The rules of music promotion force stars to help sell their products by declaring each new album to be a) a work of genius, or b) different from anything they've done before. Both are malarkey--but time-tested, effective malarkey--concocted to make record buyers feel better about paying for something their favorite artist has just blown out of his left nostril. Only years later, when an album has exhausted the sales potential, will artists occasionally hint that a disc, in fact, blew.
So when Dr. Dre (a.k.a. Andre Young) dissed one of his old albums recently in Rolling Stone, it seemed like one of those idiotic statements that often spills out of a musician when a record's sales curve has bottomed out. Talking about N.W.A's seminal 1988 West Coast gangsta disc Straight Outta Compton, which he co-produced and rapped on, Dre told the magazine, "To this day, 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."
It's always instructive to hear artists engaging in a little revisionist history about their own work. Problem is, in this case, Dre doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. Straight Outta Compton, arguably the reason today as many suburban kids listen to as much Cypress Hill as they do Pearl Jam, sparked the South Central hip-hop uprising. Where New York dominated hip-hop prior to Compton, the N.W.A disc put the West Coast on the rap map. Along with Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, Compton ranks as one of the key hip-hop albums in the golden age of the late Eighties.
Today, it stands up against anything anyone from Compton or thereabouts is throwing down, including both of the Ices. The minimalistic metallic beats Dre crafted for "8 Ball" and "Dopeman" turbo-charge the songs and turn them into what could very well be South Central's official state songs. Add to those gangsta classics the doo-wop of "I Ain't tha 1," the weird little fuzztones that wreck your eardrums on "If It Ain't Ruff" and the layer upon layer of beats of every shade of phatness on "Something 2 Dance 2," and Compton is the kind of disc packed full of nuances that sounds as if it took six years, not six weeks, to craft. The disc so influential that it's made it from the streets to the Ivy League. It's on Brown University professor Michael Eric Dyson's personal Top 5 list. In the September 30 issue of Rolling Stone, Dyson analyzed the album this way: "The announcement and apotheosis of West Coast gangsta rap, it underscores the prescient power of the genre's best social criticism."
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Dre, whose upcoming performance at America West Arena has been rescheduled to November 26, is his own worst critic. But then again, as anyone who's listened to his solo debut, The Chronic, knows, Dre's latest nearly stands up to the 1988 classic. As Dre told Rolling Stone more or less correctly, "I've never heard the perfect hip-hop album, but . . . The Chronic is about the closest." Where Compton was all sharp edges, The Chronic cruises on thick waves of sometimes ominous, sometimes melancholy synthesizer runs. Awash in its soundtrack of mellifluousness, The Chronic is as smooth as Compton was angular without sacrificing any of its G-force. In the space of four years or so, Dre has reinvented himself. Not that Dre was any slouch after Compton. His pre-Chronic work displays his capability of Midasizing almost any style of contemporary black pop. He's produced monster hits for rappers both pop (J.J. Fad) and hard-core (the D.O.C.), R&B singer Michel'le, as well as a No. 1 album for N.W.A (1991's Niggaz4life). Seven of the eight discs he produced between late 1983 and mid-1991 for former N.W.A group mate Eazy-E's Ruthless label went platinum. (Dre's extracurricular life, full of lawsuits, punch-outs and a million-dollar house haunted by its own problems, has not as yet managed to silence his musical accomplishments. More on that later.)
For now, Dre's living phat on the nearly-triple-platinum Chronic, a culmination of the producer's musical history. It takes the lush R&B grooves Dre showed he so obviously has a weakness for with his work for Michel'le and splices them into his hard-edged G attitude to give them street credibility. On this foundation, Dre added appropriate measures of like-minded samples--i.e., P-Funk and Donny Hathaway--to give the album a slightly retro flavor. We're not talking Bobby Brown or Snap!-style compromise that mates R&B and hip-hop like cash cows, either. You won't find a sweeter hook on R&B radio than "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," but the threatening, almost dangerous sensuality of the loping synth hook assures you can let it hang out the jeep on any street corner without fear that your G-ness will come into question.
It's these hypnotic keyboard lines that leave the most lasting impression throughout. The slow cadences of the music have the tension level of a drive-by just before the bullets start zinging. Meanwhile, the assortment of rappers in the foreground, led by budding superstar Snoop Doggy Dogg, drops the requisite science, threats and boasts. While Dre backed Ice Cube's bray on Compton with a palpitating metallic funkiness, his Chronic compositions are more like tableaux that don't so much get in your face as lurk menacingly in the shadows.
But as on almost every album Dre's produced without Ice Cube, the producer has an unfair advantage in IQ points over his vocalists. Not that the rosterful of hungry, young rappers Dre's recruited ever drag the album down; it's just that if you're looking to Snoop Doggy Dogg for street knowledge, about all you're gonna learn is "bitches ain't shit but ho's and tricks." Snoop's vocal artistry is another matter, though. His nodded-out style shows the rapper to be a master of understated cool, spinning seamless rhymes through hooded eyes and a cloud of pot smoke. No one else comes close to outbattling Doggy Dogg, whose eagerly awaited solo debut was due out October 19. The other members of the group, But That Nigga Daz, RBX, and Rage, prove to be solid utility players, weaving a wide range of functional styles through Snoop's and Dre's.
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The producer's own rapping, as usual, takes second billing to his compositions. But every once in a while, a Dre rhyme busts through. Most of the time, though, his pedestrian monotone does not command the kind of attention his beats do. As Ice Cube suggested on his song "No Vaseline," "Yo, Dre, stick to producin'."
In fact, it seems whenever Dre steps from behind the control board, he turns shockingly mortal. The recent Rolling Stone cover story about Dre shows the gangsta producer to have no problem attracting enough real-life static for a whole album's worth of angry, paranoid rhymes. In the past couple of years, Dre has been the object of several lawsuits: one by hip-hop TV personality Dee Barnes for allegedly shoving her against the wall in a Hollywood nightclub and another by Eazy-E under federal racketeering laws. He was also arrested in New Orleans after a scuffle that allegedly involved the battery of a police officer. In yet another incident, Dre was convicted of misdemeanor assault for breaking an aspiring producer's jaw. (Snoop, it seems, has no trouble living up to his boss when it comes to the police blotter. Newsweek reported that the rapper was recently arrested on first-degree murder charges after, according to police, his bodyguard shot a man who Snoop's lawyer said had been threatening him.)
Dre's non-fisticuffs-related hassles have been equally colorful. He split with Eazy-E's Ruthless label when he thought the label was cheating him out of his rightful earnings. Last year, a fire burned part of his house, injuring two firefighters. The producer claims his neighbors try to complain about the music he blasts at his home in SoCal's posh West Valley. "I slam the door in their face," he tells the magazine. "I paid a mil-plus for this house, so I figure I can do whatever the fuck I want to do in it."
It seems as long as Dre can pencil in a few hours here and there among his legal, financial and fire-related difficulties, he should have what it takes to retain his rep as hip-hop's top producer. Give him six weeks between court dates and who knows? Maybe he's got another Straight Outta Compton up his other nostril.