I spent the first seven months of 2015 working on a book proposal about Dr. Dre and his place within the larger context of Los Angeles hip hop. It was the biggest project I had worked on to date, so it naturally came as a shock when I received news last week that it had been rejected. But I cannot say that the experience wasn’t a success, since I had already learned so much, even prior to learning of the proposal’s rejection. Not only did I learn how to put together a book proposal, but I got a clearer glimpse of what a career in writing felt like. Furthermore, I am proud of the work I did over those seven months. I have not lost my passion for the subject matter, and now this new perspective of having to view this project in a new light makes me realise that maybe there’s more to this story than I had originally thought. Maybe this project requires more time. Maybe it is meant to be bigger than the proposal that tried to encase it.
Whatever does come of it, time will tell. What I do know is that, even though it won’t be seen inside a book just this yet, this thing I worked so much on deserves to be read in some capacity, so I am proudly sharing some of it with you now. (Note: Sections of the following have appeared in my article on Kendrick Lamar.)
(What Would Have Been) An Introduction
Dr. Dre’s 2001 opens with James A. Moorer’s Deep Note, a distinctive synthesized crescendo sound that many people would recognize if they’ve ever seen a blockbuster film in a movie theater. Moorer worked for Lucasfilm’s Computer Division; his Deep Note was featured on trailers at THX Certified theaters that screened some of the most popular movies of the last 30 years with the highest-caliber audio quality. As a child, whenever I heard the Deep Note before the beginning of a movie, that deafening sonic onslaught strapped me in, the equivalent of buckling a seat belt. It signified that the ride was about to start, and to, in a sense, suspend my disbelief, surrender to worlds where dinosaurs were de-extinct, aliens and humans fought space wars, and archeologists happened to be strikingly handsome action heroes.
Dr. Dre wanted the same effect, aiming to set up 2001 like a film. The decision is more than ironic, considering gangsta rap’s utilization of image, especially in blurring the line between show business and reality. As one of gangsta rap’s pioneers, Dre made a career out of blurring that line. In fact, during a low point in Dre’s career, the gangsta trope transformed 2001 into a formidable comeback album.
Any discussion of gangsta rap couldn’t exist without discussing Dr. Dre, one of the subgenre’s main characters. He was a founding member of N.W.A, the group that elevated gangsta rap from the underground to the mainstream with 1988’s Straight Outta Compton. His trailblazing continued after he went solo as the co-owner and producer eminence of Death Row Records. The independent label’s first two LPs, Dre’s 1992 The Chronic and his charismatic protege Snoop Doggy Dogg’s 1993 Doggystyle, established the G-funk sound, Dre’s signature brand of explicit lyrics over seductive, funk grooves that many listeners found irresistible. If you continue through gangsta rap’s timeline, the man once dubbed “the Phil Spector of rap” has been involved in nearly every facet of gangsta rap’s headlining, controversial history, from Death Row to his own label, Aftermath, and the signing of some of rap’s top names during the 2000s.
While gangsta rap didn’t result from any singular event, the 1992 South Central riots following the Rodney King incident – in which four white police officers beating up a black motorist were captured on camera – proved to be a watershed moment, framing Los Angeles rap in a specific kind of reality. Eithne Quinn, author of Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap, wrote that “for some, the televised King incident (followed by the astonishing acquittal) and the urban rioting led to a concentrating of political minds and a radicalization of message.” N.W.A’s track “Fuck Tha Police,” whose debut predated the King beating by roughly three years, depicted a struggle that happened more often than anyone who wasn’t black or brown knew. The King incident proved to be a horrific example of that struggle; the fact that it was captured on camera, and that the trial gained national attention, highlighted just one particular struggle that gangsta rap documented.
Dre’s N.W.A cohort Ice Cube told MTV in 1992, “[Police brutality has] been happening to us for years. It’s just we didn’t have a camcorder every time it happened.” In the aftermath of the trial, when all four police officers involved in the beating were acquitted of charges, America and the rest of the world laid witness to another horrific scene, one of the worst city-wide riots in American history. Somewhere between King getting attacked and a white truck driver being dragged out of his vehicle and beaten, the hood suddenly had a strong visual element. Gangsta rap held the camera steady and kept rolling.
Dr. Dre’s role in re-centering hip hop from its east coast stomping grounds to Los Angeles coincided with the increasing importance of the image in gangsta rap. After N.W.A’s breakup in 1991, Ice Cube kept recording (both in the audio booth and on gangsta rap’s proverbial camcorder) the social ills affecting black people in America; Dre for his part went in the other direction and turned the camera on himself. The riots had given racism a spot on the national news. It just so happened that Dr. Dre’s music videos for “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and “Let Me Ride” completed the other half of the picture, a Los Angeles that black people loved.
Nelson George, author of Hip Hop America, said that the hip hop generation “[came] of age at a moment of extreme racial confusion, […] a product of schizophrenic, post-civil rights movement America.” When political rappers like Chuck D, KRS-One, and later, Ice Cube, realized that people were paying attention to their lyrics, their mics suddenly wielded power. By the early nineties, if the mic wielded power, then the combination of a mic and a camera got you control. Dr. Dre once said, “Everybody trying to do this black power and shit, so I was like, let’s give ‘em an alternative.”
Dre’s alternative, while seemingly anti-political, still embodied Quinn’s “radicalization of message.” In fact, without the politically-charged rhetoric of his brethren in the “message rap” camp, and by opting instead to let Death Row’s actions speak louder than its words, Dre’s alternative could arguably be considered more political. If message rappers, academics, and bourgeois talking heads combated against the exploitation of black representation, Death Row gained control of the airwaves, and made millions, by exploiting that exploitation.
By the mid-nineties, Death Row’s rising popularity was in large part built upon what Eithne Quinn calls “self-demonologizing.” Quinn wrote, “The motivations for adopting this performative posture were numerous: to induce black masculinist resistance, pride and pleasure; to goad and provoke black and white bourgeois society with its bad-n**** performance; to adopt a mask of defiance in the face of intractable mainstream demonization; and, to be sure, to sell racially encoded rebellion to an eager youth market.”
While opinions from the black populace regarding the gangsta rap image during the nineties remained multifaceted, much of Death Row’s success was, as Quinn put it, “partly fueled by the stereotype-informed appetites of white record buyers.” In a critical essay on gangsta rap, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “White America has always had a perverse fascination with the idea of black males as violent and sexually insatiable animals. […] Less appreciated is the extent to which African-Americans have bought into this idea. At least since the era of blaxploitation, the African-American male has taken pride in his depiction as the quintessential man in the black hat. It is a desperate gambit by a group deprived of real power – even on our worst days, we can still scare the shit out of white suburbanites.”
Historian Robin Kelly also linked gangsta rap to “the blaxploitation films of the 1970s or, for that matter, the gangster films of any generation. It attract[ed] listeners for whom the ghetto is a place of adventure, unbridled violence, and erotic fantasy, or an imaginary alternative to suburban boredom.”
But the biggest difference between blaxploitation films, or any film, and gangsta rap is that no one ever sat through a movie that long trying to figure out whether it was real or not. Even the Deep Note wasn’t enough of an indicator that what you were about to experience was foremost meant to entertain. Suburban male teenagers, overwhelmingly not black, made up a large portion of gangsta rap’s listeners. I happened to be one of them. My suburban Los Angeles upbringing differed greatly from Dre’s Los Angeles, but thanks to music television channels like MTV and BET, as well as rap stations Power 106 and 92.3 the Beat, I repeatedly saw and heard what gangsta rap described. With very little “real” exposure to inner-city Los Angeles, how were suburban listeners to tell the difference between an active Piru Blood and a tough-looking Dre rapping violence to the camera?
During Death Row’s reign as the face of gangsta rap, co-running the label alongside Suge Knight may have made the gangsta life a little too real, even for Dr. Dre. After a public fallout with Knight and Death Row in 1996, Dre left the label to start his own, Aftermath. Dre’s first post-Death Row release was the single “Been There, Done That,” whose lyrics, instrumentation, and music video proved to be ammunition for Death Row supporters and Dre critics alike.
“Been There, Done That,” released in 1997, was Dre’s personal testimony to moving on, leaving Death Row and the gangsta scene behind. During that time, Dre himself said, “[Gangsta rap has] run its course. You’re not going to get the sales talking the same old shit.” In the music video, Dre upgrades from black cap and khakis to a designer suit, casting himself a “black Rockerfeller,” complete with a mansion, butler, and multiple vehicles at his disposal. If N.W.A Dre was surviving the ghetto, and Death Row Dre ruled it, then this Dre had made it out with no intention of looking back. Instead, the video shows Dre looking at the streets he once repped through the backseat window as his butler drives him through the hood en route to a helipad.
And then there was the tango. Allison Samuels of Newsweek wrote, “It must’ve surprised some of Dre’s old homies to learn that last August he spent three days in a dance studio in the San Fernando Valley taking tango lessons.” Dre really had moved on: where was the black White Sox cap? Where was Snoop? You can’t bump strings in a lowrider.
The end of the video shows Dre waking up from what turns out to have been a dream, finding himself on the couch and back in the hood, which many interpreted as disrespectful, the final punch that Dre packed for his old life. The single’s backlash occurred in conjunction with a lackluster reception of Dre’s post-Death Row debut, 1996’s Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath, a compilation of tracks he produced with artists on his new label. Dre may have left gangsta rap behind, but it was now starting to look like gangsta rap had instead left him behind, and the scene’s pioneering figure was the one down for the count.
1999 capped three years of silence before people first heard the Deep Note that opens 2001. The Deep Note fades; next, you hear the mechanized movements of a large machine, and then you realize that the seat belt you strapped on a second ago fastens you securely inside a lowrider. Rapper Xzibit, no stranger to pimped out rides, shouts in excited disbelief that Dre is back behind the wheel. The title of 2001’s intro track, “Lolo,” provides the context for the sounds you hear, but these could also be the sounds of Dr. Dre being rebuilt, like the six-million dollar man (though Dre would be the first to tell you that he is worth much more than six million dollars).
2001 hit shelves at a time when gangsta rap was losing grip of its nineties power hold. The unfortunate coastal feud played significant part in claiming the lives of gangsta rap’s two biggest stars, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Those deaths, the departure (and slight name modification) of Snoop Dogg, and a continuation of illegal business practices, saw the Death Row empire crumble by the end of the nineties. As Dre predicted, fans did seem to grow tired of “the same old shit.” New and hungry talent emerged from every underground niche to stake a claim in rap’s new millennial transition. (In an attempt to push rap past its bicoastal reputation, many of these new faces repped “the Dirty South”; one rapper, with considerable help from Dr. Dre himself, was a white rapper from Detroit.)
In the midst of rap’s changing trends, 2001 proved to be an album chock full of contradictions. It attempts to do three seemingly incongruous things at once: hearken back to Chronic-era nostalgia, compete with current rap music trends, and innovate through sonic experimentation. Dre, who struck gold by signing Eminem in 1997, aimed to capitalize on the success (and controversy) of the newcomer’s Aftermath debut The Slim Shady LP, which Dre produced and released roughly nine months before 2001’s release. By proving once again that he always kept his “ear to the streets,” Dre creates in 2001 an atmosphere that celebrates his return, all while never admitting that he ever really left, or that “Been There, Done That” and its tango might have been a misstep. 2001 is an album-length answer rap, an update on The Chronic’s legendary diss rap “Fuck Wit Dre Day,” except this time the message, once reserved specifically for rappers who had beefs with Dre, was slyly directed toward everyone listening.
As long as he kept his image on point, 2001 had enough punch to facilitate Dre’s comeback. The first visual in conjunction with the album, his music video for its first single “Still D.R.E.,” almost serves as a reboot of the video for 1992’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” In fact, it’s like watching a time capsule from 1992. Like its Chronic predecessor, “Still D.R.E” opens with Snoop’s voice. Dre says his first words, “Guess who’s back?” to the camera before he and Snoop zip down a Los Angeles street in a lowrider. After the fever dream that was “Been There, Done That,” Dre finally woke up and was brought back to reality, or at least, the reality of gangsta rap, the undeniable subgenre that Dre ushered into pop music prominence. 2001 may not be the Chronic sequel everyone wanted, but it was definitely the next episode, and listeners from the cities to the suburbs tuned in.