Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 15, which explores the history of Dr. Dre, Death Row Records, and the real-life violence that surrounded The Chronic with help from writer Sheldon Pearce.
Forgive me for reveling for a second in the simple harmony generated by these two people. There is so much hatred, so much abuse, so much violence, so much destruction, so much death in this extended universe, both before The Chronic and after The Chronic. So this song is an ocean of calm for me, or at least an island of calm within an ocean of relentless calamity. It’s the somehow peaceful intersection of 12 overlapping natural and societal and personal disasters, and it’s just Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg talking to each other, enjoying one another’s company, with a chemistry so pure it’s theology.
You’re lucky if you ever have chemistry half this palpable with one other person in your whole entire life. But for all the violence and chaos surrounding Dr. Dre before and after this moment, and all the violence and chaos he’d perpetrate himself, he had chemistry this palpable—this saleable—to the tune of roughly a billion dollars. With, like, half a dozen super-famous people.
Dr. Dre was born Andre Romelle Young in the city of Compton, south of downtown Los Angeles, in 1965. He got his first set of turntables at 17 after hearing “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” He did a little dancing—don’t ask him about it. In the mid-’80s, as a DJ and producer and rapper, he joined an electro-rap group called the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. A heavy Prince vibe to this group, sonically, visually, fashion-wise. Maybe don’t ask him about this either. Get famous enough and the first thing you ever got at all famous for automatically becomes infamous, and is forever gleefully weaponized against you, by your friends and enemies alike, and your friends-turned-enemies especially. It was a very popular style at the time.
Anyway, N.W.A, right? Gangsta rap group? Only the fifth rap group to ever make the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? “Fuck tha Police” and so forth? N.W.A didn’t quite invent gangsta rap, per se: shout-out Schoolly-D, shout-out Ice-T, shout-out the song “Batteram” by a rapper named Toddy T. The battaram was a much-loathed military-grade weapon, basically a tank, often employed by the Los Angeles Police Department to knock doors down, to functionally knock houses down. Et cetera. But N.W.A perfected gangsta rap before the vast majority of the world had even heard of gangsta rap; before the squeamish politicians most offended by this music started denouncing it using the term “gangsta rap.” N.W.A’s own Ice Cube, for one, preferred the term “reality rap.” The group’s classic lineup—the guys looking down at you on the cover of their mythic 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton—consisted of Dre, his World Class Wreckin’ Cru pal DJ Yella, and Arabian Prince, and then more on the rapping side MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E. If we give N.W.A their full due we’ll be here all day. What’s important for our purposes is the myth that has accrued around N.W.A, and the myth of Dr. Dre within N.W.A. I don’t mean myth as in falsehood. Think of these as Bible stories, as tales etched on the very pillars of Western civilization. They’re almost certainly exaggerated. But that doesn’t make them not true.
In 2017 Allen Hughes directed a four-part HBO documentary called The Defiant Ones, which profiled both Dre and his business partner Jimmy Iovine, the Brooklyn producer and music-biz giant who helped Dre, as the series begins, maybe become a billionaire. Turns out those two guys had economic chemistry. But again the imagery as we’re first getting to know the real Dr. Dre is pristine vintage stereo equipment, records spinning on turntables, needles, mixers, reverent rows of knobs, giant stacks of mix cassettes. Pretty soon he will show us the SSL 4000 board that he partially used to make The Chronic and that was, indeed, the first love of his life. We are beyond “studio porn” here—this is like a romance novel, this is the greatest love story ever told. Whether it’s a documentary or a fictional portrayal of Dr. Dre, we’re encouraged to think of him less as a flawed human than as an immaculate machine, a fount of pure immaculate sound, a guy who never leaves the studio and has in essence become the studio, has become his own luxury gear. A big part of why he might be a billionaire is a little company he started with Iovine called Beats by Dre Headphones. We know a great deal about Dr. Dre the person: his tragedies, his flaws, his fuckups. But the main thing we know is that he wishes we didn’t know anything, really. You get the feeling he’d like to be thought of as a sentient mixing board. It’d maybe be better for everyone if that’s what he was.
Early N.W.A, production-wise, is not a billion miles away from what Dre was doing with the World Class Wreckin Cru. But there’s a newfound heaviness to it, a sample-heavy chaos to it that echoes Public Enemy’s production crew the Bomb Squad but is pulling that chaos toward the West Coast, toward a sinister electro minimalism that’s more and more starting to sound maximalist. So N.W.A’s breakout hit, of course, is “Boyz N the Hood.” Dr. Dre, primarily, produced it. Ice Cube wrote the lyrics. And, primarily at Dre’s urging, Eazy-E rapped it.
Eazy-E was born Eric Wright. He was the guy with the money—with, pretty explicitly, the drug money. He was the guy with the most street credibility. He was the reality-rap godfather living the harshest reality. He was the guy who started N.W.A’s label, Ruthless Records, with a much shadier music-biz lifer named Jerry Heller. And Eazy-E was not, when N.W.A first formed, a rapper. At all. Dr. Dre made him a rapper. Dr. Dre patiently molded him, right there in the studio, right there in the booth, line by line, word by word, syllable by syllable, beat by beat, into a superstar rapper. That’s the myth, anyway. And this mythic origin story is so prevalent that you can hear—forget the beat, right there in Eazy-E’s voice, you can hear Dre’s sublime chemistry with this person, and Dre’s own burgeoning genius, and Dre’s origin story as arguably the single greatest record producer of all time, doin’ tricks on the mix that nobody else can. Pretend that Eazy is pissed off at Dre here, and that Dre is pissing him off on purpose.
N.W.A is both beloved and reviled—reviled primarily by the police, on account of the Straight Outta Compton hit “Fuck tha Police.” N.W.A is also in shambles. Ice Cube leaves first, over money, over basically the continued existence of Jerry Heller. (Straight Outta Compton the movie is nearly three hours long. Lotta pool parties. In the director’s cut there’s a scene where Jerry offers Eazy-E a plate of kung-pao chicken, and Eazy rudely declines. That’s the whole scene. Not every scene in the Bible pushes the plot forward.) Anyway. Cube immediately launches a blockbuster solo career with 1990’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. N.W.A’s second album comes out in 1991, with a title white fans can only say backward. It debuts at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and disses Cube, referring to him as Benedict Arnold. Cube responds in a song called “No Vaseline.” Do not antagonize Ice Cube. That’s my advice.
Now Dr. Dre wants out too. Over money. And over power. Over control. Dre has, increasingly, no control. Soon, he’d get out, find himself a new home, and craft the album that changed the course of rap history.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled “Fuck tha Police.”