For many aspiring rappers, success is defined by money and fame, but with maturity comes perspective and the reality that real success stems from touching lives. Whether it be from hip-hop or simply becoming a voice for your community. In the end, success comes from legacy, and legacy comes from the journey. When Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry began his journey with a trip to California in 1987, he wanted to make a name for himself in hip-hop, equipped with a razor-sharp pen and a cadence that hit like a Mike Tyson punch. After achieving his goals and then some, life threw him a curveball.
For those whose sole knowledge of The D.O.C. is confined to his portrayal (marvelously executed by Marlon Yates Jr.) in 2015’s N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, his life might seem like a tragedy. He helped write one of hip-hop’s most revered albums (N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton), then established himself as a star on the mic with his 1989 debut LP, No One Can Do It Better. But before the then 21-year-old prodigy could bask in the success of his rookie album, he damaged his vocal cords in a horrific car accident that nearly cost him his life.
In today’s era of social media where 15 minutes of fame feels more literal than hyperbolic, the phrase “success is fleeting” seems to be more prevalent than ever, but one crucial virtue that the modern-day proverb overlooks is resilience. And that attribute is what kept the talented rapper going back then in the face of an uncertain music career.
The D.O.C. would continue to lend his songwriting skills to his mentor and N.W.A producer/rapper Dr. Dre, who crafted the sound of D.O.C.’s first album. The two, in fact, still work together to this day. But in the early-mid ‘90s, as Dre and his new protégé, Snoop Doggy Dogg, were building Death Row into a dynasty, there was a dark period for the “Mind Blowin’” rapper. He turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain of realizing that his voice would never be the same.
Through struggles and personal relationships, D.O.C. fought his negative thoughts and regained stronger stances in where he wanted to be of service in life. The Dallas native, now 51 years old, started working with civil rights leader, Peter Johnson, to help galvanize the city’s burgeoning emcees against the violence that has plagued the area’s youth in recent years. These days, the “It’s Funky Enough” rapper’s tale is one of triumph rather than tragedy.
D.O.C. was in Los Angeles to celebrate his mentor Dr. Dre, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Recording Academy during the 2020 Producers & Engineers Wing Grammy Week. VIBE caught up with venerable rhymer who opened up about everything from his new philanthropic ventures to rap group God’s, Public Enemy’s unique influence on Straight Outta Compton. He also revealed how the late rapper MC Breed may have saved his life and why he would never give Kendrick Lamar advice on his music. The D.O.C.’s formula for success may have changed over the last 30 years, but one fact remains: No one can do it better.
VIBE: From what I see on your social media, you seem to be at peace these days. What has gotten you to this place of zen?
D.O.C.: It took a long time for me to make it back to a clear head since the accident. I feel like a shaman. That moment in time was meant for me to take those 30 years to heal myself and now I’m in a place that I feel free. I don’t have the need to be the greatest of all-time anymore, ‘cause I’m just a speck of the greatest energy to ever exist. The man I am today is infinitely more important than the man I was 30 years ago, but the path I took to get here is really important.
The last project I heard you were working on musically was the Compton album by Dr. Dre, that dropped with the Straight Outta Compton film. What have you been working on since then?
About 4-5 months ago, I met this guy named Peter Johnson, he was one of the men that were part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent movement. After Dr. King was murdered, Peter moved to Dallas and he’s been fighting for people’s civil rights since then. What we know as food stamps came from one of his ideas. This guy has the most amazing stories and they all center around all these icons from my past: Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall. All these huge historical figures, this guy talks about them like I talk about Dre. So I started working with him. He said to me, “The murder rate in Dallas is increasing rapidly. You gotta help me get these kids to stop killing each other.”
So you said yes?
When Peter Johnson says “you gotta help me,” you say yes. So I said, let’s put together a series of free concerts. Twice a year, the hottest artists in Dallas for the kids in high school who are really trying to be something, and the ones that are sort of falling between the cracks for whatever reason. We need to show them that there are people willing to give their time and energy to help rid the streets of that kind of violence. The young rappers in my city, TrapBoy Freddy, Yella Beezy, Mo3, they listen to me a little so I said, “We gotta do this.” They said “Unc, we’re with you 1000%.” That gave me the boost to really do some sh*t that can help those artists, the kids and hip-hop in general to sort of heal.
Yella Beezy has had a big year.
I saw Yella Beezy at this little studio and he told me he was gonna be the sh*t and I was hearing that from everybody. Six months later, the guy had a really hot record; Hitco had signed him and he was taking off. That opening that L.A. Reid gave to Beezy opened the door for Dallas as a community. Now the machine is really down there looking at these kids, so I take it upon myself to come in where I can and help make sure that the ones that don’t have a light on them can get some shine and bring them back into the fold of thinking of music and making albums that are gonna last. Longevity is the key. Where are you gonna be in ten years? Cause if you’re not thinking about that now, in ten years, you won’t be doing sh*t.
The media sometimes blames the violence on these rappers’ content. Does that affect your decision on working with them?
Those guys that they say perpetuate the negative images, I see them all the time, doing stuff for the kids, backpack giveaways, turkey giveaways, which means they have a conscience, but it gets overlooked. I’m just trying to expand on that part.
Are you looking to collaborate with any of these guys musically?
Not [rapping but I’m working on creating] a series of albums with young artists. I’m starting in Fort Worth, Texas. I’m gonna get four artists that are good and that with the right push can be great. Give each artist three songs apiece and put together a really cohesive piece of art. I don’t want any money from it. I could do that at least twice a year in various cities and make a series of these.
So you’ve found a new purpose in philanthropy?
Definitely. It was in that spirit I connected with a guy that has a huge building in the southern center of Dallas. I started having these ideas about building a studio inside of it and getting a tech company to donate computers. There’s another end of the building that could serve as a trade school. I can give back by giving these kids an opportunity to make a way forward for themselves. That’s where my heart is right now. Peter Johnson brought that out of me. I’ve got two little boys and I’d like for them to know that their dad was about more than just making rap records about formulas and bi**hes and h**s.
Circling back to the Compton album. Kendrick Lamar had some gems on there. Did you ever lend your expertise to him?
I would never ever lift my voice to tell Kendrick sh*t except “you’re dope.” This is how much respect I have for that kid. When he was doing his stuff on Compton and he was writing, nobody was in the room but him. I just went and sat next to him. Didn’t say sh*t, didn’t do sh*t, we didn’t say s*it to each other. I just sat next to him. Once it was over and he laid his sh*t, I told him how much I appreciated him. Then he left. About two or three months later he put my name in the Taylor Swift record (“Bad Blood”). When I heard that I was like “wow,” maybe I had a moment with this kid. It’s so humbling when that happens ‘cause it says that you meant something to somebody.
Any other artists right now that you’re feeling on that level?
I think Joyner Lucas’ wordplay is just as exquisite. When I hear him I hear a young Em’[inem]. I’m drawn to great wordplay like that. The concepts to his fu**ing songs are throwbacks to when Em’ first came, just nutty. Him and K. Dot are probably my favorite guys in the world when you talk about rappers.
Before we started this interview you mentioned something I didn’t know about how Public Enemy influenced [the song] "Straight Outta Compton."
When Dre and I started making the Straight Outta Compton record, every day on our way to the studio, we would listen to the It Takes A Nation album. Not every other day, not once a week. For three months, it was every fu**ing morning. Every fu**ing morning we're listening to different songs off that record. That’s why the Straight Outta Compton drums drove so hard and it had that feeling like you were in the riot itself. What Chuck and them was doing back then is what N.W.A came from. Not the N.W.A before I got here, but the N.W.A after I got here. There’s a distinct difference. If you listen to the art, you can tell. Dre is just one of those unique producers that create the scene within the art for you to create to. I’ve always said that Dre is more like a film producer than a music producer because he sees the complete picture before we do. The guy is just a sick fu**ing maniac. One of, if not the dopest of all time.
You’ve said that after the accident, you got heavy into drinking and drugs. Was there a specific moment that helped you get clean?
About ’92-’93, [Flint, Michigan rapper] MC Breed came to L.A. and he saw that I was really in bad shape with drinking and drugs. Dre, Snoopy, and Death Row were just exploding, but I was in such bad shape, I couldn’t leave the drugs and alcohol alone because I was hurting. I never voiced my pain to them cause [at the time] they couldn’t understand it. Breed saw it and said “I gotta get you outta here,” and took me to Atlanta. Going down there with him got me off the dope, cause I didn’t have no more money (laughs). I started just smoking a bunch of weed with Breed and helping him with his record. ‘Pac was always around along with those other guys. It became a real fellowship. Me, MC Breed, Too Short, ‘Pac, and Scarface. That really helped me get back to myself. Then Dre called six months later and said, “I miss your energy. Let’s figure this sh*t out. Come home.” I came back to L.A., Dre had moved into this big a** house and there were a bunch of naked women in the back yard and I just remember thinking, “It is good to be home.” But Breed, I’ll say it’s always the great architect working. He, she, it, Buddha, Jesus or whoever it is used Breed to help me.
What was the energy like with ‘Pac around that time?
Me and Tupac spent the majority of our time together in Atlanta when I was there. I was long gone by the time he got to Death Row. He was a real powerful force. Nipsey [Hussle] was sort of a reincarnation of the same energy. Like, if Jay-Z says something, it’s one thing, but if Nipsey says something, it hits different because he’s closer to these kids that are in the middle of where it’s really going down. We lost a powerful ally in Nip and we need to work harder to create more people like that.