Alright, I think it’s time for a change of pace. For months I’ve talked about classic and not so classic rock albums, and pretty much ignored any type of music that wasn’t based on loud guitars and pop hooks. So I want to break away from that in my second-to-last instalment of this column. I want to talk about something far more menacing, brutal, and just as groundbreaking as anything Iggy Pop put out. I want to talk about West Coast gangster rap.
Specifically, I want to talk about one man whose multifaceted contributions to the West Coast rap scene singlehandedly redefined the genre and wiped away the clean, radio-friendly images of rappers like of Kid ‘n Play and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and replaced them with brutally realistic insighs into life in impoverished South Central Los Angeles.
Dr. Dre began his career performing in the short-lived electro group The World Class Wreckin’ Cru. While this early music bears little resemblence to his later work, playing with the Compton group allowed him to cut his teeth in the music scene and develop his talents as a rapper and DJ. A few years after the formation of the Cru, Dre met future collaborators Ice Cube and Easy-E.
From this parnership, Dre formed the massively influential gangster rap group NWA. Their seminal debut album Straight Outta Compton was a watershed moment in rap history. Songs like “F*ck Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” portrayed the grim realities of life as a young black man in Compton. The record is filled with tales of gang violence, drug deals and police brutality. It’s a harsh, uncompromising look at urban violence and crime, but it’s also a catchy, masterfully-produced piece of music.
While the group received plenty of hatred for their depictions of urban life, they maintained that they were simply portraying the harsh realities of the world in which they grew up. And many others came to their defense. Critic Bud Norman wrote of the group’s depiction of gang violence, “They don’t make it sound like much fun… They describe it with the same nonjudgmental resignation that a Kansan might use about a tornado.” Glorification of gang violence or not, Straight Outta Compton still remains one of the greatest rap albums of all times, thanks in large part to Dr. Dre’s production and appearances behind the mic.
But Dr. Dre’s best work by far would be his 1992 debut solo album, The Chronic. After leaving NWA, Dre founded Death Row Records with his then-bodyguard Suge Knight, bringing aboard younger rappers like Snoop Dogg as well. As Death Row’s first official release, The Chronic was a huge step forward not just in Dr. Dre’s evolution as a solo artist, but in the sound of rap music as a whole. After Dre introduced the world to the sound and fury of southern Los Angeles with NWA, hundred of other rappers were attempting to emulate that style. Instead of following in the chart-topping, sample-heavy footsteps of NWA, Dre took a different approach on The Chronic, slowing down the tempo and relying heavily on synthesizers to create his new beats.
The record was a smash hit, and it catapulted Dr. Dre and collaborator Snoop Dogg, into the limelight. Singles “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and “Let Me Ride” received significant airplay and once again redefined the way rap music was viewed in America. Some people still haven’t caught up to these early ‘90s innovations.
Since the release of his follow-up, 2001, Dre’s focus has largely been on production, working on tracks for artists such as Eminem, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Raekwon and Jay-Z.
Classic or catastrophe: classic