Dr Dre’s groundbreaking solo debut was released 20 years ago this month. It came out at a highly-charged time: Los Angeles in December ‘92 was struggling to get back on its feet after the April riots and the Rodney King trial. “Robberies were at an all-time high. The National Guard was still in Compton. People were either very timid or very violent,” said Compton rapper Game to the Dallas Observer.
In terms of the musical landscape, Brand Nubian, Redman and The Pharcyde owned the year. Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer had broken through in the years preceding. ‘Gangsta rap’ had been around for a while, pioneered by Ice-T and Schoolly D and N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ flung West Coast hip-hop into the ring with its New York counterparts. But it was Dre’s departure from N.W.A and his subsequent solo album ‘The Chronic’ that brought the sub-genre into the MTV-watching suburban mainstream, reaching No3 in the Billboard chart. How did Dre make gangsta rap a multi-platinum commodity?
First and foremost, ‘The Chronic’ illustrates Dre’s ability as a manager. He assembled a West Coast troupe featuring Snoop Dogg, Dogg Pound, his stepbrother Warren G, Lady of Rage, RBX, The D.O.C, Nate Dogg, Dat Nigga Daz, Suge Knight and Kurupt and got the best out of them. Retrospectively, it was an impressive role-call. Snoop Dogg went on to make ‘Doggystyle’, the best-selling debut of all time, a few years after his hypnotic drawl ran through ‘The Chronic’. (Although it’s Dre’s solo record, the chemistry between them is crucial).
Apart from ‘2001’ (1999), and the hypothetical ‘Detox’, Dre’s main prowess is still in managing, producing and mentoring artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, Eve, Mary J. Blige, Slim the Mobster. While fans have been waiting for the next episode since 2001, he doesn’t need to make another album (or put ‘The Chronic’ on iTunes or Spotify) – he’s the number one earner in the music business this year, according to Forbes, making £68.7million largely due to the success of his posh headphones.
Second, the sonic power of ‘The Chronic’ puts it above other seminal rap records. This was the crowning of Dre as the “Godfather of G-Funk”. Recall ‘Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang’ or ‘Let Me Ride’. Have you got that whiny, high-pitched line winding around your head? The sliding sine wave synth along with slow, hypnotic beats, deep and heavy bass and samples made up mostly from Parliament-Funkadelic define the album’s unique sound. ‘The Chronic’ took decades of funk and soul, slowed it down and hardened it up, recalibrating it into something completely new. Dre cut down on the amount of samples he used in N.W.A and recorded as much of them as possible with live instruments. If you listen to Leon Haywood’s ‘I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You’ you can hear that it’s been pitched differently and synthesised on Dre’s ‘Nuthin’’. It lends the album a cohesive strength, audaciously stripping the excerpts from the past and bending them to his will. The Led Zeppelin sample – John Bonham’s drums in ‘When The Levee Breaks’ – in ‘Lyrical GangBang’ is an example of sampling genius. Gil Scott-Heron, Bill Withers, James Brown and Malcolm McLaren were also used.
Lyrically, ‘The Chronic’ is similarly ostentatious. It populated the now-mandatory diss track – “Tim Dog can eat a big fat dick” – with “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” It also brought the sex skit to the fore (so we have Dre to blame for those awkward moments in the car with parents). But Dre’s genius is combining hardcore gangster rap lyrics – about guns, sex and drugs – with melodic, poppy, party tunes.
As a whole, the album does what all great hip-hop should do: it takes you somewhere else. With samples, guest vocals and the presence of good and evil, it creates a soundscape of 90s LA. The socio-political situation is acknowledged with samples of a documentary about the LA uprising and references to the story of Rodney King on tracks (“Lil’ Ghetto Boy” and “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”). There are some classic lyrics: “Well I’m peepin’ and I’m creepin’ and I’m creep-in’”, “one, two three and to the four” and Snoop Dogg’s “getting funky on the mic like an old batch of collard greens”.
But it’s far from perfect. It opens with the homophobic disses of ‘Fuck Wit Dre Day’ and closes with the depressing misogyny of ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’. To fresh 2012 ears, it sounds even more unpleasant.
What about the album’s legacy and significance today? Kanye West spelt it out when he spoke to Rolling Stone: “‘The Chronic’ is still the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’. It’s the benchmark you measure your album against if you’re serious.” Most recently, the success of Dre protégé Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, one of the finest hip-hop albums of the last few years, is testament to his instinct. Before putting out ‘The Chronic’, Dre later told Vibe magazine that he had doubts about what he was doing. Criticised for using live instruments, he recalled asking Nate Dogg: “Is this shit good or not?” 20 years later, it sounds as good as ever.