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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

"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.

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