As sulfurous tendrils of smoke and ash swirled in the air above Cahuenga Boulevard, the studio started filling with a swap meet’s worth of televisions and stereos. The looting had begun, swiftly fanning out from the intersection of Florence and Normandie all the way to up Frederick’s of Hollywood. Reginald Denny battled the reaper in the ICU. Rodney King vainly attempted to keep the peace. The police chief was AWOL. The mayor seemed powerless. But inside Solar Studios, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg perfected perfection, rolling up “The Chronic” while America’s second-largest city crumbled into scorched earth.
Released a quarter-century ago this month, Dr. Dre’s debut solo album sold almost 6 million copies domestically and became immediately canonized in pop culture. It certainly didn’t invent gangsta rap, but it was the first to alchemize it into the dominant soundtrack of American party music. It sold a million Chicago White Sox hats and size-44 khakis. It codified G-Funk, the languid palm tree thump that became the defining sound of Los Angeles rap. It introduced the addictive slang and drawl of Snoop Dogg, helped clear the path to marijuana legalization and offered an answer to the eternal question of “did what’s his name get at you?”
Before hip-hop’s Hippocrates became a headphone billionaire, he was nearly destitute. Apart from the west San Fernando Valley home that he’d purchased with “Straight Outta Compton” money, the 27-year-old former N.W.A. sound architect was flat broke and fighting legal turmoil on multiple fronts. In the year leading up to “The Chronic,” disturbing headlines overshadowed his music: a punch by Dre shattered another producer’s jaw; MTV News reported on a shooting that left four bullets in his leg; he totaled his car; and his house burned down.
In May 1992, Dre left a music industry convention in New Orleans in handcuffs after allegedly participating in a brawl that left a 15-year-old stabbed and four police officers wounded. None of this even accounts for his attack on rapper and “Pump it Up” host Dee Barnes — a brutal assault that indelibly stains his legacy.
Among the most interesting music alternative history scenarios is this one: What if Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine had never entered the picture?
We instinctively remember the Dre of bulletproof myth, but there was a time when doors slammed in his face. Maybe that’s melodramatic exaggeration, but in a 1993 Rolling Stone profile, the mastermind behind N.W.A.’s panzer-attack sound recalled: “I needed a record to come out. . . . Ruthless [Records] spent the year trying to figure out ways not to pay me so that I’d come back on my hands and knees.”
(The dispute between Dre and his former N.W.A. partner Eazy-E is familiar to anyone who saw the 2015 movie “Straight Outta Compton.”)
Ruthless business honcho Jerry Heller countered that Dre earned $85,000 in that calendar year. What’s unequivocal is that Dre’s ironclad contract frightened off almost every prospective label, at least until Iovine swooped in flush with Gerardo and Marky Mark money. By then, the artwork, video concepts and the album itself were almost fully formed. When the dust of negotiations finally settled, Eazy-E wasn’t lying when he later bragged, “Dre Day only makes Eazy’s payday.”
After recording the first half of the record in Dre’s home, the nascent Death Row Records established a nerve center in a Hollywood that had lapsed into pure Babylonian decay.
Even if you disregard the riots, the George H.W. Bush-era recession left the Walk of Fame a hardscrabble corridor of chintzy souvenir stands, drug bazaars and sex trafficking. Snoop Dogg missed rent payments for a $500-a-month apartment that he shared with seven people.
Only three years earlier, Dre bragged about not smoking weed because it caused brain damage. Then Snoop Dogg popped into the picture — bringing the finest sticky icky and his 213 Crew from Long Beach’s Eastside — and introduced a younger, more lighthearted and Technicolor element that contrasted with N.W.A.’s carnivorous aggression.
As the initial manifesto, “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” proclaimed: “Compton and Long Beach together, now you know you’re in trouble.” As much as “The Chronic” is a psychedelic and sinister warp of the Parliament and Funkadelic records that constantly rotated on Dre’s childhood turntable, it is the sound of Long Beach, too: the ecumenical hymns of the Baptist church turned into filthy harmonic gospel by Snoop, Nate Dogg, Warren G and Daz.
If there is an unsung component to the record, it is the hidden hand of Pomona, Calif.’s Cold 187um, the producer for Ruthless Records group Above the Law and whom many consider the rightful co-inventor of G-Funk. Yet if it was originally a communal idea to render the “Funky Worm” and old Bootsy Collins bass lines into swaggering, tear-up-the-BBQ rap anthems, it was Dre’s golden ear that understood how to turn a beat into a fully formed universe.
“The Chronic” is a masterpiece in world-building. Kanye West famously said that the album “is still the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’ It’s the benchmark you measure your album against if you’re serious.”
It’s Frank Gehry constructing the Guggenheim, the ’96 Chicago Bulls, the soundtrack to infinite kickbacks and stickups, beloved equally in the streets and suburbs, West Coast to East.
If you ask rappers and producers about Dre’s genius, they generally offer one of two platitudes. The first invariably alludes to his “ear,” that ineffable auteur quality shared by Kanye, where the gifted one sifts through a roomful of clashing ideas and instinctively points to the right one and says, “That’s it!”
The other is the notion of perfectionism. Outside of Phil Spector, few figures in music history are as notoriously rigid as Dre.
In a 1992 profile in the Source, the author shadowed the Death Row crew for the session that yielded the “$20 Sack Pyramid” skit. Even for such a nominally insignificant moment on the album, Dre presided with dictatorial authority, commanding the D.O.C., Snoop and Daz to alternate between humming and whistling, as they attempted to approximate the ideal parody of the Dick Clark game show theme song. The writer recalled Dre mumbling to himself, “I gotta get that first one,” a phrase that only he understood, as he cryptically navigated the smoked-out conclave of his mind.
If you lived through the ’90s, the skits inevitably remain scrawled in the resin of your memory. They’re profane and infinitely quotable. Meanwhile, each song could receive its own essay. Even when it’s Snoop sibilantly spitting venom at Eazy-E, Jerry Heller or any other constellation of anonymous villains, it’s compulsively listenable. No one ever rapped more effortlessly, adroitly toggling between sneering menace and lackadaisical chill. As for Dre, he wasn’t lying when he said we’d never met another producer who could “rap and control the maestro.”
“Dre Day” is one of the most vicious dismantlings in history, complete with an immortal video featuring a pathetic Eazy-E caricature and Dre flashing a laser scope on Heller, then assassinating him.
“Let Me Ride” could boom over the pink sunset fade-out of every Los Angeles heist flick from here until the state slides into the sea. With only a minor tweak and some live instrumentation, “Nuthin’ But A G Thang” turned an old Leon Haywood sex jam into an entire subgenre.
If those world-conquering singles are the movable limbs, the heart and marrow of the album belong to “Lil Ghetto Boy” and “The Day The N----z Took Over.” The former flips a Donny Hathaway civil rights spiritual into a tragic meditation on the terrifying karma of Marine Blue and Piru red L.A. It was a reminder that every party could be shot up, every Crenshaw cruise could became fatal at the wrong intersection. With the latter — a frenetic sirens-flashing deception of the L.A. riots — Dre captured the raw nerves and intractable frustration that defined an era and a city that felt like the world’s funkiest power keg.
This was “The Chronic,” a fragrant reminder of a time and place, but an idea rooted in something unseen, that silent tumorous reminder that at any time this experiment could go up in flames.