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Dr. Dre - The Chronic Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the timeless 1992 debut from Dr. Dre, a historic moment in hip-hop that redefined West Coast rap.

Dr. Dre’s solo rap career began like a yarn out of a mob epic: coercion, conspiracy, guns strategically placed near jacuzzis. As a member of N.W.A in the mid-1980s, the producer was a star, but he was convinced that Eazy-E—the head of his record label, Ruthless, and fellow N.W.A. member—was fleecing him. Dre was seeking freedom from the World’s Most Dangerous Group, but he ended up dealing with someone far more treacherous.

Pro football prospect turned hulking enforcer, Marion Knight, Jr., nicknamed Suge for the sweet sugar bear he was as a child, had a reputation for intimidation that was the stuff of industry myth: punching a guy through a closed door and dangling Vanilla Ice off a balcony. He’d been hanging around Ruthless as the D.O.C.’s bodyguard and had grown close to Dre during his conflict with the label. With an eye on becoming a music mogul, Suge saw Dre as his meal ticket. Dre was already done mastering the final N.W.A. album, 1991’s Niggaz4Life, and he wanted out so he could finish work on his solo material. All that was standing in his and Suge’s way was Eazy.


On April 23, 1991, Eazy-E went up to the studios at Solar Records where he was greeted by Suge and a small entourage of men with pipes and Louisville sluggers. Suge delivered contract releases for several Ruthless artists and planned to squeeze Eazy into signing them so he could poach the artists for the fledgling label he was starting. He told Eazy he had N.W.A.’s manager Jerry Heller tied up in a van before offering a final warning: “We know where your mother lives.” With that, Eazy signed. The documents weren’t deemed legally binding, but the wheels were in motion. Eventually, Suge got his way: Dre was no longer a Ruthless artist, and Death Row Records was born.

In 1992, Dr. Dre was the biggest producer in hip-hop music, a pioneer drawing comparisons to Quincy Jones and Phil Spector; he was also its most unemployable one. Plagued by legal battles and beset with a number of open court cases, nobody would touch him. Five of the eight albums Dre produced for Ruthless from 1987 to 1991 went platinum, but he was a volatile figure prone to violence. He was accused of a savage, public assault by journalist Dee Barnes and another assault on a police officer during a 50-person brawl he allegedly started. On top of that, neither he nor Suge had much of a business acumen, and they were hemorrhaging cash.

Death Row was ostensibly up and running with a master architect at the helm, but the young label needed a big victory upon which to build its empire. The Chronic became that cornerstone achievement, kicking off a historic four-year run that ended with the death of the label’s other major star, Tupac Shakur. In that time, Dre established himself as not just a peerless producer but a visionary. His debut album, 1992’s The Chronic is an imaginative crusade with half-truths so vibrant they blurred the lines of what was real. He collapsed the distance between the lawless Los Angeles of the persona he created for himself and the real one right outside Solar studios, giving his songs texture wherever possible: prank calls; Rudy Ray Moore skits; clips from blaxploitation flick The Mack; an earlier Chronic song playing as background music for a sketch in a later one; live commentary from protestors; exasperated TV news anchors announcing a city on fire. It is so meticulously crafted, so magnificently designed.

Thanks to some last-minute minute legal negotiations that set the price for Dre’s freedom from Ruthless at royalty payments for all of Dre’s Death Row projects including The Chronic, the same album Dre used as a megaphone to badmouth Eazy-E and Jerry Heller was also paying them handsomely. They are the album’s primary antagonists, and Dre’s ire for them powers his performance. The triumphant lead-off “Fuck wit Dre Day” couches celebration of his success in the broader context of the streets losing respect for Eazy. The taunts on the intro are aimed squarely at Ruthless, as if their demise was the postscript on Death Row’s ascendence, and Eazy was the bitch that ain’t shit. Despite all the direct provocation, Dre’s greatest insult was the album itself: He’d pried The Chronic right out of Eazy’s hands. In Ronin Ro’s Have Gun Will Travel, Heller lamented its loss: “That album would’ve been ours if it hadn’t been stolen.”

Death Row was a seedy operation with drug lord investors, secret incorporations, and nefarious loans, according to Ben Westhoff’s Original Gangstas, but the men at the top both knew how to spot talent. The album sometimes plays as promotional material for the label, partially because everyone there was trying to will future success into existence, but also because the label was the center of Dre’s entire world at the time. “I needed a record to come out,” Dre admitted to Rolling Stone in ’93. “I was broke. I didn’t receive one fucking quarter in the year of ’92.” Dre desperately needed to find a new voice. In N.W.A, he had the luxury of working with one of rap’s best-ever writers, Ice Cube. Those were big shoes to fill. He found his new scribe in Snoop Dogg, a slinky teenager from Long Beach who quickly became one of the greatest rappers ever.

Dre wasn’t a songwriter, he’d only ever performed in a posse, and the hearty voice of the rapper he banked on, the D.O.C., had been irreparably damaged in a car accident. He was a great director without a star. It was Snoop, with his sneering yet relaxed flow, that so casually stole the role. He seized every opportunity. “When I listen back to The Chronic album, I’m like, how the fuck was I on damn near every song?” Snoop remembered. “I was whoopin’ niggas! They would be going home to go get chicken, I’d be in that motherfucker all night. If Dre even had half of a beat or had the drums, I’d write some shit to the drums and come up with a melody. Before you know it, I’m on a song.”

As both a purveyor and connoisseur, Snoop also brought to the table one of the album’s most critical ingredients: weed. His incessant use introduced his producer to the chronic, slang used in reference to sticky hydroponic bud that was of the highest quality; the term, which became a metaphor for the quality of the music, stuck as a title. Dre, who’d rapped on 1988’s “Express Yourself” that he didn’t smoke marijuana because it caused brain damage, was now naming his entire album after a potent cross-strain. The aromatic puffs of smoke that filled the studio inspired slower, smoother music.

Snoop was at the center of a writer’s room that Dre had taken to calling the Death Row Inmates: The D.O.C., rapper-producer Daz Dillinger and RBX (two of Snoop’s cousins), Kurupt, Lady of Rage (who Dre flew in from Manhattan), Snoop’s group 213 with Dre’s stepbrother Warren G and a little-known singer named Nate Dogg, and the First Lady of Death Row, the R&B vocalist Jewell. This oddball crew convened at Dre’s Calabasas mansion and the Solar studios with musicians Colin Wolfe and Chris “The Glove” Taylor, smoking, bonding, writing, and recording, punching in and exchanging ideas.

Suge Knight wanted Death Row feared and revered around the land like a lauded crew of bandits in a spaghetti western. According to Original Gangstas, the label head would send his rappers to little amphitheaters and housing projects to battle anyone. Those battles spilled over to The Chronic, fostering both a familial closeness (beyond the obvious blood ties) and a competitiveness that fueled many sessions. The Inmates were all broke and eager to rhyme back then. Every member wanted to cut the best verse and meet Dre’s impossibly high standards. Songs like “Lyrical Gangbang” and posse cut “Stranded on Death Row” in particular had this battler’s edge, pure showcases of raw rap talent from Lady of Rage, Kurupt, and RBX. The artists on The Chronic team were written off, as many West Coast rappers were, as lesser rappers (the headline on Jonathan Gold’s review in the Los Angeles Times read, “The Rap’s Flat, But Ya Can’t Beat the Beat”). They weren’t working as hard to be clever as most of the rappers back East, and while they weren’t quite the writers Ice Cube and MC Ren were, their verses were still striking, charismatic, imposing, and idiosyncratic.

Criticism of the rapping on The Chronic also took aim at Dre, who was never quite a natural rapper, even in N.W.A’s heyday. Gold called his verses “forced,” and deemed him a lesser rapper than producer. If the former is an overstatement, the latter is true. But both were pervasive judgments of Dre. One of the album’s greatest feats is how it mitigates his limitations with a chorus of other voices. Dre goes to painstaking lengths not to appear too frequently, and when he does, he comes off as part of a dynamic one-two punch.

The force of the combination is felt most heavily on the attack, and much of The Chronic offensive continued N.W.A’s longstanding war with cops and L.A.’s violent policing initiative. The spark was an acquittal of the four officers caught on videotape beating motorist Rodney King with batons. For six days after, in Spring 1992, L.A. was ablaze.

The LAPD was the first militarized police force in America, a hostile occupying mob that went to war with the Black Panthers and invaded Southern Los Angeles. Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who, in 1990, infamously said casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot” because “we’re in a war,” had encouraged the kind of treatment seen in the Rodney King video across the city, and now that black citizens were rising up in response he was sitting on his hands. While the violence of the riots spread from the corner of Florence and Normandie like a wave overtaking the city, Gates was at a fundraising dinner in affluent Brentwood. (As the city outside was catching fire, one woman at the dinner said of Gates, “We’re behind you all the way and I want to see you as President of the United States,” to laughter and cheers from the crowd.)

The original version of Chronic track, “The Day the Niggaz Took Over,” called “Mr. Officer,” imagined a vengeful Dre switching places with King and rising up in a way he couldn’t. “Fuck Daryl Gates and the whole police staff,” he raps venomously. “Mr. Officer” spoke more directly to hatred for police, but the song is better for the change: foregrounding not the crooked cops killing with impunity but the people standing up to them. “You see when niggas get together,” Dre rapped, “they get mad ’cause they can’t fade us.”

Cops were often the villains in N.W.A songs (see: “Fuck the Police,” “Real Niggaz Don’t Die”), but their influence throughout The Chronic is more insidious. Dre’s Los Angeles was a direct product of the LAPD’s anti-black and commando agenda. They raided the Panthers’ L.A. headquarters in 1969 on a bad warrant, which in turn created a vacuum filled by gangs like the Bloods and Crips, they cultivated one of the most trigger-happy departments in the country by the early ’90s, and they tagged crimes between black victims and perpetrators as NHI, for “No Human Involved.”

Twenty-seven years later, when I hear “The Day the Niggaz Took Over,” I still see Los Angeles burning. It’s doomsday rap seeking a reckoning, the sound of a city swallowed whole by a sweeping black rage and defiance: As RBX puts it, “Hell no, the poor blacks refuse to go.” But I also see Furguson, its streets covered in tear gas, its police occupation; a protester in an American flag T-shirt throwing a fuming canister back at tactical officers; paramilitary units convening under a Seasons Greetings banner. I see Baltimore during the Uprising. Protesters standing on ravaged cop cars; bikers in gas masks, fists raised before a wall of officers in riot gear; a convoy of black civilians rolling through the city, arms interlocked. I see fed-up communities crying out—for Freddie Gray, for Mike Brown, for Rodney King, for every act of racist violence unanswered for—taking to the streets, refusing to be ignored. It’s about victory over corrupt law enforcement, however briefly.

It’s no wonder that, under the constant antagonism of an aggressive and bigoted police state, the man with a master plan on The Chronic was a nigga with a muthafucking gun: “Cause it’s the city,” Dre explained, “and for you to survive a nigga gotta be a gangsta.” Dre wasn’t a gangsta, per se, but he had gangstas of many different varieties all around him, so his definition of what constituted being one was fluid. Sometimes he was a larger than life mob don, as on “Let Me Ride,” leaving headless bodies on Greenleaf. On the plaintive, Donny Hathaway-inspired “Lil Ghetto Boy,” he plays a street-weary veteran of only 27, a link in a chain of generational violence. His theory of gangsta is clearest and coolest on “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” a perfect rap song if ever there was one. Together as a united front, Snoop and Dre are swaggering, unfadable. But more than anything, across The Chronic being gangsta is a state of mind; its core tenets: better to strike preemptively than to be caught slippin’ and never let anyone take what’s yours.

The Dre verse on “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” prioritizes looting as a weapon against the status quo. His gotta-get-mine perspective is a direct response to the King verdict, and he sounds like an avenging angel. In the essay “Black Riot,” writer Raven Rakia explores looting as a means of indemnification and protest. “Nothing gets the attention of the elite like taking away or destroying what they value above all else: property. In America, property is racial. It always has been,” she explains. “Looting is the opposite of apolitical; it is a direct redistribution of wealth.” The Chronic may be most unmistakably political on this song, but the rest of it understands the spirit (and principles) of black revolt well. How fitting that the album is all about not just getting back what is owed but taking it by force.

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The confrontational machine gun funk of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” and the sinister squeal of the creeping “High Powered” were emblematic of a territorial mentality. Both Dre and Snoop rapped as if on standby, calm yet poised to strike at a moment’s notice. Many of the album’s best sequences are just them standing their ground. In Daryl Gates’ Los Angeles, this was radical. “Old buster ass nigga talking bullshit/Don’t know that I’m the wrong nigga to fuck with,” Dre barks on “A Nigga Witta Gun.”

At Solar, Dre produced on a cutting edge SSL mixing console that producer Rhythm D likened to the Starship Enterprise, which felt particularly fitting since they were making beats by reworking about a dozen Parliament-Funkadelic songs in their sessions. A connection with the Mothership had yielded a magnificent and funky new subgenre. They were building songs from the ground up, according to Wolfe, “drums, bass, keys, guitar, in that order,” with drums and bass being fundamental to their hydraulic, shock-absorbent bounce. Instead of sampling records, as he had for N.W.A, Dre had his live musicians channeling the deep alien grooves of Bernie Worrell and George Clinton.

Dre helped to reshape the sound of the West using whining Moog synthesizers. The initial wave of West Coast gangsta rap was (naturally) still indebted sonically to hip-hop’s birthplace, New York City. N.W.A songs sampled Big Apple rappers Whodini and Beastie Boys. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was produced by Public Enemy’s team the Bomb Squad, and Cube was “obsessed with” Run-DMC. Many of the West Coast rappers that had come before Dre brought an undeniable California flavor to rap, but there wasn’t yet a distinctive sound separating them from their East Coast predecessors. The Chronic was instrumental in changing all that. The album’s reinterpretation of ’70s P-Funk, dubbed G-Funk, was altogether different. Dr. Dre’s songs moved more leisurely, a tonic for the hustle and bustle of East Coast rap.

It’s an oversimplification to say Dre beats sound good, but the man did sell a line of high-performance headphones to Apple for $3 billion on the strength of his music’s supreme fullness and fidelity. He is a production genius. “I used to spend all my time trying to make my beats be mixed as good as Dr. Dre,” Kanye West recently admitted. Q-Tip called Dre the bar for producing A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Dre, in turn, was pushed to match that classic’s resonant bass, and The Chronic set a new mark.

In addition to launching Dr. Dre into rarified air, the album launched about a half dozen successful solo careers. It is the nexus of an entire chunk of rap history. Death Row peaked with the February ’96 Vibe cover, more an endnote on an era than anything else; Dre left the company a month later, and by that fall Tupac was dead. In the end, the label Dre built with Suge was just as combustible as the one he left to start it. But The Chronic lives on as a timeless show of strength when the stakes couldn’t have been higher, and as the herald of a tectonic shift in rap. Without it, or Dre, there is no Game, no YG, no Kendrick Lamar or To Pimp a Butterfly, no Nipsey Hussle. Dre gave shape to L.A.’s present and future. His dispatch from inside a city in transition not only furthered its sense of place in the world beyond but helped affect the place it was becoming.


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