A defining musical mind unlike any other, Dr. Dre has long showcased a deep understanding of using different instruments, be it piano, guitar, bass, or violin.
The hip-hop production landscape has changed since the beginning of the millennium. With technological advancements come a slew of newly opened doors, through which a legion of aspiring beatmakers has entered. And while the influx has led to an exciting variety of instrumentals, it’s hard to deny a simple yet distressing truth. It has become easier to identify a producer through their tag than their musical choices. That’s not to say that modern beatmakers have become interchangeable, but more of a general observation about the importance of keeping up with the ongoing sonic trends.
At the risk of leaning back on the proverbial rocking chair and letting fly a wistful “back-in-the-day,” it feels appropriate to look back on one of hip-hop’s defining eras, where the dominant producers brought no shortage of distinct character to the fold. That time was the first decade of the two-thousands, when a creatively reinvigorated Dr. Dre delivered one of the best runs of his prolific career. Not only in a commercial sense, but on a purely musical level. It goes without saying that Dre is one of -- if not the -- greatest to ever do it. The scope of his influence is unparalleled, evidenced by the passionate response to his recent health scare. Simply put, few producers can imbue their music with as much imagination as Dre, and many of his strongest compositions are united by one defining quality: a thorough understanding of the acoustic instrument.
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In his earlier years, developing his style as an integral piece of the Death Row puzzle, Dre would largely implement sampling in his production -- at least in theory. Instead of directly lifting existing pieces of music, Dre opted to have his team of in-house musicians perform his desired section, thus imbuing it with a renewed life. This process would continue into the creation of his sophomore project 2001, as detailed by Scott Storch, who likened the recording sessions to a band in a jam space. “Mike Elizondo on the bass, Dre’s on the MP kicking it live, I’m on the keys,” reminisced Storch, who worked closely with Dre in those early millennium years. “It was just music and gelling. Dude, I couldn’t even tell you how much magic is still on tapes that are sitting in Dre’s vaults, that destroys the music of today. Crazy shit. We jammed, man. We were jamming.”
Whether looking at the piano, the guitar, the bass, or even orchestral instruments like violins and cellos, Dre has implemented them all with a mastery not often seen in the hip-hop realm. Through his musical instincts and choices, Dre was able to develop a distinctive style without so much as one syllable’s worth of a production tag. One needed to only hear those minor key chord progressions to know that the Good Doctor was cooking up.
Often, his instrument of choice was the piano, as expected given his proximity to Scott Storch. It’s part of why his early millennium beats featured such prominent piano; 50 Cent’s “If I Can’t,” “Back Down,” and the haunting “In Da Hood” come to mind. The pattern continued with his two contributions to G-Unit’s Beg For Mercy, with “G’d Up” and “Poppin Them Thangs.” While working with 50, Dre often used the piano to express cold and unforgiving qualities, using the higher octaves to conjure a bleaker aesthetic. It’s part of why their collaborations were often dark in nature, save for “If I Can’t,” which found Dre bringing the piano, bass, and guitar together for a triumphant anthem. And while not entirely a piano per se, Dre showed further inventiveness by pairing a church organ sound with percussive gunshots, culminating in he and 50’s minimalist masterpiece “Heat.”
Interestingly, Dre tended to favor the piano while working with 50 Cent, more so than any of his close collaborators. He’d also make brilliant use of it during his production stint on Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come, with one key distinction -- literally. Where 50 was eager to bask in his own brutal reality, Jay-Z was in a different headspace. For one, he was “30 Something,” content with his position as a veteran in the game and eager to share his newfound perspectives. In order to capture Jay’s mindset on a musical level, Dre opted to bring out major-key progressions in a truly rare occurrence. “Lost Ones” in particular painted the picture of man at the height of contentedness, having come to peace with even the hardest trials and tribulations. In the album’s emotional centerpiece “Minority Report,” however, Dre once again turned to the piano to convey sorrow; as if his way, he understands the value of minimalism, with two fluctuating chords simply brimming with character.
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In truth, analyzing Dre’s use of the piano could likely fill several long-form articles, and perhaps that way will come in time. For now, it’s time to examine some other notable instruments in his toolkit, including another one of his favorites -- the guitar. Among the most versatile instruments available, Dre has used the guitar in some of his most beloved deeper cuts. On Jay-Z’s “Watcher 2,” Dre brings a low-octave guitar riff into his revised take on the 2001 intro, adding a Bond-esque flair brimming with gentlemanly menace. Though not exactly the main component of Fif’s “In Da Club,” Dre’s subtle use of guitar serves to bring additional urgency to the strangely intimidating club banger. When things get really interesting is when Dre uses the guitar as a beat’s driving component, bringing another side of his creativity into the fold.
Dre turned primarily to the guitar when producing for D12 on both Devil’s Night and D12 World. Notable examples include “Fight Music” and “Revelation,” two of Dre’s most rock-inspired compositions of his career. Though the former is primarily driven by strings, the wailing guitar in the chorus captures the track’s defiance and reckless spirit. And with the latter drawing influence from Pink Floyd, at least thematically, it made sense to see Dre letting the axe gently weep as the song’s main instrumental component. Taking a page out of “The Watcher 2” playbook, Dre would revisit the low-octave guitar on D12’s “American Psycho 2,” as well as on Eminem’s "Hello," a Relapse standout; where the fast-paced former captured a feral sort of deranged energy, the latter captured insanity through a lethargic sort of detachment. In fact, Dre appeared to enjoy blessing Em with guitar-heavy bangers, a trend that began with “My Name Is,” continued with “I’m Back,” and reached a disturbing apex on the maniacal “Stay Wide Awake.”
Dr. Dre and Eminem in 2000 - Photo by Jo Hale/Redferns
Looking back on all the timeless Dre classics, it feels like this piece is only scratching the surface. His use of bass and strings haven’t even been touched -- yet. In light of everything he has given to hip-hop for over thirty years, the game could stand to dig deeper into his genius. Perhaps a second analysis is called for, as few rap discussion topics get the mind racing like Dr. Dre's production discography. In the meantime, take a moment to show some love and appreciation to a man who has shifted hip-hop culture on a musical level time and again. And seeing as he was recently working with Eminem on some brand new music -- including a rumored album -- here's hoping to many more classics on the way.