre’s bass rhythm and Mike Elizondo’s ringing guitar lines lend the performers a raw, emphatic sound over which to unfurl their cipher.
This is one of Dr. Dre’s most unexpected collaborations. A highly touted member of Questlove’s Soulquarians movement, Philadelphia musician Bilal Oliver’s excellent debut 1st Born Second anticipated the P-funk-meets-Prince inspired “nu-funk” trend that would define the soul underground for much of the decade. However, the Interscope album didn’t quite catch on with the mainstream, despite Dr. Dre and Jadakiss’ assist on “Fast Lane,” which peaked just outside of the Top 40 of Billboard‘s R&B Singles chart. Dre’s clean drums and eerie synths underlined Bilal’s haunted vocal about depravation in the projects, while Jadakiss rhymed with panache, “I’m a left lane/My life is much faster than yours.” Bilal would go on to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar, the Game and Solange – while being the best soul singer you’ve never heard of.
As Eve of Destruction, Philadelphia rapper Eve Jeffers was one of the first artists signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment. But it didn’t work out. “I was 18 when I first got signed. I just wanted my album out but I didn’t know who I was as an artist and I think Dre works really good with artists who know their own directions,” she told XXL magazine in 2004. A second deal with Ruff Ryders set her on the right path, and by the time she rejoined Dre for the biggest hit of her career, she was one of rap’s biggest stars.
“Let Me Blow Ya Mind” has the same ringing blues guitar melody that girded Dre’s “Xxplosive,” but it sounds lighter here, and Gwen Stefani’s sassy chorus gives it a winningly pop tone. Eve keeps it hardcore, though. “Drop your glasses, shake your asses,” she commands. Perhaps inspired by the Top 10 charting, Grammy winning success of “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” Eve rejoined Dre’s Aftermath camp in 2004. Sadly, history repeated itself: save for a memorable 2007 hit, “Tambourine,” nothing much came out of her second stint at the label, either.