A couple of years ago, the hip-hop veteran DJ Pooh — producer behind West Coast classics like Tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York,” and an inveterate gamer — lugged a couple of Playstations over to a friend’s house. Most gamers are content to play with the millions of other enthusiasts who already own consoles. But Pooh had a more serious mission: Converting a skeptic.
The house was owned by Dr. Dre, a pal of Pooh’s since the two were in their late teens. “Dre is the person that says no to everything, we all know that,” Pooh says. Still, he brought a copy of Grand Theft Auto along with the two consoles, intent on showing Dre “just how freaking cool” the videogame was. The man behind hits like “The Next Episode” and “Xxplosive” “had no idea what [Grand Theft Auto] was about because he’s not a gamer at all,” Pooh explains. “He never played them. But he was blown away [by] how deep you can get into the whole thing. He’s like, ‘Oh shit!'”
Thanks in part to Pooh’s evangelism, Dr. Dre is being formally incorporated into the Rockstar Games universe this week, appearing as a character in Grand Theft Auto Online: The Contract. What’s more, players will be able to hear six new Dre songs through the course of the game — a rare event given how little music he’s released in the last two decades. The tracks include “Gospel” with Eminem, “Diamond Mind” with Nipsey Hussle and Ty Dolla $ign, and “ETA” with Snoop Dogg and Anderson .Paak.
“We’ve wanted to do something with Dre for a while,” says Rob Nelson, the co-studio head of Rockstar North. “When he’s not releasing music that regularly, it’s a pretty special thing to be able to get music from him, never mind exclusive music. Once we started talking, he started firing demos over — ‘Check this out, check this out, I did this with so-and-so.’ That was a pretty surreal experience.”
This also represents the latest musical coup for Rockstar Games, which has previously wrangled new music from D’Angelo and Moodymann — titans in their respective fields who work at their own pace and care little for commercial pressure — into its games in the last four years. Rockstar Games is capable of achieving what prominent record labels cannot: Convincing these highly independent artists to make music on somebody else’s timetable.
Dre’s legendary perfectionism actually becomes a key plot point in the latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto. The producer misplaces some of his music, and the player becomes a gumshoe on the case hunting for the lost tunes. “This is his treasure that you need to go and retrieve for him,” Nelson explains. “We’re using quite a classic video game objective but using songs [as the missing item] instead of cash or goods.”
Nelson says it was key for Rockstar Games that Dre’s incorporation into Grand Theft Auto made sense for longtime players — it wasn’t an out-of-the blue celebrity cameo with no larger purpose. “When dealing with somebody as iconic as Dr. Dre, you can’t just shoehorn him into the world,” Nelson notes. “He needed to be fully integrated so that it made sense. You work backwards and forwards at the same time, top down and bottom up: We want this person in the game; how can we get there in a way that makes it feel believable and fun?”
In a cute instance of life imitating art, DJ Pooh, who originally brought Dre and GTA together, also plays a crucial role in linking players to Dre. Pooh’s presence has already been felt in Grand Theft Auto for more than a decade thanks to his in-game radio show, West Coast Classics. “We had him come off the radio, into the world [of the game],” to help “connect the dots,” Nelson says. “We mirrored real life in that respect.”
Players get a chance to “meet Dr. Dre, earn his trust through the work you do for him, and kind of become friends with him, be able to be in a recording session or in a car listening to something with him for the first time,” Nelson adds. “That’s an experience that very few people in the real world will have. That’s only possible in our medium.”
To get Dre into Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games built a set for him and obtained one of his favorite in-studio consoles. “We spoke to someone who’s worked with him before who was able to source one for us and we brought in at least the major components that he would use,” Nelson says. “For performance capture you have to recreate the environment that the character would be in in the world so they’re interacting with all the right touch points.” Dre donned a motion capture suit so that his in-game alter-ego would be informed by real-life habits.
For Pooh, Dre’s decision to join Grand Theft Auto has a nice cosmic ring. The two met making mixtapes at local swap meets in California, and Pooh used to drive Dre to the studio when he didn’t have a car. In exchange, “Dre taught me how to work a drum machine,” Pooh recalls. “He helped me out as a producer; I learned a lot from him; and we did a lot of work together. I did ‘New York, New York’ for Tha Dogg Pound, Dre mixed it down for me and made it sound lovely.”
Now they’re helping each other out once again. Not only did Dre get into Grand Theft Auto, but Pooh stepped off the airwaves and into the game as well, doing his own round of motion capture work so he can appear as a character. “To see myself in the game, looking all handsome and shit? I’m the happiest guy in the world,” Pooh says, chuckling. “I’m sort of an action hero now.”