Counterbalance No. 115: Dr. Dre’s ‘The Chronic’

Dr. Dre
The Chronic
Death Row

Mendelsohn: Sometimes I find myself wondering what the record industry would look like had certain albums never been recorded. What would music in general be like had the Beach Boys not released Pet Sounds or if Nirvana never released Nevermind? I think Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is one of those albums that fundamentally changed the music industry is such a profound way that we may never fully understand the reach it has had over its now 20-year life span. And that’s why I’m a little surprised to see it sitting on the outside of the Top 100 looking in.

Klinger: That, Mendelsohn is a bold statement. Bordering on provocative. You realize you’ve just made a lot of rock fans shift uncomfortably in their seats—you know, the ones who start grumbling every time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducts a hip hop artist. (“Grr,” they say. “It’s the Rock Hall. They should call themselves the Hall of Shame! Also, I am the first person to ever think of that insult.”) Frankly, I had no idea you were such a fan of The Chronic. I guess that explains why your ringtone is “The Roach”.

Mendelsohn: Now don’t get me wrong, The Chronic is far from being the perfect record and I’m not looking to debate the placement of the hip-hop albums that have already made the list—even if they lean a bit rockist—but the sheer transformative nature of this record towers over the entries that have come before it. Without The Chronic, I think modern hip-hop—the market-dominating, genre-straddling behemoth it has become—would be a mere shadow of itself. The Chronic pushed the envelope of production, kicked down the door to the charts, and laid bare the path to near universal acceptance of hip-hop, so much so that before the decade was out, hip-hop was well on its way to being the dominant force in the music industry.

I challenge you, Klinger, to point to another hip hop record that was able to so shift yet stabilize the burgeoning rap genre. I don’t think it can be done.

Klinger: I am hard pressed to counter your case here, mainly because I rely on you for guidance in all musics that end in hop (hip, trip, and Lindy). But yes, The Chronic did seem to come along at just the right time. Not only was it a time when hip-hop was ready to become full-on mainstream after years of being treated like it wasn’t “real” music (“It’s just drum machines and talking”, say those aforementioned grumblers), but it also appeared at a pivotal time in history. The Los Angeles riots of the previous spring were still fresh in people’s minds when The Chronic appeared, and this gangsta rap served as a real line in the sand. For a lot of people (on the left and the right), Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg seemed like, at best, a symptom of our social problems and worst a driving force behind those problems. Others heard it as a documentation and analysis of L.A. circa 1992. Where you stood seemed to say a lot about you, as I recall. So yeah, you’re probably right.

Mendelsohn: I wasn’t exactly going for the deep, socioeconomic impact of the album, but you make a valid point. I’m more concerned with the way The Chronic provided the template that the A&R types used when searching out new acts for the next two decades. Dr. Dre’s signature West Coast sound, one that had only been hinted at on N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, finally comes into its own, combining ’70s soul and funk samples, with low rolling bass lines and some fairly avant-garde synth lines at the top end. Those ingredients are brought together over a loose framework that results in sparse, deep beats where each element is given its own space to breath. Add to that Dr. Dre’s increased use of live musicians for original instrumentation and you begin to see the sound evolve into the one gave us Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and 50 Cent, along with countless other artists on the West Coast and across the country who sought to emulate the smooth G-funk sounds being proffered by the good doctor.

We also get to see the “progression” of gangsta rap lyricism from the strictly street-based realities to a rather esoteric take on the same subject matter, as more “talent” starts to enter the pool. That being said, the lyricism on this album has always taken a back seat to the production for me, but as popular culture will attest, it did have a lasting, if not dubious, effect on the genre.

Klinger: Er, yeah. For me, it’s all about the production too. Look, I was 24 when this album came out, more or less an adult, and the time I’d spent with my fellow humanities majors (especially those of the female persuasion) had sort of prevented me from hearing “Bitches Ain’t Shit” as anything other than cringe-worthy. But the production is really more to the point, and it’s another example of The Chronic coming along at just the right time. It seems hard to believe now, in this era of perpetual nostalgia, but it was right around this time that the trappings of the ’70s stopped being funny and began to be appreciated in earnest. At least the parts worth appreciating: Parliament, cinema in general and blaxploitation in particular, general laid-backery. Snoop Doggy Dogg (and yeah, I still call him that) alone seemed to distill all that into one lanky spliff-scented waft of 1970s. It’s no surprise that he became the breakout star here, either, as his voice brings a new excitement everywhere it appears here.

Mendelsohn: You are right, there is very little redeeming lyrical content on this record. It’s kind of hard to remain offensive over 20 years. Normally, material considered shocking at its release sees its edge blunted with the passage of time as offense slowly turns to bygone hokeyness. No so with The Chronic—even if you play them off in jest, the overt misogyny is hard to ignore.

I’d also like to point out that Dr. Dre is regarded by some—not just those who are beefing with him—to be a mediocre rapper at best. Compound that with the fact that Dr. Dre is widely known to employ ghost writers and the album’s mystique gets taken down another notch or two. But damn, if he couldn’t create some of the best beats around. You touched on the use of ’70s funk samples but I don’t know if that was really Dr. Dre being ahead of the coolness curve or just reappropriating the music of his youth.

Klinger: Well, in a lot of ways it’s the difference between being vaguely embarrassed by one’s youth and fully embracing it. This was the era in which Generation Xers began bringing the elements that enchanted them as kids into the mainstream, whether it was earnestly, ironically, or in that weird post-ironic sense where they forget that they were kidding about liking something. We’ll probably go further in depth on this when we get to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in a few weeks.

Mendelsohn: As far as sampling goes, Dr. Dre took The Chronic in a new direction, employing only one or two samples per song to set the tone but using musicians to flesh out the piece and finish out the low-end that makes the sounds of G-Funk so distinctive and irresistible. There is a distinctive difference between The Chronic and Straight Outta Compton in not only the amount of samples but the way in which they were used. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out my love for the high-end repetitive synth lines that are used to offset the low-end bass. Go through the album and just listen to what Dre is doing in the upper register. It’s just weird, man.

Klinger: Funny you should mention that, Mendelsohn, because I’ve long considered George Clinton to be the Duke Ellington of funk, mainly due to the notion that as much as he puts into the bottom end, his songs stand apart because of what he brings to the top. (Prince is the Miles Davis of funk, but I can only keep doing this for a while before my half-baked analogy starts to fall apart.) Dr. Dre clearly patterned his work on Clinton’s, and that comes through in the squiggly synths and singalong hooks. It’s a big part of what kept me listening to The Chronic even though I don’t think I feel an especially visceral connection to it. But my opinion’s not terribly important here. As The Chronic celebrates its 20th anniversary we’re seeing a raft of tributes in print, which seems to ensure its place in the canon. And once our man in Sweden updates the Great List (hopefully soon?), I’d fully expect to see this album rise even higher. Concur?

Mendelsohn: I was surprised it wasn’t higher on the Great List to begin with, but as I mentioned before, The Chronic has some serious flaws that will keep this record from being the be-all and end-all of hip-hop—most of those issues crop up on the lyrical side. If this album was judged on production alone, we would have had this conversation a couple of years ago.