Fifteen years after that recording session, Dre still seems to savor the moment -- as much as the success of the record itself, which was named single of the decade by Spin magazine.
For Dre, a hit record starts with a hit sound, which sounds simple. But the search is what requires those long hours in the studio. The producer normally heads into the studio around 3 p.m. weekdays, the weekends being reserved for the family and for his hobbies, which include sports and photography. Because the studio in Sherman Oaks is like a second home, Dre likes the atmosphere to be as comfortable and relaxed as possible.
"One of the most important things for a producer is to realize you don't know everything," says Dre, whose studio techniques are largely self-taught. "I love having people in the studio that I can feed off and who can feed off each other."
When putting together a track, lyrics and themes are important, he says, but you've first got to catch a listener's ear with a melody or a beat. To create that beat, he either starts from scratch or builds on something he heard on an old recording, which he did when he worked a few seconds of Leon Haywood's "I Want'a Do Something Freaky to You" into "Nuthin' but." He used a piano riff from Joe Cocker's "Woman to Woman" to jump-start "California Love," the spectacular 1996 single he made with the late Tupac Shakur.
On "California Love," Dre went into the studio in his former Chatsworth home and played a sample from the Cocker single over a drum beat. He then had some horn players come in to fill out the sound and finally stacked some strings on top.
While recording the track, Dre remembered a festive line -- "California knows how to party" -- from another song ("West Coast Poplock") and he brought in Roger Troutman, from the old Zapp band, to deliver the vocal line on the record.
As Dre recounts the process, you can imagine his head racing through ideas with the speed of a computer. Does this work? What else can I do? What's missing? Is that too much? Seeing him amid his arsenal of state-of-the-art equipment brings home the complexity of his approach.
But everything he does is rooted in the age-old search for a hook. In looking for musical ideas, Dre sometimes goes randomly through crates of old records to see if anything catches his ear, something as short as five to 10 seconds of music. Most of the time, however, he'll sit in the studio with a couple of other musicians and simply start playing, hoping one of them will come up with a key riff. Dre usually sits at a synthesizer or drum machine, joined by, say, a bassist and/or guitarist.
"It's great when everybody is working together and feels something is happening," he says about his time in the studio. "That's when it's all smiles in the studio. You don't want to see any clock or any daylight or hear any phone. You just cut yourself off from the rest of the world and make music.
"I don't necessarily even call it work. I call it fun. I even like the pressure, it makes me work all the harder if I know people out there are waiting for the record."
The quality Dre looks for in a recording artist is uniqueness -- a distinct voice that will stand out from the crowd. Sometimes the writing will catch Dre's ear, other times the rap delivery.
Dre's biggest star, Eminem, came from as far out in left field as Snoop Dogg. An intern at Interscope Records had heard Eminem on an L.A. radio show and passed a tape along to Interscope's Iovine, who in turn played it for Dre.
Dre was so excited that he got together with Eminem the next day. He was surprised to see that the young artist was white, which might have led some industry figures to think twice, given the bad name Vanilla Ice gave white rappers. But Dre swears -- holding his hand up playfully as if testifying -- he knew that Eminem had the goods.
"His writing is like no other," Dre says, "the way he puts together certain words and the way he makes certain words rhyme that to me most of the time don't even seem like they are supposed to rhyme. I also loved the fact that Eminem, I think, was setting out to be shocking. I love it as dark as it can get, and I thought the public would feel the same way."
In turn, Eminem has been lavish in his praise for the producer. "Dre showed me how to do things with my voice that I didn't know I could do," Eminem told me early in his career, such as "the way to deliver rhymes. . . . I'd do something I thought was pretty good, and he'd say, 'I think you can do it better.' "
It was Eminem who introduced Dre to 50 Cent, whose first three Aftermath albums have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. "I loved his delivery more than anything," says Dre, who produced two tracks on 50 Cent's latest CD. "He had so much authority and strength in his voice."