Dr Dre’s long-awaited new album ‘Compton’ has been hailed in all quarters as a storming return to form for the veteran rap super-producer. But he might still be lost in ‘Detox’ hell were it not for the input of a phalanx of hungry young rappers, singers and producers who helped realise Dre’s vision. Dean Van Nguyen talks to some of them about the making of a modern-day masterpiece.
Duke Ellington once said, “I don’t need time, I need a deadline”. The same maxim seems to have applied to Dr Dre. With no one ordering the Aftermath Entertainment CEO, Beats founder and hip-hop billionaire to turn in a record, Dre kept the streets waiting for his near-mythic third album ‘Detox’ for a decade and a half. As time went by, he sold a hell of a lot of headphones. He got big into physical fitness. He seemed to work less and less with other artists. And he fiddled about with ‘Detox’ until he just couldn’t do it anymore.
But from the ashes of the oft-delayed album rose ‘Compton’. Inspired by his work as a producer on the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, Dre went to work with a solid deadline – he wanted this new project to coincide with the release of the movie, revisiting the streets and stories of his youth. With his motivation in place, the stage was finally set for the return of the hugely influential beatmaker.
‘Compton’ is not merely a nostalgia trip, however. While there was input from long-standing cohorts like Ice Cube (‘Issues’), Snoop Dogg (‘Satisfaction’), Eminem (‘Medicine Man’) and Xzibit (‘Loose Cannons’), much of the heavy lifting was done by a new generation of hungry young artists who brought new styles, fresh ideas and whole lot of energy to the table. Many of the lyrics came from the pens of up and coming rappers King Mez, Justus (pictured below) and Anderson Paak. Producers like DJ Dahi, Dem Joints and DJ Khalil worked closely with Dre on the beats, while new-generation crooners BJ The Chicago Kid (pictured below) and Candice Pillay brought their own unique flavour. Surrounding himself with young bucks who were weaned on his own productions, the superproducer rekindled the creative spark he seemed to lose years ago.
“When me and Justus came in I think we inspired him on a much higher level and made him stay in the studio a lot more often,” says King Mez. “He has the work ethic, but I think when he saw our talent that he thought was exceptional on a certain level, it made him want to work a lot more. We were in the studio a lot. People were often thanking me. Engineers said, ‘We haven’t seen Dre like this in 10 years, we haven’t seen him this excited about being in the studio, this excited about recording music.’”
Hailing from North Carolina, Mez was one of a galaxy of talented MCs trawling the rap blog circuit for an audience, his most notable release being last year’s mixtape ‘Long Live The King’. But after being introduced to Dr Dre last year by a long-time affiliate of the producer Big Pooh, the young MC suddenly found himself central to Dre’s new wave of creativity.
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Similarly, Justus’s hook-up came after the Dallas rapper cut a demo with The DOC, whose connections to Dre stretch all the way back to his NWA days. “I met Dre on the set of Straight Outta Compton,” Justus remembers. “I walked in his trailer and he said ‘What’s up superstar?’. It was a great feeling for him to say that, and it really put all the nerves to bed at that moment.”
Both Mez and Justus came on board as the dying embers of ‘Detox’ were being permanently extinguished. Justus admits that when he first went into the studio with Dre, he didn’t know exactly what they were working on, but the deeper he went into the project, the more he tuned into Dre’s new vision.
“Eventually, I started to notice the shape of the records and the colour of them and the feel and what they were talking about,” Justus says. “Once I started to notice that I was like, ‘Oh I see what we’re working on here’. A few weeks later, Dre said, ‘OK yeah, we’re working on this new album’. At the time we didn’t have a name but we were just working towards it. I think the name came about not even too long ago. I want to say four or five months ago. We were all sitting down at his beach house. I think it was [film director] Allen Hughes who came in and said, ‘Why don’t you call it ‘Compton’. Dre looked at the room, asked everyone if it was cool, we all agreed, and that’s what it ended up being.”
Taking place in Dre’s LA studio over the last year, the ‘Compton’ sessions were run like a giant think-tank that encouraged his newly formed team to bring their own ideas to the table. Dre would frequently run back and forth between the multiple rooms in which his collaborators were holed up, chipping away at one track before moving on to another. Most beats that made the grade would be tweaked by the producer. He’d often order take after take from his vocalists, striving for the level of perfection he’s demanded his entire career.
“In the studio, Dre’s a big motivator,” says singer BJ The Chicago Kid, who features on ‘It’s All On Me’ but was present throughout the album’s creation. “He turns an idea into a movie. He knows how to enhance, he’s not afraid to try and get what he likes. You learn so much from him: how to pull out more from yourself, how to pull out more from others, to put your all into the music, to never settle.”
The highly collaborative process that birthed ‘Compton’ is reflected by the hefty number of artists whose voices can be heard on the record itself. Mez and Justus provided backing vocals on most tracks. Liverpool-born singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius, a long-time Dre associate, can be heard on a handful of hooks, while Compton’s own Kendrick Lamar lends three jaw-dropping guest verses on ‘Genocide’, ‘Darkside/Gone’ and ‘Deep Water’.
But it’s Dre himself who leads from the front, and the album sees him stretch himself vocally more than ever before, shuffling through different styles from track-to-track. On the reflective ‘It’s All On Me’, he deploys a tuneful half-rapped, half-sung style in the vein of Houston’s carnal crooner Z-Ro. On early highpoint ‘Talk About It’, he uses a more stuttering style than the punchy one-liners we’re used to hearing him sling, while he spits in double time on ‘For The Love of Money’. Vigorous and intense, Dre sounds nothing like a complacent 50-year-old headphone magnate.
Dre has never been the sole author of his rhymes and on ‘Compton’ he worked closely with Mez, Justice and Anderson Paak on his verses. Mez served as a writer on 12 of the 16 songs, usually laying down reference tracks for Dre to rhyme on top of. Justus explains the process: “Sometimes he would leave me in [the recording booth] with a particular beat or it might be me and King Mez and Anderson in there and he would just leave us to paint, to do our thing. Then he’d come back and say, ‘OK, I like this’ and ‘Nah, you need to talk about this, you don’t wanna talk about that, let’s keep it this way’.”
‘It’s All On Me’, for example, finds Dre in a reflective mood as he ponders old friendships and rivalries, harking all the way back to a time when he had to borrow Eazy-E’s car just to get around LA. Having been presented with the hook by Justus, Dre opened up about his past, inspiring his writers to pen the introspective lyrics.
Justus says, “Mez and I just sat there and listened to Dre basically talk about his past – how he feels about it, all the things that troubled him, where he thought he was headed in the future at that time. We all just sat there and had a regular conversation like you and I would have. And from that we derived the information needed to go in and write the verse.”
Musically, ‘Compton’ is warm, rich, thumping and textured – a future-shock of crisp drums, pristine keyboard loops, dramatic trumpet blasts, blistering guitar lines and lots more besides. ‘Genocide’, for example, is layered with throbbing basslines and creeping synths, shimmering with a freshness that’s been absent from most recent Dre cuts. The beat was initially forged by Dem Jointz and matched with a hook written by Ambrosius. To fill in a blank, Dre turned to singer-rapper Candice Pillay, who impressed him after the pair met at a King Mez session. “We talked about music, from The Beatles and Queen to Zapp”, she remembers. “He asked me if I had any music on me, he gave me some of my stuff and he loved it. We actually started working that night, the first day I met Dre.” Pillay was involved throughout the ‘Compton’ sessions and can also be heard on ‘Medicine Man’.
“There was a little pattern that it had – the rapping part,” she says of ‘Genocide’. “They were trying to figure out who to get to do that and I remember being in the studio hearing Dre saying, ‘We need to find someone to do this part’. At the time Dre knew that I did the alternative vocals, so that’s pretty much what I brought to him. I felt that was a niche for me.”
Ideas were occasionally pulled from further afield. The first half of ‘Darkside/Gone’ stems from an instrumental recorded by Washington production team Best Kept Secret, who had no idea of where the beat would end up when they originally created it. “We had been sending tracks to King Mez,” says Julian Nixon, one half of the duo. “Word got back to us that Dr Dre was going to use this track with King Mez on it. We were like, ‘Ohhh!’ Dre added bass to it and made the drums a little more punchy, gave it that Dre effect. I wound up meeting him as they were just putting the finishing touches on the album. He played the whole album and it was really like a dream come true.”
While work on ‘Compton’ moved along smoothly, most of the team do admit that the history of ‘Detox’ meant they were somewhat wary. “We’d heard a few stories of the the album getting close to being finished and something would be wrong with it,” says Justus. “It wouldn’t be at the level it needed to be. The people there – the musicians that had been there for 10 to 15 years – were all telling us, ‘Take this with a grain of salt. Come in here and work hard and make the best album that you can, but you don’t know for sure that this will come out’. We were a little apprehensive for a time but when we started to see Dre’s energy and attitude, I knew it was coming out this time.”
Following 11 months of work, Dre took the world by surprise by announcing ‘Compton’ on August 1, less than a week before its release. For his team, it meant they could finally talk publicly about the record they had poured so much into. Speaking about the project hadn’t strictly been outlawed, but as BJ says with a laugh, “In order to work with Dr Dre you have to know to shut the fuck up, period. You can’t go around telling everybody, you will never come back!”
Dre has called the record his “grand finale”, and if that is the case, then ‘Compton’ is an apt swansong, tying together 30 years of hip-hop mastery while simultaneously sounding like nothing else in the legend’s canon. For his young team, being part of the Dre legacy is something they’ll take with them as they use ‘Compton’ as a springboard into the next phase of their career.
“It’s definitely kind of crazy be part of such a strong family, when you think of the artists he brought into music,” says Mez. “Dre changed music, and the artists that he brought in changed music.”
“I give all the praise over to Dre,” adds Justus. “This is his legacy and this is his piece of history and I’m just lucky to contribute any way that I could.”