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Dre Ventures Into Another Dimension

November 03, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker

What are 30 couples in formal attire doing dancing the tango to the graceful music of a symphony orchestra in the video for "Been There, Done That," a song by the Godfather of Gangsta Rap?

Surprises like this--musical and conceptual--are what make Dr. Dre arguably the most influential record producer of the '90s. The former N.W.A. member and co-founder of Death Row Records refuses to be shackled by his past.

Like a master painter, Dre consistently dazzles us with bold colors and commentaries that seem to change so rapidly that each new album creates another standard and direction for the pop world--one that scores of other musicians race to copy, no doubt knowing that Dre will render their styles passe by the time their records hit the shelves.

Directed by K.B Puriefoy, the video, already a fixture on MTV and BET, is perhaps Dre's boldest step since donning the gangsta rap image a decade ago. In the video, which is filled with wide-angle shots and stylized colors, Dre exchanges industrial work-wear for tailored suits, and the trademark low-riding Chevy Impala for a stretch limo that takes him to a helipad.

This "ghetto fabulous" image itself is nothing new for hard-core rap. Artists from Nas to former Dre allies Snoop Doggy Dogg and 2Pac have sported expensive threads recently. Indeed, references to GQ designers Dolce & Gabana and Hugo Boss have become as common in rap as gun boasts.

What is new is how Dre adds a political dimension to his celebration of capitalism.From the plush interior of his limo, Dre observes dice-rolling hustlers and street-corner hookers, and a young black man being harassed by police. His look isn't one of disdain, but suggests someone shaking his head at his own past ignorance.

The ballroom sequence at the video's climax is where everything could fall apart. Suits? Orchestra? Where's the street or rap relevance? Suddenly, funk chords and a hard kick snare emerge to overpower the tango strains, transforming the bourgeois ball into a Newer Jack Swing jam. The participants begin tangoing with attitude, literally melding two musical nations under one groove.

"Been There, Done That" ends back in the 'hood. Everything before was a dream, and Dre, in skull cap and soiled T-shirt, is shown passed out on a worn couch, his wife screaming at his laziness.

In that moment, the video touches a theme that has been at the center of black music since reconstruction: aspirations toward a better life.

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