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COVER STORY

The Doctor, Unmasked

After a soul-searching jail stint, rap icon Dr. Dre left his Death Row Records empire and tossed off the gangsta image. Is there a place for nice guy Andre Young in this biz?

October 13, 1996|Chuck Philips | 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."

*

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.

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