Dr. Dre – [CD & DVD]

Monday, 26 October 2009

In every music genre, there are a few records that mark time and mark a shift in values that would forevermore be felt and seen in the style and sound of that genre – how it's perceived, what it might mean to the people listening, what it means from both a historical and sociological standpoint – and indicates a shift in direction as far as how that sound is both performed and consumed. In the early years of hip hop and rap (read: after Sugarhill Gang got the ball rolling with “Rapper's Delight” and after Afrika Bambaataa took the sound out of the park and into the studio, infusing it with electronics), albums like Run DMC's King Of Rock, The Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill and Melle Mel's The Message established rap and hip hop as a going force on radio airwaves that was not going away anytime soon; that was the cultural Year Zero. A little later, as the sound spread out and moved west, Public Enemy got political (thus adding another voice to what had previously been party music) and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton signaled that such a voice would not be ignored because there were people in the world that believed in it so much, they lived and died by it.

At that point it became apparent that, more than most other forms of music, rap and hip hop represented an entire spectrum of life for people; it could be light and it could be dark. That's also when people outside of the community started getting nervous – this was more than music, it was a lifestyle for some and salvation for a few; they would protect it. That's when the backlash happened and, for a little while, things got very segregated again; for a few years, hip hop went underground and built an audience, and the artists making the music honed their craft. Moments of greatness would poke up, make a mark and get swept under the rug again, so the sound continued to build in back alleys, underground clubs and on street corners, but not in the limelight.

Then, in 1992 – just as grunge was erupting a few hundred miles north of California – Dr. Dre released The Chronic and changed the game completely, totally and unalterably.

Because hip hop music and culture had been stewing in the underground and building up strength, The Chronic seemed to come out fully formed and with guns blazing when it appeared in 1992. With years of experience from his stretch in N.W.A., Dr. Dre already had a fine set of chops and an inimitable flow as his disposal but, backed by his hand-picked and hungry new stable of emcees (which included Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Warren G, Rage and Kurupt), Dre and The Chronic were unstoppable. Even now, the echoes of the emcee/producer's then-revolutionary (now omni-present) production style featuring bigger and more melodic sounds can be heard in every corner of mainstream hip hop and, even with seventeen years behind it now, it doesn't sound dated in spite of also obviously being “of its time.”

From the opening, introductory title track, Dr. Dre knows he has something to prove with The Chronic and it shows. Dre was probably the least visible member of N.W.A. (in spite of being one of the most instrumental) surrounded by the outspoken likes of Eazy-E and Ice Cube, so he steps up hard and doesn't back down as his crew rolls into “Fuck Wit Dre Day” but what really sets the record apart is how it rolls in. Dre was the first to present a lackadaisical (and occasionally attenuated) boogie bass and beat in such a way that it seemed cock-of-the-walk and confident rather than as some sort of commentary on rock culture (see Run DMC's take on “Walk This Way” for your fill of irony) or just plain stiff. Dre's grooves in “Fuck Wit Dre Day,” “Let Me Ride” and “Ain't Nuthin But A “G” Thang” owe a tonne to the R&B greats like Quincy Jones and the Philadelphia International stable over the standard pack of rock or weak synthetic junk that was getting used by other artists around the same time. The results slip and slide easily and cause heads to bob rather than throwing hands in the air or jumping up and down, and that design provides the perfect foil for the wildly violent scenes contained in, and painted with, the lyric sheets. Throughout The Chronic (and this would become de rigeur throughout Dre's releases, as well as those of the other 'Death Row Inmates' until Snoop broke with tradition after “Gangsta's Paradise” and “Murder Was The Case”) scenes of rape, gun play, murder and other violent crimes are portrayed as a fact of life in songs like “Nigga Witta Gun,” “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” and “Lyrical Gangbang” in living, breathing, dripping, bleeding technicolor and not so much presented to listeners but slammed in their collective face – almost as a warning. The dark, crass and caustic sentiments expressed in the lyrics are issued with a knowing spit in them too; every step of the way through The Chronic's sixteen tracks is made with the consequences not just implied, but flat out stated. Because of that, it becomes slightly more understandable how, in fairly short order, the East Coast scene became incensed by Death Row and its artists; issuing challenge after challenge back and forth between the scenes and regularly in from of the camera lens, and finally culminating in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.

It sounds opportunistic to say it, but all of that started here on The Chronic and the ripples the album created back then continue to be felt now. Had Dre not rip-started his career with The Chronic, he wouldn't have built the name that led him to produce Eminem and, in the same line, may not have brought any notice to 50 Cent. The anger and aggression that Limp Bizkit and Korn would lay out in the late Nineties may still have come without Dre and The Chronic, but it probably wouldn't have had so receptive an ear in the hip hop community as it did get, thus briefly bridging the once mutually exclusive camps of hip hop and rock. In short, without The Chronic, music would most likely be a very different place.

Now, seventeen years on, The Chronic is (rightly) a certified institution and the reissue of the album proves it. The songs still hold up and, while the lawlessness of gangland seems to have faded from the public concern, the thoughts, acts and statements made by this album still hold up in in the street life canon and still draw chillingly vivid images to mind – this has not faded so far that it could be mistaken for fantasy. While the Re-Lit Edition of The Chronic claims to be remastered, the truth is that it was terrifyingly clear in the first place and any changes that may have been made must have largely been for the producer's peace of mind; the only clearer The Chronic could be is if one lived it. Likewise, while the interview footage and videos collected on the DVD portion of the set will be of interest to die hard fans and historians, they all neither add to nor detract from the album – they are simply additions made to interest long-time fans.

Taking the set as a whole, the fantastic part of The Chronic is that no matter how far forward things have moved, this music will still ring as an unflinching truth for an entire community of people – some of whom hadn't even been born when the album was first released. That is the mark of an enduring work; no matter how much time may have lapsed, the basic truths endure – even if they may only reflect as a series of parables. Such power exists un-weakened with time in The Chronic.



Dr. Dre – “Poor Young Dave” – Chronic Outtake

Dr. Dre – “Dogg Collar” – Chronic Outtake


The Chronic Re-Lit & From The Vault Edition
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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