Music historians may not go out of their way to be kind to Death Row Records or its founder, Marion “Suge” Knight. Due to the murders of Tupac Shakur (“2pac”) and Christopher Wallace (“the Notorious B.I.G.”), Knight and his company may go down in history as the record label that went ballistic in the infamous East Coast-West Coast beef. But when you listen to Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather, the Murder Was the Case soundtrack, and a compilation of Dr. Dre’s Death Row gems called Chronicles, one thing is clear: Death Row brought us some of the most compelling music of the 1990s.
It all started in 1992 with Dr. Dre’s classic, The Chronic, and continued with Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993), Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food (1995), and 2pac’s double disc collection, All Eyez On Me (1996). Not content to rest on albums from its marquee players, Death Row also released soundtracks for movies such as Above the Rim (1994), Murder Was The Case (1994), Gang Related (1997), and Gridlock’d (1997).
Looking back, it’s easier to identify the ingredients of Death Row’s success than to emulate the results. I leave it to the liner notes of Dr. Dre’s Chronicles to provide the historical details, but Death Row records made a fortune from the hard work of amazingly talented artists. This company’s roster was off the hook: Dr. Dre, Daz, Kurupt, the Lady of Rage, RBX, Snoop Dogg, Sam Sneed, Jewell, Tupac, Warren G., and the perennial crooner Nate Dogg. Two members of the team — Andre Young (we call him “Dr. Dre” and Calvin Broadus (we know him as “Snoop”) — helped to cultivate Death Row’s popularity and, in the process, they influenced hip-hop in its entirety.
Snoop’s Upside Ya Head
While Dre handled the beats, Snoop Doggy Dogg (now shortened to “Snoop Dogg”) dazzled us with his flow and his wordplay. Who would’ve ever guessed that a dude named after a Peanuts character would become a gangsta rap star? These days, that “dude” is an icon, whether he’s making records, doing commercials, or hosting risqué films. Ever since Dre showed up with Snoop on “One Eight Seven”, the track from the Deep Cover soundtrack, Snoop has been well known for his cadence, his wit, and his distinctive southern drawl.
More than that, he’s always been cool. As I’ll discuss more below, Dr. Dre is a complicated artist and producer, at once portraying volatility matched only by the brilliance of his art. Snoop was the Doctor’s best friend, as Dre explained in “Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” when he rhymed, “Try to get close and your ass’ll get smacked / My lil’ homie Snoop Doggy Dogg has got my back”. Snoop personified the cool, easygoing side of Dr. Dre, which is why they worked so well together. Yet, he wasn’t the sidekick. Dr. Dre wasn’t Snoop’s Charlie Brown. Rather, they were equals, complementing each other’s voices, and matching the Dogg’s lyrics with the Doctor’s musical formula.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog — Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang
Given his talent, it wasn’t surprising that Snoop would be successful with a solo album. The bigger question was whether he could sustain the accomplishment, especially when Snoop’s follow-up came after a murder trial, Dr. Dre’s departure from Death Row, and the murder of Tupac Shakur.
The Murder Was The Case soundtrack bridged the gap between Snoop’s debut and his second LP. Opening with a percussion-heavy remix of the title track (the original version of which appeared on Doggystyle), the album features several jams and club favorites: “Natural Born Killaz” (which reunited Dr. Dre and Ice Cube), “What Would U Do?” (Tha Dogg Pound), “Who Got Some Gangsta Sh*t” (Snoop), “U Better Recognize (Sam Sneed), the DJ Quik produced “Woman To Woman” (Jewell), and Quik’s own “Dollars & Sense”. In reissued form, Murder Was The Case contains a Bonus DVD with videos for “Murder Was the Case”, “Natural Born Killaz”, and “What Would U Do?”.
The reissue of Snoop’s Tha Doggfather also includes three videos: “Doggfather”, “Vapors”, and “Snoop’s Upside Ya Head”. Musically, Tha Doggfather cries out for a diagnosis from Dr. Dre, yet the album compensates for the Doctor’s absence with funky 70s-styled tunes. Snoop received vocal and musical aid from Teena Marie, Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, Too Short, and Raphael Saadiq (playing guitar on “Sixx Minutes”), while production work was handled by DJ Pooh, Daz, LT, Soopafly, Sam Sneed, Arkim and Flair. The spirit of Roger Troutman gets a healthy tribute in the feel of this record.
The good news, though, is how good Tha Doggfather still sounds. You can stack it up against any album released in the last 10 years — even Snoop’s own material — and the album shines. Despite Tha Doggfather‘s mimicking of The Godfather movies — by its title as well as through album cover imagery and font — the Dogg was revising his style, retreating (slightly) from his gangsta image to cultivate the Snoop we know and love today — the tall, slim brotha with the perm who continues to drop it like it’s hot. It’s hard to go wrong with great songs like “Doggfather”, “Up Jump Tha Boogie”, “Freestyle Conversation”, “Gold Rush”, “Snoop’s Upside Ya Head”, and Snoop’s remake of Biz Markie’s “Vapors”. It’s a testament to Snoop’s ability that his remakes (“Lodi Dodi”, “Vapors”) are generally taken as tributes rather than parodies or, worse, instances of biting. If you never owned Tha Doggfather (or you’re ready to upgrade your cassettes to CDs or digital downloads), it’s an excellent addition to your Snoop collection.
Stranded on Death Row
It’s impossible to list hip-hop’s greatest producers without putting Dr. Dre near the top, if not at number one. So which treats from the Death Row archives were chosen to represent the good Doctor’s practice?
Well, for starters, you get five tracks from The Chronic, appropriately enough as this compilation’s title mimics Dre’s original opus (get it — “Chronic”, “Chronicles”?). There’s “Dre Day”, “Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”, “Let Me Ride”, “B*tches Ain’t Sh*t”, and the b-side release “Puffin’ on Blunts and Drankin’ Tanqueray”. Then you get four cuts from Snoop’s Doggystyle album (“Gin and Juice”, “Murder Was the Case”, “Doggy Dogg World”, and “Ain’t No Fun”). Finally, there’s the remix of Tupac’s west side anthem “California Love”, along with three songs from soundtracks (“One Eight Seven” from Deep Cover, “Natural Born Killaz” from Murder Was the Case, and “Afro Puffs” from Above the Rim).
Once you see what the album contains, there are two fundamental ways to look at Chronicles: (1) practically and (2) theoretically.
The practical side consists of a single question: should you spend your money on Chronicles? The practical answer is, “Probably not.” It’s got nothing to do with quality; every the song on the album is solid. Rather, if you want to hear Dr. Dre at the height of his powers, go out and buy The Chronic. If you’ve got the money, get his follow-up, 2001. Obviously, you’ll lose out on soundtrack songs, songs from Snoop’s debut, and the b-side cut “Puffin’ On Blunts”, but when it comes to sheer entertainment from start to finish, you can’t go wrong with The Chronic.
There’s a reason why The Chronic is legendary. It’s like a literary classic — you can’t say you’re book savvy unless you’ve experienced the likes of a Fitzgerald, a Hemingway, a Pushkin, a Ralph Ellison, or a James Baldwin. While literature professors everywhere are probably shuddering at the comparison, you can’t be hip-hop savvy without your proper dosage of Dr. Dre. And The Chronic is essential listening, just like Ellison’s The Invisible Man or Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain are essential reading.
More specifically, my gripe is with the song selection. While “One Eight Seven”, “Let Me Ride”, and “Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” are definite keepers, I’m not so sure about some of the others. Songs from Snoop’s Doggystyle make the disc quite Dogg-heavy, with Snoop appearing on nine out of the twelve tracks. Sure, “Gin and Juice” works well, but the same can’t be said for “Murder Was the Case” or “Ain’t No Fun”. Of course, the biggest letdown is the remix version of Tupac’s “California Love”. Death Row made the same error with the original release of All Eyez on Me — the remix made the album, while the radio version (the one everybody liked) was released as a single. I also question the inclusion of The Chronic’s outro, “B*tches Ain’t Sh*t.
Tupac — California Love [remix]
Given the chance, I would have voted for Dre’s “Lyrical Gangbang” and “Stranded On Death Row” along with a few more of his b-sides (like the alternate version of “One Eight Seven” and the remixes for “Let Me Ride” and “Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”). Then I’d throw in “Keep Their Heads Ringin'” and the radio version of “California Love”. If “B*tches Ain’t Sh*t” survived the selection process, it could have been balanced by “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” or “The Day The N*ggaz Took Over”.
On the other hand, if Suge Knight personally approved the track list, then forget everything I just said. If he’s cool with it, then so am I. But actually, the track list fits the theoretical view of Chronicles. Theoretically speaking, the album assesses Dr. Dre’s work in terms of his influence on hip-hop and his position in music as a whole. Indeed, the liner notes elevate Dre’s production efforts to the highest echelon of the hip-hop pantheon.
And rightly so. From his beginnings with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru to his vocal and production wonders with both incarnations of NWA (with Ice Cube and post-Cube), Dr. Dre has given us some seriously entertaining ear candy. Forget awards and album sales, just listen to his peers. Dre’s skill as a beatmaker is so compelling he motivates emcees to mention him in their rhymes.
On NWA’s “Quiet On The Set” (1988), MC Ren said, “Now this concludes our program / of how NWA makes a ruthless jam / Now first, we take an average drum / give it to Dre and the boy gets dumb”. A few years later, on “Alwayz Into Somethin'” (1991), he rhymed, “I heard a dope beat / somebody told me that Buck did it / But if Dre didn’t do it, I can’t f*ck wit’ it”.
On his song “U Can’t C Me”, Tupac said, “You n*ggas made a mistake, you shoulda never put my rhymes wit’ Dre / Them thug n*ggas have arrived / now it’s Judgment Day”.
When Ice Cube crafted his scathing anti-NWA track (“No Vaseline”) during his beef with his former homies, he advised Dre to “stick to producin'” instead of trying to rock the mic. Dre must be quite the producer because, while Cube went for blood on that track, he didn’t aim a single insult at Dre’s instrumentals.
Likewise, as an intro to Snoop Dogg’s “Freestyle Conversation” (from Tha Doggfather), Snoop’s homie tells him the rumor that his (Snoop’s) beats are gonna be “delicate” without Dr. Dre’s input. To this, Snoop responds boldly, “Delicate? Beats? So that’s what makes me now? N*gga, I don’t give a f*ck about no beat”. Sounds tough, I admit, but you’ll notice Snoop didn’t say he didn’t want the beats. I have no doubt Dr. Dre could’ve made Tha Doggfather a beat he couldn’t refuse.
But perhaps the best insight into the Doctor’s work comes from his own mouth. On 2001‘s “Forgot About Dre”, after describing the office in his house with a “wall full of plaques” and his superstar collaborations from NWA to Snoop, he states his case like this:
Gave you a tape full of dope beats
To bump when you stroll through in your hood
And when your album sales weren’t doin’ too good
Who’s the doctor they told you to go see?
Y’all betta listen up closely
All you n*ggas that said that I turned pop, or the Firm flopped
Y’all are the reason that Dre ain’t been getting’ no sleep
As the liner notes point out, “While the importance of Dre’s influence on the hip-hop community is universally acknowledged, the nature of that influence is hotly debated.” It seems Dr. Dre has participated in the debate himself. Although the D.O.C. wrote many of Dre’s verses, Dre has delivered his rhymes with considerable skill and undeniable confidence and authority. I’d even say he’s a bit underrated as an emcee. One of Dre’s standards is to say, “I’m Dre”, in that cocky baritone of his, the ultimate statement of identity. On “Let Me Ride”, he said it this way:
You wanna make noise, make noise
I’ll make a phone call, my homies come in like the Gotti boys
Bodies bein’ found on Green Leaf
With their f*ckin’ heads cut off,
Motherf*cka, I’m Dre
In 1999, amid the criticism that he’d “gone pop” and “fallen off”, Dre dropped a verse on “Hello” from Ice Cube’s War & Peace album:
Did I fall off?
Got you in your room rippin’ every Chronic poster on your wall off
Just because I put away the sawed-off
Now I got you sittin’ back wit’ a smirk, listenin’ with your arm’s crossed
Questionin’ Dre’s credibility
Wonderin’ if it’s still in me to produce hits (y’all be killin’ me)
As if I need to make mo’
I got a mansion and six cars that are paid fo’
Muthaf*cka, I’m Dre
I don’t need your respect
I don’t need to make another album, b*tch, I don’t gotta do sh*t
I do it ’cause I want to, not to stay in the game
F*ck the fame, I’m still stayin’ the same…
Yet, on 2001, Dre presented himself in a more reflective mood, exploring his body of work in life’s rearview mirror. He channeled the psyche of the aging gangsta on “The Watcher”, reaffirmed his relationship with Snoop and his work ethic on “Still D.R.E.” (“Still the beats bang, still doin’ my thang”), and made amends with his other friendships on “What’s The Difference”.
Dre has always embodied these two personas: (1) the hardboiled gangsta who can’t stand the cops and can’t be f*cked with, and (2) the perceptive, hardworking musician whose musical acumen makes him the Quincy Jones of gangsta rap, with The Chronic acting as the hip-hop version of Jones’ Back on the Block (1989). His ability to ping-pong between these poles enables him to strike hard with a track like “Dre Day” (vehemently dissing Tim Dog, Luke, and Eazy-E) or “B*tches Ain’t Sh*t”, leaving us scratching our heads, going, “Damn, he’s got skills. If only he would use his powers for good.” I’ve always wondered how he could get women to sing, “Death Row is in the house” or “I don’t give a f*ck” with as much passion and feeling as a patriot singing the national anthem. And then, at the same time, he presents songs like “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” or “Bang Bang” to discuss the consequences of street life. See? It’s complicated.
It’s this battle of opposites that makes Dre as complex as the record company he helped build. And it’s this same battle that Dre and Eminem portrayed beautifully in Em’s “Guilty Conscience”, in which Dre operates as the angelic voice of reason while Em acts predictably devilish. In one verse, a man named Grady comes home from work to find his wife having sex with another man. Eminem advises the scorned husband to cut the woman’s head off. When Dre warns Grady against this, Em brings up the violence in Dre’s past. Dre gets upset and Em goes on, “Mr. Dre, Mr. NWA, Mr. A.K.-comin’-straight-outta-Compton, y’all betta make way / How in the f*ck you gonna tell this man not to be violent?” Although Dre tries to keep Grady on the positive path (“‘Cause he doesn’t need to go the same route that I went”), Dre can’t keep it up. By the end of the song, even he’s advising Grady to go ahead and pull the trigger.
We’ll have to see how this Dr. Dre and Mr. Andre Young saga plays out in future releases. As for Chronicles, from a theoretical standpoint, listeners have an opportunity to listen to a collection of his productions on a single disc and reach their own conclusions about his legacy, as well as the legacies of Snoop Dogg and Death Row.