“C alling Dr. Dre.... Calling Dr. Dre.... Calling Dr. Dre, " the young record producer known as Dr. Dre droned mockingly as he sat in a Westside deli one recent morning.
Dre, wearing a Raiders cap, jacket and warm-up pants, was hoping to dig into his hefty ham-and-cheese omelet, but his pager kept going off, signaling another call--probably one more record executive trying to get in touch with this suddenly hot producer.
In the last year, Dr. Dre (real name: Andre Young) has produced hit albums for N.W.A, Eazy-E, J.J. Fad and the D.O.C., and there’s nothing like success in the record business to get the phone ringing.
Traditionally, a producer in black music has been considered as crucial to the success of a record as a songwriter is in country music. The list of celebrated producers ranges from Bumps Blackwell and Sam Phillips to Phil Spector to Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland and Philadelphia International’s Gamble & Huff to the omnipotent Quincy Jones to Richard Perry and Willie Mitchell to such contemporary hotshots as Prince, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, L.A. & Babyface and Matt Dike and Mike Ross.
Just joining the pack: Dr. Dre.
That’s why his beeper keeps beeping--even at the breakfast table.
Dr. Dre picked up a portable phone and snapped, “Yo! Make it quick.”
After the conversation, he put down the phone and returned to his omelet.
“Where were we?” he asked.
Before the phone call, Dr. Dre, who’s also a composer and a member of the controversial rap group N.W.A, had begun to explain how he helps create all those hits.
From his quizzical frowning, you’d have thought he’d been asked a question about nuclear physics.
“I don’t know what I do, I just do it,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it, because I learned how to be a producer myself through trial and error. It’s instinct. It’s feel. It’s knowing what’s happening on the street. It’s judgment--what I think will work and what won’t. A lot of it is very spontaneous. A lot of D.O.C.'s album was done on the spot in the studio.”
What’s his biggest asset as a producer?
“My ear,” he replied. “I have a good ear for what’s authentic, for what people will like. For street rap, it has to sound real, like the kids were overhearing somebody talk on the street. A lot of rap is phony--talking about stuff people don’t care about and talking about it in a way that doesn’t sound real. Our stuff is hip because it’s real. The fans can tell right away.”
Along with Dike and Ross, the team behind Tone Loc, Dr. Dre, 24, is one of the reasons Los Angeles rap has hit the mainstream in a big way this year.
Unlike the stereotypical rapper, Dr. Dre doesn’t come across as an egomaniac. During the interview, he was fairly aloof and serious--a bit nervous, in fact, at least initially. Doing interviews clearly isn’t one of his favorite activities.
Dr. Dre works for Ruthless Records, a record label and production company founded by Eazy-E, who grew up with him in Compton. He calls it one big happy musical family, with Dr. Dre, the D.O.C, Ice Cube and the various artists writing for all the albums, and with Dr. Dre guiding the productions, with assistance from D. J. Yella.
Contrary to popular belief, Eazy-E isn’t the company’s primary creative force, though he’s listed as executive producer on the albums.
“I’m the main creative force in the company,” Dr. Dre insisted matter-of-factly. “Eazy is business-oriented. He knows street rap, but not the pop side of things. He doesn’t have the final say in terms of production; I do. He’s the business man, but I’m the music man, the production man.”
“Versatility is my middle name,” Dr. Dre said--one of the few times he blew his own horn. It’s not a idle boast. There is remarkable diversity in his productions. Those electric, hip-hop rhythms--the sound of the street, according to Dre--are a common denominator in his four hit albums. But they’re all different, covering the rap spectrum.
N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” is a dark, explosive album full of anger and rage about ghetto life. Its most famous song is "---- Tha Police,” which includes such savage, anti-law-enforcement commentary that it inspired an FBI representative to write a letter of complaint to Priority Records, which distributes Ruthless.
“N.W.A is nasty and hard-core,” Dr. Dre said. “N.W.A is about what the kids in Compton are feeling. That’s how they feel about the cops. That’s why they can relate to that song. We didn’t make this stuff up. It’s right there. Get any kid out of Compton and put a mike in his hand and tell him to rap. What you’ll get is the same kind of stuff as on the N.W.A album. The next N.W.A album is going to be even more hard-core.”
At the other end of the spectrum is J.J. Fad, the female trio that offers clean-cut raps about romance. Eazy-E’s album is what Dr. Dre calls street funny, mostly ribald and good-natured. “Eazy tells funny stories and makes you laugh,” Dr. Dre said.
The D.O.C.'s album is also clean-cut rap--but with a hard edge. “There’s strong, street beats and strong delivery, but no profanity,” Dr. Dre said. “We tried to put a hard-core song on it, but Atlantic Records (which distributes the album) took it off. This song could have been on an N.W.A album but Atlantic didn’t want anything like that for the D.O.C. album.”
The D.O.C. is a 21-year-old rapper that Dr. Dre discovered in Texas. “I liked the fact that he has a tight delivery and a strong voice,” Dr. Dre said. “He’s also a fast writer. He was raw, but I was sure he could be shaped into a good rapper.”
Dr. Dre’s next album, due out soon, features R&B; singer Michel’le--who doesn’t rap. “I wanted to try something a little different,” he explained. “Her album has a rap feel. The songs have rap music tracks--the kind you’d hear on a rap album--but Michel’le is doing vocals, not rap. A lot of radio stations won’t play rap but would play a song with vocals that has a rap feel.”
You’d think a producer who’s had such great pop success--mainly with J.J. Fad and the D.O.C--would be gearing songs to radio when he’s at work in the studio.
“I don’t care about radio,” he said. “When I’m working on records, I don’t try to make anything for radio. What radio does is makes records sell faster. Rap can sell without radio. Look at N.W.A. That album sold without radio airplay.”
Surprisingly, he’s not big on sampling either. Sampling--using snippets of old records as musical building blocks--is the backbone of rap. Dr. Dre, though, is critical of this practice.
“You can’t sample like you used to,” he pointed out. “The problem is the popularity of CDs. When you use parts of those old records, you get a lot of hiss. Now that CDs are so popular, you need a clean sound. The thing to do is to not use the originals but to re-record what you want to use so you’ll have good sound and no hiss.
“But I’ve been trying to get away from sampling. I won’t do it unless I have to. There are other ways.”
Dr. Dre spent most of his life in the ghettos of Compton and Paramount. “I’m from the streets,” he said. “That’s important. I know what street rap sounds like. I’ve lived it. I stay in touch with it.”
But with all that money he’s making, these days Dr. Dre can afford to sample street life only when he has to. He’s graduated from the ghetto--having moved to to Westlake. After breakfast, he had to rush home because some new furniture was being delivered.
“After all those years I like being somewhere where I don’t have to worry about walking outside and getting shot,” he said. “I can leave the key under the mat in the place in Westlake. If you do that where I used to live, it’s an invitation to be ripped off.”
A recent theft was, for him, unofficial affirmation of his decision to move. While being driven by Michel’le, an R&B; singer whose album he just produced, his Mercedes was stolen at gunpoint in Inglewood.
“I’ve had enough of that kind of stuff,” he said. “Living in these dangerous places gets to you. You have to get out to keep your sanity. The peaceful life is nice.”
But, while he was living in those dangerous places, Dr. Dre acquired the source material for the rap records that have turned him into a prominent record-industry figure. Working as a deejay in Compton clubs in the mid-'80s, Dr. Dre--who has no musical training and, he admitted, can’t even carry a tune--developed an interest in producing.
“Me and D.J. Yella would copy other people’s records and make the changes we wanted to make,” he recalled. “We set up a demo studio in back of this one club and worked on demos all week. Then we’d play them on the weekends at the clubs. I knew how I wanted those records to sound. Then I decided I wanted to produce my own records.”
That’s where his old buddy Eazy-E came in. Dr. Dre approached Eazy-E, who has said that he financed his company with proceeds from his drug dealing, to invest in a group called HBO. That deal fizzled because the group balked at doing a song that later became the first single for Eazy. That single, “Boyz-N-the-Hood,” and N.W.A’s “Dopeman” single, launched Dr. Dre’s career as a producer in late 1986. By early this year, those artists had hit albums, produced by Dr. Dre.
Dr. Dre is a rapper too, working with N.W.A. He’s quite modest about his rapping skills--though he’s very effective on “Express Yourself,” a cut on the N.W.A album.
“I’m not a great rapper,” he said. “I’m not as good as D.O.C. or Cube. I know what it should sound like, but I can’t quite do it myself as well as I’d like to. As a producer I know what it’s supposed to sound like--and my raps aren’t quite strong enough. That’s why my future is in producing and writing--not rapping.”