Dr. Dre has solidified his spot at the peak of hip-hop's upper echelon. Is it time to dub him the GOAT?
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, Ghostface Killah, and Busta Rhymes. Today, we're holding it down for Dr. Dre
I Started This Gangsta Shit
After a trusted colleague came through with the hook-up, engineer-turned record executive Jimmy Iovine found himself in possession of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. “I didn’t know who Dr. Dre was,” Iovine reflects, in HBO’s The Defiant Ones. “All I remember, is Dre & Suge came in to play us The Chronic.” Impressed by the album’s pristine production, Jimmy inquired about the recording engineer. He was surprised to learn that Dre himself was responsible for the entirety of the mixing.
“Dre’s sonics were far superior to any rock record being made, or any hip-hop,” said Jimmy. “These guys remind me of when I first saw The Rolling Stones...They scare you, but the music brings you in.” While Dre had already gained notoriety as a member of the World’s Most Dangerous Group, his tour-de-force performance on The Chronic shaped the zeitgeist of early nineties West Coast music.
The nerds better pay homage. Dre’s aptitude for behind-the-scenes production played an integral part in elevating his brand to the upper echelon. Jimmy Iovine’s co-sign speaks volumes; this was a man accustomed to the groundbreaking production of Sir George Martin and Jimmy Miller. The positioning of microphones. The delicate art of equalization. The cornerstones of Dre’s extensive arsenal. Perhaps only the audio nerds will truly understand the significance. Yet it can’t be denied - audio engineering bridged the gap between two worlds, and without it, perhaps Dre and Jimmy Iovine may never have connected.
After Dre and Snoop landed a spot on the predominantly white Rolling Stone magazine, the seemingly “unmarketable” gangsta rap album went on to sell millions. And while Dre’s official debut has gone on to secure three platinum plaques (as of 2015), consider his musical accomplishments for a moment. Rather than relying on traditional sampling methods, Dre recreated entire sections with a team of musicians. Bass, keys, woodwinds. All was on the table. The blend of organic instrumentation and genre fluidity helped solidify the doctor’s reputation as one of music’s true visionaries.
The Chronic paved the way for a cavalcade of West Coast icons. Snoop Dogg, Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, Nate Dogg, and Warren G went on to enjoy successful careers in the wake of Dre’s debut. Few albums have created such a multifaceted impact. From historical, to musical, to production, Dre’s debut encapsulated the creative spirit. Talented people dedicated to creating timeless art. And maybe throwing an occasional house party on the side.
Still Dre Day
As the years passed, Dre’s musical aesthetic seemed to evolve. While his formative years essentially pioneered a new era of G-Funk into mainstream culture, the late nineties found him adapting a darker aesthetic. The production team of Dr. Dre, Mel Man, Mike Elizondo, and Scott Storch emerged as kindred spirits, blending West Coast production staples with a sinister, haunting shift toward piano. Chord progressions were seldom major key, and plenty of 2001’s production simmered with menace; even Devin The Dude assisted sex anthem “Fuck You” was more melancholic than seductive.
Frequent collaborator Scott Storch spoke with Rolling Stone about the creative process, stating “I'd be on the keyboards, and Mike [Elizondo] was on the bass guitar, and Dre was on the drum machine.” Once again, sessions encouraged an open and collaborative spirit; creativity flew uninhibited in a string of hip-hop jam sessions. Even when Dre did look elsewhere for inspiration, drawing from French producer Charles Aznavour’s “Parce Que Tu Crois” on “What’s The Difference” or David McCullum’s “The Edge” on “The Next Episode,” the Compton legend managed to reinvent the source material in clever and engaging ways.
I’ll put it like this. The production on Dr. Dre’s 2001 is among the greatest the genre has ever seen. Perhaps the greatest. Literally every beat is fire.
Musicality aside, Dre’s deft hand at engineering once again proved Midas-like. Many consider Dre’s sophomore project to be among the best sounding records of all time; even today, 2001 still holds up against any contender. It’s interesting to imagine Dr. Dre spending hours behind the boards, tinkering with levels until each element sounds right, but there’s a reason his mixes are elite status.
And that’s not even factoring in his ability behind the mic. Granted, Dre’s lyrical legacy has oft been clouded by accusations of ghostwriting, yet it’s never seemed to tarnish the Doctor. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the creative process, and his technical chops remain underrated in many regards. His voice is among hip-hop’s most iconic, and never has he struggled with delivering a flow; even if Eminem himself wrote the verses, Dre has no trouble keeping up with the dexterous wordplay.
Can Dre be celebrated as one of the game’s greatest lyricists? Of course not. But as an entity in hip-hop music, few have left such an influence across all genres. Engineers respect his production. Musicians respect his arrangements. Rappers respect his mind for innovation. Even Radiohead wanted to enlist Dre’s services at one point, and Arctic Monkeys claimed AM was inspired by the Doctor’s work. Such transcendental influence is a rare occurrence.
Heart Still In Compton
“I got somethin' to say, Dre, I wanna tell you this shit
Right now while this fuckin' weed is in me
I don't know if I ever told you this, but I love you, dawg
I got your motherfuckin' back, just know this shit”
- Eminem, “What’s The Difference”
Without Dre, there’s no Snoop Dogg. At least not as we know him. There’s no Eminem. There’s no 50 Cent. There’s no Game. Sure, they’d still be around, but let’s not sugarcoat the impact Dr. Dre production played in developing their entire musical identities.
While Em’s work with The Bass Bros played pivotal in shaping his morose, carnival-esque aesthetic, Dr. Dre took that concept to the next level on The Marshall Mathers LP. His production on “Kill You” and “The Real Slim Shady” were tailor made for his protege; few producers would be able to deliver that type of artistic synergy.
His work with 50 Cent was no different. While Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ featured strong production across the board, “Heat,” “If I Can’t”, “Back Down” and of course, “In Da Club,” were among the strongest offerings. The latter remains one of the definitive songs of the early millennium, and Dre’s hypnotic, uniquely Aftermath interpretation of a club banger was yet another moment of versatility.
His stalwart presence even brought Obie Trice’s Cheers up a few notches, delivering one of his strongest beats ever in the whimsical, Busta Rhymes-assisted “Oh.” Speaking of Busta, Dre never failed to bring his A-Game for the New York legend; “Truck Volume,” “Break Ya Neck,” “Holla,” “Get You Some” and “Legend Of The Fall Offs” are among Dre’s most strange and sinister instrumentals.
Dre’s legacy could very well exist based solely on the merits of his solo output. Yet his mark has been felt on many-a-classic album, and one has to wonder; would those albums be classics without the musical stylings of Dr. Dre?
While the long awaited Detox never quite came to fruition, Dre’s triumphant return was marked by his third studio album Compton. Billed as a soundtrack to the then-unreleased NWA biopic, Compton bridged the gap between two generations of collaborators. Eminem, Xzibit, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg (Up In Smoke Tour!) held it down for the old guard, while Jon Connor, Anderson Paak, and Kendrick Lamar represented for the young bloods.
For some, the importance of Compton was brushed off, or worse, overlooked entirely. Yet for anybody who came up listening to Dre, the album was nothing short of a victory lap. At once nostalgic and personal (shout out "Talking To My Diary"), the project proved that Dre could still deliver relevant music even at the age of fifty. Think about that for a second. Dre has been in the game since 1985; the Doc has pretty much dedicated his life to the betterment of the culture. Hell, he's reinvented it on more than one occasion.
And now, on the verge of becoming hip-hop's first billionaire, Dre has long since solidified himself a place in the annals of music history. Yet for whatever reason, some remain hesitant to throw him in the GOAT conversation. Think about it. Can anybody in hip-hop ever even come close to achieving what Dr. Dre has achieved?
To put it simply, he started this gangsta shit. Time to give the man his long-overdue thanks.