Dr. Dre is surely the undisputed godfather of west coast hip-hop and gave meaning to the phrase “music for the streets”. From NWA to his solo records, Dre sought to shock his audience and be the life of the party. His seamless and undeniably funky production gave life to the most controversial music of its time, with NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and his first solo album, The Chronic.
The Chronic best achieved his mission and exposed the rap genre to its widest audience so far, selling over two million copies within the first year and six million copies to date. The album’s smooth and bass-heavy production rattled boomboxes and car stereos nationwide and modernized west coast hip-hop with g-funk. After 25 years, it still sounds innovative and powerful, especially through a hi-fi audio system.
After touring to promote their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, NWA, the rap super group featuring Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren, The D.O.C., and Arabian Prince, gradually fell apart. In 1989, Ice Cube left the group over disputed royalty payments and started his solo career. Dr. Dre would follow-suit after producing albums for other Ruthless artists, like The D.O.C. and Michel’le, and NWA’s second release, Niggaz4Life, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts in 1991.
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Niggaz4Life fashioned Dr. Dre’s first experiments with g-funk, and the album brought the group’s lyrical shock value to staggering heights. This success couldn’t convince Dre to remain an active member and sparked the interest to start his own label, where he could recruit new talent and rake in the majority of the earnings from his production contributions.
The D.O.C. introduced Dr. Dre to the intimidating force that helped open this chapter in his musical career – Suge Knight. Knight was a long-time friend and bodyguard of the D.O.C. who helped mistreated songwriters receive proper compensation for their work, no matter what cost. After hearing out Dre’s qualms with Ruthless and discussing the potential of starting a new company, Knight approached Eazy-E to release Above the Law, Dre, The D.O.C., and Michel’le from Ruthless Records with threats of harming his mother and Jerry Heller, if he didn’t cooperate. After begrudgingly signing the agreement, Eazy-E began a spree of suing Dre, Knight, the DOC, and any label associated with them to assure Dre would come crawling back to Ruthless before making it his own.
Dre, Knight, The D.O.C., and Solar Records Dick Griffey would create Death Row Records, thanks to the funding of a prestigious drug dealer, Michael Harris (aka Harry O). Harris was in jail on drug and murder charges at the time (he supposedly distributed in eleven states) but keen to enter entertainment business. He signed a check for $1.5 million to purchase a recording studio from Solar Records, update its equipment, and house Dr. Dre and his collaborators while they wrote the label’s first release, The Chronic.
The Chronic hoped to redefine gangsta rap. While NWA used the genre to say what other Compton rappers wouldn’t, Dre wanted his music to be more accessible and to make more money. That’s why he called it The Chronic—he wanted his record to be the new, premium dope that everyone needed: to get his audience higher than ever. He found his solution in g-funk, a style of hip-hop first employed on NWA’s Niggaz4Life to smooth out the group’s aggressive demeanour. The style utilised funk and soul samples, most prominently from George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic – high-pitched synthesizers, deep bass grooves, and a chilled-out vibe. The characters of The Chronic claim this method is perfect for joy-riding down LA streets or lighting up a joint.
Dre is notoriously secretive about his production process, but it’s obvious that he’s a perfectionist, fine-tuning every sound until it’s to his exact liking. While samples are frequently used in g-funk, they’re only utilized for specific instrumental features – a drum beat or bass melody. Dre, however, completes his mixes with live instrumentation, including flute, guitar, and bass. Multi-instrumentalist Colin Wolfe frequented the studio to help conceptualize songs and lay down additional guitar and bass tracks. Dre’s contributions were driven by an 808 drum machine and Moog synthesizer, the latter an integral element to g-funk that appears throughout The Chronic. The so-called “funky worm” helped craft some of the album’s most memorable melodies, while its low-end ensured a reliably rumbling bass.
While he probably discovered records by Sly Stone, Bill Withers, James Brown, and Leon Haywood in his mother’s record collection, Dre also consulted his local record stores for un-mined musical gold. Keven Donan, owner of As the Record Turns, claimed Dre visited his shop often, and he played records for him over the phone to see what piqued Dre’s interests. Still, George Clinton is the most dominant sampling influence— the producer adopted about a half-dozen of his tracks on the album; “The Roach” recycles Parliament’s “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” for a humorous weed-themed interlude; and Snoop’s “Bow-wow-wow” rap call is taken from “Atomic Dog”.
While Dr. Dre is an extremely talented beat maker, he has never claimed to be a lyrical mastermind. Many of his lyrics on The Chronic were composed by previous Ruthless signee the D.O.C. His underrated debut, No One Can Do It Better, was produced by Dre, but two weeks after its release he was in a nearly-fatal car crash that crushed his larynx, altering his speaking voice and ending his rap career. Dre still saw value in his lyric writing and considered him as an essential member of the team.
Another pivotal collaborator on The Chronic was Snoop Doggy Dogg, then fresh on the hip-hop scene. Dre discovered this “unpolished diamond” after his step-brother, Warren G, showed him a demo tape he and Snoop made together. Soon, Snoop would be an essential piece of Dre’s work as a solo artist, giving birth to his first single “Deep Cover” (also Snoop’s first released recording) and the foundation of The Chronic. While writing the album, The D.O.C. coached Snoop to better his vocal style, and the pair worked on Dre’s lyrics together.
Their rhymes on The Chronic are fuelled by gangsterism— the impression of a tough character from the streets who shouldn’t be messed with. They direct this front at Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, and Tim Dog (who previously dissed Snoop on his songs) in album opener “Dre Day”. Both rappers were sick of the perpetual drama and used their rhymes as ammunition to humiliate their opponents. Dre’s authoritative rapping makes these threats feel realistic and almost unquestionable. This aspect caused a stir between Death Row and local gangs, who were offended that Dre and Snoop were capitalising on gang activity without being a part of it. But the rappers spoke on what they saw and experienced from the outside.
The nation gained a glimpse of LA’s simmering tensions during the case of Rodney King and the 1992 riots. Rodney King was a black man who was viciously and unfairly beaten by several LAPD officers in early 1992, and after the court found the participating men not guilty of police brutality, fires and looting broke out all over Los Angeles. The Chronic reference these incidents on “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” and “Lil Ghetto Boy”, and mentions the sadness they felt when the verdict was released, stealing from shops during riots, and a new violent change in their environment, where gangbangers were pulling triggers faster than ever. Both tracks feature audio samples from documentary filmmaker Matthew McDaniel, who captured the riots on film.
On the album’s second half Dre takes a step back to let his Death Row roster shine in the spotlight. After discovering Snoop, Dre also signed The Lady of Rage, Kurupt, RBX, Dat Nigga Daz, and Nate Dogg to the label. Their contributions feels like a wild cypher, with each rapper bringing as much heat as possible. Their success proved Dre’s ability to discover new talent for the first time, leading him to sponsor Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and Anderson Paak after his days at Death Row.
The Chronic marked a triumphant beginning to Dr. Dre’s path as a musical entrepreneur. It proved he could sustain his musical expertise outside of N.W.A. and set a new standard for how seamless and epic a rap album could sound. Many hip-hop albums of the time were produced with a string of samples randomly tied together— Dre’s curatorial expertise and use of live instrumentation put that method to shame and made listeners’ speakers boom like never before. While many understandably rejected the album’s violent lyrics, its funky sound kept listeners engaged, ultimately forcing listeners to respect his vision. The Chronic encouraged the world to think differently about hip-hop, ultimately paving the way for its dominant position in today’s society.
By Sam Willett, Classic Album Sundays Chicago