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Dr. Dre's 'The Chronic': 25 Years Later
"It's the benchmark you measure your album against if you're serious," West wrote for Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists list, which ranked Dre at No. 56.
The Chronic was a series of coincidences backed by like-minded individuals all with one goal in mind: to create a work that would stand the test of time. It was a perfect storm — yielding one GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Let Me Ride." The Chronic would go on to sell millions, and like West mused, would serve as the prototype for any serious musician who existed within the hip-hop space.
A quarter-century later, its presence is still felt in the aftershocks of an earthquake that was more than a year in the making.
When The Chronic arrived on Dec. 15, 1992, Dr. Dre was living life in a vacuum. He was coming off the high of the post-N.W.A era, where his friendship with Eazy-E had rotted considerably and de-facto group leader Ice Cube vehemently parted ways with both N.W.A and Ruthless Records to pursue his own solo trajectory.
Dre was still somewhat wound around the pen of manager Jerry Heller that inked his recording contract years earlier, though Suge Knight — a then-strong-yet-silent enforcer — would handle the messiness while Dre focused on his solo debut LP via Death Row Records (with Interscope Records serving as the distributor).
Societally, the country was in a state of flux. The Los Angeles riots had finally dwindled in mid-May 1992, though the scars of the Rodney King verdict and a constant cloud of police brutality lingered in the streets. While The Chronic boasts a sufficient amount of fun, weed, money, and women, there still exists an element of anger fueled by both Dre's beef with Eazy as well as the ongoings of a world as seen through Dre's then-27-year-old eyes.
Once Dre met Snoop Doggy Dogg (as he was then called) through stepbrother Warren G, it was truly trouble when Compton and Long Beach, Calif., came together. Dre had already laid a foundation for his sound by the time the final N.W.A album, 1991's Niggaz4Life, would drop, but there was a vibe he was after. Snoop — possessing a mix of gang ties and weed smoke — when paired with Dre's P. Funk sampling, mixed with breaks and live instruments, provided an aggressive yet relaxed sound.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the 1993 MTV Movie Awards
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.com/Getty Images
"It wasn't actually a sound, rather it was a production method," explains Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop and professor at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. "It was [Dre's] blending of breakbeats undergirded by real instruments. There was sort of this cleanliness and presence to his production that very much contrasted the noise ethos of the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy."
The product was called G-Funk, an amalgam of the past, present and future. It would come to life as soon as the team started working on The Chronic.
"As soon as we left the N.W.A situation, came 'Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang,'" explains The Chronic collaborator and songwriter Colin Wolfe.
But The Chronic would be put on hold mid-process and attention would be diverted to Snoop and Dre's other collaborative work, the soundtrack to the 1992 film Deep Cover. By then Dre and Snoop were branded as a dynamic duo and once the crew switched gears back to The Chronic, the direction would be set thanks to "… 'G' Thang."
The studio sessions were all love, where Hennessy and weed permeated the atmosphere as Dre and his tightknit team conceived his magnum opus.
"There was no grand scheme, it was everyone coming together to make really great songs and the album began to take shape on its own," remembers The Chronic songwriter The D.O.C. "The weed smoke and the energy of the crew Snoop brought around. We worked vicariously off that energy. It was the space and time where everything came together as it should have."
"The greatest part was watching the guys write and learn how to make bars," explains The Chronic mixer Chris "The Glove" Taylor. "D.O.C. would say [to the other artists], 'Write 16 lines on this legal pad and when you get to 16 lines, you're done.' Imagine a studio of cats believing they were taking over the world and doing whatever the hell they wanted to because we had Suge outside. There was an invincibility that we felt."
The songs were products of their environment. "F*** Wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')" would bring a comedic yet venomous dis pointed at Eazy-E and his cohorts, while "Lil' Ghetto Boy" would speak to the state of Los Angeles in the midst of the riots. Other songs like "High Powered" and "Stranded On Death Row" were both menacing yet honest, reflective of the world in which Dre & Co. lived.
"We had to change some of the lyrics," Wolfe recalls, "as the tone was too intense given what was happening in L.A."
"It was too insightful at times. We were sitting [in the studio] watching the news. It was scary," Taylor adds. "Not only that but we had to change locations for the videos because of our high 'gang visibility.'"
The crew would later have to move Snoop's "Gin And Juice" video to another location (Taylor's mother's house) for that same reason.
The aforementioned "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang" was soaked in gangster vibes yet it was the Moog synthesizer Wolfe used to create the now infamous whistling keys in the intro that would define an entire decade of West Coast rap. Together, it was a project for everyone. While N.W.A was arguably too abrasive for some listeners, Dre's solo debut struck a balance of street meets stoner, thereby broadening the album's reach.
"A lot more white folks smoke weed than are in gangs, so it was something they too could sink their teeth into and the whole world could just vibe on the same plane," says The D.O.C.
It even crossed coasts, despite the project's very identifiable West Coast sound.
"When Dre dropped that monster, you just couldn't deny it. I never saw so many people in New York banging it in their systems," says rapper Sauce Money. "I think the beauty of The Chronic was that each song carried a message that all together made up the culture of the West Coast."
Coincidentally, there was a bigger machine behind it as well. Los Angeles' KPWR-FM (Power 106) was in the early stages of bringing a hip-hop skewed format to pop radio. By the time The Chronic dropped, the station was already geared to move their evening jocks, the Baka Boyz, to daytime — marking the biggest move for hip-hop in L.A. radio history.
"I think the beauty of The Chronic was that each song carried a message that all together made up the culture of the West Coast."
"The Chronic was the flagship record for the launch of the very first hip-hop-branded pop station," says Charnas, who also hosted a segment during the Baka Boyz's "Friday Night Flavas." "It was just after that when Power 106 came up with the slogan 'Where Hip-Hop Lives' and the first album to live there was The Chronic. It was a cultural explosion."
Twenty-five years later, the ripple effect of The Chronic lives on.
From the weed rap of artists like Wiz Khalifa to the modified gangster rap of Kendrick Lamar, what Dr. Dre built with his team was a movement that would be picked apart and serve as inspiration for years to come.
In many ways, The Chronic was Dr. Dre's crowning achievement, as his later work and top albums by his peers would be lined up against it. It was lightning in a bottle, and lightning rarely strikes twice.
But like many timeless albums, it took a village — from Dre, Snoop, The D.O.C., Warren G, Nate Dogg, and Kurupt to Wolfe, Taylor and the engineers. Even Suge Knight. Everyone played a role, and the results made history.
"We loved each other enough to really focus in on making that art as best we could make it, even with all the bulls*** we were surrounded by and all the drama that was going on in the outside world," says The D.O.C. "We were all lasered in on making that album great. In my humble opinion, The Chronic is the best hip-hop album ever made."
(Kathy Iandoli has penned pieces for Pitchfork, VICE, Maxim, O, Cosmopolitan, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and more. She co-authored the book Commissary Kitchen with Mobb Deep's late Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, and is a professor of music business at select universities throughout New York and New Jersey.)