Dr. Dre ~ The Chronic (1992)

Posted on September 15, 2012

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This album is a true masterpiece, as well as a sonic turning point in rap history. The Chronic is arguably the best and most influential West Coast rap album ever made; birthed from the brilliant mind of Dr. Dre.

In the eight years leading to this album’s recording (1984 to 1991); Dr. Dre cut a wide swath in the music industry. Starting as a DJ at the Los Angeles nightspot Eve After Dark, Dre (Andre Young) helped define West Coast Hip Hop in ensuing years; first as a member of the electro hop quartet World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and then as the auditory backbone of NWA, the gangsta brigade that shocked the rap world from the late 80’s through the early 90’s. In 1991, shortly after NWA’s chart-topping set Niggaz 4 Life dropped, Dr. Dre acrimoniously parted with the group, its label Ruthless Records, and his longtime friend Eazy-E, in disputes over compensation, and started over from scratch with his then-manager Suge Knight. Together, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight formed a soon-to-be juggernaut label named Death Row Records, and Dre assembled a motley crew to fill out the label’s roster. There was The D.O.C. (Tracy Curry), a Dallas legend Dre discovered and took to platinum heights over at Ruthless; Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus), a charismatic, molasses-voiced kid from Long Beach, California; Snoop’s cousins RBX (Eric Collins) and Dat Nigga Daz a.k.a. Daz Dillinger (Delmar Arnaud); Chicago songstress Jewell Peyton; Virginia rhyme champ The Lady of Rage (Robin Allen); Philadelphia mic mangler Kurupt the Kingpin (Ricardo Brown); and Long Beach gangsta crooner Nate Dogg (Nathaniel Hale). With this talented band of renegades in the fold, Dre entered the studio in the spring and summer of 1992, to record his first album as a soloist. Dr. Dre, who was near bankruptcy when he left Ruthless, put his energy and lifeblood into his solo release, and his future teetered perilously on its success. One week before Christmas, Dre emerged from the lab with his magnum opus; a megaton bomb called The Chronic.

As with many Dr. Dre productions in the Golden Era, The Chronic is awe-inspiring in its symmetry. There’s a proper place for every track, and every track is in its proper place. Many of the album’s 16 tracks song fall into separate categories. There are songs with Dr. Dre and his star discovery Snoop Dogg as a duo; songs with the entire Death Row crew, in varying lineups; and songs with Dr. Dre by his lonesome. All of the songs are couched in the G-Funk sound Dre is often credited with creating; a rhythmic mélange of crisp drum lines, sinewy synthesizers, and stirring soul and funk melodies. The songs featuring Dre and Snoop in tandem offer some of the album’s best material, as Dre finds the same simpatico with Snoop he had with NWA members MC Ren and Ice Cube. On the first full-length cut “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)”, typically referred to as just “Dre Day”, Dre, with Snoop at his side and Jewell assisting on the chorus, settles scores with a few enemies: Bronx rapper Tim Dog, 2 Live Crew captain Uncle Luke, and his old friend Eazy-E, over a flush and bouncy reworking of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep”. “Nuthin But A G Thang” is the platinum platter that pushed The Chronic into the stratosphere, and it is as glorious as it’s ever been. Dre takes the midnight love chords from the intro of Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You”, accents them with light drum clops, smooth keys and sleek synths; and then flows back and forth with Snoop on top of this concoction, and the two of them trade lines like seasoned pros. The lovely “Lil Ghetto Boy” is the last cut on the album with Dre and Snoop sharing lead mic, and once again, they deliver magnificently, with poignant war stories of a baby gangster living the prison blues (Snoop), and an original gangster who gets shot trying to flex on a youngster (Dre). “Lil Ghetto Boy” is unquestionably the deepest song on the album; opening with a sound clip of the 1992 L.A. riots documentary Birth Of A Nation; peppered with pseudo-ragga vocals by Daz Dillinger; and filled out by strutting drums, cascading horns, lush flutes, and a sterling interpolation of Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy”.

For the Dr. Dre solo numbers, Dre sports the swagger, star power, and admirable flow that made him a primary attraction in both the World Class Wreckin’ Cru and NWA. On “Let Me Ride”, the chart-climbing follow up to “G Thang”, Dre cruises L.A. from dawn to dusk with his pistol at his side, and uses a perfect blend of a Bill Withers drum kit (from “Kissing My Love”) and a Parliament groove (from “Mothership Connection”) as the soundtrack for his journey. “A Nigga Witta Gun” is a murder fable co-written by Snoop Dogg and The DOC; that casts Dre as a villain in black, gunning down every living thing in his path, atop a sinister jazz break and the timeless drum rumbles from Whodini’s “Friends”. And on “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”, Dre’s killing spree continues, this time with his trusty semi-automatic doing the honors, Snoop Dogg chanting on the hook, and a chilling Donny Hathaway sample slipped over the cymbal crushes of Lou Donaldson’s “Pot Belly”.

When the entire Death Row first team represents, The Chronic expands, and we see the harnessed power that made Death Row Records an unstoppable force. The ragga-tinged “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” is a re-enactment of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, where Dre’s eerie bass creep sounds air lifted from a film score, and he, Daz, Snoop, and RBX play residents caught in the riots, who relay their individual experiences to us. “Deez Nuts” has a gumbo funk groove that floats divinely, along with spirited, “G” rated verses from Dre and Daz Dillinger, and the first of many inspired showcases from Nate Dogg, whose smooth baritone closes out the song. “Lyrical Gangbang” is an exercise in gangsta rhyme science, featuring The Lady of Rage, Kurupt the Kingpin, and The Narrator RBX firing Black Talons, while the regal drums from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” pound behind them. “High Powered” is a melodic dirty bomb with “Funky Worm” styled synthesizers, Dr. Dre and The Lady of Rage tag-teaming on the intro, RBX spitting a borderline psychotic verse, and Daz Dillinger thumping his chest on the fadeout. Bushwick Bill (of the Geto Boys) appears on “Stranded On Death Row”; giving a Rod Serling/Twilight Zone-esque intro and fadeout, and then giving way to one of the tightest posse cuts ever made, with Kurupt, Rage, RBX, and Snoop flowing down the line over a Graham Central Station drum loop, and each repping a prison cell block. And on the jeep-knocking closer “Bitches Ain’t Shit”, Dre throws parting shots at both Eazy-E and former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller; Daz, Kurupt, and Snoop theorize on chickenheads and connivers; and Jewell sings (and raps) the outro.

The Chronic bangs for myriad reasons. Being that this is a Dr. Dre album, of course the production takes precedence. Dre was always known as a great beatsmith, but he raised the production bar completely out of reach on this album. Dre and his musician corps – Colin Wolfe, Justin Reinhart, Eric “The Drunk” Borders, Chris Clairmont, and Katisse Buckingham – gave this album an orchestral feel; with hypnotic basslines and full, intricate melodies. And Dre’s knowledge of breaks also carries this album. From Parliament-Funkadelic to Bill Withers to Led Zeppelin, Dre clearly knows good music, and he gets great mileage from his sample sources.

But Dr. Dre also gets by with help from his friends. Each member of the Death Row family made vital contributions to The Chronic, and many of their individual identities began to emerge here. All of their artistic traits shine brightly: Snoop’s oil-slick hustler steez; RBX’s disturbed, edge-of-sanity timbre; Kurupt and Rage’s rhyme fighter energy and precision; and Nate Dogg and Jewell’s soulful, street-savvy vocalizing. Dre is the clear star, but this project could not have succeeded without his supporting cast.

It’s difficult to capture in words the impact The Chronic had on Hip Hop, and on the world of music as a whole. In its time, it was one of the few West Coast records fervently played in New York City, which generally thumbed its nose at West Coast music in the early Golden Era. Out West, it gave many artists from the Pacific a new sonic blueprint to follow when making their records. From coast to coast, The Chronic completely revolutionized the way records were made; forcing many artists to completely reconfigure their own works in order to measure up. And, last but not least, the album would be an enormous commercial and critical success. To date, The Chronic has sold an astronomical eight million copies worldwide, and has been acknowledged by many music pundits as one of the most pivotal recordings in music history. This of course would be the jump off point for Death Row Records as an industry super power, with a small battery of multi-platinum releases following this one off Tha Row’s assembly line. Dr. Dre has a number of impressive works under his belt, but The Chronic remains his defining moment. No examination of Dr. Dre’s work, or of 90s Hip Hop, is complete without a look at The Chronic. It’s the very definition of a masterwork, and that’s the undisputed truth.

To listen to The Chronic, click here.

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