From The Streets Of Compton To Tom Brady And Gisele’s Old House
How Dr. Dre, of all people, became the first hip-hop billionaire
By Byron Crawford
World Class Wreckin Cru probably got all the pussy. They probably got even more pussy than the BusBoys—and the BusBoys fucked everybody!
This was back in the 1980s, when it was cool for a brother to be a little bit effeminate. Prince was setting the standard for black masculinity. Eyeliner wasn’t just acceptable, it was necessary for getting some stank on your hanglow.
Truth be told, black women have always been attracted to suspect men. Back then it was polyester sequined leisure suits and “guyliner”; today it’s skinny jeans and “man bags.” Black women don’t know what’s good for them, i.e. a brother with a general disregard for his appearance, and that’s why so many of them are coming down with AIDS.
But I digress.
World Class Wreckin Cru was a group formed by a guy named Lonzo Williams. Williams had a very impressive jheri curl and owned a nightclub in Compton called Eve After Dark. Eve After Dark sounds like a dangerous place to hang out, like some of the clubs in East Saint, near where I live, but that’s probably just me being racist against my own people.
The Wreckin Cru began as a group of DJs called Disco Construction, named after the ‘70s funk band Brass Construction. After disco was outlawed by white racists, they changed their name to the vaguely hip-hop-sounding but also kinda pro wrestling-sounding World Class Wreckin Cru. They often performed in Lonzo Williams’ nightclub. Williams was always looking for opportunities to benefit from what’s known in MBA classes as corporate synergy.
A teenage Dr. Dre began hanging out outside Eve After Dark, not unlike Duckie in the movie Pretty in Pink, that time he followed Molly Ringwald on her date with James Spader a/k/a Blaine. Duckie was about that creep life before it was all trendy. Just imagine if the Internets were around back then. This may have even been around the time when Pretty in Pink was filmed.
Whoever the Eve After Dark equivalent of Andrew “Dice” Clay was wouldn’t let Dr. Dre in, because he was only like 16, although he’d already been DJing for a few years by then. Then, in a scene right out of some cliche Hollywood film and/or ?uestlove’s memoir, one of the guys from the Wreckin Cru didn’t show up. Perhaps this was the weekend crack was introduced to LA by the CIA. Dr. Dre convinced Lonzo to let him DJ, and the rest—as they say—is history.
World Class Wreckin Cru quickly developed a following, to the point where Lonzo was able to secure a deal with CBS Records for $100,000. They went out on tour opening for Rick James. I can only imagine the debauchery that ensued. Couches were destroyed one way or another.
Prince once opened for Rick James, back at the very beginning of the 1980s, around the time I was born (an entirely unrelated incident). They ended up beefing with each other because Prince’s opening set routinely destroyed Rick James’ headlining set. Rick James accused Prince of stealing all of his moves. This was less of an issue with the World Class Wreckin Cru, because their music was terrible—though it was, in fact, highly derivative of Prince, who in turn was derivative of Rick James.
New Edition also opened for Rick James back in the mid ‘80s. After what happened with Prince, he may have purposely selected people who can barely sing as opening acts.
Despite the amazing success of the World Class Wreckin Cru, Dr. Dre was often broke during this era. Lonzo Williams gave him very little, if any, of the $100,000 he got from CBS Records, explaining that he was the leader of the group, and Dr. Dre didn’t understand the expenditure running a group like that entailed. Those polyester sequined leisure suits and bedazzled stethoscopes didn’t purchase themselves.
Lonzo Williams would loan Dr. Dre money, not unlike how Combat Jack would loan a young Damon Dash money to take cabs, in the years pre-Roc-A-Fella Records, so he didn’t have to be seen taking the train. Dr. Dre wasn’t concerned with his appearance, disco outfit notwithstanding, so much as he was broke. Public transportation isn’t as good in LA, and there’s even a song about how no one there walks. Lonzo let Dr. Dre drive one of his old cars so he’d have a way to get around.
Dr. Dre would get tickets driving Lonzo’s car and wouldn’t pay them, either because he figured it wasn’t his car, so it doesn’t really count (classic hood logic), or because he’s just one of those guys. We’ve all got that one friend who’s in and out of jail on the reg for no reason other than owing the city money. Eventually, LA would put a warrant out for Dre’s arrest, he’d get pulled over again, and he’d have to go to jail.
He’d call Lonzo to bail him out, which I’m sure was a difficult phone call to make, having to explain to someone that you’ve run up $900 in 1986 money in speeding tickets and what have you driving their car, and now you need them to come down to the police station, i.e. a place that’s filled with MFN cops, and post bail. Lonzo would have just let him sit there, except he needed Dr. Dre to produce songs for World Class Wreckin Cru and play concerts. Bail money would just have to come out of the money he wasn’t paying Dre anyway.
Lonzo set up a makeshift recording studio in the back of Eve After Dark and actually charged Dre to work there, if you can imagine. This was where Dre and Yella perfected the production techniques they’d later use on albums like Straight Outta Compton and Niggaz4Life, so I guess it wasn’t a complete loss, but the idea of paying someone an hourly rate to use his studio to work on songs for his album, for which you wouldn’t receive royalties, is absurd. It was a classic pimp and ho relationship, right down to Lonzo occasionally having to bail Dr. Dre out of jail, not to mention the sexy outfits.
Eventually, someone stole Lonzo’s car that Dr. Dre was driving, went for a joyride in it, and probably used it either to kill a hooker or to knock over a convenience store. Police found it abandoned somewhere and place it in impound. Dr. Dre was then picked up on another warrant. When Lonzo found out that his car was in a tow lot somewhere, possibly with blood in the trunk, he didn’t want to post bail for Dre. There must not have been another World Class Wreckin Cru tour coming up any time soon. That kind of music was already kinda played out by the time World Class Wreckin Cru began.
Dr. Dre was stuck in jail for the time being.
I’m not sure what the rules are in the music biz if an artist is locked up and he can’t get someone from the label to post bail. I might ask Young Jeezy.
I know in the pimp game, which I study in my free time, via funemployment, a ho is free to “choose up” on another pimp, but in order to do so she has to pay the new pimp a substantial “choosing fee” in order to join his stable, which is designed to keep a ho from becoming a Choosy Suzy, i.e. a ho who tries to continually move from one pimp to another. A ho signals to a pimp that she’s trying to choose up on him by looking him in the eye. Therefore, hoes are encouraged to only look at the ground, especially in the presence of another pimp. To do otherwise is known as “reckless eyeballing” and could result in a pimp having to put his shoe on a ho.
When a ho chooses up on a pimp, it’s customary for the pimp to “serve” the ho’s former pimp. This might take the form of making a grand entrance in a sketchy night club, like Eve After Dark, wearing a floor-length fur coat not unlike the one Pimp C wore that time he pulled a gun out on a woman in a mall, and informing the hoo-er’s erstwhile pimp that “your ho chose me.” At that point, he might stab you or he might just accept the fact that he’s lost one of his hoes and “step his game up.” It’s considered bad form to get upset with another pimp for “knocking” one of your hoes, but I’d still feel nervous putting a pimp on notice in this way. These are, after all, pimps. At any rate, this is the origin of the phrase “you got served,” which is now the title of a series of dance films for children.
Eazy-E was a diminutive crack dealer with a keen business sense, who, as legend has it, was looking to go straight—though, from what I understand, he continued to sell drugs pretty much until the day he died, despite making quite a bit of money in the music biz. Eazy-E had the kind of indomitable spirit that, under a different set of circumstances, may have led to a career running some sort of sketchy content farm on the Internets.
When Lonzo Williams refused to bail Dr. Dre out of jail, because Dr. Dre somehow lost Lonzo’s car, and I guess they wouldn’t just give Lonzo his car back, on the basis that it had been stolen, and he wasn’t the one who’d racked up multiple traffic violations on it, Dr. Dre called Eazy-E. He knew Eazy-E had the money, from being an epic drug dealer. Eazy-E had already been hounding Dre about producing songs for a rap label he was trying to start.
Eazy-E offered Dr. Dre a deal. He’d bail Dre out of jail, and he’d pay to get Lonzo’s car out of impound. In exchange, Dre would produce songs for Eazy’s new rap label. Eazy even paid for studio time at Eve After Dark, though at least this was for sessions for his own label, not sessions to benefit Lonzo. Hopefully, Eazy strictly forbade Dr. Dre from working on songs for World Class Wreckin Cru during sessions he was paying for.
Dre wouldn’t have had the sense not to, otherwise, as evidenced by the nature of his business relationship with Lonzo, his problems with the law, somehow getting kicked out of a high school in MFN Compton for grades, so on and so forth. Clearly, Dr. Dre is a genius on a certain level, and he’s got like a billion dollars, so it wouldn’t matter if he were a total mouth breather, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some sort of learning disability.
The plan wasn’t for Dre or Eazy himself to become a rapper. Eazy booked time in a studio to record some group of kids from New York called HBO. Dre would produce, and Ice Cube—a high school kid who was in a group with Dre’s cousin—would write the lyrics. Ice Cube brought the lyrics to “Boyz N Tha Hood,” which, if memory serves, he wrote in history class in a “suburban” school he was bused to. HBO took one look at the lyrics and were like TF is this BS? They bolted the session before it even began, never to be heard from ever again. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube then talked Eazy-E into recording the vocals, probably because Eazy-E was a midget with a high-pitched voice and they thought it would be funny. Ice Cube knows comedy—he wrote the Friday series of films.
“Boyz N Tha Hood” became a hit despite Eazy-E’s inept MCing, in part because he was from LA, and LA has never held its rappers to as high a standard, and in part because Dre and Yella got a mixshow on a local AM station, the first radio station in Murica with an all-rap format, where they could play it. The success of “Boyz in the Hood” convinced Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy and Yella to form a Traveling Wilburys-style supergroup for the purpose of recording similarly vulgar songs. They’d call it N.W.A., short for Niggaz Wit Attitudes. Ice Cube then went off to study architectural drafting in Arizona, at which point MC Ren was recruited. Ice Cube came back a year later, but they let MC Ren stay in the group. I guess they figured that way they’d have two lyricists rather than just one. Neither Dre nor Eazy wrote his own rhymes, and Yella only DJed and co-produced.
Eazy-E paid Lonzo Williams $750 to introduce him to Jerry Heller. Lonzo wouldn’t just do it “on the arm,” despite Eazy-E getting his car back and paying to use his studio, because he thought Eazy was trying to steal Dr. Dre from him. Dr. Dre was being a Choosy Suzy, and Lonzo Williams was about to get served, but at least he’d be getting $750. It’s not like Dre would go on to generate literally billions of dollars, I’m sure he figured.
Jerry Heller had been a talent manager for the likes of REO Speedwagon and Elton John back in the ‘70s and had since been reduced to managing obscure LA-based rap and R&B groups using what’s known as the spray and pray method: he’d sign as many of them as he could to management deals, and if one of them somehow had a hit, he’d collect 20% of their earnings. The fact that he once managed seemingly half the top rock acts of the ‘70s, and now he was working with random black kids, should have let Dre know all he needed to know about Jerry Heller, but again, this is Dr. Dre we’re talking about. He might have even considered demanding an equity stake in the label, on the basis of being the one doing all of the heavy lifting.
Heller pitched N.W.A. to a number of record labels, to no avail. With all of the cursing, the violence, the misogyny and what have you, there was no way they could get it played on the radio, and if they couldn’t get it played on the radio, no one would buy it, they figured. They ended up signing a deal with Priority Records, with whom Jerry Heller shared an office building, a spinoff of K-Tel Records at that point known for releasing those California Raisins oldies compilations. This was far from an auspicious beginning for N.W.A.
Forunately, N.W.A. was like crack in that you didn’t have to come up with a marketing plan for it: it pretty much just sold itself! White kids of the late ‘80s, upon hearing N.W.A., had a reaction similar to the reaction a subsequent generation of white kids would have when they heard Cam’ron. They never knew black people could be so entertaining. Straight Outta Compton sold three million copies with little or no airplay.
Selling three million copies, Straight Outta Compton may have grossed as much as $30 million, depending on how much it cost to manufacture, how much it sold for wholesale and what have you. Obviously, some of that money had to be split with Priority Records, and Jerry and Eazy, as co-owners of the label, must have received a substantial percentage, but you’d think the other guys in the group still would have been rolling in it, no?
Ice Cube came off tour and received about $30,000 as his share of the royalties from Straight Outta Compton. I did the math just now, using a calculator. That’s 1% of what the album may have grossed. If the other three members of the group without a stake in the label also received 1% of the gross, that means that Jerry, Eazy and Priority Records split a full 96% of the gross amongst themselves. Subtract the $10,000 or whatever it cost to record the album, and that’s still upwards of $30 million. Ice Cube, Dre, Yella and Ren got ripped!
Ice Cube was still living at home with his parents, coming off tour singing about slapping a beeyotch and popping a cap in a dreaded n-word’s ass just to sleep in the same bedroom where he slept as a child, with New Edition posters and shit on the wall. He couldn’t bring home girls to take advantage of his newfound celebrity, and he couldn’t rub one out without worrying about his parents wondering what that fapping sound was. A lot of the anger on those first few Ice Cube albums is obviously just sexual frustration.
$30,000 in 1989 money was nothing to sneeze at, to be sure. You probably could have bought any Cadillac on the lot and still had enough to eat fast food at every meal for a period of time. Frank Black still drives a Cadillac that he bought with that Doolittle money, and I think he only spent like $12,000. Still, $30,000 was not enough for Ice Cube to purchase his own David Letterman-style fuck lair, and perhaps most importantly, it was just plain way less than what he was rightfully owed. Ice Cube consulted with a lawyer and got TF off of Ruthless Records.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Jerry and Easy were paying Dr. Dre more than they were paying Ice Cube, but still way less than what he was rightfully owed. And not out of the kindness of their hearts either. They had Dre producing Eazy-E solo albums, JJ Fad, the D.O.C. and Above the Law. All told, Ruthless released six albums that went at least 1x platinum in a three-year span. If Dr. Dre received $30,000 for each of them, or a comparable sum, he probably thought he was rolling. And he was, compared to Ice Cube. This was classic divide and conquer, right out of the Lyor Cohen playbook (to hear Damon Dash tell it). It would be antisemitic of me to suggest that Jerry Heller probably masterminded this, so I’m gonna suggest that Eazy-E was the one who masterminded this.
Many of the lyrics on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted were written for what would have been the second N.W.A. album. Some of them were parts he’d written for Dre and Eazy. You can kinda assume that the most ignorant lyrics on that album were the ones intended to be delivered by Eazy-E. After Ice Cube left N.W.A., he still wanted Dr. Dre to produce Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and in fact he attempted to negotiate a deal in which he’d acquire Dre’s services. Dr. Dre would have done it, if only for another $30,000. Jerry and Eazy wouldn’t sign off on it, and this was the source of the animosity between Dre and Ice Cube that would continue up through The Chronic, not so much the fact that Ice Cube left the group. Dr. Dre tried to choose up on Ice Cube, Jerry and Eazy put a shoe on him for reckless eyeballing, and Dre didn’t have the sense to be upset with Jerry and Eazy rather than Ice Cube.
Dr. Dre’s extreme ignorance at least paid off creatively on Niggaz4Life, one of the most vile recordings ever committed to wax. Niggaz4Life is the sound of Dre, Eazy, et al. realizing that white kids find it amusing when black kids say terrible things and attempting to cash in: If we merely called black women out of their names on Straight Outta Compton, and it sold three million copies, imagine if we raped and killed a black woman on our next album? In that sense, Niggaz4Life is the true spiritual forefather of most garbage major label rap music released subsequently, anything that was obviously made specifically for the purpose of appealing to hipster racists.
Albums like Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Niggaz4Life kicked off an era in which rap album reviews mostly seemed to consists of girls bitching and moaning about how rap music is disrespectful to women, as if that tells me whether or not the music is any good—a style of hip-hop journalism that persists, at least to a certain degree, to this day.
The white guys who owned and ran publications like The Source and The Village Voice were more than happy to have someone explain why a black man is not worth a shit, for reasons that may not have had anything to do with their support for the black woman’s cause. They’d pit black feminists against black men the same way Jerry Heller pit Dr. Dre against Ice Cube. If black feminists realized this, they weren’t about to let it stop them from cashing those ‘90s hip-hop journalism checks. The current debate about “street harassment” operates under a similar dynamic.
Niggaz4Life is a difficult album to defend, because while obviously N.W.A. doesn’t advocate putting a shoe on a woman, it was released during a time in which Dr. Dre did in fact put a shoe on a woman.
Dee Barnes was the host of some long since forgotten music video show on Fox. There was a lot of those shows in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. They’d come on one of the networks on a Friday night. If you didn’t have cable, that was one of the few ways you could see a music video. YouTube hadn’t been invented yet.
Barnes had Ice Cube on her show around the time he was beefing with N.W.A. I didn’t see the show back then, but I saw video of it at some point in time or another in the interim, maybe on VH1. Ice Cube dissed N.W.A., and Dee Barnes seemed to cosign it. If she didn’t actually agree with what he said, she may have been pulling a Combat Jack, pretending to agree with seemingly anything and everything a guest could possibly say, to ingratiate herself with the guest on a personal level, for the purpose of establishing important business contacts. Not to excuse Dr. Dre for what he ended up doing, but this was kinda disrespectful.
Later, at some sort of industry gathering, Dr. Dre either beat the living shit out of Dee Barnes or kinda roughed her up, depending on who you believe. All the reports I’ve read come from that black feminist-white racist axis. They’re truly horrifying. Supposedly, Dre had Ren or someone hold the crowd back at gunpoint while he slammed her head against a wall. Then he tried to toss her down a flight of stairs, but he couldn’t. She took off running into the women’s restroom. Dre followed her in there and punched her in the face. Or, to hear Dre tell it, all he did was push her up against a door.
Here’s the thing, if all Dre did was push her up against a wall, he’s a terrible person and someone should break a foot off in his ass on GP. Not only was he in the wrong in that he’s a guy, she’s a girl, and a guy shouldn’t beat the brakes off a girl unless absolutely necessarily, but he’s also a sucker in that he’s been punked by men on many an occasion and didn’t do shit. When he came off tour for Straight Outta Compton and Jerry and Eazy handed him a check for $30,000, he should have kicked both of their asses. Because Eazy-E was a midget and Jerry Heller was an elderly Jewish man, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have fought them both at once.
Dr. Dre had harsh words for Ice Cube on Niggaz4Life. They involved cutting off Ice Cube’s jheri curl and fucking him in the ass with a broomstick. This seemed unnecessarily sexual and unsettling in a way that it probably wasn’t intended to be even back then, but it turned out to be merely a single volley in what would grow to become the most homoerotic rap battle of all time, eventually involving not just Ice Cube and N.W.A., but anyone who was a member of N.W.A. at some point in time or another, in any number of permutations, once Dr. Dre left the group in 1991, effectively marking the end of N.W.A.
Other dis tracks included a song about how the non-Eazy members of N.W.A. were getting effed in the a with no Vaseline, in which Ice Cube alleges that Eazy-E let a Jew break up his crew; the song “Dre Day,” with lines like “Now it’s time for the doctor to check your ass,” and “Gap teeth in your mouth so my dick’s got to fit”; and the video for “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s,” with images of Dre in lipstick and eye shadow back in the World Class Wreckin Cru days. A beef between actual gay rappers wouldn’t have been quite as homoerotic.
Suge Knight had played college football at UNLV and played in the NFL for quite literally a minute. He was bounced out of the league in about the same amount of time it took for the Rams to ditch Michael Sam, despite having such an expansive chest, and in fact, Suge Knight played for the Rams back when they were still in LA. The Rams have a history of signing questionable players for brief periods of time. That guy Deacon Jones, who discussed going upside a woman’s head, years before the Ray Rice scandal, even played for the Rams. When you go upside a man’s head, said the Deacon, or a woman, they have a tendency to blink they eyes, and that was all he needed.
After the NFL, Suge Knight became a bodyguard for Bobby Brown, in a configuration that may have been Peak Blackness, and for the D.O.C., back when his career was popping. At the height of the D.O.C.’s career, at the beginning of the 1990s, he was pulled over for driving drunk. He told the cops he was a famous rapper and showed them the platinum plaque in the back seat of his Honda Prelude. He kicked a few rhymes for the cops, and the cops let him continue on his way, at which point promptly crashed into a tree. His voice was somehow ruined, and he’s since been reduced to writing lyrics for albums like Niggaz4Life and The Chronic.
You know you’re not paying enough attention to your affairs when it takes Suge Knight to explain to you that you’re being taken advantage of. Suge Knight, like a young Eazy-E, had dreams of entering into the music biz. He took a look at the D.O.C.’s contract with Ruthless and realized the D.O.C. was being effed in the a with no Vaseline. The D.O.C. eventually talked Dr. Dre into letting Suge Knight take a look at his contract. The fact that Dre couldn’t just read it himself, that he needed someone who used to play football to take a look at it, again suggests to me that he might suffer from some sort of learning disability.
Suge Knight came up with a plan to free Dr. Dre, the D.O.C. and Michel’le from their contracts with Ruthless Records. The plan was right out of the movie Inglourious Basterds. It involved bringing several guys with baseball bats to a business meeting with Eazy-E and Jerry Heller and threatening to beat them to a bloody pulp if they didn’t release Dr. Dre, the D.O.C. and Michel’le from their contracts.
Somehow it worked: Jerry Heller didn’t just call the cops and explain that a buncha gangbangers showed up to his offices with weapons trying to force him to sign a contract. I guess he couldn’t call the cops in the moment. Suge Knight and the rest of those guys would have beaten him to a bloody pulp before the cops ever got there. But how come he didn’t just snitch on Suge after the fact, have Suge locked up and the contract rendered null and void?
To hear Eazy-E tell it, he continued to make money from Dre for years after he left Death Row. “Dre Day” only meant Eazy’s payday. Apparently, they worked out a deal similar to the deal Diddy had with the Lox up into the mid 2000s, when Jadakiss and Styles P went on Hot 97 and threatened to drop a refrigerator from the top of a building onto Diddy’s head if he didn’t give them back their publishing. If there’s a lesson to be learned from any of this, it’s that if you enter into a business deal you later come to regret, simply make physical threats against your partner in a widely publicized incident. Law enforcement won’t get involved, and there’s a chance it might actually work!
The Jewish Defense League may or may not have been involved in freeing Dre, et al. from Death Row. Years later, when it came out that the JDL routinely extorted rappers, including 2Pac, it was explained that they were enlisted by Jerry Heller to protect Jerry and Eazy from Suge Knight back when Suge was trying to get Dre out of his contract. But that doesn’t make sense to me for a couple of reasons.
1) If the purpose of enlisting the JDL was to prevent Suge from forcing Jerry Heller to release Dr. Dre from his contract, how come Dre was still relased from Ruthless Records? Eazy-E definitely paid the JDL. That’s how the FBI got wind of their extortion racket—a money laundering investigation.
2) That’s how the JDL’s extortion racket worked: You paid them money to protect you from someone who was threatening you, but it was probably just them threatening you, in disguise. That’s why it’s called an MFN extortion racket! The JDL may have led Eazy-E to believe that Suge was trying to have him killed and then offered to protect him. For a fee, natch. And Jerry Heller may have been in on it. Just a theory.
Similar tactics were involved in securing financing for Dre and Suge’s new venture. Suge Knight was representing a guy who claimed to have written the lyrics to the song “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice and not been paid for them. In order to rectify this situation, Suge paid Vanilla Ice a visit at a hotel in LA. The story back then was that Suge dangled Vanilla Ice from a balcony by his ankles and threatened to drop him if he didn’t sign over the rights to “Ice Ice Baby.” But later I read that Suge merely intimated that he’d toss Vanilla Ice over a balcony if he didn’t sign the contract, and, as Deacon Jones would say, that was all it took. In an episode of VH1's Behind the Music, Vanilla Ice revealed that the incident caused him to shit his pants.
There’s also a guy named Harry-O who claims he helped finance Death Row, to the tune of $1.5 million. A cocaine trafficker back in the ‘80s, he was already locked up by the time Death Row began, but he says he told his wife to invest the money in Death Row via his lawyer David Kenner, the same sleazeball who represented Death Row artists on the reg when they were facing football numbers in the pokey for any number of offenses, including Snoop Dogg’s famous murder trial. I’m not sure if I buy this guy Harry-O’s story any more than I buy Jerry Heller’s story that Eazy-E was being “protected” by the JDL.
First of all, who starts a rap label with $1.5 million, in addition to however much Suge extorted from Vanilla Ice? You start a rap label to make $1.5 million. And I’d be willing to bet only a small percentage of rappers ever make that much money. It’s not in a black man’s nature to have access to that kind of cash and not just spend it on tennis shoes and eating most of your meals at TGI Friday’s, like Allen Iverson.
The idea that this guy Harry-O secretly owned Death Row may have been a scheme concocted by—you guessed it—David Kenner to try to rob Suge Knight of Dr. Dre’s publishing once Suge went insolvent, in the 2000s, and creditors lined up to divvy up his assets. The way those things work is, the IRS gets first dibs, and there’s usually not anything left once they get done liquidating banks accounts, real estate and what have you. As I recall, Suge Knight didn’t even bother to show up to court in the suit Harry-O’s wife filed. She was awarded some ridonkulous settlement, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, of which she probably didn’t get Jack Schitt.
It’s at this point that Jimmy Iovine enters the equation. Dr. Dre brought a cassette tape of songs from The Chronic to Jimmy Iovine’s office to try to secure a deal with Iovine’s Interscope Records to distribute the album, in much the same way that Jerry Heller pitched Straight Outta Compton all over town before signing a deal with Priority. Dr. Dre would have an easier go of it than Jerry Heller. Upon hearing the dulcet tones of songs like “Dre Day” “Nuthin But a G Thang,” Iovine is said to have famously remarked, “I can sell this!”
What he meant by that was that a few songs on the album sounded enough like R&B music that he could probably get them played on top 40 radio, which is the key to making a shedload of money in the music biz, no matter of what kind of music you make—you gotta cross over.
Up until that point, rap music had mostly been marginalized at radio. Straight Outta Compton sold three million copies without being played on radio at all period. Rap music that did get played on the radio was played in between the hours of 6 and 9 PM, interspersed with whatever garbage R&B happened to be popular at the time, and on mixshows that came on late at night on the weekend. The rare exception were songs from albums like MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, which dominated the pop charts and became hugely successful. Vaniilla Ice helped pave the way for Death Row Records in more ways than one.
The Chronic kicked off the era in which hip-hop acts routinely dominated the Billboard Hot 100, which hit its peak at some point in the early to mid ‘00s, when 50 Cent was poppin’, and hit its absolute nadir in the last couple of years. Last year, not a single black artist, hip-hop or otherwise, topped the Hot 100 for the first time since back in the Jim Crow era. This year, the chart has been dominated by Iggy Azalea and Canadian white reggae band Magic! Dominating the pop charts in the ‘90s and ‘00s set artists like Dre, Diddy and Jay-Z up for lucrative careers shilling for corporations, and the fact that black rappers are apparently now obsolete doesn’t bode well for the prospect of future generations of black men achieving that level of “success.”
2Pac’s death didn’t bode well for the future of Death Row Records. In retrospect, they may have been best off leaving him in prison on a quasi-rape charge, dreading having to take showers with other guys.
‘Pac had already been signed to Interscope and had some success. “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up” were big singles back in ‘93. If you’re only sorta kinda into ‘Pac, like I am, “I Get Around” might honestly be the best 2Pac song. Shock G from Digital Underground was an unsung production genius, and ‘Pac’s music wasn’t as good when he went on to work with whoever he worked with on Death Row. Yeah, I said it!
Me Against the World was the first album to hit number one while the artist was doing time in the pokey. This is the kind of interesting tidbit we don’t hear enough of during Black History Month. I’m only sorta kinda kidding about that. I mean, look at some of the things that have been discussed on Black People Twitter for the past few Black History Months in a row.
‘Pac had been in New York filming Above the Rim, putting the final touches on Me Against the World and hanging out with Biggie Smalls. He was also hanging out with guys like Jimmy Henchmen, who obviously didn’t have any intention in even knowing ‘Pac other than to rob him. Biggie Smalls, who grew up around guys like that in NY, had the sense to realize this; Pac didn’t, and so he blamed Biggie for the shooting at the Quad recording studio, in which he shot himself in the nuts, rather than himself. 2Pac was subject to the same kind of emotional thought process as Dr. Dre.
Days later, ‘Pac was sentenced for an incident in which a girl may have been made love to non-consensually in his hotel room. As the story goes, ‘Pac had already hit that, and she’d blown him in public. She went up to a hotel room with “Pac and some other guys. ‘Pac left the room, and whatever happened happened. ‘Pac was convicted not of rape, or allowing the girl to be raped, but for playfully slapping the girl on the ass, which was considered “sexual battery,” probably just because he was black. Johnny Cochran could have easily had that thrown out.
Interscope wasn’t about to bail 2Pac out, because Jimmy Iovine must have realized that ‘Pac didn’t have the sense god gave geese. ‘Pac had already released three albums by then, and the major labels purposely tried to restrict hip-hop acts to only three albums back then, because the way those deals were structured, after the third album, they’d have to give you a much more equitable contract. That’s why so many ‘80s and ‘90s-era rappers’ careers seemed to stall out after 3–5 albums, depending on what kind of deal they had: the label would purposely sabotage the last album on the original contract by not cutting the appropriate payola checks to the Hot 97s of the world. Without a hit single, that last album wouldn’t do well, and the label wouldn’t renew the contract. It’s not because rap lyrics are that hard to write.
In retrospect, it seems kinda ridiculous that Interscope didn’t just bail ‘Pac out themselves. Suge Knight went to the prison where ‘Pac was being held, way TF out in Dannemora, NY, not too far from Canada, where Brian Johnson’s girlfriend lives, and signed ‘Pac to Death Row on a piece of toilet paper. He then bailed ‘Pac out for $1.4 million, which, admittedly, is quite a bit of money. It’s almost the exact same amount that guy Harry-O claims to have invested in Death Row, and if that’s true, I guess it came in handy after all!
But here’s the thing: By the time ‘Pac landed in LA, it was already the fall of ‘95. He somehow managed to have All Eyez on Me—a double album of songs he record since he was sprung from the pokey—in stores by the beginning of 1996. I can’t say for certain that I changed pants in the time it took ‘Pac to record All Eyez on Me. He was dead by September of that year, but then he dropped the Makaveli album a few weeks later. All Eyez on Me sold over five million copies. As a double album, it’s considered 10x platinum, which is a diamond certification from the RIAA. The Makaveli album came out later that year and also sold five million copies. All told, ‘Pac released two albums that sold 15 million copies in one year. Hardly anyone sells 15 million albums their entire career. Think about how much money he must have generated.
Obviously, Dr. Dre wasn’t about to produce a two-disc set of 2Pac songs in a two-month span. That’s just not how he works. He had a hard enough time cranking out Doggystyle in a year. Doggystyle, at the time, was considered the most highly anticipated rap album of all time. I wasn’t as aware of release dates back then as I am during the Internets era, but it seemed like it was always being pushed back. When it was finally released, it had the best first-week sales of any rap album of all time, and it probably would have had the best first-week sales of any album period, if it weren’t for Pearl Jam’s Vs., which came out around the same time.
Dr. Dre didn’t produce much on All Eyez on Me other than “California Love,” which was a huge hit and a great song. This fueled a rift between Dre and ‘Pac that ultimately led Dre to bounce from Death Row. Though I’m sure there were already other issues. Dre was known to work in an area off by himself, apart from Suge and the rest of the guys from Death Row. Suge was notorious for kicking people’s asses in the studio and making people drink cups of piss. Dre, who only believes in being physically aggressive towards women, didn’t need to be around that while he was trying to work. And there may not have been a point in him working anyway, if Suge wasn’t paying him royalties from albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle, as Dre alleges.
I guess Suge figured if Dre came looking for his money, he’d just put a shoe on him. Again, this was a classic pimp and ho relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind that ‘Pac was being exploited in the same way, and in fact, the rumor back in the late ‘90s was that ‘Pac wanted to get off of Death Row and start his own label, and that’s why Suge had him killed. I don’t believe the part about Suge having ‘Pac killed, but I’m sure ‘Pac was smart enough to realize that he was being ripped off, and it would have been interested to see what he would have done if he’d lived. ‘Pac wasn’t a legit gangster, so he didn’t pose much of a threat to Suge, and Suge paid $1.4 million just to get him out of prison. Still, think of how much money “Pac generated from All Eyez on Me alone, let alone all that other shit he recorded.
Dre ended up walking away from Death Row without anything other than an implicit promise from Suge not to pop a cap in his ass. Suge retained the rights to all of the music Dre produced for the label, which seems ridiculous given the fact that, whereas Ruthless was owned by Jerry and Eazy, Dr. Dre co-owned Death Row with Suge. Legally, he should have been able to walk away whenever he felt like it and retain whatever percentage of the label’s intellectual property belonged to him. The thing is, if he’d done that, Suge Knight would have paid someone from LAPD to pop a cap in his ass, the same way anyone with access to Wikipedia suspects he did Biggie Smalls.
With Dre out of the picture, ‘Pac became the marquee artist at Death Row, and that lasted for all of about five minutes. It was barely any longer than Suge’s NFL career. “Pac and Suge were out in Vegas to catch one of those Tyson fights that lasted for like 30 seconds. At the casino, they ran into some guy from the Crips who’d snatched someone’s Death Row chain at a mall. They stomped him out then headed back to the hotel to change clothes for an after party. Most likely, the kid they stomped out pulled up alongside them on the strip, on their way to the after party, and popped several caps in 2Pac’s ass. 2Pac died the following Friday.
Video of the scuffle at the casino got out, in the wake of ‘Pac’s assassination. Suge was of course “on paper” for something or other, and ended up being sent away for a fairly lengthy stretch in the pokey. It was the early 2000s by the time he got out, and he’s been back once or twice since then. Meanwhile, Death Row fell apart. They must have made quite a bit of money selling those posthumous 2Pac albums, but that’s all they had going for them. Suge was sued by the lady who claimed she’d invested $1.5 million on behalf of Harry-O, and he had problems with the IRS. He filed for bankruptcy, and Death Row ended up being auctioned off to help settle his debts. Some white woman in Canada ended up buying it.
Dr. Dre started his own vanity imprint with Interscope called Aftermath. Jimmy Iovine was more than happy to have him, because he’s wary of working with black guys who clearly don’t have the sense god gave geese, and this way he had Dr. Dre, the real genius behind Death Row, without Suge Knight threatening to dunk his head in a fish tank filled with piranhas, ordering him to drink cups of piss (which is perfectly sterile, btw), and putting him at risk of getting killed by the Crips in a drive-by shooting.
He wasn’t sweating the fact Dre was forced to sign over the rights to everything he ever created for Death Row, as long as it didn’t have any bearing on his cut. If Suge Knight had attempted to cheat Interscope out of their Death Row money the way he cheated seemingly everyone who was on Death Row out of their Death Row money, he would have been murdered by the Illuminati and/or the Jewish Defense League and we would have been rid of Suge Knight for upwards of 20 years at this point. It may have even prevented the assassination of Biggie Smalls.
No one really cared for the first album Dre put out on Aftermath, Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath, a compilation of songs by rappers and R&B singers no one ever heard of, for good reason. Nor did anyone like the song he produced on the compromised, overrated second Nas album, It Was Written, “Nas Is Coming.” A year later, he produced the bulk of the album by rap supergroup The Firm, featuring Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown and Nature, which I blocked from my memory as if it were child sexual abuse to the point where it’s hardly mentioned in the book I wrote about Nas, Nas Lost: A Tribute to the Little Homey.
Jimmy Iovine looks for work for artists who don’t have shit else better to do, so they’re not completely unproductive. He’s the classic straw boss at McDonald’s who’s always trying to hand you a broom. If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. Some of his artists are more receptive to this kind of meddling than others.
A few years ago, he tried to talk Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails into singing over a buncha garbage prefab Timbaland songs. Trent Reznor was like, “Fuck that noise, Jack!” Er, Jimmy. A few weeks later, he turns on the radio and what does he hear? Chris Cornell from Soundgarden singing over those exact same songs. They became Scream, perhaps the most poorly reviewed album of the past five years. Even Childish Gambino cringed reading some of the reviews.
I was in college when Dr. Dre was supposed to be producing The Fragile, the long-awaited followup to Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. I remeber reading in the paper that these sessions lasted for all of about a day and a half, with Reznor explaining that Dr. Dre had a different idea of what it meant to produce an album. I took that to mean that Jimmy Iovine tried to force Dr. Dre on Trent Reznor, because he either couldn’t or wouldn’t come up with anything commercial-sounding enough, and Trent Reznor wasn’t having it. The Fragile finally hit stores shortly thereafter, and then it was six years before there was another Nine Inch Nails album. I was well into my adulthood, so to speak.
Also, it was in this time that Dr. Dre was sent to sue Napster. He was the other main artist to sue the peer-to-peer filesharing network besides Metallica. Most people just remember Metallica suing Napster, because Metallica seem like awful people. It makes sense that a rapper would sue a peer-to-peer file-sharing network because a rapper, stereotypically, is all about his money—though obviously Dre wasn’t all about his money when he was allowing Lonzo, Eazy, Jerry Heller and Suge to rip him off. As part of the suit, Dre submitted a list of usernames of people sharing Dr. Dre songs on Napster. If, like me, you were in college at the time sharing Dr. Dre songs on Napster, your name was probably on it. If there’s two groups of people from which Dr. Dre will not abide disrespect, it’s broke college kids and women.
In reality, the purpose of those Napster lawsuits was to protect the scam operation the major labels were running in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s. First, they conspired to kill the cassette single a/k/a the cassingle, and the CD single, to force people to have to buy the entire album, and then they conspired to keep CD prices artificially high.
You’d pay upwards of $20 for an album with a song you sorta kinda liked on it, then come to find out you didn’t really like it; you just thought you liked it because you heard it on the radio so often, and the reason you heard it on the radio so often is because the label paid the radio station to play it. You’d try to sell it back to the store you bought it from, and they’d only offer you pennies on the dollar for it, because they already had an entire bin full of them.
By the time Dr. Dre was sent to sue Napster, there were five major labels, and they controlled a full 95% of all CD sales. They were the only game in town. There was no releasing your music independently, lest Jimmy Iovine force you to work with the likes of Timbaland, Lady Gaga, Pharrell and Will.i.am. and charge you your entire (recoupable) album budget for the privilege—at least not on a level where you could compete with the major labels like you can in 2014. Napster was the first step in eroding what you might call tall Israeli privilege.
Of course, privilege never really goes away—it just changes forms. It’s like energy, in that sense.
Over the course of the past 15 years, the power in the music industry has shifted from the label to the artists and the fans, but at the same time, the black artist has largely become obsolete. If a black artist shows up in the upper reaches of the pop charts at all, it’s in a supporting role, lending a little “street cred” to a cracka-ass cracka like Robin Thicke, in the kind of collaboration pioneered by Jimmy Iovine. Eminem, sad to say, is the bridge from there to here.
Eminem was another job Jimmy Iovine brought Dr. Dre in that period in between when Dre left Death Row and when he dropped 2001, when he couldn’t get arrested (figuratively speaking). Stereotype-based humor would suggest that if an aging white record exec brought a black gangster rapper a tape of a white guy from Michigan to produce, the rapper’s response would be FOH with that BS! But Dr. Dre supposedly leapt at the idea. That’s why Jimmy Iovine fuxwit Dr. Dre. Who knows what other kinds of bullshit Jimmy Iovine has brought Dr. Dre over the years that we just don’t know about because it never made it out of the studio. Maybe that’s why he’s yet to drop Detox: he’s too busy “experimenting.”
I’m sure Jimmy Iovine liked the idea of Eminem at least in part due to the problems he had dealing with the likes of 2Pac and Suge Knight. It’s easier for a white man to try to talk some sense into another white man, and a white man is less likely to be killed in a drive-by shooting by the Crips or end up doing significant time behind bars on some ol’ bullshit. Dr. Dre once tried to rap about how he was done with a life of violence, substance abuse and (presumably) beating the shit out of women, and it damn near ended his career. Meanwhile, people can’t seem to get enough of redneck-y Eminem ballads about kicking drugs. White rap is an all-around smarter investment.
White rap was destined to be more popular than black rap, because white people don’t want to hear black people, and for all of this talk about the US supposedly becoming East St. Louis over the course of our lifetime, this country is still 70% white. There’s still parts of Murica where you can go all day long without seeing a black person, and they’re not off in Montana somewhere. They’re like six highway exits in any direction.
I worked in a K-Mart around the time Encore came out, and the only rap albums we ever sold were it and the half of Nelly’s Sweat/Suit album with the country song on it. We may not have even carried any other rap albums. I never went back to the music section. I was always worried they’d think I was stealing, even though I worked there. This was in a part of town not too far from the part of Murica where you don’t see any black people.
White people love black music, to be sure. It’s just, they’d like it even more if white people were singing. Hence the entire history of rock music. Rap music, which has been around for 35 years as of the other day (sheesh!), avoided cultural appropriation for longer than rock ever did because rapping is difficult for white people to do. It’s like basketball, in that sense: on a skill level, there will never be a time when more than a small handful of white rappers are as good as the best black rappers. Eminem is one of that few.
Of course the difference between rap music and basketball is that there’s no score in rap music, other than in the liner notes of a now-obscure Kool Moe Dee album. Music is ostensibly subjective in nature, and this is the key to the success of white rap music. Iggy Azalea is a terrible rapper, but white chicks who were born in 1998—the main people who buy rap music—wouldn’t know from good rap music. Iggy Azalea is the best rap music to them, and that’s all that matters. As Deacon Jones would say, that’s all it took.
Eminem paved the way for the likes of Macklemore, Robin Thicke, Iggy Azalea and the like by becoming the most successful artist of the ‘00s, selling more albums than Buhweet, Elvis and the Beatles combined. His best-selling albums are certified diamond like ‘Pac’s All Eyez on Me and the ‘Pac greatest hits album, but those ‘Pac albums are two-disc sets, as are most 10x platinum rap albums like Biggie’s Life After Death and OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below. The only rap album to sell anywhere near as many copies as the most popular Eminem albums is MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. I checked the wiki just now.
Who knows what the actual breakdown of the royalties from an Eminem album is. Eminem is signed to his own Shady Records, which is a subsidiary of Aftermath Entertainment, which itself is a subsidiary of Interscope Records, a division of the Universal Music Group. There’s a lot of layers to that pyramid. If Dre made anything at all, he got over like a fat rat, since it’s a known fact he doesn’t do much other than function as Eminem’s black public cosigner. Supposedly, he was worth $550 million before he made $620 million in a single year, mostly from the sale of Beats Electronics to Apple, so he must have made quite a bit.
The other day, Forbes released its annual list of Hip-Hop Cash Kings. This year’s list was topped by none other than Dr. Dre. It was convenient for me, because I was already thinking about writing this essay, and now it has a nominal “news peg.”
In the last year alone, Dre made $620 million. Not only is that more money than Dre had made in his entire life up until that point, unless you account the amounts he was swindled for by guys like Suge Knight, Eazy-E and Jerry Heller, it’s more than the other 24 guys on the list made in the last year combined. It’s more than the entire net worth of the top rapper on last year’s list. Add that to the $550 million Dre was supposedly worth before the Beats sale, with a huge emphasis on the word supposedly, and Dr. Dre’s net worth could be in excess of [Dr. Evil voice] one billion dollars.
Dr. Dre would prefer if you believe his net worth is in excess of a billion dollars, whatever it is. Hopefully, he doesn’t try to avoid giving the IRS its cut and somehow end up not just losing it all, but locked up, just to say he was the first hip-hop billionaire. I wouldn’t put it past one of these rappers to do some shit like that. These kids don’t believe fat meat greasy.
Already, he supposedly jeopardized the sale of Beats Electronics to Apple, the source of his historic windfall, by recording a video of himself and Tyrese, drunker than an MFN skunk, celebrating the fact that Dre had become the first hip-hop billionaire, presumably while Jimmy Iovine, Tim Cook, et al. were off somewhere hammering out the actual deal.
I wasn’t upset with the video. Any time a black man comes into that kind of money, it’s only right he records a video of himself addressing America like Tron when he had a hot hand in a dice game in an episode of The Mad Real World. Look at me, America. Look at how Tron is living! No, the video I could understand, except perhaps for Tyrese being in it. I just couldn’t believe he didn’t wait until the check cleared first.
Imagine if a black man really did make a billion dollars in a single day, thus making him all of about three US black billionaires, along with Oprah and now Michael Jordan, only to lose it a few hours later on some ol’ bullshit. Sadly, a scenario like that doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it should. I’m actually kinda surprised it’s yet to happen.
Fortunately for him, Dr. Dre may have finally ascended to the level of wealth where he couldn’t fuck up his money if he wanted to. There’s just so much of it. Mick Fleetwood once famously snorted $8 million worth of cocaine. Even adjusted for inflation, that wouldn’t put so much as a dent in Dre’s substantial fortune—and it would probably kill him first anyway, because he’s damn near 50 now and he appears to be on ‘roids.
If Suge Knight were to show up to Tom Brady and Gisele’s old house, where Dr. Dre lives now, with a cup of still-warm piss and a contract signing over Dr. Dre’s entire net worth, written on a napkin from Popeye’s Chicken in a cherry-scented magic marker, Dr. Dre could call the police, and the police might actually show up and protect him, if only because they can’t afford to lose what he’s gonna have to pay in property taxes on that house.
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