Last in a series of stories exploring the creative process of the executives and producers who find and nurture talent.
“We go until it happens,” rap producer Dr. Dre says about all the time he spends in the recording studio searching for hits, once as long as 79 hours in a single stretch. “When the ideas are coming,” says the man who is one of the half-dozen most influential producers of the modern pop era, “I don’t stop until the ideas stop because that train doesn’t come along all the time.”
Some hip-hop fans, however, must be wondering if this particular train isn’t off the track. Dre (real name: Andre Young) has been working on his third solo album, “Detox,” for nearly eight years, a time frame that invites uncomfortable comparison with such earlier pop music train wrecks as Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Axl Rose. All three were fabulously successful artists who found it so hard to live up to their own expectations that they each ran into creative paralysis.
But there are differences between Dre and the others, he and those close to him say. The 42-year-old Compton native hasn’t just been working on his own album all these years.
As a producer and head of Aftermath Entertainment, Dre has also contributed to albums by Eminem, 50 Cent, the Game and others. Plus, he has “mixed” tracks -- fine-tuning the musical dynamics -- for more than a dozen other artists, including Gwen Stefani, Eve and Mary J. Blige.
Dre will now devote two months to working on Eminem’s new album. “We’ll be trying to get his thing done and work on a few things on my own project,” Dre says.
It’s an exhausting pace and it’s possible only because of what Dre calls his obsession with the studio.
To achieve his level of success -- Dre has put his seductive hip-hop stamp on albums that have taken in more than $1 billion worldwide -- you obviously need musical talent.
“Dre is ‘the Natural,’ ” says Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine. “Lots of producers have hits, but he does far more than that. He’s a creator who has moved popular culture three times . . . with gangsta rap, G-funk and Eminem.”
Yet the more you talk to Dre, the more you realize that another key element has been a mental toughness that enabled him to walk away from fast-lane excesses and a runaway ego.
Dre’s greatest gift, in fact, may be the strong will that has helped him to recognize the most important things in his life -- the recording studio, his family and, most recently, weight training -- and strip away everything that doesn’t serve those priorities.
In the early ‘90s, Dre was being hailed as the new king of hip-hop for defining gangsta rap with N.W.A and then expanding rap’s mainstream appeal with the alluring G-funk style that combined melodic, old-school R&B and hard-core hip-hop sensibilities.
But amid the sudden fame, Dre appeared to be spending as much time partying and in court as he did in the studio. The turning point came after he served time in jail in 1995 for violating the probation he received after breaking another rap producer’s jaw in 1992.
He jettisoned the bad behavior and, among other things, severed ties with trouble-plagued Death Row Records, signing a multimillion-dollar deal with Interscope Records and the Universal Music Group that resulted in Dre’s Aftermath label.
The accompanying hoopla and dollar signs led to another hazardous period. After closing the deal, Dre went on a signing spree, convinced he could turn out hits with virtually anyone. He admits the move took a personal and professional toll.
“When we started Aftermath, we had something like 20 artists and it was driving me crazy,” the 6-foot-1 producer said on the patio of his English-style country estate in the West San Fernando Valley. “I couldn’t sit down and focus on any of it, plus it was doubly hard because you ended up crushing these people’s dreams when you had to let them go.”
On the strength of his name, “Dr. Dre Presents . . . The Aftermath,” a 1996 album, was certified platinum (1 million sold), but it had little lasting effect. The humbling experience taught Dre that even with his talents he, as a producer, needs quality artists and a top support crew to make noteworthy records. Aftermath too went through a stripping back process. Its roster now includes fewer than a dozen artists.
“People are always coming up to me, thinking I’ve got some magic wand that can make them a star and I want to tell them that no one can do that,” he says. “Making hit records is not that easy. But it took me time to realize that myself.”
Now, Dre is planning another dramatic move, one designed in part to give him even more time in the studio. The long-awaited “Detox,” he says, will be his final solo album.
Though claims of “final albums” have often proved to be as short-lived as farewell tours, you sense a burden lifting as Dre talks about saying good-bye to the solo career. He loves being in the studio, whether working on his songs or someone else’s. But he doesn’t enjoy the other duties that go along with a solo career, including interviews, live shows and other promotional activities. By eliminating all that, Dre is further sharpening his focus on his studio obsession.
“The actual making of a record is the most exciting part of this business,” he says. “I don’t make records so I can sit down afterward and listen to them. I make them so other people can sit down and listen to them.”
Talk about hits
DRE appears as relaxed as can be on the grounds of his gated mansion on a weekday afternoon, refreshed from a couple of hours at the gym and looking forward to going into the studio later in the day. You’d never know from his easygoing manner that the rap kingpin dislikes interviews so much that this is his first one in three years.
He’s a wonderful storyteller who delights in the surprising details behind some of his hits. At the moment, he’s in the middle of a story about how he found Snoop Dogg, whose silky vocal style contributed greatly to the G-funk classic, “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang.”
Dre was at a bachelor party in the early ‘90s when he heard Snoop’s voice on an amateur tape. He liked the way Snoop rhymed over the beats and invited him into the studio.
“I was mainly interested in how he responded to directions,” Dre continues. “That’s always an important test with me. Talent gets you in the door, but there are other things I consider, like, ‘Do I want to work with this guy? Can we click? Can we laugh and talk in the studio?’ If not, I’d rather work with someone else.”
Seriously? Would Dre really pass up a sure-fire hit if it was brought into the studio by an absolute jerk?
Dre pauses briefly at the question, then laughs. “Well,” he says, finally. “I’d probably take the song and then have him sit out in the lobby while I worked on it.”
It’s the music that matters
Dre has been talking freely for nearly 90 minutes about the studio. The only pauses are to talk to Nicole, his wife of 11 years, about spending the weekend with their kids at their house in Malibu.
For Dre, spending as much time as possible in the studio is as important as keeping your ears open, a point that leads to the matter of interviews. Nothing personal, he says, they’re just another distraction.
Dre was blessed with a gift for music, a mom who encouraged him to pursue that gift rather than gangs and an aunt who just happened to live down the street from another young hip-hop fan, O’Shea Jackson, who adopted the professional name Ice Cube.
“I always loved the way music made me feel,” Dre says, sipping water from a bottle. “I did sports at school and all, but when I got home, it was just music. Everybody in my neighborhood loved music. I could jump the back fence and be in the park where there were ghetto blasters everywhere.”
By the time Dre and Ice Cube hooked up in the mid-'80s, both had spent countless hours honing their skills. Dre, four years older, was a master of turntables, his confidence boosted by all the nights he played records for the dance crowd at the Eve After Dark nightclub in Compton. Cube’s forte was lyrics.
After they joined N.W.A, Dre supplied the sonic explosiveness, while Cube wrote the key raps for “Straight Outta Compton,” the alternately angry and witty late-'80s album that made gangsta rap a sensation. The success of N.W.A showed Dre the importance of following your instincts and not worrying about the latest trends.
“I mean, think about it,” he says. “We couldn’t have done anything more unlikely in music business terms. We were making a record that we knew no one would play on the radio because of the language and that no major label would even release.”
Dre followed his instincts again with 1992’s “The Chronic” by using live instruments when the vogue in rap was building tracks around turntable dynamics and “samples” from old recordings. “There is some sampling on my records and a lot of what I call replays, where I’d have musicians come in the studio and replay the sample from the original record,” he says. “But mainly, we’d come up with our own music.”
Dre’s favorite moment during the making of “The Chronic” may have been the time Snoop Dogg phoned the studio from jail while Dre happened to be working on “Nuthin’ but.” “I can’t even remember why he was in jail, but I thought his voice would be perfect for the song,” Dre says, smiling. “So, I told him to stay on the line while I duct-taped the receiver of the phone to the microphone. That’s how he did vocal for our demo for ‘ “G” Thang.’ I wish I could find that demo now. You could hear all the jail sounds in the background. It was crazy.”
Fifteen years after that recording session, Dre still seems to savor the moment -- as much as the success of the record itself, which was named single of the decade by Spin magazine.
For Dre, a hit record starts with a hit sound, which sounds simple. But the search is what requires those long hours in the studio. The producer normally heads into the studio around 3 p.m. weekdays, the weekends being reserved for the family and for his hobbies, which include sports and photography. Because the studio in Sherman Oaks is like a second home, Dre likes the atmosphere to be as comfortable and relaxed as possible.
“One of the most important things for a producer is to realize you don’t know everything,” says Dre, whose studio techniques are largely self-taught. “I love having people in the studio that I can feed off and who can feed off each other.”
When putting together a track, lyrics and themes are important, he says, but you’ve first got to catch a listener’s ear with a melody or a beat. To create that beat, he either starts from scratch or builds on something he heard on an old recording, which he did when he worked a few seconds of Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You” into “Nuthin’ but.” He used a piano riff from Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman” to jump-start “California Love,” the spectacular 1996 single he made with the late Tupac Shakur.
On “California Love,” Dre went into the studio in his former Chatsworth home and played a sample from the Cocker single over a drum beat. He then had some horn players come in to fill out the sound and finally stacked some strings on top.
While recording the track, Dre remembered a festive line -- “California knows how to party” -- from another song (“West Coast Poplock”) and he brought in Roger Troutman, from the old Zapp band, to deliver the vocal line on the record.
As Dre recounts the process, you can imagine his head racing through ideas with the speed of a computer. Does this work? What else can I do? What’s missing? Is that too much? Seeing him amid his arsenal of state-of-the-art equipment brings home the complexity of his approach.
But everything he does is rooted in the age-old search for a hook. In looking for musical ideas, Dre sometimes goes randomly through crates of old records to see if anything catches his ear, something as short as five to 10 seconds of music. Most of the time, however, he’ll sit in the studio with a couple of other musicians and simply start playing, hoping one of them will come up with a key riff. Dre usually sits at a synthesizer or drum machine, joined by, say, a bassist and/or guitarist.
“It’s great when everybody is working together and feels something is happening,” he says about his time in the studio. “That’s when it’s all smiles in the studio. You don’t want to see any clock or any daylight or hear any phone. You just cut yourself off from the rest of the world and make music.
“I don’t necessarily even call it work. I call it fun. I even like the pressure, it makes me work all the harder if I know people out there are waiting for the record.”
The quality Dre looks for in a recording artist is uniqueness -- a distinct voice that will stand out from the crowd. Sometimes the writing will catch Dre’s ear, other times the rap delivery.
Dre’s biggest star, Eminem, came from as far out in left field as Snoop Dogg. An intern at Interscope Records had heard Eminem on an L.A. radio show and passed a tape along to Interscope’s Iovine, who in turn played it for Dre.
Dre was so excited that he got together with Eminem the next day. He was surprised to see that the young artist was white, which might have led some industry figures to think twice, given the bad name Vanilla Ice gave white rappers. But Dre swears -- holding his hand up playfully as if testifying -- he knew that Eminem had the goods.
“His writing is like no other,” Dre says, “the way he puts together certain words and the way he makes certain words rhyme that to me most of the time don’t even seem like they are supposed to rhyme. I also loved the fact that Eminem, I think, was setting out to be shocking. I love it as dark as it can get, and I thought the public would feel the same way.”
In turn, Eminem has been lavish in his praise for the producer. “Dre showed me how to do things with my voice that I didn’t know I could do,” Eminem told me early in his career, such as “the way to deliver rhymes. . . . I’d do something I thought was pretty good, and he’d say, ‘I think you can do it better.’ ”
It was Eminem who introduced Dre to 50 Cent, whose first three Aftermath albums have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. “I loved his delivery more than anything,” says Dre, who produced two tracks on 50 Cent’s latest CD. “He had so much authority and strength in his voice.”
When it came to the Game, the Compton rapper who has become another multimillion-album seller, Dre heard something in the rapper’s raw voice that reminded him of the N.W.A days. The Game’s Aftermath debut, “The Documentary,” was produced by Dre and 50 Cent, and it has sold more than 2.5 million copies in the U.S., but the Game has moved onto Interscope’s sister label Geffen after a nasty, public feud with 50 Cent. There has been much speculation in hip-hop that the Game was shifted to Geffen after Dre picked 50 Cent, the larger seller, but he denies it.
“I told them, ‘I love working with both you guys. I don’t have a problem with either of you,’ ” he says. “It was more like what is going to be the best move under the circumstances. I don’t even remember who came up with the idea of putting Game on Geffen, but it was absolutely not me picking 50 over him.”
A little heavy lifting
Dre made a rare public appearance this month when he announced the video of the year winner on the MTV Video Music Awards telecast in Las Vegas.
For fans, the appearance was notable for two things: Dre didn’t give a release date for “Detox,” renewing fears that the album may be lost in some twi- light zone, and his arms and chest were notably buff.
“That’s another of my obsessions,” he says a few days later of the new look. “I go in the gym two to 2 1/2 hours Monday through Friday. It makes me feel better and look better.”
Before Dre started on the weights about four years ago, he often went out drinking and eating after leaving the studio at night, and his weight swelled to 270 pounds. It’s back to 220, and he has cut his body fat from 29% to around 6%. Playfully pumping his arms, he says, “I feel like I can kick a brick wall down now.”
And what about the album release date?
“I was really hoping to have it out this year, but it’s going to have to be pushed back a while because of some other things I’ve got to work on,” he continues, sitting in the lounge of the recording studio where he spends all those hours behind the buttons. He’s still two or three tracks away from calling it finished, he says.
Any second thoughts about “Detox” being his final solo album? No, he says emphatically. “I think it’s time to move on,” he adds, calling rap performing “a young man’s game.”
More important, the move will free him to pursue his long-standing interest in films. He has signed a multiyear production pact with New Line Cinema. Dre, who will team with director Philip G. Atwell, is also interested in scoring films and eventually directing.
But he expects recording studios to continue to be the center of his world, and he’s optimistic.
“When I think of the future, I think a lot of Quincy Jones and how he is an inspiration,” Dre says. “Look at the quality of his work over so many years. He didn’t even make his best record, ‘Thriller,’ until he was 50.
“That gives me something to look forward to. Nothing pulls you back into the studio more than the belief that your best record is still ahead.”
Robert Hilburn, former pop music critic of The Times, is writing a pop music history.