Let Me Ride: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic at 30

Looking back on the stickiest, ickiest hip-hop album of 1992

Dr. Dre The Chronic, Interscope Records 1992

Judging by their pop cultural presence these days, the two biggest names on The Chronic are more well-known for things other than performing, something wholly unexpected when the album was released 30 years ago this month.

It was Dr. Dre’s first and biggest solo album, understandable when (A) it’s The Chronic and (B) he’s only done three albums in 30 years. But these days, despite being part of the halftime show at last year’s Super Bowl, he’s well known as the Beats guy.

Snoop Dogg has been much more prolific, with 19 solo albums over the last three decades. But even with his active career, he also gets seen a lot as a commercial pitchman, more likely to be seen on TV selling beer than he is rapping. He’s also the music biz figure most associated with, well, the chronic, if it’s not Willie Nelson.

The Chronic wasn’t our first introduction to the pairing of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Snoop’s first appearance on record was on Dre’s first single, “Deep Cover”, from the soundtrack of the film of the same name that starred Laurence Fishburne as a cop who grows sick of the corruption and backstabbing as he goes undercover to take down a drug kingpin played by Jeff Goldblum.

 

VIDEO: Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg “Deep Cover”

Snoop Dogg gained immediate notice in a big way for his performance on song, drawing fans in the rap world. The Chronic would show his trademark flow to the world in wider authority, setting the stage for his solo debut the following year with Doggystyle.

The genesis of The Chronic started with the gradual implosion of N.W.A. Ice Cube was the first key player to leave. Dissatisfied with the management and ownership of Ruthless Records’ Eazy-E and Jerry Heller, he left at the end of 1989. He wasn’t the only one who felt Eazy sold them out to Heller, as Dr. Dre, The D.O.C. and Michel’le left Ruthless in 1991 to join Death Row.

The departure wasn’t a clean one and Dre’s legal entanglements weren’t limited to business ones (more on that later). Despite his multi-platinum success as a producer, labels were reluctant to touch him.

But at least one wasn’t. Jimmy Iovine had shifted from producer to label head, co-founding Interscope in 1990. The label’s first two hits were far from gangsta rap– Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations”, but Iovine had an inkling and signed a distribution deal with Death Row.

The label’s start-up money allegedly came from two sources– one a local drug dealer and the other being Vanilla Ice.

The latter’s “investment” was involuntary, as co-owner Suge Knight allegedly threatened to throw Vanilla Ice off a 15th floor balcony to get him to sign over a percentage of royalties from “Ice Ice Baby” and the To The Extreme album. Preferring to live, Vanilla Ice did.

Money was in short supply for most of the principals involved through the album’s creation, though, including Dre himself. Even with that desperation, the album was recorded quickly in a positive atmosphere. Multiple Death Row artists appeared, both as trusted talent and promotion for a label in need of a hit.

Dre received a lot of credit from those involved. If Knight, for better and worse (much worse as time went on) was the business guy, Dre was the music guy with an eye for talent and the bigger picture.

It’s no secret that rapping is not No. 1 among Dre’s skills. Indeed, he’s made use of a lot of writers, some of them ghostwriters, over the years. But even if he wasn’t going to win any freestyle competitions, Dre knew what he wanted to say and would make tweaks and make sure his rhymes matched his vision.

Not that he was the star of the show vocally. He let others — Snoop, RBX, the Lady of Rage, Kurupt and Daz among them — take many turns, even the entire song in some cases. His appearances are often in tandem with others as an effective counterpunch. This was a man who knew how to best utilize the strengths he did have as a rapper.

His lone solo vocal turn is the defiant anti-police violence “A Nigga Witta Gun”.

On the other hand, knowing what he wanted to say also translated to knowing how he wanted it to sound, which is where he leaned into his strengths as a producer. The Chronic, named after, well, you know, hit that smoke-filled groove and kept it going. Dre didn’t eschew samples, but made them feel lived in. When he utilized Parliament-Funkadelic, it felt like updated P-Funk, rather than someone just dropping snippets in. It was a defining production, a modern day blaxploitation soundtrack for the West Coast. Even to this day, The Chronic’s appeal still hangs on the seductive appeal of its sound and song construction full of well-chosen beats, perfectly made for a good set of speakers.

 

VIDEO: Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg “Dre Day”

That appeal is in service of lyrics that were pure, uncut West Coast hardcore rap — with all the honest slices of life and misogyny and homophobia that were ofen part and parcel of the genre.

Eazy-E wasn’t shy about sniping at Dre and Dre was unafraid to snipe back, both using anti-gay jibes. “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” takes shots at Eazy, Tim Dog (who did “Fuck Compton”) and Luther Campbell (because of his “Fakin’ Like Gangstas”).

Of course, the retrograde “you’re gay” insults wouldn’t be complete without with lines about “my dick in your mouth, biatch” and “my nuts on your tonsils.” One could say that aspect didn’t age well, but it landed uncomfortably in 1992.

It all became even more uncomfortable with Eazy-E’s death in 1995 from AIDS. While Eazy was straight, the jibes from both sides hit even worse knowing he died of a disease that, by that point had killed thousands of gay men (and at a point where AIDS deaths overall were at their all-time yearly peak).

There’s also the misogyny, exemplified in the album-ending “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” except, according to the lyrical hook “but hoes and tricks.” Aside from Dre’s verse, in which he goes back to the well of taking shots at Eazy (the song’s titular “bitch”) and Heller, it comes across as being meant to be darkly comical.

But it’s hard to divorce that from the reality, which is that Dre was no stranger to violence against women.

Most notably, he assaulted journalist Dee Barnes, repeatedly slamming her right side and head against a wall. He pled no contest, receiving a fine, probation and community service.

At the time, he proudly minimized the assault, saying, “Besides, it ain’t no big thing—I just threw her through a door.”

It wasn’t until many years later that he publicly acknowledged the idea that it was, in fact, a big thing. He also acknowledged that Barnes wasn’t the only woman he’d hurt (Michel’le has alleged he was abusive during their relationship, for one). But his 2015 statement to the New York Times was an anodyne general apology.

He was more specific and equivocal about how wrong he was in The Defiant Ones, the 2017 HBO documentary series about him and Iovine.

But this was 1992, when Dre was far from apologetic.

As much as one could say The Chronic established the template for West Coast rap for the next decade, one of its tracks did a lot of that lifting by itself.

 

VIDEO: Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang”

“Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” is still the first track most people associate with the album. Built off a sample of Leon Haywood’s 1975 soul classic “I Want’ A Do Something Freaky To You” (originally it was set to a Boz Scaggs sample). Snoop starts it off with the lines still recognizable 30 years later– “One, two, three and to the four/Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door.” Even though he and Dre trade verses and play off each other, it’s his delivery that makes lines like “Fallin’ back on that ass with a hellafied gangsta lean/Gettin’ funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens” land like the rap superstar he was about to be.

Even though it’s the fifth song in, its attitude, aesthetic and groove did a lot to define the album (with the help of its video).

So did the blatantly P-Funkalicious “Let Me Ride”, a statement of confidence in which Dre takes the lead and Snoop handles the asides. This was an album fully committed to its portrait of the life, real and imagined.

Despite whatever reasons Dre and others had to be angry at Heller and Eazy, their anger is righteous towards another target — the L.A.P.D,  with its long racist history and just-as racist present. Dre was born in 1965 in Compton, where he grew up, just a few miles from where the Watts riots occurred the same year. The Chronic was recorded just over a month after the riots that ensued after cops beat up Rodney King.

The long history of the L.A.P.D and its track record with the Black communities in the city was in everyone’s mind even before the King beating lit the fuse. This was an increasingly militarized force, one that had done things like raid the Black Panthers decades earlier, creating a leadership void that was installed by the gangs who made things worse.

A report commissioned after the 1992 riot contained details that weren’t a surprise to those involved in making The Chronic (and a lot of others). Transcripts of cops using racial slurs of every kind you can imagine. Under police chief Daryl Gates, a man who called for casual weed users to be “taken out and shot”, officers referred to crimes involving black victims and perpetrators under the vile anagram NHI, for “no humans involved.”

 

VIDEO: Dr. Dre “Let Me Ride”

The Chronic is full of defiance and a desire to take control against those forces. As RBX rapped on “The Day The Niggaz Took Over,” “Hell, no, the poor Blacks refuse to go”, a line that hasn’t lost any relevance in the decades since as we’ve seen with the numerous extrajudicial killings by police (George Floyd’s murder was a recent tipping point, but it could have been many others).

If people were outraged at the response not being holding hands and quoting Martin Luther King Jr. out of context and not the police behavior that prompted it, well, that kind of helped make The Chronic’s point on the issue.

Sometimes the hazards weren’t wearing a police uniform. “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” samples Donny Hathaway effectively in a depiction of life in the world of gangsta survival of the fittest. As Snoop raps, “And we expose ways for the youth to survive/Some think it’s wrong but we tend to think it’s right/’Cause when you’re broke, you break, check it out.”

The Chronic clocks in at over an hour, full of not just beats and vibe, but atmosphere from skits, movie clips and more (including Rudy Ray Moore), creatively placed.

The album was certainly influential. Dre himself followed the G-funk template, as did the various artists whose careers got a boost from their Chronic appearances, including Snoop’s fellow 213 members Warren G and Nate Dogg, who appeared on the song that would spawn jokes and memes for years — “Deeez Nuuuts.”

CDs Nuts meme (Image: Facebook)

It also was a commercial hit, going triple platinum within a year, showing labels that gangsta rap could indeed be commercially viable.

Even with the success that Dre and Snoop experienced with Chronic and Doggystyle meaning they weren’t broke anymore, things weren’t going to be easy.

Eazy-E’s death a few years later wasn’t the only reminder that beefs and alliances can be fleeting. It turned out that going into business often did not end well, including for Dre and Snoop Dogg.

This was no surprise. Knight was a former football player and bodyguard who never left the streets, even when the label blew up. Dre’s very presence on Death Row was helped along by Knight, who greeted Eazy-E at Solar Studios (later to be Death Row’s studio as they were owned by the third co-owner Dick Griffey). Knight had a group of associates armed with baseball bats and pipes with him. With verbal threats aussuaging the implied physical threats,  Eazy signed Dre and the others over. While these contracts were non-binding, the moves were in motion.

Both left Death Row within years of The Chronic’s success. Dre was tired of Knight’s management style and the violence and infighting in its wake. He left in the spring of 1996, months before Death Row’s biggest star — Tupac Shakur — was murdered while riding in a car with Knight in Las Vegas after a brawl precipitated by an assault on a L.A. gang member in the MGM Grand, led by members of Knight’s entourage and Shakur. 

Snoop left the following year, when Knight was sent to prison for a parole violation. That left the label with no distribution as Interscope had dropped it in response. 

The label never recovered from the departures of Dre and Snoop and Shakur’s death. Knight, released in 2001, wound up flogging more previously recorded material rather than releasing much new material from artists. By 2006, Knight lost the label when he went bankrupt. By 2018, he was in prison again for voluntary manslaughter after running over a man with his pickup. He won’t be paroled until 2034 at the earliest.

In a twist that nobody chilling out to The Chronic in ’92 and ’93 would have seen coming, Death Row was eventually owned by Hasbro. Yes Hasbro — the toy and game company that gave us Cabbage Patch Kids, G.I. Joe, Transformers and (make up your own jokes) the Easy-Bake Oven. 

Earlier this year, after another change of ownership in between, Snoop Dogg himself bought the label with hopes of reviving it. His album, BODR, released in February, was his first on Death Row since his 1996’s Tha Doggfather. There’s also talk that he and Dre might team up for another album.

 

VIDEO: The Chronic commercial 

Dre, meanwhile, concentrated more on producing. He formed his own label, Aftermath, immediately upon leaving Death Row. Due in no small part to his fortuitous signing of a then-unknown Eminem (who Fat Joe passed on to his regret), the label did well enough that Dre reportedly earned $35 million for selling a 30 percent share of the label to Interscope in 2001. He’s still the label’s CEO, with a small roster of himself, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak and Silk Sonic.

And the Aftermath sale was small change compared to the three billion dollars that Apple paid Dre and Iovine for Beats Music and Beats Electronics in 2014.

But Dr. Dre’s current life as one of hip-hop’s richest men and Snoop’s status in pop culture wouldn’t have happened without The Chronic, an album made by people desperate for a hit. Even with its flaws, it remains easy to see why it was successful and spawned so many imitators.

 

VIDEO: Dr. Dre on The Arsenio Hall Show

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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