Long before The Chronic dropped in ’92, Dr. Dre exploded onto the scene in 1988 as part of the legendary gangsta rap group N.W.A, handling the production duties on their seminal LP Straight Outta Compton. It’s one of the most influential rap albums ever (and an honorable mention), birthing gangsta rap and establishing the west coast rap scene on a national level. Rap music emerged from the hip-hop culture that developed in New York in the late ’70s, and until Straight Outta Compton, the rap industry was for the most part contained entirely within New York City. The gangsta age would result in a rivalry between the LA-based west coast rap and NYC-based east coast rap, culminating in the Tupac Shakur/2Pac (west coast) and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace/The Notorious B.I.G. (east coast) rivalry that ended in bloody deaths for both in late 1996 and early 1997, respectively.
But way before that, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Arabian Prince, DJ Yella and MC Ren took the world by storm as N.W.A before almost immediately spinning off into solo territory. (Is it really a surprise that a group with six gangsta rappers didn’t hold together?) Straight Outta Compton was released in August of 1988, and Eazy-E’s first solo album, Eazy-Duz-It, was released the following month, with Dr. Dre once again taking control of the production. (The whole group was involved in the writing and production.) A co-writer on both albums was non-group member The D.O.C., who released his own excellent debut album No One Can Do It Better, produced by Dr. Dre, in the summer of 1989. (It’s an honorable mention.)
Ice Cube was the next to leave the group, releasing his great solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted in 1990 and his also great follow-up Death Certificate in 1991. (Both are honorable mentions.) Dr. Dre was originally slated to produce Ice Cube’s debut, but due to tensions between Ice Cube and the remaining members of N.W.A, he was forced to decline. N.W.A, Eazy-E and The D.O.C. all released their albums through the same label, Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, but Ice Cube left the group and the Ruthless label over a bitter royalty dispute. Dr. Dre departed Ruthless in 1991 following the break up of N.W.A, forming his own label, Death Row Records, with Suge Knight.
There was apparently some legal wrangling for the next year or two, with Eazy-E alleging that he was coerced by Knight into releasing Dre from his contract with Ruthless. And while that ended soon enough, Dr. Dre was broke, having been denied producing work by the entire industry throughout the legal battle. He was radioactive and not worth the trouble, and Ruthless hoped that if they prolonged the legal garbage long enough he would come crawling back. In other words, he needed a hit record. Fortunately, Interscope Records founder (and future Beats Electronics co-founder) Jimmy Iovine decided to partner up with Death Row, and Dr. Dre responded by making the most pivotal album in the history of hip-hop — there’s rap before The Chronic, and there’s rap after The Chronic. There had just been a landmark court case — Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. — that changed how rap music was made, as now every sample had to be cleared in order to avoid copyright infringement.
As a result, Dr. Dre used a technique called interpolation instead, having live musicians play what he wanted sampled — a bassist playing a couple of notes, for example — and therefore avoiding having to pay the label or the artist (at least not directly — the songwriter, who also could be the artist, was the one who had to be paid) since he wasn’t using the recording itself. It ushered in a new era of hip-hop, as the samples and turntable-based sound of the ’80s and early ’90s instantly became dated. Furthermore, he built his songs around samples from George Clinton’s Funkadelic and Parliament acts, pioneering a new gangsta rap style called “g-funk,” with slow tempos, thick bass and high-pitched synths à la those of The Forum in Inglewood. (That’s where the Lakers used to play, for those of you unfamiliar with LA.)
But Dr. Dre’s secret weapon was his protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg (later shortened to Snoop Dogg, of course), a skinny kid from Long Beach who made his debut on The Chronic, rapping on so many songs that the album could have been credited to both Dre and Snoop and most people wouldn’t have known the difference. But more keen observers will realize that despite Snoop’s flashy debut, The Chronic is Dr. Dre’s show, making his presence felt on songs he doesn’t even rap on like the ensemble powerhouses “Lyrical Gangbang” and “Stranded on Death Row,” both of which I consider to be among hip-hop’s greatest achievements. G-funk was hugely popular throughout the ’90s, and Dr. Dre kept on pushing the sound in the producer’s seat on Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993), rocketing hip-hop into the stratosphere when it sold 800,000 copies in its first week.
Even albums Dre either didn’t produce (2Pac’s Me Against the World) or had a small hand in (2Pac’s All Eyez on Me) have that g-funk sound. And every rap album — even those made in New York — suddenly had a lot more bass. I would make the argument that Dr. Dre is the single most important artist in hip-hop, since no one has done more to shape its sound. Run-D.M.C. may have sketched out its initial form and Public Enemy may have turned it into “Black CNN,” but neither ended up defining the sound of hip-hop. (It’s also important to note that Straight Outta Compton didn’t either.) As for the lyrics, it appears I have saved The Chronic‘s most controversial aspect for last. While I don’t condone misogyny or vulgarity, I also have no patience for criticism from people who have absolutely no perspective on the subject.
In the White America I grew up in, rap music was always thought of as some kind of cancer threatening to eat away at the goodness in every child or something. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that extreme, but it’s still pretty ridiculous to say that the effect of the music itself is the problem that society faces. Are you kidding me? That couldn’t possibly miss the mark more. What about, you know, the kids from the ‘hood who actually face the kinds of situations depicted in the music? How come nobody cares about them? How affluent suburban white teenagers respond to cartoonish representations of very real problems hardly seems like a pressing issue by comparison.
I really do believe that our society approaches this issue from the wrong direction entirely, because people never stop to think about why rap music is the way it is. The fact that a woman is constantly referred to as a “bitch” or a “ho” in rap music indicates to me that women in the African-American community probably face serious empowerment and opportunity issues. Clearly, lack of education is an issue for African-Americans, poor Americans and, yes, poor African-Americans, yet the focus never seems to be on them, it’s on how rap music might affect white kids, since they’re the ones buying the music. It’s actually kind of a shame that The Chronic is frequently attacked for its lyrical content (though it’s hard to disagree in some cases — the final track, “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” really is a bit much), since it provides street-level reportage of LA in the wake of the Rodney King riots earlier that year, and really is one of the most important works of art of the past twenty years.