The Rap Trap
Dr Dre helped pioneer hardcore hip-hop: violence against “bitches”, the love of guns and fast cars. Now a millionaire father-of-two, he says he’s turned over a new leaf – all that gangsta stuff was just about marketing, pleasing the fans. So who is the Dre of today? And has he really managed to break free from his past?
I’m on my way to meet Dr Dre, and I have a song in my head. It’s called Fuck You, and in it Dre explains, in some detail, how he just wants “to fuck bad bitches”. The streets of Los Angeles glare white in the midday sun. I struggle into the plush recording studio where Dre is working. We talk for a while about his latest album, Dr Dre 2001.
He recorded it, he tells me, because he felt misunderstood. “People definitely had the wrong idea about me. A lot of people were saying I was a mean cat, I disrespected women, a lotta bullshit, a lotta nonsense.”
Can you blame them, I suggest, given your history of violence, an arrest record that makes for long, grim reading and a six-month prison sentence for parole violation. He reflects for a moment. “Of course I can’t blame them, but I’m a different person today. I can’t blame them, and that’s why I wanted to do this album and present myself in a new light ~ the Dre of today.”
For the record, then, the Dre of today is a relaxed, good-humoured, 35-year-old husband and father of two. He would like very much to put the misdemeanours of youth behind him, and make songs that highlight his maturity and sensitivity. Songs such as Fuck You. Strangely, there is less contradiction here than might seem apparent.
It was while serving a six-month sentence in a Pasadena jail that Dre realised he’d had enough of hardcore hip-hop. As a producer and performer, he helped create the violent, invective-filled genre of gangsta rap, selling around 40 million records in the process. But along the way – amid the parties and women and fast cars that also came with being Dr Dre – he’d lost touch with himself, Andre Young. And he was tired. “I just said, let me do a whole 180 with my life. I don’t want to do any more negative hip-hop music, I can’t be talking about bitches and ho’s.”
After prison, he got married and recorded a compilation album, Dr Dre Presents . . . The Aftermath, by unknown artists and producers. His contribution was a single track, Been There, Done That. In the wake of his jailhouse conversion, he now mocked rappers “who talk that hardcore shit coz that’s all they worth”. The album promised much. A fresh start for Dre and a career launch for the artists involved. It delivered neither. By commercial standards, the record sold acceptably. By Dre’s measure, it was a woeful failure. “People were expecting 7-Up and they got water,” he conceded. “I wasn’t getting compliments from my fans.” Rap critics began to suggest he’d lost his edge. He felt directionless and insecure. Finally, his wife gave him some advice. “She used to play my music before we even met, so she was like, “You need to get back in there and get back on that hardcore shit.” It felt funny going in the studio talking about “this bitch” and “this ho” and how “I fucked this girl” with a wife at home. But then, I have to look at it like entertainment, and I have a set fanbase, and there’s certain things they want to hear. They wanna hear Dre be Dre.”
So Dr Dre 2001 delivers a well-established formula of hardcore rap to its audience. There are songs that fetishise guns and objectify women. Songs that celebrate marijuana use and low-rider cars. Despite this, it’s not simply a return to Dre’s gangsta past. It’s a more complex, reflective album. Where most hardcore rap affects a stony-faced emotional detachment, 2001 is at its strongest when Dre shows himself to be vulnerable. “Real gangstas don’t cry,” he states on one song, “if that’s the truth then I’m realising I ain’t no gangsta.” This is most notably so on The Message, a ballad that features the plaintive vocals of R&B queen Mary J Blige and on which Dre mourns the death of his younger brother, Tyree, whose neck was broken in a fight three years ago.
“Back in the day, I would never have made a song about my brother, but it was a very big part of my life, so I finally decided to give people that much more of me.” Having tried unsuccessfully to divorce himself from what Dr Dre was, it seems he has chosen instead to broaden the possibilities of who Dr Dre can be. So much so that he gives me an indignant look when I refer to him as a gangsta rap artist, complaining that he doesn’t “even know where the term gangsta rap came from. I think the media invented it. We never came out and said, “Yo, what we do is gangsta rap”. What I make is hardcore hip-hop.”
It’s easy to see why he insists on the distinction. Creatively, the music form never progressed far beyond an adolescent glee at its own ability to shock. Yet it’s ironic, too. Because, as part of the rap group NWA, Dre helped create gangsta rap and watched its impact spread across the globe. And, as a consequence of that breakthrough, he became lauded as the finest producer in rap. Newsweek called him “the Phil Spector of hip-hop”, and he won a Grammy award after his first solo album, The Chronic.
But the timbre of our conversation has changed. Dre is progressively less relaxed the more we talk about those years of high acclaim. His broad 6ft 2in frame folds into itself, his knee bobs up and down nervily. Finally, it occurs to me that what he’s uncomfortable about has nothing to do with music. Rather, he’s edgy about where his success led. And how money and fame threatened to consume him as thoroughly, and fatally, as it did to so many of those around him.
In the 60s, before it became famous through an NWA record, Compton was regarded as a neighbourhood of hope. With the phasing out of the city’s racist housing policies, black families fled the ghettos of Watts and headed en masse for Compton’s palm-tree-lined streets. Today, it has become a battleground in the vicious feud between LA’s two main black street gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. It was Andre Young’s love of music that kept him out of trouble in the neighbourhood. The last of his divorced mother’s three children, he was playing records from her extensive collection from as early as three years old. “I’d put on a record at my mother’s card parties, and people would scream out or get up and dance. I just loved stirring people up.”
During high school, he deejayed at parties and clubs, and won a college scholarship to study mechanical drawing. Instead, though, he left school at 16 to join one of LA’s earliest rap groups, the World Class Wreckin’ Kru. It was an inauspicious start to his career. Inspired by the extravagant stage-gear of acts such as Parliament and Earth Wind & Fire, the group wore flamboyant costumes that brought together the previously unconnected fields of hip-hop and high camp. Spandex jumpsuits, lace ruffs, off-the-shoulder capes and mascara featured heavily. Dre skulked at the back wearing eyeliner and, in a weak pun on his name, a surgeon’s gown and mask. He was determined that his next group would use rap as a vehicle for reality, not fantasy.
Indeed, at the height of their notoriety, when the FBI was calling for their heads and police forces went on alert in advance of the group’s arrival in their town, NWA had a simple response to criticism: they were just reporters, telling the facts as they saw them. It was a seductive argument. But reportage follows principles of objectivity. And Niggaz With Attitude, the five-piece Dre founded with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson in 1986 were anything but dispassionate in their work.
In the mid-80s, hip-hop was dominated by sober New York-based rap groups such as Public Enemy, the standard bearers for a black nationalist agenda subscribed to, at least in name, by most acts on the East Coast. Over on the West Coast, NWA had other ideas. Instead of Malcolm X or the Nation Of Islam, they turned for inspiration to the ghetto fiction of pimp-turned-novelist Iceberg Slim and the bawdy humour of Richard Pryor, Dolemite and Red Foxx. Like them, the group spun tales from the less salubrious aspects of black life. They rapped about drug deals gone wrong and drive-by shootings, gang warfare and police confrontations, grasping, materialist women (ho’s) and unfaithful lovers (bitches), all of which was set to an exhilarating, cinematic soundtrack produced by Dre. And they were delighted when the moral panic stirred by their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, released on Eazy-E’s Ruthless records in 1988, turned them into the most famous, and infamous, rappers in America.
Outraged by songs such as Fuck Tha Police, politicians, civic leaders and, most spectacularly, the FBI accused the group of glorifying violence to sell records. Ultimately, however, NWA’s success was based on their shrewd understanding of modern media. Courting notoriety meant that they could bypass both radio and MTV, which anyway refused to play them. Instead, newspaper headlines, debates on CNN and Home Office raids on their record company’s UK HQ brought them worldwide attention.
“After we started getting flak from FBI agents and people of that nature, we said, “Okay, we’re going to really fuck with you now,”” says Dre gleefully. “So we started making the music even heavier.” The strategy worked. Straight Outta Compton went gold in six weeks (600,000 record sales) then platinum (one million record sales), and after that double platinum. Niggaz 4 Life, the follow-up, went straight to number one in the US charts. Barely out of his teens, Dre was rich and famous. It was the start of his troubles.
Estranged from Eazy-E’s Ruthless label following a dispute over management and finances, Dre began work on The Chronic, the solo album that would come to consolidate his reputation at the forefront of hip-hop. As in-house producer at Ruthless, he had already been responsible for a string of million-selling albums. In return, he rewarded himself with a lavish lifestyle that included an enormous French colonial-style house, numerous high-grade sports cars and a ceaseless round of parties. “My house was full of people all the time. You could come over on Sunday morning and there’s just people laying out on the floor asleep. Girls all over the place. I was spending money on a lot of cars, jewellery, apartments all over town. I probably bought somewhere between eight to 10 cars. Ferraris, I don’t know how many Mercedes, Corvettes . . . it was just dumb shit. I blew a lot of money. I was letting people in my life that were straight up there totally to see what they can get out of my pocket, and I wasn’t seeing this. It was just about the party to me, and you gotta have people around to have a party.”
Insulated from criticism by his retinue of hangers-on, and with a reputation as a hardcore rapper to maintain, Dre began reacting to criticism with sudden, petulant rage. At a music-industry party in 1991, he attacked TV show host Dee Barnes after an uncomplimentary report about NWA had aired on her programme. “Dre picks me up by my hair and my ear,” Barnes told the writer Ronin Ro, in his gangsta rap exposé, Have Gun Will Travel. In terror, she dashed into the ladies’ washroom. Dre pursued her. “He grabs my hair again, throws me to the front of the bathroom. I just duck down and just . . . take my ass-whipping, you know what I mean? There’s nobody helping me and there’s no way in hell I could throw a punch at him.” In response to the attack, Barnes filed a $20-million lawsuit, although the case was eventually settled out of court. Dre muttered to Rolling Stone, “I was in the wrong, but it’s not like I broke the bitch’s arm.”
The Dee Barnes affair was only the prelude to a catalogue of misdemeanours during 1992. In June that year, Dre was fined $10,000 and placed under electronic house arrest for 90 days with a tagging device around his ankle. He had been found guilty of breaking the jaw of an aspirant rap producer, Damon Thomas. In October, he served another 30 days after pleading guilty to the battery of a police officer during a large brawl that took place in the lobby of a New Orleans hotel. Some events were beyond his control, though. He was shot in the legs after gunfire broke out at a party he was attending. And, following a raucous party of his own, the producer was forced to stand by and watch his grand house go up in flames. “We’d had a party at my house the night before. We had a barbecue, and the next day the coals from the barbecue were dumped in a trash can which was pushed up against the house,” says Dre. “They set the house on fire. And boom, there you have it. House going up in smoke!”
Post-NWA, Dre was now living the life he’d once only rapped about. And it was proving too much. “I was out of control,” he admits. “I was wildin’ out, partying, women . . . I think the business, and all the fame and fortune, just sucked me in and I had to step back and see that I was ruining everything that I had worked so hard at building.”
Frustrated by continued wrangling with Eazy-E, Dre co-founded a new label in 1992, Death Row. Within four years, it would be worth an estimated $200 million, becoming one of the most successful black-owned labels of all time. But before then, it became clear that the company had a major liability: Death Row’s other owner. Marion “Suge” Knight was a 300lb, 6ft 3in former professional footballer-turned-businessman. He was also a convicted felon with gangster connections, whom ABC television described in 1996 as “the most dangerous man in music”. While Dre was the production brains of Death Row, Knight was its public face. At its inception, he talked of creating a label as successful and culturally important as Motown. In its early days, this didn’t seem like an idle boast.
Death Row’s first release was The Chronic. Hailed as a masterpiece by critics, it marked Dre’s maturing as a producer and performer. Acutely well-crafted, the album updated the sensual, oleaginous funk of George Clinton for the hip-hop era. Like Straight Outta Compton, it was also a guide to the street life of LA. Instead of NWA’s menacing imagery, however, The Chronic imagined an urban Elysium of low-rider cars, poolside parties, bikini-clad girls and high-quality marijuana. True, there were an obligatory number of weapons brandished and insults hurled (although most of the latter were issued at Eazy-E), but there was also love. The album introduced the Death Row “family” of new artists who shared a spirit of friendly collaboration on many of its tracks. They were to be the stars of the new Motown. Chief among them was Dre’s protégé, a tall, fine-featured rapper, whose laidback manner and hangdog expression had earned him the childhood nickname Snoopy. As Snoop Doggy Dogg, he became the label’s first home-grown star, with a debut album, Doggystyle, that outsold Dre’s. By 1996, The Chronic and Doggystyle had earned an estimated $50 million and $63 million in retail sales, respectively.
None of this was enough for Suge Knight, though. As Death Row grew in strength, so too did his greed. Knight took to holding unconventional business meetings with rivals. To resolve Dre’s long-running feud with Eazy-E, he allegedly threatened the latter at gunpoint, forcing him to relinquish Ruthless’s rights to Dre’s work. Other record company executives shared similar tales of intimidation, and even outright assault. In 1992, Knight faced assault charges after the pistol-whipping of two brothers, George and Lynwood Stanley, in the offices of Death Row. Catching them using the office payphone, Knight beat them, ordered them to strip naked and then robbed them. They deserved their punishment, insisted the Death Row boss. He was waiting for a phone call.
A climate of terror settled over the label’s Wilshire Boulevard offices. Members of the Piru Blood gang, an arm of the feared Bloods street gang that was friendly with Knight, took to hanging out there, swapping prison stories and shaking down staff for cash. They were also there to mete out summary justice on behalf of Knight. Subtitled The Spectacular Rise And Violent Fall Of Death Row Records, Ronin Ro’s Have Gun Will Travel describes, in gory detail, the disorder that reigned there: “If Suge felt someone was trying to cheat him, the offender would be dragged into a storeroom by his goons and pounded to a bloody pulp. Death Row employees went about their filing and faxing as blood-curdling shrieks filled the office. They saw the doorknob jerking, knowing that people were desperately trying to escape a beating, thinking, I’m trying to get out this motherfucking room that they done locked this door on!”
The chaos within Death Row seemed indicative of deeper stresses in the hardcore hip-hop world. Gangsta rap was reaching critical mass. The once close-knit Death Row family fell into rivalrous camps. “It became, “What kinda car does this person have. I gotta get a better car than that”; “My house has to look better than this person’s house”,” says Dre. “When the money started coming into play from Death Row, that’s when the problems just went haywire.”
Worse followed. In 1995, the notoriously promiscuous Eazy-E died after contracting Aids. In 1996, Snoop Doggy Dogg stood trial for murder. He was acquitted. But that same year, Tupac Shakur, a recent signing to Death Row and one of rap’s brightest stars, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Sitting beside him in the same car, Suge Knight escaped largely unhurt. There was speculation that the shots were never intended for Shakur, but rather Knight. Two weeks later, the Death Row boss was behind bars after being caught on security camera taking part in the group beating of a member of the Crips street gang, sworn enemies of Knight’s associates, the Bloods. A serial offender with eight previous convictions, he had violated the terms of his probation received for assaulting the Stanley brothers. Knight was sentenced to nine years in jail. The FBI, IRS, DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms immediately began joint investigations into Death Row on possible racketeering charges related to Knight’s alleged business links with the drug-dealing Piru Blood gang. Death Row’s grand dreams had melted into air.
“In the beginning, it was all about Niggers coming up,” commented Dre in the hip-hop magazine Blaze. “Then it turned into a fucking Don Corleone thing. It was like a movie. You come into his [Knight's] office and can’t step on the carpet’s Death Row emblem and all that crazy shit. It didn’t need to escalate like that . . . I got tired of seeing engineers get they ass beat for rewinding a tape too far.”
Dre says he decided to leave Death Row after going to jail. Arrested on a drunk-driving charge, he was found guilty of violating the parole he received for breaking Damon Thomas’s jaw. “To be honest, prison was probably the best thing that could have happened to me in my life,” he says earnestly. “Everything was happening so fast, the success I was having, all the money coming in, all the girls, all the partying. I never had a chance to say, “Yo, what do I want my life to hold?” I had to find myself. And it was crazy. I saw a confused individual. A guy that wasn’t sure what he really wanted out of life. It made me say, “Yo, man, fuck those streets, fuck everything that’s going on out there on those streets. Is this the life I wanna lead, or do I wanna be a businessman, be able to take care of my family, chill out, have fun and make money while I’m sleeping?”Ó
Dre now lives with his wife, Nicole, and their two young sons on a $4.9-million estate in a gated community in the San Fernando Valley. He abandoned his stake in Death Row while it was still a force in the music industry, trading income for “peace of mind”. Ultimately, he believes his ‘real talent’ lies in producing, directing and scoring films. He has already written a screenplay based on his own life, called Please Listen To My Demo. Yet although he’s now a 20-year veteran of the music business, his career is far from over. In fact, it’s just enjoying its third swell.
In 1996, Dre started his own label, Aftermath, backed by Interscope records, part of the entertainment conglomerate, Universal. Aftermath’s contract is due for renegotiation, and industry observers predict that it will net Dre a nine-figure sum. Following the disappointment of its first release, Dr Dre Presents . . . The Aftermath, the label is now thriving. Dr Dre 2001 has sold five million copies since November 1999 and, in 26-year-old white rapper Eminem, it also has a major new star. A skilled, darkly-comic performer from Detroit (born Marshall Mathers), Eminem’s records have sparked controversy for their warped reflections on sex, drugs and teen life. The response is an echo of the furore that surrounded NWA more than a decade earlier. Dre, who produced the rapper’s debut album, The Slim Shady LP, is amused. It’s easy to see why.
In the years since Straight Outta Compton, real life, with its celebrity scandals and high-school shoot-outs, has worked hard to outgun even the most lurid fantasies of hardcore rap. Entertainment culture has responded by becoming more provocative and more sexualised, from Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights in the US to Gail Porter’s bare bottom projected on to the House of Commons in Britain. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to argue that hardcore hip-hop, in particular, deserves to be excoriated. But it does raise a question. NWA are currently in the studio, recording a comeback album called Not These Niggaz Again, with Snoop Dogg replacing the late Eazy-E. But just what is there left for them to rebel against? “I know people are gonna be, like, “NWA started this whole genre of hardcore hip-hop or gangsta rap music – what else are they gonna talk about?” ” nods Dre. “But once we deliver the record and it’s hot, and it’s a record that you can buy and bump and just roll out and wild out to, what the album is about won’t matter.” Besides, he counters, “I don’t think it’s easy to sell records when you’re just trying to shock and inflame. It’s been done a thousand times after NWA came, and nobody’s reached the success that we had.”
Perhaps Dre’s real art is not in shock, then, but seduction. Like his heroes, Pryor, Iceberg Slim, Tarantino and Scorsese, he has remade the brute antagonisms of street life as beautiful, dissonant poetry. While critics of hardcore rap have concentrated on its lyrics, Dre has been more concerned with what it should feel like; with how it bumps and rolls. Knowing all the while that art shouldn’t aim simply to imitate life. But to outdo it.