This article is taken from Rolling Stone‘s new book The ’90s: The Inside Stories From the Decade that Rocked (© 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers). Click here to order the book, go here to read more about it, or visit the HarperCollins web site to preview the pages.
With The Chronic in the Top Ten and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle on the way, Dr. Dre’s gangsta rap was the biggest thing in music in the summer of 1993. Rolling Stone caught up with Dre and his weed-puffing protégé at home and in the studio.
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, rap star Dr. Dre, wearing a black Ben Davis shirt, baggy pants and a marijuana-leaf baseball cap that advertises his 1992 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.
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Dr. Dre — the ex-N.W.A member whose Chronic LP has spent eight months in the Top Ten — is directing, producing and starring in the video for “Let Me Ride,” the album’s third single. A full-on film crew follows his every move with a giant crane and a phalanx of lights. Dre finishes the take, springs out of the car and wanders over to the truck for a playback of the scene. He peers in the direction of Interscope Records co-head Jimmy Iovine, who smiles and waves. “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.”
The Dre sound is clean but edgy and deeply funky, featuring slow, big-bottomed beats and powered by guitar and bass work that is not sampled but created in the studio. It is Dre’s production work — on Eazy-E, on N.W.A, 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 twelve-year-old white kids to talking about niggaz, bitches and ho’s.
Check out the junior high school around the corner, where the 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.
Dre stands on the front seat of his convertible, glorying in the noise, 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 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, passing around piss-yellow bottles of malt liquor that seem to bob like zeppelins above the crowd.
“See that kid over there?” Iovine asks nobody in particular, gesturing toward a boy scampering on the basketball court. “That’s my twelve-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 the people that are buying Guns n’ Roses.”
To get to Dr. Dre’s house, you speed west from Hollywood, out over the hills at the west end of the San Fernando Valley into a dusty scrubland where the old Tom Mix films used to be shot. Dre’s oversize French colonial is located behind the gate of an exclusive residential community. He 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, hangs up his jacket and settles back with a glass of nicely chilled white zinfandel, 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. 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 Chronic tour, 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, “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.
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. Impossible to take your eyes off of, Snoop is endearingly awkward in front of a camera; 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, but every hip-hop fan you talk to already knows the names of the album tracks by heart: “Who Am I,” “Gin and Juice,” “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.” “Everybody wants to know something about Snoop,” Snoop says. “What is it about Snoop? What makes Snoop click? It’s cool being a mystery.
“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 hardass 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 twenty-eight homies on the team, twelve 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 1992’s Deep Cover soundtrack, included the chorus “187 [murder] on an undercover cop,” and the single spent several months on the rap charts.
“Now I do all right,” Snoop says. “I feel 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. 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. A freaky drum track pumps from the giant studio speakers, and Dre, headphones on, hunches over his turntables surrounded by hundreds of records: Three Times Dope, early Funkadelic, Prince’s Dirty Mind, even a tattered Jim Croce LP.
A bass player wanders in, unpacks his instrument and pops a funky two-note bass line over the beat, then leaves, 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, and Dre scratches in a surfadelic munching noise, and then from his Akai MPC60 sampler comes a shriek, a spare piano chord, an ejaculation from the first Beasties 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 and extends both hands toward Dre, palms downward. Dre holds out his hands, and Snoop grazes his fingertips with a butterfly flourish. Somebody hands Snoop a yellow legal pad. The rapper fishes a skinny joint out of his pocket and tenderly fires it up. 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.
Dre 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. “Every person walking has some kind of talent that they can get on tape,” Dre says. “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. Everybody in the business has called me to do some tracks, but I can’t see myself doing anything for somebody who has money. I get more joy out of getting somebody like Snoop. 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.
“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, I say, 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. And who came up with that term gangsta rap anyway?”
“Dre,” I say. “You did.”
“Oh, maybe so,” Dre says. “Never mind, then.”
Excerpted from The ’90s: The Inside Stories from the Decade that Rocked by the Editors of Rolling Stone. © 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Click here to order the book, go here to read more about it, or visit the HarperCollins web site to preview the pages.