The Chronic changed hip-hop music. When Andre “Dr. Dre” Young released his debut album a quarter of century ago, he changed the sound of hip-hop music going forward and defined the sound for an entire geographic region. The album is certified triple platinum and its biggest single, “Nuthin' But a ‘G’ Thang,” is one of the most beloved singles of the ’90s. It turned Dre into the hottest producer on the planet, and made the label that released the album, Death Row Records, into a monstrous force.
If you had told me in the beginning of 1992 that Dr. Dre would be hip-hop’s biggest superstar by the end of the year, I’d have thought you’d been smoking some really powerful shit. While he was a genius of a beatmaker for N.W.A, he was the least gifted rapper in the group (Yes, he was worse than Eazy-E; Eazy had a better voice and more charisma than Dre could ever manage). Dre spent a lot of time rhyming on N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin (1991), but it was mostly out of necessity, as Ice Cube had left the group due to contractual issues with Eazy-E and the group’s manager Jerry Heller.
As 1991 drew to a close, Dre left the definitive gangsta rap group for ostensibly the same reasons that compelled Cube to flee. He linked up with the Marion “Suge” Knight and started laying the foundation for the Death Row enterprise. For his first post-N.W.A cut, Dre linked up with a young Calvin “Snoop Doggy Dogg” Broadus, then a lanky youngster with a smooth, conversational flow. The pair recorded the title track for the Deep Cover soundtrack released in April 1992, and then began setting to work recorded The Chronic.
I went to buy The Chronic on a late Tuesday morning after a pair of midterm exams in the first semester of my senior year in high school. Maybe it was because I was closer to graduating, but unlike the previous spring, I didn’t wait until all of my exams were over to head down to Leopold’s in Berkeley to make my purchase. As I walked back to my car, cassette in hand, it seemed like Snoop’s voice talking over the “Funky Worm” keyboards was blasting out of every car. Once I headed back towards school for basketball practice, I knew that everyone was listening to the album’s intro, featuring Snoop Dogg talking exquisite trash for a couple of minutes. By the time I made it to practice, I’d only made it through to “’G’ Thang,” but even though I hadn’t finished side 1, I was aware that I was listening to something special.
Many of the beats on The Chronic are built around samples of funk songs, often from artists from the Parliament-Funkadelic camp or other popular Funk/R&B artists from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Sampling funk records wasn’t new to hip-hop or even to gangsta rap, but Dre found a way to fuse it with his own live instrumentation to make it sound fresh and unique. The music on The Chronic still maintained its overall “gangsta” sensibilities, but it was often more mellow than the hyper-aggressive music he put together for N.W.A. It was great music to play in a park, at a barbecue, or in the car.
No song better typified this new approach than “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” which dropped in November 1992 with the impact of a calm bomb. It prominently featured Dre and Snoop trading lines and verses over a sample of Leon Haywood’s “I Want'a Do Something Freaky To You,” along with extra keyboards and synths played by Dre himself. The accompanying video added to its popularity, as it depicted Dre and Snoop weaving their way through a Saturday in South Central Los Angeles. It’s filled with striking images: the guy working the grill with a 9MM tucked in his waistband, Dre’s step-brother Warren G brazenly rolling a blunt on camera, the fridge full of 40 ounces, etc. It was the ideal entrée into the album.
It’s also worth noting that there was great diversity in the talent showcased on this album. Snoop Dogg and Daz excelled at the “traditional” smooth gangsta-isms, while Philly-native Kurupt was a true-born Rakimdisciple. RBX, a cousin of Snoop and Daz, was a product of the Good Life Café freestyle scene and rhymed with a ferocious snarl, while Rage was a Virginia-born lyrical head-banger with a rugged flow. And Nate Dogg is perhaps the best gangsta-influenced rapper/singer hybrid to ever come along. Each of these artists received multiple moments to shine on The Chronic and each delivered.
Part of what makes The Chronic such a great album is that it sounds like it was made without conceit. It doesn’t sound like Dre was trying to revolutionize the direction of hip-hop music with The Chronic. Instead, it sounds like it was just him and his homies hanging out in Death Row Studios, imbibing a lot of liquor, smoking massive quantities of marijuana, and recording music. Which, by many accounts, is an accurate description of the recording process.
Dre decided to start off The Chronic with “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin'),” making settling scores the first item on his agenda. It makes sense, since his issues with Eazy-E and Jerry Heller are the central reason the album exists in the first place. But Eazy and Heller aren’t Dre’s only targets, as he and Snoop roast Tim Dog, 2 Live Crew founder Luther “Luke” Campbell, and Ice Cube over a replaying of Funkadelic’s “Not Just Knee Deep.” The clap-backs on this album directed towards Ice Cube are rarely talked about, mostly because the two squashed their beef shortly after The Chronic dropped. But when Dre talks about going on a “Street Knowledge mission” and putting “the chrome to the side of his White Sox hat,” he doesn’t sound happy.
The Chronic became the defining statement of Dre’s musical career. He set the bar so high, in terms of impact and sales, that he ended up making himself a prisoner to its success. This became obvious after he left Death Row and started his Aftermath record label. The first two efforts, the 1996 compilation Dr. Dre Presents The Aftermath and hip-hop supergroup The Firm’s 1997’s debut album, were met with lukewarm sales and reviews, and sent Dre reeling. From that point on, Dre began to lend his name only to projects that he felt would be massive hits.
Dre’s subsequent albums have been less about establishing new talent, and more about functioning as referendums on Dre’s career, with him attempting to prove his ability to capture lightning in a bottle, rather than aiming to make good music. For example, his second studio album 2001 (1999) was Dre’s effort to show he hadn’t been derailed by poor reviews. The album prominently featured a pair of promising lyricists in the form of Knoc-turn’al and Hittman, but this time around Dre was the unequivocal star of the show. Just the titles of the singles alone, “Still D.R.E.” and “Forgot About Dre,” demonstrated that the album’s purpose was to show that Dre himself was back on top.
Although everyone involved in The Chronic became rapped up in their own legend as the years passed, it remains a great and vitally important album. The fact that while 2001 sold twice the number of copies, but The Chronic is Dre’s most enduring and transcendent work, speaks volumes. It also shows that some musicians really are at their most creative when they’re baked out of their minds.