Dr. Dre: The Chronic (Death Row/Interscope, 1992) + Snoop Doggy Dogg: Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope, 1993)

Oliver Wang
Dec 15, 2017 · 5 min read

(Originally published in Classic Material, ECW Press, 2003. Edited for republication in 2017)

The Chronic was a strange phoenix to arise out of the smoke and ashes of the 1992 L.A. Uprising. Whereas Dre’s former NWA partner Ice Cube released The Predator, an album soaked in I-told-you-this-would-happen self-righteousness, Dre always seemed more interested in profit than prophecy. With the exception of The Chronic’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”, which only superficially addresses the chaos of April ’02, the album lacks much direct engagement with the politics of urban rebellion. Yet The Chronic clearly rides on the Uprising’s aftermath, (re)envisioning a new world order led by gangsters and hustlers who, in Dre’s imagination, didn’t simply survive the riots, but thrived.

Arguably the most important rap album to ever come out of California (though Straight Outta Compton provides heavy competition), The Chronic knocked New York off its teetering pedestal and permanently altered the future sound of rap music. Even 25 years later, the sea-change that Dre wrought on rap music is still in full effect. However, understanding its allure requires you to appreciate how The Chronic wasn’t simply a quintessential gangsta album but undeniably a quintessential L.A. album.

Provided, Dre’s L.A. is a long way from the sun n’ surf imagery that Angelino anthems typically evoke, yet “Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang” takes its place alongside other classics like the Mamas and Papas’ nostalgia-ridden “California Dreaming” and Randy Newman’s subtly sardonic “I Love L.A.” In all these cases, what’s being touted is a mythology, a romanticized ideal of what living (and dying) in L.A. is all about, steeped in a decadent, fabulous fantasy that’s long been part of America’s fascination with Southern California. Just as the Beach Boys’ classic “California Girls” came out at the same time as the Watts Riots of 1965, Dre’s idealized vision of L.A. is a response to the burnt-out store-fronts left behind in ’92 — an affirmation that his way of life will continue regardless of what Daryl Gates or Rodney King have to say about it.

This all gets meticulously encoded in the sound that Dre fashions for the album, a hip-hop equivalent to Brian Wilson’s fanatical obsessions over the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or Phil Spector’s do-or-die recording of Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High. Compared to the frenetic, raucous energy of Dre’s work on NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Efil4zaggin, The Chronic eases things back, eschewing the iron-fisted funk of the Meters or James Brown and instead unwinds to lavish soul scores inspired by 70s producers like Quincy Jones, Donny Hathaway and of course, George Clinton. Dre’s key intervention are those ubiquitous synthesizers snaking their way through songs like “Dre Day”, “Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang” and “Let Me Ride” (the album’s singles) — a sweetly lush sound that interpolates summertime sunshine into sonic form.

It seems perverse to use a word like “idyllic” to describe the portrait that Dre paints on the album — a world where death and violence is a built-in part of living — but The Chronic is undeniably celebratory. The idea of “Let Me Ride” — which sounds like a plea but is effectively a demand — finds Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and company rolling in their “sweet chariot”, soft-top ’64, down palm-lined streets, across a Southland Promised Land of backyard BBQs, gang truce picnics, corner dice games, and bustling swap meets.

Yet, in contrast to this airy, sunny levity, the second half of The Chronic is far darker and claustrophobic. If the soaring sound of “Let Me Ride” imagines an open sea of concrete to coast on, the deep, dense drama of songs like “A Nigga Witta Gun” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” invoke the tense, cramped space of a back alley shoot-out. Moreover, the B-side’s two best songs — the posse cuts “Lyrical Gangbang” and “Stranded On Death Row” — hit with as much staccato force as any “East Coast” beat, broadening the appeal of The Chronic beyond just the slickened soul of its better known hits.

In the process, Dre effectively scores a neo-blaxploitation soundtrack for the 1990s, tapping into a larger, black cultural continuum where the album both recycles the past as it reinvents the present. That’s why the gangster, the pimp and the hustler make up the central iconography on The Chronic, going a long way in explaining both the album’s casual embrace of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat’s” violence as well as “Bitches Ain’t Shit’s” inexcusable misogyny.

If Dre fashions himself into the modern day Gene Page, he finds his Leon Haywood in Snoop Doggy Dogg. With his country drawl and easy going flow, Snoop would seem like an unlikely gangsta candidate but the relaxed, almost seductive manner in which he talks about gun blasts and pimp smacks make Snoop seem so damn cool that he can’t be expected to break a sweat as a G — it just comes naturally. The Chronic introduces a host of rappers — Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, RBX and the Lady of Rage, who ironically turns in some of the album’s best cameos despite The Chronic’s omnipresent sexism. But it’s clear from jump that Snoop is top dog over the rest and his soft-spoken voice is as much a vital part of the album’s sound as Dre’s studio tweaking.

Snoop’s Doggystyle isn’t as intricate as The Chronic but it’s impossible to completely separate the two from one another. If The Chronic is the build-up, Doggstyle is about release and despite the inclusion of more sinister songs like “Serial Killa” and “Pump Pump”, Doggystyle is fundamentally the ultimate gangsta party album. For tracks like “Gin and Juice”, “Tha Shiznit” and “Doggy Dogg World”, Dre transforms the daytime glow of The Chronic’s grooves into late night club jams with the genius cut being “Ain’t No Fun”. As the song’s whirring, swirling synths combine with the buzzing basslines and Nate Dogg’s crooning falsetto, they form a body-hugging funk fabric so tight that you barely notice the sexism of the rhymes. (Side note: if you’re in L.A. and listening to KDAY, request this song to hear how hilariously pointless the “radio edit” version of it is.)

Above all else, Snoop on this album hustles with style. It’s fitting that he chooses to cover Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” (entitled “Lodi Dodi” on Doggystyle) since both him and Rick share the ability to rhyme with such ease that it hides the complexities of their lyrics underneath a honeyed charm. For example, this evocative verse is from “Murder Was the Case”, Doggystyle’s most ambitious song about Snoop’s life after death experience: “Niggaz stare as I enter the center/they send me to a level 3 yard/that’s where I stay/ late night I hear toothbrushes scraping on the floor/niggaz getting they shanks/just in case the war.”

There’ve been many who’ve blasted and bemoaned The Chronic and Doggstyle — whether for their unabashed misogyny, or triumph of gangsta mentalities over New School positivity, or simply because they don’t like Dre’s sound. But the impact of these two albums is above debate — Dre and Snoop fundamentally altered the future sound of rap music. Even 20+ years later, the indelible image that these albums inspire is of an ageless Dre and Snoop, slow rolling on a bed of funk, floating fingers twisted into a “W”, drifting into the sunset of another California endless summer.

Oliver Wang

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