It’s been 25 years since Dr. Dre released his landmark solo debut The Chronic, and it’s still almost impossible to overstate how much that album impacted popular music of the 1990s.
Hip-hop’s focus had been mainly New York City until N.W.A dropped like a bomb in 1988, but that notorious quintet hadn’t completely wrestled the national spotlight away from their East Coast peers. Not like Dr. Dre and his 19-year-old protégé Snoop (then Doggy) Dogg would in 1992. For all their infamy, N.W.A barely got radio play—but when “Nuthin’ But A G Thang” dropped in August of ’92, it became one of the most inescapable rap radio hits of all time. And it was an announcement that the game was about to change.
By now, almost every hip-hop fan knows the backstory. N.W.A had been on shaky ground ever since the acrimonious departure of main lyricist Ice Cube in 1989. Cube found immediate success as a solo artist in 1990, but his beef with the way N.W.A’s money was handled laid the foundation for dissent within the group. N.W.A’s leader Eazy-E had founded Ruthless Records with manager Jerry Heller, and Cube balked at how little he was being paid. After he’d split for a solo career, Cube’s grievances started to resonate with Dr. Dre, who’d produced most of Ruthless Records’ most successful acts. Soon, Dre also became dissatisfied with Eazy and Ruthless; he left NWA and the label, struck up a partnership with a bodyguard-turned-music manager named Suge Knight, and Death Row Records was born.
“I went to a lot of record companies, tried even to get a little production work to pay for rent and shoes,” Dre told Rolling Stone in 1993. “But nobody wanted to take a chance on me because of all that legal shit [with Ruthless]. Then at Interscope, I talked to Jimmy Iovine a lot, and he is the smartest motherfucker in the business; I came to him with the album, the artwork, the video concepts, everything, and Jimmy made it happen.”
Dr. Dre had a lot of baggage in 1992. He’d been charged with assault for the vicious beating of Pump It Up host Dee Barnes in 1991; he was arrested for battery after an incident involving a melee at a New Orleans Sheraton; Eazy-E sued him under federal racketeering laws after the split from Ruthless led to accusations of intimidation and violence; and he was convicted for misdemeanor assault after breaking the jaw of a younger record producer. His abusive and toxic behavior only amplified his gangsta image at the time, and in the spring of 1992 when Dre debuted his first solo single—the theme song for the Laurence Fishburne/Jeff Goldblum crime drama Deep Cover—it was indication that his commercial standing would be fine despite the controversy. It also confirmed that he hadn’t missed a step without N.W.A.
“Deep Cover” made enough noise to announce Dre as a solo artist and it made fans endlessly curious about his new co-star, Snoop. The Long Beach native had been brought into Dre’s orbit by Dre’s stepbrother Warren G, and his laid-back drawl was the perfect counter to Dre’s booming menace—and he would be used to even greater effect on Dre’s next release. The first single from his upcoming solo debut was released in November; a laid-back, Leon Haywood-sampling ode to gangsta pleasures called “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” The song peaked at No. 2, something that had never happened with N.W.A and was an anomaly for “gangsta rappers” up to that point. It drove anticipation for The Chronic sky-high and made an instant star out of Snoop. The video for “G Thang” was put into heavy rotation on MTV, and with its image of cookouts, 9mms and lowriders hittin’ switches, it would become one of the ‘90s’ most definitive music videos.
When he debuted, Snoop Doggy Dogg seemed to embody the gangsta culture that N.W.A had shined a light on. His smooth drawl was a counter to almost every prominent rapper at the time, and his persona was both cool and sinister. In 1992, no one seemed “realer.”
“I’ve lived the life those kids are livin’—shootin’ people up, gang-bangin’, slangin’ dope, I already did all that shit, and the outcome is either death or jail,” he told Spin back then. “I went to jail, but you might not be blessed to get that chance so peep my shit and learn from me. That’s the positive side of being a ‘gangsta’ in life. That’s taking control of your life.”
And Dre knew he had a diamond.
“Snoop is gonna be around a long time,” Dre would tell Vibe in 1993. “He’s always coming up with different concepts and he’s good in the studio. He can go on and ad lib a fuckin’ song if he wants to. And it would be funky. Matter of fact, we did that on ‘Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang.’ We put a little freestyle thing on there—I don’t think they knew I was recording.”
The Chronic was released on Dec. 15, 1992, and it was a musical revelation. G-Funk had been building for years on the West Coast, both in Dre’s work and via the work of lesser-heralded producers like Battlecat and DJ Quik. But on The Chronic, Dre refined the sound, which was built on P-Funk-like grooves and loops, with samples and live instrumentation. Most of the samples came courtesy of Warren, most of the rhymes were from the pen of Ruthless defector The D.O.C. Snoop headed up a cadre of hungry newcomers that included The Lady of Rage, RBX and Tha Dogg Pound—artists that would form the core of Death Row Records. And Dre was the ringleader, sitting center-stage, masterminding the project. Upon release, The Chronic would peak at No. 3 on the album charts and spent eight months in Billboard’s Top Ten.
The historical impact of Dr. Dre’s magnum opus has been well-established: it opened the mainstream floodgates for gangsta rap in a way that even N.W.A hadn’t been able to do; it heralded the beginning of a two-year stretch where West Coast hip-hop overshadowed East Coast hip-hop in terms of commercial success and visibility; and it announced Death Row as the most formidable new presence in hip-hop. Also, perhaps most obviously: it made a star of a barely-out-of-high school Snoop, who was the franchise player on Dre’s new team of on-the-rise rappers.
It’s also easy to ignore just how badly Eazy-E’s reputation was damaged in late ‘92/early ‘93. Eazy had been the subject of ridicule from his two most famous ex-bandmates. With Ice Cube’s roasting Eazy and the rest of N.W.A on his classic 1991 diss track “No Vaseline,” and now Dr. Dre making Eazy a punchline throughout The Chronic, the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap” was looking like a crook who’d exploited his more talented buddies on the road to building his Ruthless Records empire. It didn’t help that both Cube and Dre left N.W.A and delivered as successful solo artists; that gave them a tremendous amount of cultural clout that Eazy lacked in the immediate aftermath of N.W.A’s demise. The man who’d helped put L.A. hip-hop music and culture on the map was now a clown in the minds of many—and his former friends seemed better off without him. Eazy’s standing would soon recover following the success of his protégés Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but he wouldn’t live to see their greatest successes due to his untimely death from AIDS complications in 1995.
Another facet of The Chronic’s impact is how it reshaped the landscape of hip-hop’s mainstream. The rise of Dre, Snoop and Death Row can sometimes be oversimplified and its affects on hip-hop of the non-gangsta rap variety can be overstated; after all, there were still popular rap albums from quirkier artists like Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest following The Chronic’s major success. But The Chronic did alter what had been a four-year boom in regards to variety in mainstream hip-hop. Since the late ‘80s, when N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back all broke big and affirmed the diversity of hip-hop’s images and sounds, there had been a wide array of hip-hop artists from all stylistic corners enjoying visibility on MTV and BET. After The Chronic, even the poppier rappers had to have some element of guns ‘n’ blunts in their music; while the kind of left-field alt-rap that led to success for acts like Arrested Development and De La Soul suddenly became more associated with hip-hop’s underground than its mainstream.
But no major hip-hop act was more affected by The Chronic’s success than Public Enemy. Chuck D and Co had been hip-hop’s most potent act since 1987, and in 1991, they were still enjoying a remarkable run with the success of the platinum-selling Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black. But within a year of that album’s success, P.E.’s clout and visibility would nosedive. The Chronic introduced a revolution of slow-rolling beats, relaxed rhymes and gangsta-fied subject matter that made Public Enemy, with its noisy beats and unflinching political ethos, seem instantly out of step. By the time P.E. released Muse-Sick-n-Our-Mess-Age in the summer of 1994, they’d gone from hip-hop’s most important ambassadors to a footnote, obscured by the Death Row monolith.
G-Funk gave artists who would have previously been deemed too controversial for radio play the kind of melodic grooves and hooks that could appeal to pop/R&B audiences. And it reverberated throughout hip-hop rather quickly. On the West Coast, artists like 2Pac, MC Eiht and Spice 1 saw a sudden rise in their mainstream exposure after releasing singles with melody-driven production; even the highly-successful Ice Cube made a noticeable switch from the more abrasive beats of his first two albums to slow-rolling grooves, and netted his first two big hit singles in ‘92/’93: “It Was A Good Day” and “Check Yourself.” The Chronic changed the way hardcore rappers approached their music, and suddenly, you didn’t have to be Heavy D or MC Hammer to get played on non-rap radio anymore.
The East Coast’s reaction to The Chronic was somewhat delayed. Throughout 1993 and early 1994, there was undoubtedly a resurgence in more hardcore New York/New Jersey-based acts like Redman, Das EFX, Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, but most of those artists relied on production that was jazzier “boom bap”-oriented sounds from producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock. While East Coast producers like Erick Sermon and Kay Gee had emphasized melodic grooves as opposed to noisy funk or jazzy loops, it wasn’t until The Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die in late 1994 that the impact of The Chronic became obvious on the East Coast. That album was carried by singles that were as melodic and hooky as “G Thang” had been, and the glossier approach catapulted B.I.G. to the top of East Coast hip-hop’s food chain, in terms of visibility. Two years after Dr. Dre’s sonic bomb, New York would have an artist who could bring it back to commercial prominence.
Of course, none of that happened without backlash. The Chronic made Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg notorious. Activists like Calvin Butts and C. Delores Tucker became famous names amongst hip-hop fans due to their criticism of gangsta rap and Death Row Records. “I am here to put the nation on notice that violence perpetuated against women in the music industry in the form of gangsta rap and misogynist lyrics will not be tolerated any longer,” Tucker declared in 1993. “Principle must come before profit.” Tucker founded the National Congress of Black Women’s Entertainment Commission to examine lyrics, and led boycotts against record company owners like Sony and Time Warner.
In 2017, The Chronic’s misogyny, violence and homophobia make it an unsettling depiction of just how casually hip-hop embraced (and continues to embrace) all three. There’s an offhanded hatefulness that even the most captivating sonics can’t diffuse; there is a lot of ugliness on the record, and considering where Dr. Dre was in his life at the time, it shouldn’t be dismissed or discounted as just a character he was playing. Revisiting ‘90s hip-hop, even the most acclaimed stuff, can be harrowing in terms of the amount of toxic rhetoric contained in so many legendary lyrics. As much as nostalgia may con us into thinking of the good ol’ days with nothing but adulation and reverence, we need to be moving away from the attitudes on The Chronic, not pining for them to return.
Dr. Dre is a billionaire businessman today and Snoop Dogg is hip-hop’s most beloved elder statesman. A lot has changed since December 1992. When their paths crossed more than 25 years ago, one was at a career crossroads and the other hadn’t even begun his career. They reshaped hip-hop’s landscape and crafted one of the most inescapable albums of all time. Second only to Nirvana’s Nevermind in terms of seismic impact in the ‘90s, The Chronic was and is a watershed moment for hip-hop. Like the genre itself, it can’t be examined without also looking at the era from whence it came, and it can’t be critiqued without also criticizing the ugliness that it promoted. It’s a remarkable piece of art and a reflection of all that is good and bad in regards to Dr. Dre’s legacy. No doubt about it, The Chronic is quite a musical achievement. And the bass still sounds good when you’re ridin’.