The Doctor, Unmasked

Chuck Philips is a Times staff writer

Dr. Dre, the acclaimed rapper and record producer, flashes a grin in his new video as he watches the sun set from a luxurious corporate high-rise.

Decked out in an immaculately tailored Italian suit, the Grammy-winning star has donned a new look in "Been There, Done That"--a farewell to the gun-toting mentality that critics once accused him of glorifying as one of the architects of gangsta rap.

The song was written and recorded just months before rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas on Sept. 7. Shakur was a passenger in a car driven by Marion "Suge" Knight, chairman of Death Row Records, the multimillion-dollar rap enterprise that Dre co-founded with Knight in 1992, but severed ties with last March.

"It's hard for me to believe that Tupac is no longer with us. It's a real tragedy," says Dre, watching the video on a monitor in his new Sherman Oaks recording studio. "He was a real talented individual and I feel very bad that it all had to end like this.

"I think everybody involved in hip-hop needs to kick back and realize that this is just a business. It has nothing to do with real gangsterism. As for me, I don't want anything to do with all that violent B.S. I'm not down with negativity. I got my eyes on positive things."

Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, has now formed his own company, Aftermath Entertainment. It's a dramatic move he hopes will transform him from a gangsta rap star into an industry mogul whose reach extends beyond the world of hip-hop into film and television.

Yes, the man who scandalized the nation in the late '80s with violent and misogynistic music as a member of the Compton group N.W.A. is now also planning to direct TV sitcoms and full-length motion pictures.

"This is not just a new day for Dr. Dre, it is a fresh start for the man who created him: Andre Young," says the 31-year-old rap entrepreneur, whose production work has generated more than $250 million in album sales. "From this point on, I intend to make my life as B.S.-proof as possible.

"As far as my past image goes, man, I've been there, done that. Image is not what's important to me anymore. Art is what matters. Art and taking care of business."

Music and image aren't the only things that have changed in Dre's life. After a string of run-ins with the law that landed him in jail last year, the burly, 6-foot-2 rapper decided this year to quit nightclubbing and settle down. Dre married his wife, Nicole, in May and willmove with his family from a two-story house in Calabasas into a new hilltop home in Chatsworth before the end of the year.

"It took me a long time to realize who I am," Dre says. "I'm an artist. There is nothing more I love to do than get up in the morning and create. I love to work all day in the studio and chill at night with my wife and my family. I'm a very happy man. I swear I wouldn't change my life right now for nothing on the planet."

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You expect your allies to sing your praises in the record business, but the real test is what your rivals say about you. So, the industry takes notice when New York rap producer Sean "Puffy" Combs, whose Bad Boy Entertainment firm has been locked in a bitter rivalry with Death Row, seems almost reverential about Dre.

"Dre is to hip-hop what Miles Davis was to jazz or what Holland-Dozier-Holland was to R&B;," says Combs, whose own name and that of his biggest star--rapper Notorious B.I.G.--have both been mentioned frequently in speculative news reports involving a possible East Coast/West Coast rivalry connection to the shooting of Shakur. "The man has a million followers out there waiting to copy his every move, including me. I mean, Dre is to rap what God is to the church."

Dre is credited with inventing a new sound that smoothed out rap's pile-driving beat with a melodic overlay of 1970s-style funk.

Framing his stark lyrics with catchy chants and complex arrangements, Dre has pumped out a stream of hits that cemented his reputation as the rap equivalent of Phil Spector, the brilliant '60s record producer. Dre was the first producer to successfully market gangsta rap singles to the top of pop radio playlists.

Dre began his career in the mid-1980s as a deejay in Compton dance clubs, learning the rudiments of record engineering while many of his friends gangbanged in the streets. Dre credits his mother, who raised him and his sister and brother, with introducing him to the funk compositions of some of his musical heroes: George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes.

The self-taught Dre's studio skills have attracted frequent offers from such pop and rock stars as Madonna and Metallica, but he prefers working with unknown artists, who often write the controversial lyrics to his songs.

"I have a gift," says Dre, dressed casually in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans. "I've never had any musical training but I've always heard music in my head. The difference between me and a lot of other producers is that I know how to get the exact sound I hear in my head on the record. I never sweat it. For me, making hit records has never been a problem. The biggest problem for me has always been finding the right people to work with."

Dre first gained national attention for masterminding the sound of N.W.A.'s controversial "Straight Outta Compton" album, which was released in 1989 on Ruthless Records, a company Dre helped put together with fellow N.W.A. member Eazy-E.

The infamous rap quintet rose to stardom on the strength of an underground smash titled "F--- Tha Police," an angry attack on police harassment that was bitterly criticized by the FBI and law enforcement groups for allegedly encouraging violence against police officers.

Dre upped the ante in 1991 with N.W.A.'s huge hit "Efil4zaggin," which was the first hard-core rap collection to reach No. 1 on the pop album charts. After a contract dispute with the label, he left Ruthless and launched Death Row in 1992 with Knight, a former music publisher.

In that venture, Dre and Knight quickly drew praise for creating a black-owned-and-operated firm whose success surpassed that of any rap company in the business. Against all odds, the duo transformed the tiny, unknown label into a thriving enterprise that still generates more than $100 million annually.

"Dre is one of the best creative people in the business," says Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine, who has worked closely with Dre since 1992. "He's starting over again, but the thing that will drive his new company forward is the man's amazing creativity."

Dre's creative credentials also draw kudos from a long list of industry top guns working in the pop, R&B;, jazz and rock fields.

"I am a huge fan of Dr. Dre," says 40-year industry veteran Quincy Jones. "He is one of the first hip-hop producers that understands what is important in melody. I give Dr. Dre big-time props."

For 10 years, Dre has been ahead of the curve in the hip-hop field, setting the standard for a series of musical trends. But some competitors feel his most prescient move may have been his decision in March to walk away from gangsta rap and Death Row.

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From the start, Death Row has represented a dramatic confluence of violent art and violent reality. The company has raised eyebrows in the music industry not only because it was the first rap label to consistently dominate the pop charts, but also because of a flurry of violent incidents associated with its stars and management.

At Death Row, Dre's controversial music caused a public furor last year after violent and sexually explicit lyrics in songs that he produced for such artists as Snoop Doggy Dogg set off a political uproar that caused the Time Warner corporation to dump the label's distributor, Interscope Records, 13 months ago. Interscope, which continues to distribute both Death Row and Aftermath, is now affiliated with MCA Inc.

Among the blockbuster Death Row albums: Dre's own 1992 "The Chronic" (an estimated $50 million in retail sales), Snoop Doggy Dogg's 1994 "Doggystyle" ($63 million) and Shakur's 1996 double-CD "All Eyez on Me" ($65 million to date).

So why did Dre walk out at the peak of Death Row's success?

"It stopped being fun," he says, sitting at the mixing console of his 48-track home studio. "I got very frustrated with the whole environment. All of a sudden the studio was packed with strangers, and me, I don't like working in a room full of people I don't know. It makes me uncomfortable. And if I'm not comfortable, I'm not happy. And if I'm not happy, I'm not staying. That's all there is to it."

Knight and other Death Row associates have said in interviews that they were disappointed in Dre because he didn't show up to support Snoop Doggy Dogg at his murder trial earlier this year. Snoop, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, was acquitted of the most serious charges and will not be retried.

In the months preceding the breakup, Knight privately criticized Dre's working habits, complaining that he did not produce enough music for Death Row. Knight even reportedly showed up unannounced one night at Dre's house with a group of Death Row associates and demanded that Dre turn over the master recordings of Death Row songs for an upcoming greatest-hits compilation.

Knight has publicly stated that Dre walked away from Death Row empty-handed, but sources close to the negotiations disagree. Knight declined to comment for this story.

After months of tension over the creative direction of Death Row, Dre gave up his ownership interest in the company in March for what he calls a "comfortable" settlement.

Dre says he has no knowledge of a reported FBI investigation into alleged gang-related drug-trafficking activities at Death Row, and discounts rumors in the rap community that his departure caused bad blood between him and his former associates.

"I guess Suge has his reasons for saying whatever he does," says Dre, who has not talked to Knight in months. "It's all good. It doesn't bother me. You know, Quincy Jones once told me something real wise. He said, 'Dre, be careful not to step on any toes because there is a good chance that they might be connected to a butt you have to kiss later down the road.' You know, man, there are a lot of toes being stepped on right now, but not by me."

Although Dre's exit is perceived as a creative blow to Death Row, competitors believe the label will continue to prosper because so many of its rappers and producers were tutored by Dre. New Death Row albums by Snoop, Shakur and R&B; singer Nate Dogg are due out in November and are expected to top the pop charts.

"I have a great deal of respect for Snoop and a lot of the artists at Death Row--and they know it," Dre says. "Those guys have a gang of talent and I wish them all the best. They're going to do just fine. But honestly, as far as my life is concerned, Death Row doesn't even exist. I have already moved on."

The striking changes in Dre's life are largely the result of 180 days of soul-searching last year in a Pasadena city jail cell.

The rapper was locked up for violating the probation he had received after breaking another rap producer's jaw in 1992. That charge followed a conviction for hitting a New Orleans police officer in a 1992 hotel brawl and another for slamming a female TV talk-show host into a wall at a Hollywood club in 1991.

"When I got sentenced, my mom told me that jail was going to turn out to be a blessing in disguise--and she was right," says Dre, pointing to a photo of him and his mother taped to the center of his mixing console. "I had nothing to do in there but think about how much I was screwing up.

"You see, I got wrapped up in the Dr. Dre image and all that old Hollywood B.S. You know what I'm saying: the clothes, the jewelry, the fly cars with the big sound systems pulling up in front of the clubs. But incarceration brought me down to earth and actually turned Dr. Dre back into Andre Young. It made me realize the value of my life and just how many things I needed to change."

Within months after he was released from jail, Dre left Death Row. Starting from scratch talent-wise, he brought in a fresh crew of musicians and assembled a new studio team of producers including Budda, Stu-B-Doo, Chris the Glove Taylor and Flossy P. He then signed 18 new acts, including R&B; crooners Whoz Who, RC and Hands On.

Aftermath operates out of a 3,000-square-foot office in Sherman Oaks, about a mile from his main recording studio. The man whose recordings have been repeatedly criticized for misogynistic lyrics has a staff of eight--four of them women.

"I feel like black females handle their business a lot tighter than anybody on this planet," Dre says. "They have to work twice as hard to get a good position in this business. First off, because they are women. Secondly, they are black, which makes it even harder. It's amazing what these women accomplish every day. I call them Dre's angels."

Like most record company offices, the walls of Aftermath are lined with symbols of past success, including gold and platinum albums. But Dre is already focusing on the future.

And what will his post-Death Row music be like?

Fans got their first taste of what Dre has been up to on Aftermath's initial single, "East Coast/West Coast Killas," released to radio last month. It features a bicoastal quartet of rap stars with lyrics that question the wisdom of factional fighting between hip-hop cliques in New York and Los Angeles.

The second single, "Been There, Done That," which will be released to radio this week, includes such anti-violence lyrics as:

I been there, done that

You got guns? Yo, I got straps

A million mothers on the planet Earth

Talk that hard B.S.

'Cause that's all they're worth.

The debut album, "Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath," is a compilation that will showcase a blend of rap and R&B; music featuring performances by Dre and more than a dozen new acts he recently discovered. Due Nov. 26, the collection also includes a debut single from a highly regarded Philadelphia singer-songwriter named Maurice Wilcher.

Meanwhile, Aftermath is developing a TV pilot about juvenile delinquents called "Half-Way." Dre, who has directed a number of his own videos, plans to direct the show as well as a movie about hip-hop music that he is currently writing called "Please Listen to My Demo." He'll also write the soundtracks for both projects, which he'll soon shop around Hollywood.

"Dre is a very serious artist who brings something new to the table as a director," says actor and director Warren Beatty, a friend and fan of the producer. "He's creative and funny and has wisdom far beyond his years. He shows great potential in the film world."

In the years ahead, Dre expects to move beyond the pop world and become more involved in directing films and writing orchestral music. He already has several lengthy "abstract" instrumental compositions in the can but says the time is not right yet for them to be released.

His immediate goal is to transform Aftermath into a full-service entertainment enterprise that markets the hottest rap, R&B; and "ghetto metal" rock music as well as cutting-edge projects for television and film.

"I don't want to end up like one of those guys who is always talking about how great things used to be," Dre says. "This is a real cutthroat business. As hard as you work to earn your money, there is always somebody out there working just as hard to try to take it away from you.

"You have to stay on top of your own business. I've learned the hard way. No matter what they say, you can't depend on others to provide for you and the ones you love. That's why I started my own company. And I promise you, Dr. Dre and Aftermath will be a force to contend with in the 21st century."

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