Saturday 1 October 2016

Music: Doctor in the house - the return of Dre

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Rich pickings: Dr Dre made $620m in 12 months
Rich pickings: Dr Dre made $620m in 12 months

Dr Dre's contribution to hip-hop may have been immense for the best part of 30 years, but his shrewd business instincts have been just as formidable.

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Quite simply, the man born Andre Young is among the wealthiest, most successful musician-entrepreneurs ever, and this weekend's release of his first album in 16 years goes a long way towards demonstrating his extraordinary power in an industry that has lurched from one crisis to the next in the past decade or so.

Compton: A Soundtrack was first announced by Dre on his show The Pharmacy on Beats 1, the global radio station launched earlier this year by Apple and its Dre-founded subsidiary, Beats Electronics, and available to all Apple Music customers.

The album is exclusively available on Apple Music and iTunes, and is the soundtrack to an epic biopic on N.W.A, the hugely influential rap troupe of which Dre was a key member. The film will be released in the US at the end of the month and shares a title with N.W.A's debut album, 1988's Straight Outta Compton, hip-hop's equivalent of 'The White Album'.

"During [the film's] principal photography," Dre told his listeners, "I felt myself going to the studio and being so inspired by the movie that I started recording an album. I kept it under wraps, and now the album is finished. It's bananas. It's an 'inspired by' album."

With no advance promo copies available and only out since yesterday, I can't say yet if Compton: A Soundtrack - dubbed by Dre as his "grand finale" - lives up to the hype. But as this is a man who is as ruthlessly particular about the music he releases as he is about his business interests, there's a good chance it will be.

His solo output has been marked by wide gaps. He released his solo debut, The Chronic, to huge acclaim in 1992 but we had to wait until 1999 for its follow-up 2001. For years, he talked about working on a third album, Detox, but it looks now as though the fruits of all those sessions will never see the light of day.

Dre was disarmingly frank about the album's fortunes on Beats 1 the other day: "This is something you're not gonna hear many artists say," he said. "The reason Detox didn't come out was because I didn't like it. It wasn't good. I worked my ass off on it [but] I don't think I did a good enough job, and I couldn't do that to my fans and I couldn't do that to myself, to be perfectly honest with you. I just wasn't feeling it."

Now aged 50, he has been making music since his teens and first came to attention in his native Los Angeles in 1984 with World Class Wreckin' Cru, an electro-rap outfit which featured future N.W.A bandmate DJ Yella.

But it was his membership of N.W.A that got him noticed everywhere, despite the fact that many radio stations refused to play songs from Straight Outta Compton. With its explicit, no-holds-barred lyrics and celebration of violence, the album remains as thrillingly raw and abrasive now as it was 27 years ago.

It's almost impossible to overstate the album's notoriety. The single 'F*** Tha Police' - which spoke of the disharmony between black youths and the police and appeared to condone attacks on officers - led to the FBI sending a warning letter to N.W.A's record label. Virtually every track revelled in its profane, inflammatory lyrics, and it's little wonder Tipper Gore's Parental Advisory sticker is almost as essential a part of the cover artwork as the intimidating, downward stares of Dre and friends.

Its influence on music still reverberates. East Coast MCs Ice-T and Just-Ice had pioneered gangsta rap a couple of years before but the genre really took off thanks to N.W.A.

While Dre may today cut a figure as an elder statesman of rap and an entrepreneur hailed for his vision and chutzpah, it was a very different man who made the headlines in 1991. Angered by the way bandmate Ice Cube had been interviewed by TV host and rapper Dee Barnes, Dre took revenge when he bumped into her at a party in LA. According to a Rolling Stone journalist who witnessed the incident, he picked her up by her hair and "began slamming her head and the right side of her body repeatedly against a brick wall near the stairway" as his bodyguard held off the crowd with a gun.

Dre was forced to do 240 hours of community service and made a financial settlement to Barnes out of court. Eight years later, Eminem would allude to the assault on 'Guilty Conscience' in which he 'played' a series of people with evil intent and Dre took the sainted role.

Eminem is just one of several young talents, including Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar, who were plucked from obscurity with the help of Dre - not just because of his ear for talent, but his production smarts that can take a very rough demo and give it oodles of crossover appeal.

And when it comes to crossover appeal, it's hardware, even more so than music, that Dre has truly excelled at. A decade ago, he and record label boss Jimmy Iovine recognised that headphones could become a fashion accessory, and so Beats was born. Within a couple of years, every celeb on the planet seemed to be wearing their eye-catching on-ear plastic creations. Apple clearly liked it too and bought the company for $3bn last year.

Now, Dr Dre finds himself in first place on Forbes' rich list of musicians after earning $620m (€565m) in 2014 alone. Not bad from a kid from Compton, LA, who was denied an apprenticeship at aircraft manufacturer Northrop due to poor grades.

* The National Concert Hall, Dublin, has been running a brilliant series of concerts under the Perspectives banner for the past couple of years and the latest, on Wednesday, celebrates the music of jazz great Fats Waller. With American pianist Jason Moran.

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