My life sort of changed in late December of 1992, when someone gave me Dr. Dre’s now-classic album The Chronic. Listening to that juicy, bouncy, drawly hybrid of P-Funk and the usual gangsta rap themes (hating police, shooting enemies, acquiring/dumping hoes) pre-dated my first experience with weed, as it should have. It made the whole concept—yes, _The Chronic _was a concept album, a rolling tour through late-afternoon Compton with a gat strapped to your waist and your homies riding in the back—even better, since I had no idea what “the chronic” was (a mixed drink of some sort, I believed) nor why it was so popular among West Coast gangstas. And of course this pre-dated the internet as we know it, assuring my ignorance remained until months later, when a certain roommate produced a bag of sticky herb and pronounced “_This _is the chronic.”
No, it was not “the chronic.” It was schwag, at best. But I didn’t care. I listened to “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” and felt far cooler than my actual incarnation (a freshman at Buffalo State College who owned several Sting solo albums).
It wasn’t just the terrific videos, or the terrific songs, or my first exposure to a female rapper who actually sounded hard (Lady of Rage on “Lyrical Gangbang” owned Queen Latifah, Money Love, and any other female MC I could think of). It was the relaxed vibe, the posturing, the nearly every track being the perfect party/driving/working out music, and all of Dre’s The Chronic_accomplished what most early rap attempted: to elevate the embarrassing to the coveted. By “embarrassing” I mean the realities of Compton are the result of failed economic policies, institutionalized racism, and just plain old villainy; the hood was a place one wanted to escape, yet _The Chronic _made it oddly appealing. Suddenly, the idea of a bench on my front lawn, a pitbull snapping at the end of a chain, a dorm fridge full of 40’s, a barbecue, and custom hydraulics on my grandfather’s car seemed cool. More than that, it seemed _authentic.[i] Certainly more authentic than anything I was experiencing, with my _Dream of the Blue Turtles _album and my J. Crew khakis and my 1977 Pontiac Parisienne. [ii]
Certain things about that album bothered me, though. The seminal (ahem) track “Fuck wit Dre Day”, a scathing attack on former-bandmate-turned-rival Eazy-E , had Snoop Dogg putting his testicles in Eazy-E’s mouth, as some sort of retribution. Snoop puts them in so deep, in fact, that said testicles rest on Eazy-E’s tonsils.
Fair enough. Threats of prison-style homosexuality are the ultimate bitch-slap, but still…it was hard to reconcile revenge-as-insertion-of-balls-into-rival’s-mouth, no matter what the prison culture. Even harder to reconcile was Dre’s insistence that Eazy-E’s gap teeth will make it easier to accommodate Dre’s penis:
“If it ain’t another hoe that I gots to fuck with/Gap teeth in ya mouth so my dick’s got to fit.”
A lyric in need of a closer read; are we to interpret this as Dre’s penis being so small that it will fit in the gap between Eazy-E’s teeth? Self-deprecation has never been a part of gangsta rap, so if Dre is indeed sacrificing his genital reputation in the interest of insulting Eazy-E, I’m impressed.[iii] Those lyrics become even more bizarre with Eazy-E’s AIDS diagnosis a few years later, turning Snoop and Dre’s threat of forced oral sex into a triangulated suicide pact. “No dental dam, bitch-ass sucka/Then we’ll all die of AIDS, motherfucka’” or something like that.[iv]
But let’s return to the music. _The Chronic _is one of the few rap albums to improve upon its source material. Yes, Parliament Funkadelic is the granddaddy of hip-hop and without George Clinton we wouldn’t have G-Funk (or De La Soul, perhaps), but let’s be honest: doesn’t nearly every P-Funk song start great, fade a bit, and linger way past the point of danceability? The hooks are terrific—“(Not Just) Knee Deep” still amazes—but the songs are too trippy, losing their focus, often abandoning the smooth melodies in favor of shrieks and atonal asides.
Dre fixed this. He looped the best of P-Funk and told stories. To wit:
Does it get any better than that? It’s the perfect gangsta rap song—even better than “Gin and Juice”—and without that song there would be no “Today was a Good Day” no “Juice” no “Boyz n the Hood” and no GTA: San Andreas. The Chronic was the perfect album at the perfect time, what grunge was to hair metal, sweeping away the frivolity of hip-pop groups like Kid-n-Play or rap-hippie (“rippie?”) swill like P.M. Dawn, while rescuing the genre from premature self-parody. N.W.A. was already becoming too self-important; Dr. Dre made gangsta fun, a comico-serious take on the realities of South Central L.A.
The genre would become—as do most new genres—increasingly ridiculous, culminating in Dre and Ice Cube’s “Natural Born Killaz” which features pixelated white people getting capped, dangling chains, skulls, a flaming pyre of bones, John Amos yelling, cars flying off piers, spider webs, knives, shotties, and Ice Cube posing in long underwear.
Yet even at its most ridiculous it still made me throw away my Sting albums, and cruise down Hertel Avenue in my 1977 Pontiac Parisienne, head-bobbing, one hand on the wheel, fantasizing about sitting atop my own flaming pyre of bones. Of course I was usually on the way to my folks, for dinner and a movie. Something starring Brian Dennehy, perhaps.
[i]This is not a defense of Eazy-E, in case you were wondering. I never liked his voice (nasally, weak) his lyrics (juvenile, lazy) or his hair (reminiscent of Soul-Glo, and no, you can’t blame it on the era because _Straight Outta’ Compton _and _Coming to America _were both released in 1988).
[ii]Eazy-E died of AIDS-related complications in 1995.
[iii]The question of “authenticity” is ridiculous, because everyone’s reality is authentic. Otherwise it wouldn’t be reality.
[iv]On second thought, my car was a bit gangsta.