Dr. Dre's seminal 1992 album, The Chronic, turns 20 next month. Though a sensation upon its release, the raw-but-melodic work's legend has only grown in the ensuing decades, and today seemingly every MC-producer duo fancies itself the next Dre and Snoop Dogg. It has become the most influential rap work ever made, and perhaps even the greatest, as Jeff Weiss argues.
But it almost never happened. Despite the success Dre had experienced with N.W.A, he was entangled in contractual problems with his former crewmate Eazy-E's label. For that reason, as well as Death Row's dodgy reputation, The Chronic had a hard time finding release. It took the shepherding of renegade upstart Interscope Records, the financing of convicted drug kingpin Michael Harris and the steady hand of Suge Knight, an intimidating former defensive end, to give it life.
A 2001 documentary from Santa Monica-based production company Xenon Pictures, Welcome to Death Row: The Rise and Fall of Death Row Records, tells the story of Knight's infamous imprint, as well as the rise of Snoop and Tupac Shakur. Its producers -- Jeff Scheftel, Leigh Savidge and Steve Housden -- gained unprecedented access to Harris while he was behind bars. They also spoke with some 100 other figures associated with the label, from publicists and drug dealers to Chronic performers.
Xenon gathered far more material than it could use for the film, and plans to publish much of the rest in a 2013 book: Welcome to Death Row: An Oral History of Death Row Records. With the company's blessing, we've excerpted some of that material below, focusing on The Chronic and its immediate aftermath.
Our story begins with the 1991 inception of Death Row Records. Dre was then working closely with veteran record producer Dick Griffey, the founder of Solar Records, a successful R&B and soul imprint. (Griffey died in 2010.) Alonzo Williams, who kicks things off below, helmed electro-rap group World Class Wreckin' Cru, which gave Dr. Dre his start.
ALONZO WILLIAMS: The name Death Row came from my partner, Unknown [DJ]. Initially it was supposed to be Def Row, as in Def Jam. D-E-F. And Dre bought the name Def Row and changed the name.
DICK GRIFFEY: They were housed in my building, so they didn't have a lot of expenses. The greatest expense in making a record is the studio time. I had a six-story building. They were down on the third floor. ... Since I didn't have a lot of experience in rap or hip-hop, I kind of let them do their own thing.
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN (former Hollywood Reporter music editor): There had been gangsta rap before [Death Row], and Priority Records and some other labels were active in it, but there wasn't a label that was totally dedicated to gangsta rap. There was hardly a name for it then. It was just hard-core street rap, and N.W.A summed up the scene the best.
DR DRE*: Suge's role was handling the day-to-day business, dealing with artists, dealing with distributors and record companies. My job was to push these buttons and make the records happen.
SNOOP DOGG: Back then, Suge was very behind-the-scenes and helpful and quiet, humble, nonvisible. He didn't like cameras. He was the invisible man.
VIRGIL ROBERTS (attorney and former Solar president): The initial understanding was that [rapper] D.O.C. and Dre and Dick and Suge would be partners in this company.See also: Legendary Ghostwriter D.O.C. Is Back, But Can He Save Detox?
ALONZO WILLIAMS: Everyone was following Dre, because people knew Dre was The Man. Everything he touched was gold or platinum, or better.
JOHN PAYNE: (studio engineer): The [influx] of talent was the result of people wanting to work for Dre and not a result of Suge going out and finding them. Dre was the only asset the company had. He was actually the most bankable person at that time -- pretty much in the industry -- from the R&B and rap standpoint.
NATE DOGG: Everybody was taking direction from Dre, as he knows what he's doing. He just finished doing N.W.A albums ... so you have confidence. You've watched this man make money.
SNOOP DOGG: The first tape [of mine] that Warren G gave Dre was the one that hooked me up. When he finally got a chance to hear me, I was ready. I didn't want to rap for him until I was ready. ... Warren G and Nate Dogg were my best friends, and we formed 213. We didn't have drum machines back then, just records, turntables and a microphone. Warren G called me and was, like, "Snoop, I got Dre on the phone, he liked the tape, he wants to work with us." And I said, "Nigga, stop lying." And someone said, "Hello?" And I said, "Who's this?" And he said, "It's Dre. Man, that shit was dope. I want to get with you. Come to the studio Monday."
NATE DOGG: At that time, it was a dream to just be in the same room with Dre. Dre wanted us to come to the studio? I'd have jogged up there if I didn't have a car.
SNOOP DOGG: It was me, D.O.C., Lady of Rage and Warren G. Then I brought RBX and Kurupt and Daz. And Jewell was down there, too. She was there from the beginning. It was a change from Dre's house to Solar Records. We were in an environment where real records were being made.
NATE DOGG: [W]hen Dre walked in, it was time to work. All work and no play.
SNOOP DOGG: Dick Griffey back then was the "chicken man." When we needed food, he'd break us off some [money] for some chicken. We needed a few hundred dollars for the rent and he'd come through. He was like Grampa. Dick Griffey was good to us back then. ... We used to stay up all night, didn't leave till 5 or 6 in the morning. There was a special vibe; you just wanted to be there. It was right in the middle of Hollywood and we'd never really been out of the neighborhood and we was getting a chance to see it all. This was the same studio that Shalamar, Lakeside, The Whispers, Babyface recorded their albums in.
JOHN KING (bodyguard): Death Row started out as a family. We used to have meetings, sayin', "We're gonna come up!" When it got to be more of a business, where contracts had to be signed and documents had to be accounted for, that took the love out of it.
JOHN PAYNE: The early days of Death Row were rather dismal, rather poverty-stricken. It was like that show with Jimmie Walker, Good Times.
NATE DOGG: The best records came out when we were starving.
SNOOP DOGG: My first apartment was fun for me; I had a pet roach. We called him Gooch. He would always come out when we had company. We started feeding and taking care of him because he was one of the homeboys. Rent was $500 a month. Manager was named Wendy. (Still owe you -- I'll holler back at you.) About seven people in one bedroom. And we had a ball. Five hundred dollars and somehow we never had the rent money on time.
JEWELL: Snoop wasn't getting money back then, either. Suge told us after we put out The Chronic album, he was gonna give us all $100,000. I never saw it.
SUGE KNIGHT**: The money I gave 'em came out of my pocket.
DICK GRIFFEY: These guys were broke all the time. Nobody ever had any money. I was on the phone with Suge's wife, paying the house payments.
The soundtrack for the film Deep Cover arrived in spring 1992 and introduced Snoop Dogg to the mainstream via the work's title track, which he performed with Dre.
JOHN PAYNE: The [artists] got the right exposure on the Deep Cover soundtrack. Until then, Snoop was basically sitting around the studio, wanting to do something. Nobody had heard of him.
JOHN KING: Snoop had this voice. It sounded like he was singin', but he was rappin'. It was something new, and it took the world over.
DOUG YOUNG (record promoter): I remember tellin' Snoop, "Man, you're about to be huge." And maybe an hour after I had told them about that, Snoop walks to Jack in the Box on Sunset and Cahuenga, and saw the guys from [A] Tribe Called Quest. And they said, "Man, let's take a picture!" and asked him for his autograph, just like girls. Because of Deep Cover.
VIRGIL ROBERTS: "187 on a motherfuckin' cop" became, like, a national anthem.
NATE DOGG: When Snoop blew up on Deep Cover, it looked like we were all blowing up. It pumped me up; I can't wait till it's my turn.
LYDIA HARRIS (wife of Michael Harris): I seen a change in Suge [after the success of Deep Cover]. He was handlin' things different.
DICK GRIFFEY: Suge was somewhat playful and kind of a bully. He'd threaten people from time to time and they'd take him seriously. Have an argument with the engineer and tell him they were gonna shoot him if he didn't get stuff right on the board. Lots of unnecessary drama.
JOHN KING: Even at Death Row, they had cliques. Suge had his clique, Dre had his, Snoop had his. Everybody did their own thing. Suge's people weren't his artists; they were the people he grew up with. His homeboys.