Still Smokin': The 20th Anniversary Of Dr. Dre's "The Chronic"
The larger-than-life figure we now know as Dr. Dre wouldn't be possible without arguably his greatest contribution to popular music, "The Chronic," which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
Endurance. Longevity. Persistence. You can make a solid argument that those ideals aren’t exactly pillars within Hip Hop. Granted, at this point in its history, the genre has a whole generation of elder statesmen that have remained relevant. But being frank, the lifespan of a career in Hip Hop is not prone to longevity for most artists.
This is why it becomes all the more admirable to me that Andre “Dr. Dre” Young is still a force of nature in Hip Hop, albeit one that moves in near monk-like muteness. By nearly all accounts, Dre has become utterly untouchable and irreplaceable. His multi-million dollar, celebrity endorsed premium headphone empire, Beats By Dre, has made that a certainty. But the deified, somewhat cryptic figure we currently know as Dr. Dre wouldn’t be possible without what is arguably his greatest contribution to popular music, The Chronic. That landmark album celebrates its twentieth anniversary on Saturday, and time allows us to look back and examine the things we couldn’t 20 years ago as Hip Hop history was being made before our collective eyes.
How Dr. Dre Made Gangsta Rap Mainstream
In the time since its initial release, Dr. Dre’s seminal debut has gone on to be a cult classic and a cultural phenomenon. According to the RIAA, The Chronic has sold over 3 million domestic copies to date. In addition to producing three top 20 singles on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 singles chart, Dre’s official solo debut is counted among the greatest musical achievements in both Hip Hop and in pop music during the 20th century. Rolling Stone, still considered the pinnacle of music journalism, listed The Chronic as one of the 100 best albums of the 1990’s, and number 138 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Similar accolades from Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Washington Post, and heavy MTV and top 40 radio rotation would ensure that The Chronic was a fixture in the suburbs.
“The thing about the Death Row, Dr. Dre productions with Snoop was that those were real, real pop records,” notes writer, director and cultural critic, Nelson George. “Even though it had a gangster vibe and attitude, the actual records and singles were very pop and accepted in the mainstream. Nothing had been like that before with the level of consistency that they achieved.”
Further, The Chronic has been cited in an endless stream of Hip Hop magazines as one of the greatest albums ever, from being named Ego Trip’s best album of 1992 from their 1999 list of 25 Greatest Hip Hop Albums By Year, to The Source’s 100 Best Albums of All Time in 1998, and three of VIBE’s Greatest lists from 1999, 2004 and 2007. And the praise doesn’t stop there by a long shot.
Technical And Musical Innovation On “The Chronic.”
Beyond the accolades and awards, The Chronic did something more important for Dre musically: it re-energized his career after his very public and personal split with N.W.A. and Ruthless Records. The album also laid the critical and commercial groundwork for his multi-million dollar business empire and established a reputation for developing emerging talent.
One of the enduring legacies of The Chronic is the use of live instrumentation. In a 2006 interview with Scratch magazine, Dr. Dre pointed out that while he used drum loops as a member of N.W.A., he only sampled instrument sounds when the live session players he brought in couldn’t replay the desired sample. Ironically, as Dre looked to incorporate more live instruments into his production, he would also meet increased resistance.
“To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure,” Dre noted in a 2008 interview with VIBE. “Before I got with Interscope…everybody was slamming doors on me, talking about, ‘This isn’t hip-hop; you’re using live instruments.’ It had me second-guessing myself. I remember being on my balcony with Nate Dogg, listening to my record like, ‘Is this shit good or not?’ I had no idea it would do what it did.”
That successful fusion illustrates Dr. Dre’s forward-thinking nature. Think about the last few live shows that you’ve been to, or even the albums, songs and mixtapes you’ve downloaded. From Jay-Z sampling Afro-beat horns on 2007’s “Roc Boys” to The Roots standing as arguably the greatest band Hip Hop’s history and Dr. Dre’s own frequent work with former Roots keyboardist, Scott Storch, there’s plenty of common threads.
Much has been made of the $300 price tag on a pair of Beats By Dre headphones. But few can deny Dre’s audiophile reputation, as a deejay, producer and an engineer. Small tweaks, such as the move to EQ his drum sounds before sampling them into a sequencer, led to the signature low end that Dr. Dre productions (and headphones, for better or worse) are known for. Dre’s fondness for the ARP String Ensemble, Fender Rhodes and Clavinet speak to his tastemaker function and foresight to popularize the hybrid Hip Hop sub-genre that would eventually be tagged G-Funk. Having one foot firmly planted in the past by sampling artists ranging from 1970’s Funk superheroes Parliament Funkadelic and Rock royalty Led Zeppelin, while the other stomped arrogantly into the future, Dre was clearly seeking to do what no other debut solo album had ever done before.
A Multimedia Recipe For Hip Hop Longevity
The laid back, kush smoke-drenched bass line of “Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang” was irresistible, and the video was so much damn fun just to look at. Dre and Snoop’s visceral, uncompromising attack on Eazy-E, Tim Dog and Uncle Luke with “Dre Day,” reinvented and the art of the diss record. “Let Me Ride” stands as a subdued and cooled-out Sunday afternoon groove, yet was still a cocky, prideful smack in the face to anyone that dreamed of outdueling Dre on a Hip Hop record, as well as those that had doubted his abilities in the past.
But it’s not merely the lead singles that have allowed The Chronic to stand the test of time. Songs like “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” and “Little Ghetto Boy,” sampled voices and sounds of the uprising that was the L.A. Riots. Dre essentially found a midway point between the politically charged rage of East Coast groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions and the funked-out, gangster/pimp lifestyle-fueled by artists from the West like Ice-T and Too $hort. The staunchly unapologetic sexism and misogyny of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and “The Doctor’s Office” skit ruffled many feathers, and may have influenced a political figure like C. Delores Tucker to set out on her campaign against Hip Hop in the ‘90s. And the model of the West Coast posse cut got new life on a strong majority of The Chronic (“Stranded on Death Row,” “The Roach,” “Lyrical Gangbang,” “Deeez Nuts”).
Aside from the classic songs on The Chronic, some of the smallest, sometimes overlooked elements add to its lore. From the D.O.C.’s raspy spew on “The $20 Sack Pyramid”, to Snoop’s drawl-laden yet focused lyrics, to the strategic and the brilliant one-liners (“This is dedicated to the niggas that was down from day one…” “1,2, 3 into the 4…”).
Aftermath’s Lasting Legacy
In addition to the millions of albums he helped sell as co-captain of the Death Row Records empire, Dr. Dre is directly linked to helping move over 50 million albums since establishing his Aftermath Entertainment imprint. And it all began with The Chronic—an album that simultaneously showcased his musical chops and business acumen. The proof can be seen and heard throughout Hip Hop’s history after 1992: from the string of hit albums that Death Row would release that had Dre’s fingerprints all over them (Doggystyle, All Eyez On Me, Tha DoggFather), to his “comeback” album, 1999’s 2001, that shattered all expectations of a successful follow-up album, reunited him with Snoop. And let’s not forget Dre’s continued musical mentorship of the new generations of emcees that came after him including 50 Cent, Game and, most recently, Kendrick Lamar. Even Mr. “Imma let you finish” himself, Kanye West, gave props to the influence of The Chronic in an interview with Rolling Stone some years ago:
“The Chronic is the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life,” West noted. “It's the benchmark you measure your album against if you're serious.”
Beyond just his musical influence though, Dre’s model stretches past The Chronic. When asked in a rare 1997 interview about having a long-term perspective and how the Hip Hop generation could begin to think and act similarly, Dre cites music icon Quincy Jones as a major influence and his mentor and goes on to talk about how Hip Hop artists should prepare for “when your shit ain’t happening no more.” And from the staggering success of Beats By Dre, coupled with the number of rappers and Hip Hop entrepreneurs that have followed in Dre’s footsteps with headphone deals (Diddy, 50 Cent, Ludacris, Meek Mill) we can pretty much say that he’s got that in the bag right about now.
Ultimately, 20 years ago, Dr. Dre changed Hip Hop forever with The Chronic, much the same way that legends like James Brown and Miles Davis changed Soul, Funk and Jazz music. But Dre did a lot more than that by building a solid model for influence, entrepreneurship, mentorship and career longevity that today’s artists, whether they’d admit it or not, are still using as a case study and a blueprint to their own success.
Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He has contributed writings to BrooklynBodega.com, PNCRadio.fm and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.