4. Listen to Aftermath releases.
Who could blame Dr. Dre for parting company with Death Row records and setting up his own enterprise? Suge Knight was already a controversial figure in rap, Tupac Shakur was murdered, and Eazy-E had died of complications from HIV. It made sense that Dr. Dre would want a fresh start. He acted on that desire by forming a new label, appropriately called Aftermath.
The Dr. Dre of the Aftermath Era, which I believe extends to the current Dr. Dre artistic period, is still one tough S.O.B. The difference is that he’s a little older and lot more experienced. With age and experience, Dre seems to be less focused on tough talk and gun toting (The Chronic‘s “N*gga With a Gun”) and more focused on his career, making money, and networking (“Been There, Done That”). The Chronic wasn’t entirely devoted to hittin’ switches, slappin’ females, smokin’ pot, and bustin’ caps. Songs like “The Day the N*ggaz Took Over” and “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” were altogether different, with the former capturing the attitude of the Los Angeles riots and the latter lamenting the consequences of violence. I’d like to think that the Dr. Dre of the Aftermath Era tapped into the sentiment of those songs a bit more, and added in a few of his own observations about his legacy. “Things just ain’t the same for gangstas,” Dre said in the 2001 album opener “The Watcher”. “Who started this gangsta shit? And this [is] the muthafuckin’ thanks I get?”
Interestingly, Dre tends to stop short of being apologetic for his role in the development and popularity of “gangsta rap”. Compare that to Ice Cube, who has referred to himself as a musical Dr. Frankenstein and rhymed about being a type of deadbeat dad who needs to pay child support to hip-hop. I’m not suggesting that Dr. Dre necessarily needs to be apologetic about his career. I am, however, suggesting that in the reformation of his musical persona, from the Dr. Dre of the N.W.A. era to Dr. Dre the Businessman, there hasn’t been much room reserved for expressing remorse.
Here’s a theory. Maybe, from listening to Dr. Dre Presents…The Aftermath (1996) and 2001 (1999), it’s possible to see Dr. Dre as shifting from perpetrator to enabler. Where you could hear him place a gun in some dude’s mouth on The Chronic, you can hear him in more reflective mode on his Aftermath releases while his guests basically continue with business as usual. Dr. Dre might not be espousing a gun-toting, shit-talking persona, but that doesn’t stop his guest stars from saying anything they need to say if they think it sounds dope. I’m particularly interested in this theory in connection with Dr. Dre’s work with Eminem. In “Guilty Conscience”, from Eminem’s debut The Slim Shady LP, Dr. Dre played the voice of reason to Eminem’s devilment. The song presented a series of scenarios in which people had important choices to make. Catch your wife cheating on you? Eminem suggests you “cut this bItch’s head off!” All the while, Dr. Dre is telling you to “think of the consequences”. That is, until Emimen brings up Dre’s past actions, and reminds him of his own personal demons. There’s a similar interaction between the two in 2001‘s “Forgot About Dre”, wherein Emimen is clearly the more animated and outlandish of the two.
It’s been a successful compromise—Dr. Dre basically sticking to his new script while the other rappers do whatever they do—which might be a good sign for Detox. It could mean that, no matter what standard Dr. Dre holds out for himself, his collaborators are not handcuffed to any particular ideology or code. No doubt, he has that luxury since he’s mainly known as a producer, not an emcee. And, no doubt, this probably bodes well for us being able to maintain the continuity between a new release and his older ones, but probably not so well in terms of cleaning up that whole misogyny thing. The more I think about it, the more I’m thinking the release of Detox might be the right time to launch that discussion.
By the way, if you can’t wait for Detox, 2001 is dope as a whole. In fact, it would be my first stop in nursing my way through Dr. Dre withdrawal.
5. Listen to singles and albums produced by Dr. Dre.
There are many albums and songs produced by Dr. Dre, so finding one isn’t the problem—it’s figuring out where to start. He has produced songs for and with Eve, Gwen Stefani, Blackstreet, Above the Law, and Mary J. Blige. And that’s not even scratching the surface.
But I’d like to suggest two albums that I don’t hear people talking about much anymore. One is the 1997 album by the Firm. What was supposed to happen was that Nas, AZ, Cormega, and Foxy Brown were going to form a super-group called the Firm, and they were going to take over the industry with the phattest group-created album known to humankind.
All right, well, that didn’t happen.
Instead, Cormega left the group, Cormega’s spot got filled by Nature, and Track Masters (Samuel “Tone” Barnes and Jean Claude “Poke” Olivier) split production duties on the Firm’s debut with Dr. Dre. When the album came out, you could tell there was a problem. The finished product sounded like two albums, one with production by Dr. Dre and the other with production by Track Masters.
I can’t lie. I originally hated the album. I thought the Dr. Dre-produced “Firm Family” was in the wrong key and sounded out of tune. I thought the Mafia and movie motif seemed slapped together because it wasn’t fully carried throughout the album. I thought Track Masters took records that were too recognizable to even casual R&B listeners—notably, Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” (The Firm’s “Firm Biz”) and Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore” (“Hardcore”)—and did little, other than loop them, to distinguish them from the originals. I thought Foxy Brown’s “Fuck Somebody Else”, a song about finding a better lover when your current one is terrible in the sack, was far from compelling. There was even an introductory skit demonstrating the incompetence of Foxy’s supposed lover, so much so that she has to resort to a battery-operated device for pleasure. It’s something like that scene in the film Waiting to Exhale when that one dude bumbles his way through a sexual encounter because he doesn’t know how to put on his condom. It’s not fun to listen to.
I still think a lot of this album is wack. I still think “Firm Family” is in the wrong key and out of tune. However, I’ve given this album about 15 chances since its release, and in that time I’ve realized it contains some solid moments. The album opener, “Firm Fiasco”, finds Dr. Dre producing in Mafioso mode with Nas, AZ, and Foxy Brown doing their best impressions of the cast of Goodfellas and Casino. Nas would be DeNiro (since he has sometimes referred to himself as “Black DeNiro”), AZ would be either Joe Pesci or Ray Liotta (actually, I’m going with Liotta), and Foxy Brown would be Sharon Stone. The second track, “Phone Tap”, has Dr. Dre doing the hook while Nas, AZ, and Nature communicate their verses over their cell phones, which actually sounds a lot cooler on record than it probably sounds in print. “Five Minutes to Flush” details Nature’s reaction to a drug raid over Dr. Dre’s reworking of Whodini’s “Five Minutes of Funk”, while Canibus drops one of the best verses on the album in “Desperados” (“Fuck my record label, I appear courtesy of myself”). You might notice that the majority of stuff I like on the Firm’s album is produced by Dr. Dre. No disrespect to Track Masters.
The other Dre-produced album you should revisit is the D.O.C.‘s No One Can Do It Better (1989). For my money, I think (a) the D.O.C. was one of the most skilled lyricists in hip-hop, (b) No One Can Do It Better is one of hip-hop’s best albums, and (c) hip-hop would be completely different in 2009 if the D.O.C.‘s career had not been altered by his car accident.
About the first two points, the D.O.C.‘s skill is evident on No One Can Do It Better, as he shuffles through a variety of lyrical styles. He opens in faux reggae mode (“It’s Funky Enough”), launches into a tongue-twisting style that’s ahead of its time (“Mind Blowin’”), does a commendable job with rock-inflected rap (“Beautiful But Deadly”), goes mellow over a Marvin Gaye sample (“The Formula”), and manages a rapid-fire delivery that actually makes him stop the rhyme to tell Dre he needs to catch his breath (“Portrait of a Masterpiece”). Dr. Dre is also exceptional, accommodating every twist and turn in the D.O.C.‘s verses, and fastening all the right instrumentals together into a cohesive whole. Impressive stuff, that album.
About the last point: the D.O.C. survived a car accident that permanently damaged his vocal chords. Without his commanding voice, he concentrated on writing and producing songs instead of performing them, although he did manage to release Helter Skelter in 1996 and Deuce in 2003. I’ve always thought that if the D.O.C.‘s voice had remained intact, he would have released more material and expanded the foundation he laid with No One Can Do It Better. As a producer-emcee combo, the D.O.C. and the Doctor (Dre) might have been ranked right up there with EPMD, Gang Starr, and Eric B. & Rakim. I also think that, although the D.O.C. was from Texas, his presence on the West Coast might have added a different flavor that would have influenced, if not altered, the path of that infamous East Coast-West Coast beef. I say that, however, with full awareness that the D.O.C. was present and accounted for throughout the ‘90s. I just think that his presence as a performer would have impacted the course of the genre, as certainly as things would have been different if Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. were still living.
6. Listen to releases by former Dr. Dre mates.
If you run out of Dr. Dre material to listen to, you can get your “Dr. Dre” on by listening to solo albums from MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E. Not all of their albums will do the trick, though. Luckily, there’s a discernible point of reference for each of their discographies.
MC Ren’s most Dre-like solo offering is his first one, an EP called Kizz My Black Azz (1992). MC Ren goes after his material with the same energy as in his N.W.A. days, largely focusing on dismissing wack emcees and pointing out the aspects of the game he despises. Funny that the stuff he hates, like R&B singers doings hooks for rap songs and the incorporation of live instruments, turned out to be the stuff that didn’t go away and often gets critical and commercial praise. After Kizz My Black Azz, MC Ren’s lyrics shifted toward the Nation of Islam’s ideology, best exemplified by Shock of the Hour (1993). Dr. Dre’s subject matter isn’t as limited as his detractors might make it out to be, but I don’t associate him with the Nation of Islam either. I’ve also tried picturing Dr. Dre wearing a suit with a bow tie and eating bean pies. It doesn’t look right, does it? Yeah, I actually wish I hadn’t done that.
Ice Cube’s work is far more extensive and has gone through a variety of experiments and permutations. He’s gone from Dr. Dre’s production, to the Bomb Squad’s wall of sound effect for his debut album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990), to a reliance on Parliament and other essential funk samples. Opinions vary as to which album is Ice Cube’s best, with Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate (1991), and The Predator (1992) being the ones I hear getting the most shine. Personally, I’m partial to Death Certificate, but since that’s also the one where he disses Dr. Dre and N.W.A., I’m thinking that might be the wrong album for filling a Dr. Dre-related void. For that, I like the “Peace” disc (2000) of Ice Cube’s separately released War & Peace set, though it should be noted that his reminiscing about his friends and career on “Growin’ Up” makes 2006’s Laugh Now, Cry Later a close second. I know a lot of people think Ice Cube fell off with War & Peace, but the two discs are actually pretty good. Opening with a reunion track with MC Ren and Dr. Dre (“Hello”), Ice Cube probably came closest on the “Peace” disc to matching the sound he would’ve had if Dr. Dre had produced an entire album for him.
For Eazy-E, look no further than 1988’s Eazy-Duz-It. It’s been said a number of times, and from numerous sources, that Eazy-E’s rapping ability left much to be desired. Some recent assessments of his work depict him as the weak link in the N.W.A. chain, as if the group prospered in spite of his appearances. That’s not the way I remember it, though. In fact, Eazy-E was the reason why some listeners bothered with Straight Outta Compton in the first place. Eazy-E was the attraction, often because he’d say something comical but also because his voice sounded so strangely funny too. On Eazy-Duz-It, Dre gave Eazy-E all the music he needed to rob banks (“Nobody Move”), hang out with his buddies (“Boyz-N-the-Hood”), win dice games (“Eazy-Duz-It”), jam on the radio (“Radio”), and deliver sermons (“Eazy Chapter 8 Verse 10”).
7. Listen to hardcore music from 2008.
If all else fails, you can go for something from the current market. In 2008, we might not have had Dr. Dre to drop a hard beat on us, but other rappers and producers stepped up to the plate. As far as producers go, I’ve made no secret about liking Black Milk and the direction he’s going with the Detroit, Michigan sound. Black Milk could probably be compared more appropriately to Kanye West or Detroit’s own J. Dilla, but the evolution of Black Milk’s sound, from soul samples to a multi-layered approach, reminds me a little of Dr. Dre.
As for albums, check out Guilty Simpson’s Ode to the Ghetto, Killer Mike’s I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, Bun B.‘s II Trill, and Scarface’s Emeritus for true hardcore grit. They’re not all crafted in the tradition of Dr. Dre’s style, but sometimes you have to take what you can get and be thankful. Plus, Snoop’s playful Ego Trippin’ and Ice Cube’s Raw Footage will help soothe the craving for Dr. Dre-related artists. All of this should keep us occupied until fresh Dr. Dre material becomes available. Who knows? You might even get a little satisfaction from The Game’s namedropping on 2006’s Doctor’s Advocate and 2008’s LAX.
Dr. Dre - Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang
// Notes from the Road
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