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.