Happy 25th Anniversary to Dr. Dre’s debut solo album The Chronic, originally released December 15, 1992.
The Chronic changed hip-hop music. When Andre “Dr. Dre” Young released his debut album a quarter of century ago, he changed the sound of hip-hop music going forward and defined the sound for an entire geographic region. The album is certified triple platinum and its biggest single, “Nuthin' But a ‘G’ Thang,” is one of the most beloved singles of the ’90s. It turned Dre into the hottest producer on the planet, and made the label that released the album, Death Row Records, into a monstrous force.
If you had told me in the beginning of 1992 that Dr. Dre would be hip-hop’s biggest superstar by the end of the year, I’d have thought you’d been smoking some really powerful shit. While he was a genius of a beatmaker for N.W.A, he was the least gifted rapper in the group (Yes, he was worse than Eazy-E; Eazy had a better voice and more charisma than Dre could ever manage). Dre spent a lot of time rhyming on N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin (1991), but it was mostly out of necessity, as Ice Cube had left the group due to contractual issues with Eazy-E and the group’s manager Jerry Heller.
As 1991 drew to a close, Dre left the definitive gangsta rap group for ostensibly the same reasons that compelled Cube to flee. He linked up with the Marion “Suge” Knight and started laying the foundation for the Death Row enterprise. For his first post-N.W.A cut, Dre linked up with a young Calvin “Snoop Doggy Dogg” Broadus, then a lanky youngster with a smooth, conversational flow. The pair recorded the title track for the Deep Cover soundtrack released in April 1992, and then began setting to work recorded The Chronic.
I went to buy The Chronic on a late Tuesday morning after a pair of midterm exams in the first semester of my senior year in high school. Maybe it was because I was closer to graduating, but unlike the previous spring, I didn’t wait until all of my exams were over to head down to Leopold’s in Berkeley to make my purchase. As I walked back to my car, cassette in hand, it seemed like Snoop’s voice talking over the “Funky Worm” keyboards was blasting out of every car. Once I headed back towards school for basketball practice, I knew that everyone was listening to the album’s intro, featuring Snoop Dogg talking exquisite trash for a couple of minutes. By the time I made it to practice, I’d only made it through to “’G’ Thang,” but even though I hadn’t finished side 1, I was aware that I was listening to something special.
The G-Funk sound was something Dre had been developing. “Alwayz Into Somethin,’” the first single from N.W.A’s second album, had been the prototype for the G-Funk track. He’d paired a dark and moody section of Bob James’ “Storm King” with a high-pitched keyboard sample, creating a sharp contrast. He took that template and applied it to much of the work that he created with The Chronic.
Many of the beats on The Chronic are built around samples of funk songs, often from artists from the Parliament-Funkadelic camp or other popular Funk/R&B artists from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Sampling funk records wasn’t new to hip-hop or even to gangsta rap, but Dre found a way to fuse it with his own live instrumentation to make it sound fresh and unique. The music on The Chronic still maintained its overall “gangsta” sensibilities, but it was often more mellow than the hyper-aggressive music he put together for N.W.A. It was great music to play in a park, at a barbecue, or in the car.
No song better typified this new approach than “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” which dropped in November 1992 with the impact of a calm bomb. It prominently featured Dre and Snoop trading lines and verses over a sample of Leon Haywood’s “I Want'a Do Something Freaky To You,” along with extra keyboards and synths played by Dre himself. The accompanying video added to its popularity, as it depicted Dre and Snoop weaving their way through a Saturday in South Central Los Angeles. It’s filled with striking images: the guy working the grill with a 9MM tucked in his waistband, Dre’s step-brother Warren G brazenly rolling a blunt on camera, the fridge full of 40 ounces, etc. It was the ideal entrée into the album.
Despite Dre’s limitations as an emcee, back in the early ’90s, he had few peers as a producer and developer of talent. The Chronic can be credited for launching the careers of a busload of artists, many of whom continue to record music to this day. Along with Snoop Dogg, The Chronic hosted the introductions to Daz Dillinger and Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound, Nate Dogg, Lady of Rage, RBX, Jewell, the aforementioned Warren G, and producer/musician Colin Wolfe.
It’s also worth noting that there was great diversity in the talent showcased on this album. Snoop Dogg and Daz excelled at the “traditional” smooth gangsta-isms, while Philly-native Kurupt was a true-born Rakim disciple. RBX, a cousin of Snoop and Daz, was a product of the Good Life Café freestyle scene and rhymed with a ferocious snarl, while Rage was a Virginia-born lyrical head-banger with a rugged flow. And Nate Dogg is perhaps the best gangsta-influenced rapper/singer hybrid to ever come along. Each of these artists received multiple moments to shine on The Chronic and each delivered.
Part of what makes The Chronic such a great album is that it sounds like it was made without conceit. It doesn’t sound like Dre was trying to revolutionize the direction of hip-hop music with The Chronic. Instead, it sounds like it was just him and his homies hanging out in Death Row Studios, imbibing a lot of liquor, smoking massive quantities of marijuana, and recording music. Which, by many accounts, is an accurate description of the recording process.
Dre decided to start off The Chronic with “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin'),” making settling scores the first item on his agenda. It makes sense, since his issues with Eazy-E and Jerry Heller are the central reason the album exists in the first place. But Eazy and Heller aren’t Dre’s only targets, as he and Snoop roast Tim Dog, 2 Live Crew founder Luther “Luke” Campbell, and Ice Cube over a replaying of Funkadelic’s “Not Just Knee Deep.” The clap-backs on this album directed towards Ice Cube are rarely talked about, mostly because the two squashed their beef shortly after The Chronic dropped. But when Dre talks about going on a “Street Knowledge mission” and putting “the chrome to the side of his White Sox hat,” he doesn’t sound happy.
Anyone listening to “’G’ Thang” and “Dre Day” could tell that Snoop Dogg was going to be a bona fide superstar. He had a natural mic presence, which oozed with charisma and style. Dre clearly knew the pairing would benefit both of them, and as a result, Snoop is all over The Chronic. When he’s not rapping on a track, he’s contributing hooks and ad-libs, and just making everything sound cool.
While singles like “’G’ Thang” and “Dre Day” are two of the most popular songs on The Chronic, the strongest track is the third single, “Let Me Ride.” The smooth track features Dre rhyming about rolling through the streets of Los Angeles in his ’64 Chevy Impala on Dana Danes (a.k.a. custom rims) with 16 switches. The good doctor may never have been a certified lyrical surgeon, but his delivery of “Motherfucka, I’m Dre” is probably the high-water mark of his career on the microphone. Musically, the track borrows liberally from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection,” particularly Bernie Worrell’s closing keyboard solo. As a whole, it’s pure hip-hop rider bliss.
Tracks like “Deeez Nuuuts” also typified the G-Funk sound the album was known for, as well as the often off-the-cuff lyrical vibe of much of the album. Much like “’G’ Thang,” it’s a very synth-heavy track, although it sounds more ominous, as Dre and Daz trade quick verses over layered live keyboards. However, it’s Nate Dogg’s appearance at the end of the song that’s the true highlight. It was the singer/rapper’s first appearance on a commercially released album, and his sole appearance on The Chronic. He makes his presence felt immediately, showcasing his striking and powerful vocals, infusing them with gangsta flair and panache.
Dre and his crew members addressed the volatile social climate that was unfolding as they recorded The Chronic. “The Day the N***az Took Over” attempts to capture the anger, anarchy, and energy of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Dre puts together an eerie, chaotic track, replete with pulsing keys, steady drums, and wailing sirens. Snatches of voices from live news coverage of the events filter in and out as Dre, Daz, RBX, and (briefly) Snoop play the roles of citizens participating in the uprising, ready to exact revenge upon what they perceive as a racist judicial system that didn’t provide justice for Rodney King.
“Lil’ Ghetto Boy” is much more mellow and introspective. The track, which samples Donny Hathaway’s 1972 song of the same name, examines the impact decades of poverty and the cycle of violence can have on the residents of economically depressed communities, specifically with respect to why some adopt violence as a means of survival. Both Snoop and Dre paint vivid pictures in their brief verses. Snoop raps as a young man consigned to life in prison, now surrounded by hopelessness and death every waking hour of his existence. Meanwhile, Dre describes life as a convicted felon fresh out of prison, looking to re-establish his dominance on the street corners selling drugs, only to underestimate the ruthlessness of the next generation.
The second half of The Chronic is less topical in its execution, but still uniformly strong. “A N***a Witta Gun” has the musical feel of a N.W.A-style track. Dre delivers three solid verses over a sample from the bassline to Johnny Hammond’s “Big Sur Suite” and the drums to Whodini’s “Friends.” Meanwhile, Dre again fails to dazzle on the microphone with “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” but the song still shines due to a haunting beat taken from Donny Hathaway’s “The Vegetable Wagon” and a clever hook delivered by Dre and Snoop.
Some of The Chronic’s best moments come from the tracks where Dre stays behind the boards and empowers his disciples to control the mic. “Lyrical Gangbang” is a three-verse verbal brawl that serves as the introduction to the lyricism of the Lady of Rage and Kurupt, as well as another strong verse from RBX. Rage starts the track off, acting as the proverbial bull in the china shop, rapping, “Rattle that brain, I’m not that same ol’ plain Jane / Roll on you like a boulder, you’re nothing more than a grain / Or a pebble, take it from the real rap rebel / Not Bushwick Bill but I can take it to that other level.” Kurupt announces his presence with authority as he spits, “They say I’m bad, so you’ll find none worse than this / Chewing motherfuckers up like a Hershey Kiss / Put to sleep, loving the lyrics I leave in the minds of each / Rough when flex, too complex, wrecks your mental piece.” RBX wraps up the verbal slaughter, leaving bodies strewn across his verse, proclaiming, “Nasty n***a, bloody pumps, face flat on the concrete / Here comes the white sheet.”
“High Powered” is as to close to “understated” as The Chronic gets, as Dre lays down an eerie track laced with chanting vocals and piercing synths. In a strong solo performance, RBX manages to sound simultaneously laid-back and forceful, delivering more promises of verbal murder. It’s somewhat odd that The Chronic wasn’t more of star-making performance for RBX, as the only artists who are featured more prominently on the album are Dre and Snoop. His distinctive growl and unique delivery made him a versatile facet of the Death Row collective.
The posse cut “Stranded on Death Row” is possibly the best song on The Chronic. The dark, chaotic track features verses from the trio of Kurupt, RBX, and Rage, as well as Snoop Dogg, who up ‘til this point, had yet to drop a complete verse on the album’s second half. Dre takes the gothic organ solos and warbled voices taken from the live performance of Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing” and melds them with plucky guitar strings of B.T. Express’ “If It Don’t Turn You On” (most known for being sampled on EPMD’s “So What Cha Sayin’”) to create a sinister soundscape.
The spoken intro by the Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill sets the mood perfectly, and acts as an inebriated version of The Shadow, exploring “the evil that lurks within” the hearts of men. Then all four “inmates” contribute their best performances on the album. Kurupt first promises to inflict grievous violence on all who cross him, rapping, “I’m stacking and macking and packing a 10 / So when you’re slipping, I slip the clip in, but ain't no set-trippping / ’Cause it’s Death Row, rolling like the Mafia. / Think about whooping some ass? But what the fuck stoppin' ya?” RBX follows up by giving the performance of his career, rapping, “No prevention from this lynching of sorts / You’re a victim from my drive-by of thoughts / No extensions, all attempts are to fail / Blinded by the light, it’s time you learn Braille.” Rage is next up to bat, vowing to “buck them down with my underground tactics / Facts and stacks of clips on my mattress.” Snoop Dogg, “stepping through the fog and creeping through the smog” brings the song to a close, utilizing his sing-songy style that he would continue to refine throughout his ensuing career. The whole song serves as good of a display of lyricism as any track released in 1992.
“The Roach” serves to display Dre’s musical chops, as it’s a replayed and reinterpreted version of Parliament’s “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).” RBX plays the role of George Clinton/Lollipop Man, as he extols the virtues of the weed he’s smoking. He gets progressively more stoned as the song progresses, to the point that he’s barely coherent as the song ends.
The Chronic became the defining statement of Dre’s musical career. He set the bar so high, in terms of impact and sales, that he ended up making himself a prisoner to its success. This became obvious after he left Death Row and started his Aftermath record label. The first two efforts, the 1996 compilation Dr. Dre Presents The Aftermath and hip-hop supergroup The Firm’s 1997’s debut album, were met with lukewarm sales and reviews, and sent Dre reeling. From that point on, Dre began to lend his name only to projects that he felt would be massive hits.
Dre’s subsequent albums have been less about establishing new talent, and more about functioning as referendums on Dre’s career, with him attempting to prove his ability to capture lightning in a bottle, rather than aiming to make good music. For example, his second studio album 2001 (1999) was Dre’s effort to show he hadn’t been derailed by poor reviews. The album prominently featured a pair of promising lyricists in the form of Knoc-turn’al and Hittman, but this time around Dre was the unequivocal star of the show. Just the titles of the singles alone, “Still D.R.E.” and “Forgot About Dre,” demonstrated that the album’s purpose was to show that Dre himself was back on top.
Although everyone involved in The Chronic became rapped up in their own legend as the years passed, it remains a great and vitally important album. The fact that while 2001 sold twice the number of copies, but The Chronic is Dre’s most enduring and transcendent work, speaks volumes. It also shows that some musicians really are at their most creative when they’re baked out of their minds.