Seven Ways to Detox

N.W.A.
Straight Outta Compton: 20th Anniversary Edition
Priority
2007-12-04

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.

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.

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

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