Detox, the reported follow-up to Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, might be the most anticipated hip-hop release of all time. It’s definitely at the top of the list for the 21st century. While R&B enthusiasts eagerly await records from Maxwell (he’s touring, so maybe…), D’Angelo (keep your fingers crossed), and Van Hunt (I’ll settle for a proper release of Popular), hip-hop fans are hoping the good California production doctor won’t keep us in suspense much longer.
Since Detox has been promised and delayed for years now, perhaps 2009 is the year it will hit the market. If it does, what will the impact be? Will it change people’s minds about the downward spiral of mainstream hip-hop, or has the extended delay between 2001 and its follow-up exacerbated the problems of dealing with an evolving musical landscape and a music industry structure that remains in flux? The uncertainty makes the whole thing fascinating. As far as Detox‘s release being a landmark event is concerned, I’m hesitant to count Dr. Dre out as long as his production skills are part of the equation.
Straight Outta Compton: 20th Anniversary Edition
US: 4 Dec 2007
UK: Available as import
In the meantime, some of us are in need of relief from “Dr. Dre Withdrawal”. This syndrome, caused by a lack of material from Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, manifests in many ways, including but not limited to: 1) increased dissatisfaction and irritability regarding the current hip-hop climate (“Hip-hop was bangin’ in the ‘90s! We had Gang Starr, Special Ed, Onyx, Dr. Dre…”); 2) simultaneous annoyance and glee when the Game namedrops Dr. Dre, paying mildly obsessive attention to Dr. Dre’s current and former associates (“I wonder what Michel’le is up to?”); and 3) rationalizations for particular lyrical references to women claiming that they are not misogynistic but are merely tools for illustrating life’s various facets and gray areas.
To cope with the pain of listening to hip-hop without a sufficient amount of material from Dr. Dre, I’ve devised a list of suggestions, none of which involve watching Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in The Wash.
1. Listen to Straight Outta Compton.
Dr. Dre from the days of N.W.A. is, mostly, one tough S.O.B. You don’t get the full effect of his toughness from listening to his pre-N.W.A. output. Take Turn Out the Lights, by Dr. Dre’s World Class Wrecking Cru. It’s an R&B-styled set of pickup lines and come-ons, smoothed out and laidback. You’ll find bits of attitude there, but nothing compares to Dr. Dre’s display as an N.W.A. member. In the late ‘80s, Dre joined forces with Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. Together, as N.W.A. (N*ggas With Attitudes), they ushered in a new age for what we call “gangsta rap”, and possibly for freedom of expression, with all the potential pros (artistic integrity) and cons (inflammatory content, misogynistic rhetoric) along the way. Of course we shouldn’t give N.W.A. all of the credit for this. In hip-hop circles, artists like KRS-One, Public Enemy, and 2 Live Crew were pushing creative boundaries around the same time.
Dr. Dre handled microphone duties on a few tracks from the group’s opus, 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, most notably in the free expression anthem “Express Yourself”, but his true gift was, and remains, behind the boards. Dr. Dre’s style of using melodic old-school ‘70s grooves to support N.W.A.‘s raw approach was undeniable. That style, combined with hardcore imagery and dope baton-passing verses from Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and MC Ren, made Straight Outta Compton a formidable product.
I keep hearing that N.W.A.‘s legacy rests in the group’s educational effect. No, don’t be alarmed. No one’s equating Straight Outta Compton with an episode of Sesame Street. But the idea is that N.W.A.‘s stark and striking rhyming narratives taught the world about the harsh realities of life in the ‘hood and, to some extent, life as a black person surviving through economic hardships. Police brutality, violence, and misogyny could, through this lens, be viewed within a larger communal and societal context.
My problem with this explanation isn’t its veracity. There’s no doubt in my mind that a song like “Fuck the Police” offered a different perspective on law enforcement and the legal system. The problem is that the “reality” or “keepin’ it real” argument is always vulnerable when it’s balanced against artistry and creativity. While N.W.A. brought “reality” out of the woodwork for everyone to hear, the group was far more effective in pushing boundaries, in taking elements of that “inner city reality” and turning them into urban tales and mythologies. In N.W.A.‘s stories, conventional norms get flipped, upside down and inside out. Order is chaos, chaos is order, and society’s traditional bad guys become the heroes. In this way, they created a world that felt real while exercising creative license.
And I still say Dr. Dre’s production aesthetic rivals all of that as N.W.A.‘s biggest contribution. Listen to the production on this album. The sonic variety will help you feel better about waiting for Detox.
2. Listen to Efil4zaggin.
Sometimes I hear people say that N.W.A.‘s Efil4zaggin (1991), or “N*ggaz 4 Life” spelled backwards, is superior to its predecessor, Straight Outta Compton. Although it performed amazingly well on the charts, I disagree for several reasons.
First, Ice Cube had left the group to pursue a solo career between the releases of Straight Outta Compton and its follow-up. Quite frankly, a Cube-less N.W.A. isn’t as good. It’s not quite the Jackson 5 without Michael, but Ice Cube’s absence left a significant void. Cube’s departure, and the fact that he left on unfriendly terms, meant two things. One, it meant that the feud between Ice Cube and his former boyz-in-the-hood crept into the music of both camps. N.W.A. jabbed at Ice Cube in songs like “100 Miles & Running” and “Real N*ggaz”, and in references to him as Benedict Arnold, a traitor. Ice Cube responded with a diss track of his own, “No Vaseline”, attacking everything from Dr. Dre’s ability to rap (“Yo, Dre, stick to producin’”) to the car MC Ren used to drive when he and Cube hung out together.
The other result of Cube’s departure was the reassignment of emceeing duties. Dr. Dre rapped more, as Ice Cube indicated in “No Vaseline”, and his voice sounded irritatingly scratchy. It wasn’t a horrible showing, but it didn’t compensate for Ice Cube’s absence either. Since Eazy-E, despite the uniqueness of his high-pitched voice, was never the most skilled rapper, the responsibility for carrying the lyrical weight rested with MC Ren. Listening to MC Ren’s flow is probably the best part of Efil4zaggin, with Dr. Dre’s contribution being the continued evolution of his G-Funk production sound. I always found it significant that Ice Cube, even in his most estranged moments with his old pals, avoided attacks on Dr. Dre’s ability to produce.
My second problem with the album is that it contained too much filler. A sequel (“She Swallowed It”) to the 100 Miles & Running EP‘s homage to fellatio, “Just Don’t Bite It”, and two songs devoted to singing (like, actually singing) older ditties by simply changing the words to make them funny or dirty? I could’ve done without that.
Third, there was the weak attempt to be political, in terms of responding to the group’s controversy and criticism and in terms of providing a rationale and context for N.W.A.‘s use of the N-word. With only a few exceptions, I just find it annoying when artists get big and then make songs referencing people’s reactions to their success or trying to detail the problems that come with their celebrity. I’m not debating the downside of being famous, I just can’t think of many examples where writing a song about it has resulted in classic material. And the rationales for using the N-word (“‘Cause my mouth is so muthafuckin’ nasty”) are exceedingly unsatisfactory.
Nevertheless, I’m not a total hater. Songs like “Alwayz Into Somethin’” and “Appetite for Destruction”, especially the radio versions, are still killer.
3. Listen to Death Row releases.
When Dr. Dre’s relationship with Eazy-E soured, N.W.A. was done for good. Dre regrouped by hooking up with Marion “Suge” Knight and turning their label, Death Row Records, into a hip-hop powerhouse. It’s difficult to say which label had a bigger impact, Sean “Puffy”/“P. Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records or Death Row. Both signed incredibly successful acts. Both contributed to the drastic changes in rap styles, fashion, and videos that occurred in the 1990s. Both were involved in the escalation of regional factionalism (the East Coast-West Coast beef) that has often been associated with the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
The definitive album of the Death Row period is not, as some have suggested, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993). As much as I like Tupac’s music, I can’t say it’s 1996’s double LP All Eyez on Me, either. No, the album that still defines the Death Row era for me is Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992), an album that, for those who weren’t alive in the time period, might not sound all that impressive from a 2009 standpoint. In this way, The Chronic is like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (1991), which I think is a groundbreaking album in its own right. I have a buddy who (somehow) managed to live through the ‘90s without ever hearing The Low End Theory, aside from the single “Check the Rhime”, and he can’t understand what all the fuss was about. I’ve heard similar complaints about The Chronic.
The fuss over The Chronic is once again related to Dr. Dre’s approach to making his music. That’s not to say the album doesn’t have standouts. It absolutely does. Singles like “Dre Day”, “Let Me Ride”, and “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” were smashes, in spite of and perhaps because of their flashes of troubling lyrical content. “Dre Day” took potshots at Tim Dog, Luke, and former homie Eazy-E. “Let Me Ride” took the love of the automobile to the next level, with references to “bitches” and “hoes” to boot.
That certainly doesn’t mean that Dr. Dre is the first person to make a song about how awesome it is to cruise around in your favorite ride with onlookers staring in awe. Heck, even Aretha Franklin sang a little tune about taking a “pink Cadillac” for a spin down the “freeway of love”. (I still say Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” is most certainly not about a car, though!) “Let Me Ride” was also constructed from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” (“Swing down, sweet chariot, stop, and let me ride”), so I’m not placing the whole category of rim rap and vehicle worship at Dr. Dre’s doorstep. I just think the slick and sophisticated way he structured and layered his rhythms, helped immensely by Parliament and other funky grooves, made everything about The Chronic sound as fresh and as clean as Outkast’s later paradigm shift.
Appearances by Death Row artists Daz, Kurupt, Lady of Rage, RBX, and Nate Dogg added texture to The Chronic, but the true showstopper proved to be Snoop Dogg. Introduced prior to The Chronic on the Deep Cover soundtrack song “One-Eight-Seven”, Snoop’s southern drawl and agile flow worked like a charm. The Snoop-assisted hit song, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”, is still a crowd pleaser.
Albums by the Dogg Pound (featuring Daz and Kurupt), Lady of Rage, and, later, Tupac Shakur were also benchmarks. Snoop’s Doggystyle, as I mentioned, is sometimes considered the best of the Death Row releases. Some even consider it to be one of the greatest hip-hop releases of all time. When you need a Dr. Dre fix, you can’t go wrong with any of these albums, although I admit the references to women in all of the material mentioned thus far is problematic and worthy of discussion. However, I’d like to reserve the right to revisit that issue in the future to give it the attention it deserves.
// Notes from the Road
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