Dr. Dre, The LA Riots, & Why ‘The Chronic’ Remains Relevant 25 Years Later
Dr. Dre was five months old when 16,000 National Guard marched into the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts and shot 31 citizens dead.
Dr. Dre was 13 when Daryl Gates was installed as chief of LAPD and began targeting the city’s black communities with such paramilitary vigor.
Dr. Dre was 27 when a jury acquitted four LAPD officers who had been videotaped clubbing black motorist Rodney King to within an inch of his life—an acquittal that triggered a six-day eruption of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
These events provide context for Dre’s debut album The Chronic, which he released at the end of 1992, eight months after the Rodney King riots. Having parted ways with N.W.A, signed to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, and started smoking weed, he assembled a new braintrust that consisted of Snoop Dogg, his step brother Warren G, The D.O.C., The Lady of Rage, Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, RBX, Jewell, and producer Colin Wolfe. The unyielding haze of Snoop’s reefer proved to be a fertile collaborative climate, and it was in this climate that Dre and co. pioneered a most potent strain of G-funk, the Californian rider music that overlaid whining synths and ‘70s funk and soul samples atop raucous breakbeats.
Thus, The Chronic was born. 25 years later, it still stands as an unimpeachable rap classic that continues to shape the genre, a vital document of a dismal time in the history of American race relations, and a gripping statement of purpose that extracts a hedonistic sweetness out of a bitter world.
“The whole energy of the riots went into the making of The Chronic,” Colin Wolfe said in a 2014 interview with Wax Poetics. “There was even a song on there [‘Mr. Officer’] talking about ‘fuck Daryl Gates’… we had to take that off the album.”
In truth, The Chronic pretty much says everything it wants to say about the riots in just one song. “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” achieves a 360-degree field of vision by interspersing the words of wrathful protesters—sampled from the indie doc Birth of a Nation 4 29 1992—and audio clips from television reports amongst the verses of his Dre and his cohort, who detail the progression of their post-verdict mood from devastated (“What I heard just broke me in half”) to murderous. While the album contains two primary forms of animosity—towards police and towards hood rivals—“The Day the Niggaz Took Over” harbors aggression only towards cops. Dre alludes to the famous truce that South Central gangs struck during the riots in the name of anarchy. Meanwhile, RBX has some other plans for the police:
Smash, I crashed his head like a window
I ain’t Nintendo, I’m high off the indo
Creepin’, with the quickness to the cut
Bust one to his head while he munches on a donut
Dre dedicates the bulk of The Chronic to building out the world of the riots: black neighborhoods delineated by the discriminatory housing policies of the mid-century and crippled by plant closures, the crack epidemic, and the war on drugs in the ‘80s. The album is told from the a distinctly male perspective, and masculine posturing extends from the opening track (in which Snoop draws attention to his crew’s “big dicks, AKs, and 187 skills”) to the skits and beyond. This sense of invincibility inevitably rubs up against the existential threat posed by jail and death. In one of the album’s most indelible moments, Dre gets shot six times by a group of younger gangsters he had attempted to rob:
Nigga, I’m bigger than you, so what you wanna do?
Didn’t know he had a .22
Straight sitting behind his back
I grabbed his pockets and then I heard six caps
I fell to the ground with blood on my hands
I didn’t understand
How a nigga so young could bust a cap
I used to be the same way back
Though Dre had previously covered similar ground during his tenure with N.W.A, this time around he heavily slathered his beats with the sauce of legendary ’70s funk outfit Parliament-Funkadelic to create a revelatory gangsta rap-P-funk fusion, and he used the music videos for The Chronic’s three singles to underscore the evolution of flavor. Unlike the more militant Straight Outta Compton music videos, which mostly found the group running from and/or raising a middle finger to the cops, the music videos of The Chronic placed a strong emphasis on partying. The “Fuck Wit Dre Day” video is set at a grimy underground dance shindig, thus channeling the spirit of the song’s B-side, “Puffin’ on Blunts and Drinkin’ Tanqueray.” In the iconic video for “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” Dre and Snoop lead a convoy of ‘64 Impalas from a park picnic to a house party, where the fridge is stocked entirely with 40s. In “Let Me Ride,” Snoop blows a cloud of smoke to reveal an assembly of low riders bouncing as if the asphalt were a trampoline.
Indeed, the making of The Chronic was itself a party. “Snoop and the Dogg Pound were always at Dre’s house,” Wolfe said. “We had barbecues every weekend, we’d come up with tracks and stuff. There were so many MCs up there, which made it easy to come up with concepts.”
Dre crafted an album that didn’t merely document the oft-bleak conditions of inner city life, but also provided the soundtrack to the function. His was a functional gangsta rap that used the celebratory language of P-funk to bridge the tonal gap between N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” and De La Soul’s “Me, Myself, and I.” With Wolfe’s help, Dre re-recorded the oily synth Bernie Worrell played on “(Not Just) Knee Deep” to lay the foundation for “Fuck Wit Dre Day.” He invoked Bootsy Collins in the bass line on “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” He lifted the idea for the album title from The Chronic from “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” in which George Clinton compares his extraterrestrial posse to “dealers of uncut music: P-funk, uncut funk, the bomb.” You may recognize “(Funked Up)” from Chronic outro “The Roach.” “Hit this once or twice, and you’ll be twice as nice,” RBX assures the listener.
Hip-hop as a whole, and L.A. hip-hop in particular, has lived in the shadow of The Chronic since it’s release. To this day, rappers and their producers still refer to Dre’s interpolation of P-funk on The Chronic to help articulate the police and street violence in South Central, Compton, and Long Beach. There’s the workmanlike groove of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta,” the bright, psychedelic guitars of ScHoolboy Q’s “John Muir” and The Game’s “Crenshaw,” and the foreboding wails of Vince Staples “Hands Up” and “Blue Suede.”
And then there’s YG, a man who claims he’s the “only one who made it out the west without Dre,” but who carries the torch of The Chronic more sincerely than any other artist. His DJ Mustard-produced gangbanging opus My Krazy Life is filled with tracks that openly pay homage to The Chronic by pairing explosive, voluptuous bass lines with clean, upper register synth melodies.
His 2016 follow-up Still Brazy ditched Mustard and stripped down the production in the service of an all-out G-funk assault. Wrought with paranoia, it begins with a warning shot (“Don’t Come to LA”) and the noir Compton whodunit that speculates about who ambushed and shot him in the studio in 2015 (“Who Shot Me”) and concludes with a triptych of anti-authority songs (“FDT” “Blacks & Browns,” “Police Get Away With Murder”) that threaten Donald Trump with street justice and savagely critique state abuse of power.
There is no more lucid and essential protest anthem in existence right now than “FDT.” It’s not hard to see the parallel lines run that between it and Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”: the mafioso bass, the salute to Mexicans, the symbolic alliance of red and blue flags, the bellicosity in YG’s sneer, the way he wears the Rodney King riots as a badge of civic pride.
It also indirectly invokes the intro of Dre’s “Lil Ghetto Boy,” in which an angry black father speaks to a small crowd after the King verdict. In the documentary from which the the audio is culled, the man hoists a small boy onto his shoulder and yells, “Hey, I’mma tell you right now, if I have to die today for this little African right here to have a future, I’m a dead motherfucker!” YG, who was two years old during the riots, probably wasn’t that man’s son, but he may as well have been. The riots represented the world into which he was born, too.
December 18, 2017 at 08:51PMNo tags for this post.