Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’ At 20
Twenty years ago today, Dr. Dre changed hip-hop with “The Chronic.” Billboard contributor Thomas Golianopoulous takes a look back at every song on the rapper’s classic debut.
Andre ” Dr. Dre” Young was in a tough spot when he started recording his debut album, The Chronic, in June 1992. Former N.W.A. cohort Ice Cube had ridiculed the 27-year-old rapper and producer on the brutal diss track, “No Vaseline” and Dre soon left the revolutionary group following a financial dispute with Eazy-E and Ruthless Records co-founder and CEO Jerry Heller. Released from his contract, he signed to Death Row Records, an unknown entity in the industry. And then there was also the stench of his attack on TV host Dee Barnes; Dre pled no contest to assault and received two years probation. Around that time, he posed on the cover of The Source magazine holding a gun to his head. But things started turning around for Dre when The Chronic was released on December 15, 1992.
The Chronic peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spawned three top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. It redefined the West Coast sound, is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time and made gangster rap that was accessible to pop radio and MTV. In short, The Chronic brought hardcore hip-hop to the suburbs.
How’d he do it? First, he surrounded himself with some of the best young, undiscovered talent on the West Coast — Kurupt, Daz, the Lady of Rage, Nate Dogg and a kid from Long Beach who’d soon be a star, Snoop Doggy Dogg. Snoop, Daz and The D.O.C. handled most of the writing duties. Some of the records, including the stunning lead single, “Nothin But a G’ Thang,” was party music and sold an alluring lifestyle revolving around women, weed and weather. But the album is also filled with nihilist violence. Police, females, Eazy and Jerry were frequent targets.
While The Chronic trod in well-worn themes, the album broke ground musically, ushering in a sound quickly branded G-Funk. Dre slowed things down a bit, sampled his favorite funk records from artists like Parliament Funkadelic, layered heavy synths and created a mellow groove that carried hints of danger.
Dre moved more into a producer and executive role since releasing “The Chronic,” founding Aftermath Records and helping launch the careers of Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game and Kendrick Lamar. Still, “The Chronic” casts a long shadow over his career. It took Dre over seven years to release it’s follow-up, 2001 and 21 to unleash its predecessor, 2015’s Compton. With The Chronic finally hitting streaming services today (April 20), Billboard looks back at Dre’s magnum opus and his flawless execution.
|“The Chronic (Intro)”
Dr. Dre doesn’t have much to say on the album intro. “This is dedicated to the niggas that was down from day one,” he snarls. There’s a sound of a cell block door opening and then a greeting, which, in fact, doubles as a warning: “Welcome to Death Row.” From there, he lets his protégé Snoop handle the dirty work. Over a and a slew of samples — Ohio Players, Parliament, Solomon Burke, The Honey Drippers, Gylan Kain and Jim Dandy — Snoop praises Doc and Death Row and then taunts Eazy-E and Jerry Heller. Dre, of course, gets in the final word to his foes: “You’se a penguin looking motherfucker.”
“Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebrating)”
Somehow, this vicious, lewd, but highly entertaining, diss track became a huge hit, peaking at No. 8 on the Hot 100. Dre and Snoop’s targets: Bronx rapper Tim Dog (who’d recorded “Fuck Compton”), Miami bass king Luke (who offended them with “Fakin Like Gangsters”) and Eazy-E (who, amongst other things, allegedly cheated Dre out of N.W.A. royalties). How’d they do it? Booming G-Funk, verbal jabs catchier than most choruses (“You get with Doggy Dogg, ‘Oh is he crazy?’ / With your mama and your daddy hollering ‘Baaaaby'”) and a hysterical video featuring look-alike stand-ins for Eazy-E and Jerry Heller.
“Let Me Ride”
The third and final single from “The Chronic” reached No. 34 on the Hot 100 and won the 1994 Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. It’s part ode to L.A. car culture, with Dre narrating his adventures behind the wheel of a 64 Chevy Impala, and part mission statement. Here, over an interpolation of Parliament’s “Mothership Connection,” Dre spells out what he is and what he isn’t. “It’s just another motherfucking day for Dre so I begin like this / No medallions, dreadlocks or black fists / It’s just that gangster glare / With gangster raps / That gangster shit / Makes a gang of snaps,” he raps.
|“The Day the Niggaz Took Over”
Los Angeles, early 1990’s: Crack, gangs, Post-Gulf War Recession, racist cops, Rodney King, all-white jury, not guilty. It all boiled over on April 29 when the city erupted in riots. “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” is a soundtrack to the carnage. Eerie blips and bleeps highlight the urgency of the reggae-tinged track, while news cast samples narrate the action. Finally, Dre goes inside the mind of a looter, “Sitting in my living room, calm and collected / Feeling that gotta-get-mine perspective/ Cause what I just heard broke me in half.” One drawback: This song might be responsible for Snoop Lion.
“Nuthin’ But a G Thang”
The first single off “The Chronic” is really a gangster rap pop song, an iconic record that sold over one million singles, hit No. 2 on the Hot 100, made Dre and Snoop the most bad-ass tandem since Mick and Keith, legitimized Death Row Records and created a star. Snoop, who wrote the entire song, is all weird charisma. He rarely looks at the camera in the song’s video and leisurely tosses off genius one-liners like, “Getting funky on the mic like an old batch of collared greens.” Sampling Leon Haywood‘s “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You,” the whole thing sounds so clean. It’s just as great twenty years later.
Not every record has to be “Fight the Power” or “The Message.” There’s a place for a song called “Deez Nuts.” Dre and Daz’s verses are good, yet forgettable. The beat is pure G-Funk, yet mere window dressing. It’s all about Warren G’s prank phone call, the Rudy Ray Moore stand-up clip, and Nate Dogg singing, “I-I-I-I-I-I-I can’t be faded / I’m a nigga from the motherfucking street,” over and over and over again.
|“Lil Ghetto Boy”
More than just a sample, “Lil Ghetto Boy” is close to a remake of Donny Hathaway‘s 1972 classic “Little Ghetto Boy.” All three verses are important. Snoop flashes great storytelling and songwriting chops, pulling off the imprisoned wild, young brawler in the first verse and the more contemplative kid at song’s end. Sandwiched in between is one of Dre’s best verses, which was probably written by The D.O.C. Dre’s character, 27 years-old, off on parole, robs the wrong youngster and takes six shots. It’s a necessary buzzkill.
|“A N*gga Witta Gun”
One of the rare Dre solo records on the album and a bit of a departure musically — the thick, woozy bass line, sampled from Johnny Hammond Smith‘s “Big Sur Suite,” and the drum break from Whodini’s “Friends” form a harder, more pressing tempo. Fact: Both “A N*gga Witta Gun” and House of Pain’s “Who’s the Man?,” which was released in spring 1993, sampled “Who’s the Man” by the Kay-Gee’s.
As close to an album filler as you’ll find on “The Chronic.” Poor sequencing is partly to blame. Sure, the sample from Donny Hathaway‘s “Vegetable Wagon” creates some sort of dark aura but must this song arrive immediately after “A N*gga Witta Gun,” another Dre solo record about firearms?
|“The $20 Sack Pyramid”
The early 1990’s were the golden age of rap skits. And this parody of the Dick Clark hosted game show is just as good as the stuff Prince Paul was doing with De La Soul. The highlight is another cutting dig at Tim Dog. The contestant with the conspicuous voice is The D.O.C., a once masterful rapper from Dallas, Texas whose voice transformed into a harsh rasp after he suffered a crushed larynx in a car accident.
Dre isn’t really missed from this posse cut — which samples John Bonham‘s thundering percussion from Led Zeppelin‘s “When the Levee Breaks” — as The Lady of Rage, Kurupt and RBX each bring something special to it. Rage’s energy and gruff delivery are a revelation. RBX is a unique, commanding presence. But Kurupt, the young Philly transplant, steals the show with alliterative, rabid internal rhyme schemes such as, “This young black kid, a mercenary, merciless / Murdering millions of n*ggas so who’s first to diss.”
A fun interlude that should have ended after Dre’s intro. It’s just “some of that ol’ gangster shit” that Dre “can just kick back and smoke a fat ass joint to” but RBX’s verse falls flat. “I drop bombs like Hiroshima” is Hip-Hop Similes 101. And did he really just rhyme “book” with “crook?”
|“The Doctor’s Office”
Remember how “The $20 Sack Pyramid” was clever, funny, original and the epitome of a great hip hop skit? “The Doctor’s Office” is bad, really, really bad. Here’s the gist: In addition to rapping and producing, Dr. Dre is a real M.D. who takes appointments and has sex with his patients! There’s a mix-up at the reception desk. Hilarity ensues. Worst of all, it made sex skits de rigueur in 90’s hip hop. ( Big Pun‘s “Taster’s Choice” is the gold standard in that sub-genre.)
|“Stranded on Death Row”
One of the great posse cuts in rap history begins with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys spouting absurdities. Organs swell, Bill keeps yapping and, somehow, starts making sense. Then, the rest of the sample from Isaac Hayes‘ “Do Your Thing (Live)” drops and here comes Kurupt rapping at a normal pace and then goes really fast. Sometimes, it’s just for two or three words. Sometimes it’s for one or two bars. Either way, it’s awesome. Rage and RBX follow with their strongest performances to date. Snoop bats clean-up and delivers what, twenty years later, is still one of the best verses of his career. He sounds like a kid rhyming in a street corner battle (“Stepping through the fog / And creeping through the smog / It’s the number one n*gga from the hood, Doggy Dogg”), then breaks into a sing-song melody about gang unity. And, oh, there’s Bushwick Bill again at the end!
|“The Roach (The Chronic Outro)”
Over an interpolation of Parliament’s “P Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” RBX pontificates on his favorite strain of weed, gets the munchies. Inoffensive fun.
|“Outro (Bitches Ain’t Shit)”
Dre gets one last dig at Eazy-E and Jerry Heller on this song — which was just named “Outro” for the album’s original release — but there’s an elephant in the room here: the misogyny is ugly and thick, even for a rap record. The chorus is, “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks,” and women are treated like disposable sperm receptacles.