The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CLASSIC ’90s: Dr. Dre – ‘The Chronic’

Influenced: Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., The Pharcyde, Blackstreet, Jay-Z, OutKast, Eminem, 50 Cent, Xzibit, T.I., YG, Travis Mills, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Khaled

Influenced by: James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, George Clinton, Parliament / Funkadelic, Afrika Bambaataa, Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A.

1992 was a traumatic year for Los Angeles. April 29th had seen the astonishing acquittal of four L.A.P.D. officers for usage of excessive force in the incident of Rodney King, whose savage beating at their hands had been captured on videotape and had been the backdrop of growing anger from black and Hispanic populations throughout the country. The metropolitan area of L.A. erupted in violence for six days as authorities struggled to regain control of the situation, ceding control of vast areas to looting mobs at various points. Over $1 billion in damage was caused to businesses and property, and the aftermath had everybody on edge for months following. Even though the gang peace movements were finally beginning to pay off, police stepped up their largely arbitrary scrutiny and harassment of youths of colour, out of fear and revenge after the rioting.

However, the very end of 1992 brought a healing balm to soothe the wounds of that annus horribilis in the form of Dr. Dre’s debut solo album, The Chronic. Characterised by Dre’s highly detailed and innovative production, his star-studded cast of guest rappers including a then-unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg, and fuelled by its MTV-dominating videos for ‘Let Me Ride’ and ‘Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang’, The Chronic soared past triple platinum status and into America’s popular consciousness.

Afterwards, nothing would be the same. Arguably even more influential in artistic terms and certainly in commercial regards than N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton in 1988, the highly controversial supergroup that had represented the first time that Dre had revolutionised the genre, The Chronic left nobody in doubt that hip-hop was seriously big business. Dre and his supporting cast pushed hardcore rap once and for all into the mainstream; with its concrete-hard beats, spacious, low-slung soundscapes, fat bass and the hazy, stoned keyboards that pierce the tracks’ atmosphere like late afternoon Californian sunshine through clouds, The Chronic’s ‘G-funk’ was aimed straight at the heart of the pop charts.

But more than that, there was a sociological revolution affected as a result of The Chronic’s overwhelming success. Hip-hop became more of a commodity, a lifestyle that anybody could buy into, rather than as some kind of liability or ‘other’ to be feared. Major labels, who had been clearing their rosters of hip-hop artists like N.W.A. or Ice Cube after 1991’s incendiary Death Certificate, now moved back to snapping them up in droves as they realised that critical mass had been reached.

As Jeff Chang’s exceptional book about the hip-hop movement, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, puts it: “Dre and Snoop had become reassuring, as if their presence now signified that the difference between the ghetto and the exurbs needed not to be measured in social indicators but in degrees of cool.”

Some called it ‘rapsploitation’, a new but highly corporatized sense of multiculturalism driven by profit rather than a desire for mutual understanding between communities. But what was definitely true is that hip-hop was not the same again after The Chronic.

BACKGROUND

After a highly eventful, headline-grabbing tour that saw police harassment, cancellations and stage invasions, Ice Cube quit N.W.A. in December 1989 over a royalties dispute and pursued a solo career with a vengeance, hitting out at his former group, particularly Eazy-E and his relationship with manager Jerry Heller, on 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. The band hit back on their 1990 EP 100 Miles And Runnin’, but that release was more significant for the slower, synthesiser-based sound than any rap beef. Differing hugely from Dre’s uptempo productions of the Eighties, this was a slower, more Seventies-influenced sound that signalled the new direction down which West Coast hip-hop would travel in the Nineties.

After much delay, N.W.A.’s second album Efil4zaggin (‘Niggaz4life’ spelled backwards) was released in late May 1991. Despite a handful of great tracks, most significantly the piercing synths in ‘Alwayz Into Somethin’’, it couldn’t hold a candle to Straight Outta Compton in creative terms, and the end appeared to be nigh. Dre departed N.W.A. and their Ruthless Records imprint under highly questionable circumstances, with the menacing figure of Suge Knight at the heart of proceedings, and set up Death Row Records.

SUBSTANCE

Dre didn’t simply loop a beat like many of his competitors. On The Chronic, he cemented his custom ‘G-funk’ sound: fat, blunted beats; samples from his Seventies childhood favourites like George Clinton / Parliament / Funkadelic and Stax soul tracks; live instrumentation blended in with those samples; and synthesisers that either sing the melodic lines in a hazy, slightly wobbly fashion above the mix or blip and bleep incessantly. The Chronic was simpler and smoother than the typical East Coast sound of the time, which could be best summarised by sample- and breakbeat-dense, adrenaline-pumped sensory overloads by groups like Public Enemy, X-Clan and Beastie Boys.

But Dre’s secret weapon on The Chronic was his supporting cast of rappers, most notably Snoop Dogg with his lazy, sing-song drawl that laid down the best tales of gangbanging, street crawling and partying. Dre is competent rapper in his own right but very rarely more than that; his forte and his true calling is behind the production desk and nurturing new talent. Although his face is on the Zig-Zag rolling papers-parodying front cover, Snoop is the public face of the record in many crucial ways. It proved to be a launch-pad for his solo career – Doggystyle became the first ever album to debut at the top of the Billboard Top 200 when released 11 months later – as well as those of many others. The D.O.C., Nate Dogg, Warren G and The Lady of Rage dropped off the end of the Death Row Records conveyor belt over the next couple of years.

The Chronic also popularised a long-since worn-out cliché of rap albums – the ‘skit’. Punctuated by short spoken-word introductions or separate tracks breaking up the tracklisting like ‘The Doctor’s Office’ and ‘The $20 Sack Pyramid’, these interludes became absolute prerequisites for rappers seeking to emulate the sense of cinematic flow found on this album.

After a short intro, The Chronic bursts into life with ‘Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)’, a veritable anthem about not giving a single fuck. Featuring the holy trinity of the sample base that makes up the album (George Clinton, Parliament, Funkadelic) and roundly dissing former N.W.A. member Ice Cube in the lyrics and parodying Eazy-E in its music video, ‘…Dre Day’ was the album’s second single and often dwells in the shadow of ‘Let It Ride’ and ‘Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang’, but it’s a great establishment of The Chronic’s sonic building blocks.

Third single ‘Let Me Ride’ is a party anthem par excellence, and one of the absolute totems of hip-hop music as we collectively remember it from the early Nineties. This was reinforced by its music video, shot as Dre drives from his home to a Parliament concert, featuring cuts of Snoop, Dre picking up girls in his lowrider, and helicopter-shot footage of Compton’s superhighways before it closes at a street party outside the concert venue. Every single little aspect of it so perfectly encapsulated the vibe of its parent album, and has been impersonated, copied or parodied by so many subsequent artists that it’s difficult to watch it while remembering it invented most of those clichés.

Very similar in tone but even more extraordinary is ‘Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang’, The Chronic’s lead single and a no.2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1992, and definitively shifted the focus of rap to the West Coast. Built on an astute interpolation of Leon Haywood’s ‘I Want A Do Something Freaky To You’ over a low-down, strutting funk rhythm accentuated by Dre’s highly detailed production and viciously evocative imagery. It followed April’s non-album single ‘Deep Cover’, which first saw Dre and Snoop working together, and simultaneously came across as more menacing and yet softer and more accessible. Its video, showing a morning-to-evening take on a day in inner-city Los Angeles, is indelibly seared on the collective imagination of an entire generation of hip-hop fans.

Having started so strongly with its opening barrage, The Chronic admittedly does struggle to pick up quite the same momentum by its second half. ‘Lyrical Gangbang’ sees Dre do a simple drum loop to great effect, but it’s nothing that generations of hip-hop producers hadn’t already mastered several years before. ‘Deeez Nuuuts’ begins with a rather lewd phone call from Warren G, and while it features all the brilliant production of what came before, it fails to really fire. Snoop also appears less and less as The Chronic wears on, and his presence is sometimes missed. However, there are more than enough highlights, such as the inspired slow-jam ‘High Powered’ and the thumping closer ‘B****es Ain’t Shit’, to seize the listener’s attention, with underestimated female rapper The Lady Of Rage particularly standing out.

IMPACT

The Chronic was such a watershed moment for the evolution of hip-hop, particularly as a commercial entity, that it often overshadows the sociological impact it had on young black listeners, and this where its legacy becomes controversial.

N.W.A. and the gradual evolution of gangsta-rap had split hip-hop fans along generational lines. The genre’s elder statesmen, and those who looked to it to be a constructive social force in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, disliked this new strain of hip-hop, for seemingly jettisoning black nationalism in the way that the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X preached it, and ignoring the ethics of educating yourself out of the ghetto. To them, Dre and N.W.A. seemed to celebrate or glorify the gangster life instead.

However, the sense of black consciousness is there in The Chronic. It’s not purely a party album as it is sometimes regarded; social commentary is an aspect of its aesthetic. Dre most certainly did not abnegate responsibility for the community in pursuit of the entertainment dollar. However, it is certainly much darker and starker than most previous hip-hop, and focusses much less on moralising, choosing instead to see the world as it is and not how it ought to be.

A sequence of three consecutive tracks in the middle of the album displays this succinctly. The Donny Hathaway-sampling ‘Lil’ Ghetto Boy’ arrives about a third of the way through, and successfully injects a more reflective tone into the record after the knock-out-punch sequence of singles that take up the first five tracks. ‘Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat’ is a creeping, paranoid track, with Dre and Snoop portraying a ‘kill or be killed’ bottom-line reality of youthful life in the inner city with the chorus line “never hesitate to put a n***a on his back”. Sandwiched in between these is ‘A N****a Witta Gun’, one of the few tracks in which Dre has the mic all to himself. Set to splashy beats, it’s an incredibly violent, street-level drama.

On top of this, there’s the L.A.-rioting-inspired ‘The Day The N****z Took Over’ and the bleak ‘Stranded On Death Row’. In particular, the burned-out, Cypress Hill vibes of ‘The Day The N****z Took Over’, explicitly referencing and justifying the Rodney King riots, definitely set out to push the buttons of white middle-class Americans frightened by the event’s significance, even going as far as to sample spoken-word news coverage of the rioting.

LEGACY AND CONTROVERSY

In 2017, the age of Black Lives Matter and the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal, The Chronic’s lyrical content seems occasionally dated and more than a little difficult to listen to in places. The constant references to “bitches” are one of the key origins of misogyny that has dogged the hip-hop genre for most of the subsequent quarter-century; you can make your own mind up about the n-word being dropped on several occasions. 2015’s excellent if slightly biased N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton was selective in the reality it chose to portray.

Then again, it could be argued that the lyrics are simply a reflection of the reality of growing up and struggling to get by in gang-riven Compton – albeit a kind of cartoonish, fun-house-mirror reflection with aspects magnified and others diminished. They committed them to disc in order to give their listeners the low-down on the bleak reality of the streets. Snoop Dogg told the New York Times the following year, when grilled on the substance of his lyrics and those on The Chronic: “My raps are incidents where either I saw it happen to one of my close homies or I know about it from just being in the ghetto. I can’t rap about something I don’t know. You’ll never hear me rapping about no bachelor’s degree. It’s only what I know and that’s that street life. It’s all everyday life, reality.”

These are debates that have raged ever since, and regardless which side you come down on, the best that can be said is that The Chronic is lyrically highly questionable in several circumstances. What cannot be denied, however, is the swingeing, revolutionary musical impact that The Chronic had when it landed, and how many countless dozens of rappers and producers have been influenced by it subsequently. Regardless of its controversy, it is one of the greatest and most impactful hip-hop albums of all time.

Ever since, Dre himself has rarely been active under his own name, releasing just two albums in the subsequent 25 years. 1999’s 2001 (also called 2001: The Chronic) was an enormous success as a thematic sequel, but all fell silent afterwards, with a long-rumoured album titled Detox eventually scrapped after more than a decade in the works. That was until 2015’s Compton, a part-soundtrack to the contemporaneous biopic Straight Outta Compton ­and which featured a guest roll call of practically every artist he had ever mentored, right from Snoop Dogg through Eminem, Xzibit and The Game to modern-day superstars like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak.

Dre has always been much more active as a producer and in moving behind the scenes as a massive figure in the hip-hop industry, now worth in excess of $1 billion as a result of his business ventures with ‘Beats By Dre’ audio technology and his involvement in the launch of Apple Music and Beats 1.

But when you’ve revolutionised hip-hop twice in one lifetime, you have every right to lie back on your laurels. 25 years of hip-hop evolution simply cannot be explained without Dre; The Chronic can still be detected in the DNA of the genre as it stands in 2017. As such, The Chronic is a serious shout for the most influential album of the 1990s, alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind. Nothing else so totally seized and dominated the zeitgeist.

You can listen to The Chronic by Dr. Dre on Apple Music only. Tell us what you think below!

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