From Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ to Kanye West’s ’My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, hip-hop has had its fair share of watershed albums. But there’s one in particular that was so impactful that it launched superstar careers of its guest stars, stole attention away from hip-hop’s birthplace and reshaped popular music as we know it: Dr. Dre’s December 1992 solo album ‘The Chronic’ – which is available for the first time ever on all major streaming platforms today, 4/20/2020.
Dre’s post-N.W.A. debut sold over two million copies in its first year on shelves and has since gone on to sell six million copies in the US alone. Its rumbling low-end bass dumps (influenced by A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Low End Theory’), funky rhythms and innovative soul samples dominated boomboxes and car stereos all over America, and the rest of the world caught up soon after.
“It’s arguably the most important album in hip-hop history,” Barry Ashworth of Dub Pistols tells NME. “It was a genre-changing moment that brought us the sound of G-Funk and changed the way rap music was perceived forever. It’s a timeless classic.”
“THERE’S NEVER been a better produced hip-hop album. DRE set the bar so fucking high it turned the world upside down”
– DJ SWAY Calloway
Sharing a similar sentiment, Kanye West once told 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.”
But before Dre could arrive at this genre-defining moment, he had a few obstacles he had to overcome.
A date with Death Row
As a member of tinderbox rap collective N.W.A. in the mid 1980s, Dre’s star power was already well known thanks to his production on classics such as ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton’. But he was convinced bandmate Eazy-E and Ruthless Records founder Jerry Heller were not fairly compensating him for his work. Looking to follow in the footsteps of former N.W.A. member Ice Cube, who left the label in 1989 over disputed royalty payments, Dre wanted off Ruthless. Enter: larger-than-life rap impresario Suge Knight.
Knight, a former pro football prospect who doubled as a bodyguard for celebrities including Bobby Brown was introduced to Dre by rapper D.O.C., who himself would play a huge role in the making of ‘The Chronic’, famously penning the ‘Nuthin’ But A G Thang’ hook.
With an eye on becoming a music mogul, Knight saw Dre as a means of making it happen. Reportedly using his overbearing physicality and threatening presence to intimidate Eazy, Knight and a small entourage of men allegedly forced the godfather of gangsta rap to sign a release contract for Dre. That’s the way the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton tells it, anyway.
For his role in helping free Dre from the shackles of his former label, Knight became famous as hip-hop’s most fearsome hustler, almost overnight. Quickly securing the funds to purchase a recording studio from Solar Records (allegedly with the help of incarcerated drug dealer Michael ‘Harry O’ Harris), Knight, along with Dre, D.O.C. and Solar Records’ Dick Griffey, founded the era-defining Death Row Records, a major cultural force for most of the 1990s.
With the label ready to fire on all cylinders, the scene was set for ‘The Chronic’ to become the jewel in the Death Row crown. But Dre had to be persuaded into making it first. In the album’s thank you notes, he gives a special shout out to D.O.C. for “talking me into doin’ this album.” But while D.O.C. put the bug in his ear, it was a young, unassuming rapper from Long Beach, California with canine features, a strangely refined manner, a unique rapping delivery and a superhuman appetite for weed that put the battery in Dre’s back.
The ‘Inmates’ assemble…
“This is a diamond in the rough and we need to polish it up,” Dre said upon hearing Snoop Dogg rap for the first time, via a cassette passed to him by his stepbrother, the rapper Warren G. Speaking in the 2017 Netflix documentary The Defiant Ones, Dre said that the thought of producing his own solo album only became a reality once discovering Snoop, who would wind up being a superstar in his own right while working on ‘The Chronic’.
Sway In The Morning host Sway Calloway who, as co-presenter of influential US syndicated radio programme The Wake Up Show, was a key figure in the west coast hip-hop scene during its infancy, remembers his cousin telling him about Snoop because the rapper happened to be sleeping on her couch at the time. “I was like, ‘Snoop? The dude’s name is Snoop?’,” he tells NME, laughing. “She told me he was gonna be the next big thing and sure enough it happened.”
“The Chronic’ was like a Marvel movie and the guest rappers were all like a bunch of fucking superheroes”
– Rapper Royce Da 5’9
Snoop wasn’t the only one to assist Dre in the making of ’The Chronic’. Aside from D.O.C., the former N.W.A. man also enlisted the services of a band of rapping misfits he would later dub the Death Row Inmates: The Lady Of Rage, rapper-producer Daz Dillinger and RBX (two of Snoop’s cousins), Kurupt, a little-known singer named Nate Dogg, Jewell, and Warren G. Rapper Bushwick Bill of the controversial Texan duo Geto Boys also made an appearance, lending his unmistakably eerie timbre to the unnerving ’Stranded On Death Row’.
“They were like characters in a movie,” says Royce Da 5’9”, who would work with Dre on ‘2001’, the brilliant 1999 follow-up to ‘The Chronic’, which showcased a new generation of stars including Dre protege Eminem. “All these obscure voices and shit, you loved all of them. You fell in love with the whole cast and you followed them when they went on to do their own spin-offs. It was like a Marvel movie and they were all like a bunch of fucking superheroes.”
Commenting on the way in which Dre produced the artists on ‘The Chronic’, comedian Alex Thomas, who hosted Dre and Snoop’s ‘Up In Smoke Tour’ in 2000, compares Dre to another legendary producer. “We looked at Dr. Dre as the hip-hop version of Quincy Jones,” Thomas tells NME. “What he did with Snoop, Daz, Kurupt, Rage, Warren G and the rest of them was incredible.”
From giving fans a peek into the brilliance of Nate Dogg’s raw and unorthodox vocals on the outro of ‘Deeez Nuuuts’, to letting Snoop’s commanding presence dominate tracks like ‘Fuck Wit Dre Day’, ‘The Day The N****z Took Over’ and the cultural atomic bomb that is summer anthem ‘Nuthin’ But A G Thang’, Dre meticulously sequenced ‘The Chronic’ to be as potent as the cannabis leaf that was laser-etched into the CD.
An unlikely ambassador for the green stuff
In 1988, Dre rapped on N.W.A.’s ‘Express Yourself’ that he didn’t smoke “weed or sess [sensimilla, a potent form of marijuana] cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage,” so it’s almost farcical that weed ended up being the main inspiration behind ‘The Chronic’.
Whether it’s the iconic artwork paying homage to Zig-Zag rolling papers, the aromatic puffs of smoke that filled the studio during the recording process, or the album’s title itself – coined by Snoop during a smoke session with, in his words, some “white boys in the back of a truck” – these ingredients were key to the way fans bought into the hazy world of ‘The Chronic’.
One of the album’s understated feats is how the weed-fugged production provides a smoke screen for Dre’s limitations as an MC. Adding a chorus of talented voices, he manages to slip in and out, appearing sparingly but adding the voice of a veteran among newcomers.
Camping out at either Solar studios or the studio at his newly purchased Calabasas home, Dre produced ‘The Chronic’ on a cutting edge SSL mixing console, experimenting with new sounds and samples, unknowingly reshaping the sound of west coast rap in the process. Whether it was his reinterpretation of 1970s P-Funk, a musical style made famous by Parliament-Funkadelic, that he dubbed G-Funk, or the whining Moog synthesisers he spread throughout The Chronic, Dre was changing the way people would view hip-hop music moving forward.
“What Dre did for the synthesiser is almost like the [latter-day] impact of autotune,” Calloway says. “T-Pain, to me, made autotune an art, but after a while everybody started using it and it became a crutch. That’s what Dre did with the whiny synthesiser. Once he used it on ‘The Chronic’, everybody wanted to use the synth.”
“I don’t think there’s ever been a better produced hip-hop album,” Calloway continues. “He set the bar so fucking high that it turned the world upside down. His production was heavenly. What Dre did in terms of vibrations and frequencies ushered in a whole new era of production.”
“Dre Was the hip-hop Quincy Jones”
– Comedian Alex Thomas
A notorious perfectionist, Dre completed the mixes on his sonic masterpiece with live instrumentation, including flutes, guitar and bass, thanks to the help of musicians Colin Wolfe and Chris “The Glove” Taylor.
“When ‘The Chronic’ came out it was the first time I remember having things to say about the production,” adds Royce. “It was the first time I remember people talking about beats. I didn’t even realise that that could even be a conversation until ‘The Chronic’ dropped.”
But more than just the slick production, the soundbites from comedian Rudy Ray Moore, the Led Zeppelin and Isaac Hayes samples, and the comic relief of skits like ‘The $20 Sack Pyramid’, the lyrics on ‘The Chronic’ were utterly timely, acting as a sort of CNN report from the streets.
A postcard from the edge
America had become aware of the tensions brewing in LA following the shocking case of Rodney King, a black construction worker who was badly beaten up by several LAPD officers in 1991. After the court acquitted the participating officers in 1992, finding them not guilty of police brutality, riots, fires and looting broke out all over the City Of Angels.
‘The Chronic’ was recorded while all of this was going on in Dre’s own backyard. Providing an audio depiction of the injustices taking place, it referenced several of the incidents on ‘Lil Ghetto Boy’ and ‘The Day The N****z Took Over’, noting the change in their environment, where it seemed like both gangbangers [US slang for gang members] and the police were quicker than ever to pull their triggers.
‘The Chronic’ might not have invented gangsta rap, but it was certainly the first to transform it into the dominant soundtrack of America’s party scene. Together with Snoop, Dre captured the state of mind of a gangsta, even though he wasn’t a gangsta himself per se. He romanticised the gangbanging lifestyle on tracks like ‘Nuthin’ But A G Thang’ and ‘Let Me Ride’, presenting it in the context of an eclectic and uncompromising body of work that established the west coast as a commanding mainstream musical force.
“It was the first time in the history of rap music that New York artists and producers had to ride in the proverbial passenger seat,” explains UK rap legend Rodney P. “N.W.A. had started the trend but it was ‘The Chronic’ that opened the floodgates, giving regional artists the belief that they could succeed in making music that was hip-hop. The Dirty South, Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, they all owe a little something to ‘The Chronic’ and to Dr. Dre for removing the limitations on what hip-hop could and should sound like.”
“It was the first time in the history of rap music that New York artists and producers had to ride in the proverbial passenger seat”
– RAPPER RODNEY P
But it wasn’t just about artists from other regions being inspired to describe and celebrate their own lives, scenes, experiences and cities. Listeners from other regions and other countries were given an insight into what it was like to live in South Central Los Angeles in that turbulent time.
“I can imagine how educational ‘The Chronic’ was for people living in other cities or in other countries around the world,” Thomas notes. “Whether you lived in Africa, London, France, or even another city like Detroit, ‘The Chronic’ was like an educational road map on what South Central LA and the west coast was all about. Dr. Dre was able to paint a picture for all of those who weren’t from South Central.”
The sound of the future
On thinking about the impact of ‘The Chronic’, the thing that is probably the most overlooked is the shockwave it sent through the industry for years to come. It was the bedrock of one of the most dominant record labels in the history of music. At the height of its powers, Death Row Records was pulling in $100 million a year – and proving that hardcore rap could power a hit machine in pop music. In time it would inspire label powerhouses such as Cash Money Records, Top Dawg Entertainment and more.
In a more linear sense, ‘The Chronic’ provided a springboard for many to flourish. While Snoop Dogg is an obvious one to point out, Daz and Kurupt had a pretty successful run as Tha Dogg Pound, as did Nate Dogg before his death in 2011, featuring on songs by 50 Cent, Fabolous and Ludacris, with many considering him one of the greatest hook singers of our time.
Then there’s Warren G. Aside from him having a mammoth hit in his own ‘Regulate’, an iconic tale of LA street life, he played a huge role in keeping the lights on at legendary hip-hop label Def Jam Records after sales of his debut album ‘Regulate…G Funk Era’ injected some much needed revenue into the then financially struggling industry giant.
Dre shaped LA’s present and future with ‘The Chronic’. But more than that, he made the naysayers who thought hip-hop lacked substance sit up and take notice, alerting them to a simple fact: this was no passing fad.
Released via Death Row Records/Entertainment One, you can now stream Dr. Dre’s ‘The Chronic’ across all platforms here.
For more info and to purchase Death Row merchandise, visit the label’s official website.