Dre grew disillusioned with the Wreckin‘ Cru’s style and teamed up with a teenage rapper named Ice Cube. They performed live at clubs and skating rinks. „We used to take people’s songs, you know, and change them and make them dirty. Like My Adidas‘ was-“ Dre laughs hard from the gut up. „Cube had this thing called My Penis.‘ We rocked it, and people would go crazy. So we just took that and started making records with it. And with me being a DJ, I used to sit in the club during the week and make up beats just to play in the club. I would take somebody else’s song and re-create it and make it an instrumental. So that’s how I basically got into producing.“
Eventually Dre decided to form a group, but he needed a financial backer. In 1986, he met Eric „Eazy-E“ Wright, a former drug dealer and fellow Compton resident looking to pump his money into something legal. Dre produced an Eazy single called „Boyz-N-the Hood,“ and it was on. „We hustled the record every day for eight months,“ says Dre, „riding around in a jeep, selling it from record store to record store ourselves.“
DJ Yella, an old Wreckin‘ Cru partner, joined Dre, Eazy, Cube, MC Ren, and short-term member Arabian Prince to form arguably the most influential rap act ever. N.W.A’s 1989 landmark, Straight Outta Compton, introduced an entire nation to urban blight, West Coast style. The album, produced largely by Dr. Dre and released on the underground label Ruthless Records, went double platinum with virtually no radio play. Dre says he and Eazy started Ruthless, although it was Eazy and Jerry Heller-a middle-aged white man who’d previously worked with Elton John and Pink Floyd-who gained credit for building America’s first multimillion-dollar hardcore rap label.
Despite his meteoric success, Dre grows bitter when describing the disintegration of Ruthless Records and his relationship with Eazy-E. „The split came when Jerry Heller got involved,“ he recalls. „He played the divide-and-conquer game. He picked one nigga to take care of, instead of taking care of everybody, and that was Eazy. And Eazy was just, like, Well, shit, I’m taken care of, so fuck it.‘ „
When I reach Heller later by telephone, he reluctantly admits that Dre „was probably right. You know, Dre was a producer and a member of the group,“ he says. „Eazy was interested in being Berry Gordy, so more of my time was spent with Eazy.„
During the production of N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin album, Dre decided he wanted out of his contract. He almost spits out the recollection: „I was gettin‘ like two points for my production on albums. I still have the contracts framed.“ Dre adjusts his Rolex. „I’m not no egotistical person. I just want what I’m supposed to get. Not a penny more, not a penny less.„
That’s where Knight came in. „Suge brought it to my attention that I was being cheated,“ he says. „I wanted to do my own thing anyway. I was going to do it with Ruthless, but there was some sheisty shit, so I had to get ghost.“ Exactly how Knight helped Dre „get ghost“ depends on whom you ask. When I mention to Jerry Heller that Knight maintains he’s never threatened or beaten up anyone to make a gain in the music business, Heller cracks an eerie laugh reminiscent of Vincent Price’s on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, then says, „I would say he’s taking poetic license.„
Dre gives Knight credit for coming up with the plan for Death Row in 1991. He assures me he and Knight are „fifty-fifty partners. You know, me and Suge, we like brothers and shit.“ These two buddies figured Dr. Dre’s name was bankable enough to start a record label and get a distribution deal, but unbelievably, there were no takers at first. Finally Interscope took a chance and Death Row (the label was going to be called Future Shock, after an old Curtis Mayfield single, until Dre and Knight purchased the more dramatic handle from one of Dre’s homeboys) has become the most profitable independently owned African-American hip hop label of the 1990s.
Death Row’s first release, The Chronic, dissed Eazy-E and Jerry Heller numerous times. But when conversation turns to Eazy’s death from AIDS last March, Dre grows solemn: „I didn’t believe it till I went to the hospital.“ He sighs, rubs his chin, and collects his thoughts. „He looked normal. That’s what makes the shit so fuckin‘ scary, man. But he was unconscious, so he didn’t even know I was there.“ Obviously, adds Dre, the ensuing battle over ownership of Ruthless Records will affect Eazy’s seven children. „That’s who’s really going to suffer from this. We were talking about doing an N.W.A album and giving Eazy’s share to his kids.„
Dre’s words stop suddenly. He’s looking off somewhere, palming the back of his neck, perhaps reliving all the years of his life, personal and public: the Wreckin‘ Cru, N.W.A, his run-ins with the law, Death Row, all the awards and accolades, the offers to produce superstars such as Madonna, his and Ice Cube’s long-awaited Helter Skelter album, Snoop’s trial&hellip.
I pull Dre back into conversation by asking, „Would Death Row exist without you?“ His expression becomes blank, then he begins to speak but stops himself and thinks for a moment. „Wherever I am, whatever I do is going to be the bomb shit. And people are going to benefit from it. I dunno, there might be another Dr. Dre out there somewhere.“ He laughs uneasily.
I ask him about his greatest fear. „I’m not afraid of anything at the moment,“ he replies. „Actually, I’m afraid of two things: God and the IRS.“ He laughs again. „That’s it. You know, I get butterflies every time a record comes out. I’m, like, I hope people like it. I hope people buy it. But it’s never no serious fear.“
What matters most to Dr. Dre is the digestion and creation of music: „A lot of times when I’m at home kickin‘ it, I don’t even listen to hip hop,“ he says. „I listen to all types of music.“ (He promises Death Row ventures into rock, reggae, and jazz.) Pushing forward in his chair, Dre, who’s recently taken up the trumpet, taps his fingers on his left knee excitedly. „My personal opinion is, the ’70s is when the best music was made. Some motherfuckers had orchestras! Had string sections and they’d have to sit there and orchestrate a song. And put some vocals to it. So they really got into it. Curtis Mayfield, that motherfucker was bad as shit. Isaac Hayes, Barry White, y’knowhumsayin‘? Them brothers was in there doing it.„
But in the crisp air of El Mirage Desert Dry Lake Bed (a grueling 100-mile trek north from Los Angeles) stands the $600,000 video set of „California Love,“ Tupac’s phat first single (corapped and produced by Dr. Dre) from All Eyes on Me. The video, directed by Hype Williams, is loosely based on the flick Mad Max: Helicopters fly overhead, dirt bikes kick up sand, and everyone in the shoot-including Tupac, Dre, comedian/actor Chris Tucker, and a plethora of male and female extras-is wearing black leather shirts, vests, gloves, hats, and pants with metal spikes. Desert dust coats their faces, hands, and arms.
I haven’t spoken with or seen Tupac Shakur since our Rikers Island interview last January. I make my way to his trailer and knock. The door swings open, releasing a powerful gust of chronic smoke. There he is, the big eyes shining brightly, the smile still childlike and broad as an ocean, his exposed muscles-probably due to his 11-month bid-bigger than ever.
As Shakur is whisked away to a TV interview, I ask, „What do you think about this whole East Coast vs. West Coast thing?“ Tupac smiles that wicked smile and says, „It’s gonna get deep.“
What is even deeper is the way the word family has been mentioned by everyone associated with Death Row, including newcomers like teenage R&B singer Danny Boy and rapper/producer Sam Sneed. In this often cruel and unjust world, it can’t be argued enough how important it is to have people who’ve got your back. To have, as we say, „fam with ya.“ Shakur’s journey-from Harlem and the Bronx to Baltimore to the Bay Area to Los Angeles to Atlanta and back to New York and now back to Los Angeles-has always been about that need for family.
A few weeks later I speak with Shakur via telephone [see „All Eyes on Him,“ right]. „The family part, to me-I’m not gonna be corny and be, like, Everybody on Death Row love each other,‘ “ he says. „It’s not like that. Nobody has beef internally. And if we do, we handle it internally.
„More than a family, Death Row to me is like a machine. The biggest, strongest superpower in the hip hop world. In order to do the things that I gotta do, we gotta have that superpower. Now we gotta expand and show exactly what a superpower is.
„At Death Row I don’t have to worry about embarrassing nobody or standing out or doing something they don’t want me to do. I’m still Tupac. At Death Row, I got my own shit. I’m independent. But this is the machine that I roll with.
„As for me and Suge, right now-as of today-we’re the perfect couple. I can see this is what I’ve been looking for, managementwise. He rides like I ride. With Suge as my manager, I gotta do less. ‚Cause before, niggas wasn’t scared of me. So I brought fear to them. Now I don’t have to do all that to get respect. ‚Cause motherfuckers is scared shitless of Suge. I don’t know why, cause Suge’s cool. A lot of cowards are trying to make it like Suge’s the scourge of the industry. All Suge’s doing is riding. Making it so rappers can get what they due.“