Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic”

cover for Dr. Dr's album The Chronic

This week, I have been listening to Dr. Dre’s debut album “The Chronic” from 1992. Dr. Dre released this album during my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t pay much attention to hip hop, but I did hear “Nuthin’ But a G Thang.” The album’s icon cover stood more familiar to me than that hit song. Dr. Dre was born as Andre Young in Compton, CA, birthplace of the Bloods, rival gang of the Crips. The Los Angeles riots in response to the Rodney King beating extended to Compton a couple of months before the recording of “The Chronic.” He worked as a club DJ using the nickname of basketball hero Julius Erving, “Dr. J”. In the 1986, he joined N.W.A. as rapper Dr. Dre. The group fell apart in 1991 over business disputes and some famous drama with Eazy-E.

Lil Ghetto Boy

The middle of the album features smooth G-funk track “Lil Ghetto Boy.” Dr. Dre and crew built the song primary on samples from “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway. They layered these with samples from Gil-Scott Heron and George McCrae. A drum machine adds percussive punch. Snoop Dogg and Dre trade verses, with Snoop providing the first and third, and Dre on the second. Snoop’s cousin “Dat Nigga” Daz Dillinger provides the backing vocals.

The song presents stories of young street gangsters, told through a series of couplets. The verses are not all the same length, but with fw exception each pair of lines rhyme. Most of the rhymes are straight, but there are some slant rhymes like “life” and “fight” or “quicker” with “nigga.”

The chorus comes straight from the original song by Donny Hathaway. This happens on a few tracks on the album. I immediately recognized this on “Let Me Ride” and “The Roach” as these songs are directly based on Parliament tracks, “Mothership Connection” and “P. Funk.” I believe they unashamedly based their rap songs on these originals for an audience who knew the source material.

High Powered

Track “High Powered” opens with a spoken request for “Give me some of that ol’ gangta shit, you know what I’m sayin’, something I can just kick back, smoke a fat ass joint to.” Then the music comes in, slow and grooving, with a characteristic high-frequency synth line. I think they synth may be an original line played by Colin Wolfe. They track also has beats sampled from “Buffalo Gals” by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The detailed request continues for the first full minute. Then Dre begins rapping slow, tough, and methodic. My favorite line is “Haven’t you ever heard of a killa? I drop bombs like Hiroshima.” At the word “killa”, the music is interrupted by a strong booming explosion sound effect. It’s very effect.

Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang

The hit from the album, “Nuthin’ But a G Thing,” borrows its main groove and iconic synth line from “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” by Leon Haywood. The song serves as a form of mission statement for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as rap artists. The mix references to their working relationship, about their marijuana use, street and gangster business, but most importantly their musical project. There is a sense of urgency, even with the laid-back beat, that they need to do what they are doing. Not only do they need to make the music, but we need to hear it.

Snoop stands out as an superior rap vocalist on this album. He mixes rap with occasional slips into restrained melodic singing. His style is decidedly smooth and cool. This doesn’t mean he’s slow. Snoops jumps into bits of triplet-hopping beats at times that feel like tape machine flying forward. Dr. Dre is also a very skilled rapper, deserving of the praise, but he lacks the Snoop’s strength of style.

As with most tracks on this album, the lyrics are series of couplets combining straight rhymes with slant rhymes. Each of these lines contain internal rhymes and a skilled use of consonance and assonance.

Well, I’m peepin’ and I’m creepin’ and I’m creepin’
But I damn near got caught ‘cause my beeper kept beepin’
Now it’s time for me to make my impression felt
So sit back, relax, and strap on your seat belt
You never been on a ride like this befo’
With a producer who can rap and control the maestro
At the same time with the dope rhyme that I kick
You know and I know, I flow some old funky shit
To add to my collection, the selection symbolizes dope
Take a toke, but don’t choke
If you do, you’ll have no clue
On what me and my homie Snoop Dogg came to do

Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”

Album cover for Massive Attack's "Blue Lines"

This week, I’ve been listening to Massive Attack’s 1991 debut album “Blue Lines” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. “Blue Lines” gets praise for it’s groundbreaking style opening the way for the genre of trip hop for the rest of the decade.I was completely unaware of Massive Attack throughout the 90s. In the early 2000s, I heard a bit of the 1998 album “Mezzanine,” but I honestly can’t say I remember anything about it.  I liked the atmosphere of other trip hop artists, especially Portishead. Somehow, a copy of Massive Attack member Tricky’s solo album “Pre-Millennium Tension” found its way into my collection and I enjoyed bits of it.

So, I was looking forward to my week with this album. Overall, this album was disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad, in fact some of it is quite good. I had expectations that it could not live up to.  To my ears today, it’s not remarkably interesting or special. I was anticipating something more like the trip hop that followed it, and really it’s hip-hop inspired pop music of the mid-90s. Perhaps what made it innovative was influential to other artists that took it further, making the original sound kind of quaint.

Like much hip-hop, the music of Massive Attack is largely sample-based. Though, as I understand, combining original music with samples was part of the innovation here. But even the SugarHill Gang was doing this back in 1979. The use of samples does not pose a problem for me, but I was disappointed to learn that the bassline from “Safe From Harm” is a sample from Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” which uses the bassline in much the same way. Massive Attack sample, one of the most sampled-artists, Funkadelic for drums.

The opening of the track with atmospheric noise and rolling bassline sounds super-cool. It reminds me of some of DJ Spooky’s (also sample-based) work “Galactic Funk” from 1996. I would assume that’s an example of me hearing the influenced before hearing the influencer. Stylish vocals float over the bassline, sung in a jazz-inflected soulful way by Shara Nelson. 

One of my favorite bits of the song are the male smooth-rapped line “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you.” They cut and manipulate this line to enhance the scratched-record feel already present in the lyrics.

The lyrics of this album frequently disappoint. I don’t know if I can condone mispronouncing “contagious” to make it rhyme with “dangerous” though. It reminds me too much of Jez’s song “Outrageous” from comedy show “Peep Show.” Also, this album provides reminders that if the listener can figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t spell it out. Like in the otherwise decent reggaeish track “One Love” when he says “They say don’t lay your eggs in one basket;
If the basket should fall all the eggs’ll be broken.” 

The smooth track “Blue Lines” features cool samples from Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. Some clean funky guitar comes from a song by The Blackbyrds. I recognize the Blackbyrds sample from several other hip hop songs around the same time. Again, the vocal are smooth rap delivered in an effortless way that contradicts much of the “spit” or harder-edge rap. Massive Attack often opt for cool over brag:

Somebody da-ditty, nobody
Walking on sunshine, but, still, we’re treading water
The son of many reasons searching for the daughter
Seeking knowledge, not acknowledging the jet-set
Silver papers of the sound within my Budakon headset
The solar system watches in wisdom
The children dance as the moonlight kissed them

The closing track “Hymn of the Big Wheel” features all original music, as far as I can find researching online. It stands also as one of the musically stronger songs. Pulsating synths provide a drone-like effect as heard in Indian or Scottish music. Over this, the vocals sing in a hymn-like melody lyrics that almost achieve what they try to do.  Again, there’s some disappointing lyrics. The line “There’s a hole in my soul like a cavity” seems rather redundant, considering “cavity” is a synonym for “hole.” Still, overall the song is a hymn, some of the best lyrics on the album.

As a child’s silent prayer my hope hides in disguise
While satellites and cameras watch from the skies
An acid drop of rain recycled from the sea
It washed away my shadow burnt a hole in me
And all the king’s men cannot put it back again
But the ghetto sun will nurture life
And mend my soul sometime againThe big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

While I enjoyed some of this album, I don’t feel I’ll be returning to it. Also, this isn’t a collection of songs I see having much influence on my own music. Still, glad I finally heard it and devoted a week getting to know it.