After 1992's The Chronic shot up the charts with its rat-tat-tat violence, Dr. Dre mellowed and his career took a hit. Now he's gunning for another smash.
Dre certainly seems sane enough. Standing on stage next to Snoop Dogg inside NBC’s famed studio 9H, the pioneering hip-hop producer is rehearsing for a Saturday Night Live performance set to air the coming weekend. Comfortable and relaxed, he leads a five-piece band through a booming version of ”Still D.R.E.,” which is as catchy and confrontational as you’d expect from one of the men who invented gangsta rap. It’s the first single from Dr. Dre 2001, his first solo album since 1992’s explosive opus The Chronic, which went triple platinum, introduced the world to Snoop, and provided the blueprint for much of the hip-hop of the ’90s. ”Still representin’ for the gangstas all across the world,” he and Snoop chant into the mic. ”I still got love for the streets.”
The last time Dr. Dre (ne Andre Young) was on this stage, in 1996, he was not himself. A little crazy, in fact. ”Temporary insanity” is how he describes it now. Dre had come through a tumultuous few years. In 1991, he quit N.W.A (the seminal West Coast rap quintet that spawned the careers of Dre and rapper-actor Ice Cube) and had a bitter falling-out with group mate Eazy-E. The following year, he hooked up with Suge Knight to launch the notorious gangsta label Death Row — home of Tupac Shakur and Snoop — only to leave the partnership four years later, just as the imprint was crumbling amid suspicions of criminality. In ’96, Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS, Tupac was gunned down in a Las Vegas drive-by, and, more happily, Dre got married (to Nicole Young, an interior designer). Hoping to make a fresh start, he created a new label, Aftermath Entertainment. That’s when he snapped.
Or, at least, did the totally unexpected. The man who once wrote songs with titles like ”A Nigga Witta Gun” and ”Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” decided to renounce his hardcore lifestyle. ”I started thinking about a lot of different things that I shouldn’t have been thinking about, like taking the profanity out of my records and what have you,” says Dre, 34, relaxing in his closet-size SNL dressing room. ”I was like, ‘Yo, I’m married now. I can’t be saying ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ and this and that.”’ He talked up his reformation to anyone who’d listen, boasting about selling his fleet of fancy cars, surrounding himself with positivity, and settling into the life of a family man.
The product of this ”insanity” was the 1996 compilation album Dr. Dre Presents…The Aftermath, an inconsequential collection of tracks from mostly unknown rappers and singers. There was a lone Dre song, ”Been There Done That,” which railed against rappers who ”talk that hardcore s — – ’cause that’s all they worth.” The idea was to launch a few careers and establish Aftermath as a major label. Neither happened. ”It didn’t live up to the expectations,” Dre now admits. ”I mean, I like the record. It went platinum. But people were expecting 7UP and they got water. I started grabbing a different crowd. It was like, 40- and 50-year-old people coming up to me going ‘I really love it.’ I wasn’t getting compliments from my fans.”