Dr. Dre VIBE Cover Story (Aug/Sept 2010)
After almost a decade of false starts, super-producer Dr. Dre is finally in the lab bringing Detox to life. But does the Good Doctor have the prescription hip-hop has been waiting for?—Jerry L. Barrow II
JIMMY IOVINE’S GOT his game face on. The Interscope Records co-founder has had a long and prosperous relationship with Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre, hip hop’s foremost sonic architect. From Death Row to the Aftermath, Shady and G Unit imprints, Jimmy and Dre have left an indelible mark on the last two decades of popular music, moving more than 50 million albums together. But time is running short, and it’s clear in Iovine’s expression. He has been waiting for more than a decade for Dr. Dre to turn in his near-mythical album Detox—the follow-up to Dr. Dre 2001, which dropped in late 1999.
Andre Young—a founding member of N.W.A and the sonic mastermind who introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game—has never done things the usual way. Between rumors, missed release dates and side projects (Beats By Dr. Dre headphones are reportedly up to a million units sold, with estimated revenues of $50 million in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone), his fans have had their loyalty tested time and again. “You can’t rush Dre,” says fellow N.W.A alum Ice Cube. “He’s changed music twice already.” But that is small consolation for folks who haven’t had a new Dr. Dre album since President Clinton was in office.
Relief may finally be on the way. Several days after being honored at the 2010 ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards by his artist and friend Eminem, a smile is etched across Dr. Dre’s chiseled 45-year-old face. On an unseasonably cold June day in Santa Monica, he’s dressed in a long-sleeved white T-shirt and jeans, and his 215 pounds of muscle have him looking more like a superhero than a record producer. A mini-vacation with his wife of 14 years, Nicole, and the news that Eminem’s Recovery has debuted with more than 700,000 copies sold have the Aftermath CEO “feeling better than most days.”
It’s quiet in the sanctuary of his studio/nightclub across the street from the Interscope offices. This is where Dre tests out new music during private parties for friends. But today it’s all business.
An unfinished leak of the Jay-Z collab “Under Pressure” has lived up to its namesake, and the man who once rhymed “fuck rap, you can have it back” knows that it’s time to make his impression felt again. Sit back, relax and strap on your seatbelt.
VIBE: You were dismantling component systems as a kid. What’s it like having your own brand of headphones?
Dr. Dre: It felt so organic. It’s not something I just put my name on. We designed this thing from the ground up. It took like two years to put this together. We were tweaking it the entire time ‘til we got the sound exactly the way we want it. I got to do a side-by-side comparison between the Beats and Bose . . . I feel like hands down we got ’em beat as far as style and fashion goes and as far as the sound. We got ‘em beat because guys that actually make music get the sound on these. Nobody’s gonna be able to compete with us as far as headphones.
Diddy has Diddybeats and Lady Gaga has Heartbeats—both of which you helped set up—then Jay-Z’s Roc Nation has a headphone deal with Skull Candy, which also did a line with Snoop. How do you feel about the competition?
It’ a compliment on the one hand but on the other hand it’s like “Yo, this is my thing here. What’s going on?” [Laughs.] It’s all good. I’m not trying to knock anybody’s hustle. But like I said, nobody is going to be able to beat us at this game.
You also have a laptop complement to the headphones, correct?
The HP Envy. We’re trying to improve the sound in computers and laptops. These guys aren’t thinking about sound when they build these computers and the majority of people are listening to music on computers. So you might as well hear it the right way.
Why headphones as opposed to, say, a beat-making program?
That’s something I want to get into and the headphones were a good start. I want to get into putting out my own drum sounds and maybe a beat machine. We’re talking about iPod docks, car stereos and an entire line. We’re also doing a headphone with LeBron James called PowerBeats. They’re earbuds but they wrap around the ear. Each bud has two drivers so it sounds a little louder. You can hear the 808 in these. I’ve been wearing the prototype every day to work out.
So will Detox be streamed wirelessly into the Beats headphones?
In a perfect word, yes. Me and Jimmy talk about this all the time. It was supposed to be my album promoting the headphones, but it’s gonna be the other way around now. It’s gonna be a two-for-one thing. As soon as we finish this interview I’m going into the studio and get it on. I know it’s taking a long time but it’s not 100 percent work on my album that I’m doing every day. That’s why it’s taking so long. It’s been almost ten years since my last album [It’s actually been more than 10 years. —Ed.] but I haven’t been sitting on my hands. Keeping it real with you, I just started really getting involved in it and really feeling it this year. Around January or February. Before now I was kind of doing it more out of obligation, but now I really feel it inside and it’s pouring out right now. Music comes out much better when you’re in that frame of mind.
Eight years passed between Chronic and 2001, so you’re not that late yet.
Right. And I’ve got a few classic albums in between that with Em and 50.
When you first announced Detox did you think it would take this long?
Absolutely not. I thought it would take at worst case a couple of years. For example, actual work time on The Chronic was nine months and actual work time on my last album, 2001, was about 10 months. The actual work time on this album is about half of that, where I’m seriously focusing on it. There is always something coming up. Like signing talent, old and new.
Looking at your signings of artists like Raekwon, Rakim and Marsha Ambrosius, are you just a hard boss or did it just not work out?
I’d say it’s a little bit of both. I’m a perfectionist on one hand. I always say talent gets you in the building but whether our personalities mesh, that’s an entire different thing. I have fun when I’m working. It’s not a job for me. And I’m in a position where I really don’t have to do it if I don’t want to. So it has to feel right. When you get in the studio with an artist, the personalities have to mesh. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with my personality or theirs, it’s just: Do they work together or not? That seems to be a factor. All of the artists that I started working with and we didn’t finish, we’re still cool. It’s just a matter of this thing doesn’t work together. The ones that do work together, ka-boom. You see the results.
What did you think of the final product of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . Pt. II?
I loved that “House of Flying Daggers.” [Laughs.] It came out good. I thought it could have been promoted a little better and I think there may have been too many songs. But that’s my opinion. Raekwon is one of the greatest.
J Dilla produced “House of Flying Daggers.” Did you get to meet him before he died?
Yeah, I met him at a studio out here and we chopped it up for about half an hour. Coolest dude. Talented. I just wish I’d had a chance to work with him.
Is there anyone else out there you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
Of course, the next new artist I can get in the studio with and make something great. I don’t necessarily have an urge to work with established artists. Like working with Mary J. Blige, that was returning a favor. Other than that, I only want to work with new talent, new producers. People that want to learn and I can learn from.
Speaking of new talent, a young lady saying she was your daughter went on YouTube with a song called “Daddy’s Shadow” saying that you won’t help her with her recording career.
[Laughs.] I’m not gonna get into that. Not gonna talk about the family.
Talk about the relationship you have with 50 Cent and some of your other artists.
Everything is cool. I haven’t spoken to 50 in a long time. He’s doing his own thing right now. Hopefully we’ll get to work together again in the future but I think he’s working on movies. As far as everybody else goes, I’m here. Everybody knows I’m working on my own thing. Once that’s done, holla at me.
At the ASCAP Awards did you have any idea Eminem was going to be presenting?
No idea. They told me it was going to be a surprise guest to present me with the award but I didn’t even waste any brain power trying to figure it out. That was incredible and the thing that he said was incredible. Being around guys like Em, I know how they feel about about me and they know how I feel about them, but hearing it in that forum feels incredible. It’s inspiring and it lets me know that everything that I’ve done is appreciated.
It looked kind of like a reunion on stage. Do you guys see each other much?
We’d actually just saw each other an hour before for the VIBE photo shoot. Before that it had been a few months or so. We don’t get to talk that often, but when we do see each other it’s just like we saw each other yesterday.
How do you feel about winning VIBE’s Greatest Hip-Hop Producer of All Time tournament?
It was crazy because I just happened to be in New York promoting the Diddybeats and they approached me at Best Buy and I didn’t know anything about the contest or that I’d won and I was like, “Really?” I went home and saw who I was up against. I was like “whoa.” These are some of my favorite producers. I never looked at it like my shit don’t stink or I’m the best at what I do. I just go in and do my thing. I have my favorites out there also, but don’t get me wrong—I’m glad it went to me. [Laughs.] It’s always an incredible feeling, especially to be considered No. 1. The best that ever did it? What the fuck!
You were up against DJ Premier in the finals.
Preemo is definitely one of my favorites. I got a chance to chill with him and Guru out here one time. We sat and talked for like an hour and they were cool as hell. I’m a fan.
Do you think the VIBE tournament helped to elevate the stature of the producer?
The producer definitely needs to get a lot more credit than we do. No producer—no artist. Not many artists can go in the studio and make their own records. But a lot of producers can.
In the photos for this cover you have music notes in the syringes. Is there a science to hip-hop?
That’s a good question. You know what? I don’t know. Anybody that says that they know is crazy. You just come in and do what you feel. The way hip-hop is going and the way it sounds can change tomorrow. I think everybody has their own method and approach so there is no direct science for it. You can do a hip-hop record with no rapping. Hip-hop is so dope because it’s the only music that you can mix with other forms of music. You can mix rock, hip-hop, jazz—it’s spread out.
So there is no Dr. Dre formula?
No. There is no direct formula because I like collaborating and whoever I’m collaborating with, I’m absorbing their energy and they’re absorbing mine and that’s how the record is going to sound. To me there is no Dre sound.
But if you listen to 50 Cent’s “In da Club” and Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair,” there are similarities.
Okay, but that’s not what I’m thinking when I go in to make it. I don’t go in saying it has to sound like “this.” Each record has its own personality. I think, “Is this record wearing Timberlands or is it wearing earrings?” If it comes out sounding similar to the last record, then so be it.
When did you first put your hands on a pair of turntables?
Damn, that’s a good one. Probably when I was 14 years old. I heard “[The Adventures of] Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” and that made me want to DJ. It made me want to know what hip-hop was. That was the song that did it. I immediately went home and called some friends and we were taking apart one of my friend’s mother’s stereo sets. They called them component systems back then. We figured out how to make a mixer from the balance button and got it cracking—started making tapes. Not too long after that, my mom got me a Numark mixer for Christmas and I was off and running from there. I still had the raggedy turntables, but it made it a lot easier.
What happened with those piano lessons with Burt Bacharach?
I’m still going. I have a different piano teacher now and I’m learning a lot about theory and hopefully I can get my Quincy Jones on later, score some movies.
What’s your relationship like with Quincy Jones?
He’s one of my mentors and people I’ve looked up to in this business. I hung out with Quincy on his 70th birthday.
Has he bestowed any musical gems on you?
You know what? All we’ve ever talked about is life and personal shit. We’ve never talked technical or about music.
I’m just talking about whatever Quincy wants to talk about. The door is open for me to go to his house and talk to him anytime I want. He gave me that invitation. I just want to absorb it, because everything he talks about is useful to me. It doesn’t matter when I get it, as long as I get it. You know, I’m sitting there and I want to ask him about Thriller and Body Heat, but I’ll get to that. I’m actually supposed to be going to his house next week.
You mentioned a hip-hop album without rapping. Will we ever hear a Dr. Dre instrumental album?
Oh yeah, that’s in the works. An instrumental album is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I have the ideas for it. I want to call it The Planets. I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but fuck it. [Laughs.] It’s just my interpretation of what each planet sounds like. I’m gonna go off on that. Just all instrumental. I’ve been studying the planets and learning the personalities of each planet. I’ve been doing this for about two years now just in my spare time so to speak. I wanna do it in surround sound. It’ll have to be in surround sound for Saturn to work.
Because Saturn has the rings and you’ll have to hear the sound going around you the entire time the instrumental is playing. You make Jupiter big. Earth of course has to [sound] wet. You really get into the actual personality of each planet and you go with that.
That’s an exciting concept. That’s why leaked music kind of cheats you. Because it’s not in the package it was meant to be in.
Without a concept it’s just another song . . .
Because it’s out of sequence.
That’s big! Absolutely. That can make or break a record, the way you sequence it. That is 100 percent a job in itself and that happens throughout the entire process of recording an album with me. I might take a CD home and listen to a few songs back to back and say, “Okay, those two songs have to play together on a record.” Then you wait for that to happen again and then you have a partial sequence.
That’s an art in itself.
Knowing how passionate you are about sequencing an album, how does it feel when a song leaks, like “Crack a Bottle”?
It’s like a stab in the stomach. First of all we weren’t even going to release the song. We won a Grammy for it, but I’m not even considering putting the Grammy up. My wife has a problem with that because she wants all of my achievements to be up in the house. But the way it came, it doesn’t mean the same to me. We didn’t get a chance to do the song with our heart in it because we had to go in and rush it out. We went in one day and finished it at least so people could hear a proper version but we didn’t get to put our heart and soul in it . . .
So “Under Pressure” leaking was a killer.
It was a little bit more frustrating because at least “Crack a Bottle” had a hook on it. I wouldn’t be as mad at a leak if the song was done.
Can you blame the fans for wanting to hear something after all this time?
Absolutely not. I’m not mad at the fans. I’m mad at the person that leaked the shit. I have no idea how it got out. It’s not even worth looking to see who did it. It happens. The most painful part about it is that I’m passionate about what I do, so people should hear it in the right form.
There were some other reference tracks that leaked with T.I. and Ludacris lyrics. Were those legit?
Two of them were. Somebody actually hacked into our emails, so that made our red flags go up. We’re in a new age and that’s a sign: Wake up motherfucker. You have to be more careful with your shit.
That’s all there is to it. I know what’s up now.
Was “In Da Club” for Detox?
No. That track was done for D12. We were in the studio and D12 was in the studio. Em was there. It didn’t happen with D12 and Em took the track with him, and he is the one that handed the track to 50.
Knowing the personal nature of your music, will there be a part two of “The Message” for your late son, Andre Young, Jr.?
I’m actually back and forth about that. I’m leaning towards no because I don’t know if I want to put myself or my family through that. I kind of want the record to stay fun. Right now as we speak I’m leaning towards a no. Though I do have a couple of things that I’ve done [for him]. I don’t think so.
Have you heard a beat in the last five years that you thought was hot?
Damn, that’s a good question. When was “The Benjamins” made? [Laughs.] [Diddy’s “It’s All About] the Benjamins” was one of my favorite beats. I just want to hear something that makes me make the ugly face.
There’s nothing else since “Benjamins” that did that for you?
I know there is, but nothing is hitting me off the top. As soon as you leave I bet I’ll think of one. I’ve been listening to a lot of old shit. Most of the time when I’m listening to hip-hop, it’s old-school Wu-Tang or Mobb Deep.
What is it about the old shit that keeps you going back?
It was an exciting period of hip-hop. Hip-hop isn’t as exciting anymore and it motivates me to do what I do.
You’ve seen so much in your time—good and bad. You had a chance to reconcile with Eazy-E before he died. With everything that has been going on with Suge Knight in the last year, is there any side of you that feels that one day you might . . .?
I haven’t even thought about him. This is my first time hearing his name in . . . a long time.
So nobody told you when he got knocked out at a party?
Oh, of course I heard that. But it doesn’t even cross my mind. I’m not gonna get anything out of that, so I don’t even think about it. That’s not going to help me.
It was reported that you were trying to tie up some loose ends with the people who bought the Death Row catalog.
Was basically trying to go back and get what I was owed if possible. This was more my attorneys than me. I’m more like eh, whatever. But if you can make it happen, it’s all good.
You’ve had so much fun doing Chronic and 2001. So why would you want to detox? What is there to “detox” from?
You have to see it. It’s not really detoxing. What I’m doing is gonna say “Detox” but it’s gonna have that red circle with that line through it. Hearing it and seeing it are two different things. Once you see it, it’s like “Oh.”
So the idea is not detoxing?
Years ago you recorded a song called “Forgot About Dre,” but in 2010 it seems impossible to forget about Dre.
I hope not, at least not until this record is out. [Laughs.] I’m definitely in a different place now. I’m a lot smarter and hopefully getting smarter in years to come. I’m just cool right now, chilling and doing my work. Before it was ripping and running and I’m in a really calm place in my life, using my time wisely. That’s the most valuable thing we own.