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.
See also: *Top 20 Greatest L.A. Rap Albums
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.
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.
LAMONT BLUMFIELD (artist manager): Suge was rollin' up in a Benz all day. He had a Benz and a Lexus. Snoop was getting evicted when Deep Cover came out — something ain't right. We helped him move his stuff from a little bitty one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood.
NATE DOGG: I think [The Chronic] was a classic because everyone on it was hungry. Everybody put their all into The Chronic album. This was going to build a record company; this would build all our careers.
LAMONT BLUMFIELD: You had so many hungry, starving individuals that wanted to be superstars, who put their talent together, and it came out a classic.
JEWELL: It wasn't like we had money to hang with our friends, so we just hung together. We'd be up there eatin' Popeye's chicken, five days a week. And we created a masterpiece.
JOHN PAYNE: They were poor as hell, but they were still a family, still havin' fun.
SNOOP DOGG: We had weed, the best weed, you know what I'm sayin'? That's why we made The Chronic, because we had the chronic. … I was just happy to be workin' with Dre. I had my own apartment. I was getting a thousand dollars a month, had all the best weed I wanted. My girl was lovin' me, I was lovin' her. It was all just crackin'.
JEWELL: It all worked. My singin' over their hard rap lyrics; rap had never accepted that before. I put my soft, sultry R&B singing on their records. Now every rapper has to have a female on their songs.
SNOOP DOGG: [Dre] listened to it off the board in the studio. He'd cut it together, cut the reels, splice it in. He actually had to put it together piece by piece, by hand. Every song connected to the next song, to the next song, to the next song.
ALLEN GORDON (former editor, Rap Pages magazine): Dre had the talent to hear music and [say], “This needs a flute, harp strings, heavier drum track.” That's an incredible talent, even if he can't read music himself.
SNOOP DOGG: I think The Chronic was perfect, but a lot of songs could have been on it that would have destroyed the vibe. If they didn't come out, Dre did it for a reason. A lot of that shit was spontaneous. But I did [another] song 15 times before I got it right. Had a toothache at the time and couldn't spit it out. He was, “Do it the next time, I don't like how it sounds. Do it again, you had too much energy.” I'm like, this motherfucker is a precisionist.
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: The Chronic was a hit out of the box. … Snoop had these incredible street creds and such a buzz behind him from the projects.
SNOOP DOGG: The first family member I called when I heard my shit being played was my Pops. Because he'd seen me go to jail for selling dope. I don't think Pops believed in me. … When The Chronic came out, I was sought out for interviews. I was very shy, and I'd hold my head down and didn't want to look at the camera. I didn't know what to expect. I had to learn how to conduct myself and not explode on every question I didn't like. Just take my time and listen. If I just be me, it'll be all right. …
The first time I performed songs from The Chronic was with Dre in a small concert in Compton. And man, these motherfuckers were singing every word of the songs. And that made me feel — damn, my life is right here.
VIRGIL ROBERTS: We had originally thought we'd be able to distribute the record with Sony. But Sony refused to distribute The Chronic.
SAM ANSON (L.A. Weekly reporter): Because of the crazy things going on around Death Row and their wariness of the contractual status of Dr. Dre, [Sony] didn't want to get the deal done.
MICHAEL HARRIS: Because of Eazy-E's insistence that he had been wronged, and robbed of his artists, Sony chose not to be part of the lawsuits.
VIRGIL ROBERTS: And so we decided to distribute The Chronic independently. But to put a record out independently, you need a video. Griffey said to Suge, “I don't have the money, let's raise the money.” [Later] Dick and I met with [Interscope executives] Jimmy Iovine and David Cohen. We played them The Chronic, and they said they were interested.
KEVIN POWELL (writer): Jimmy Iovine had to pay off Ruthless Records, Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, and have The Chronic distributed through Priority Records.
DOUG YOUNG: Eazy was getting like 25 or 50 cents a copy for Dre's Chronic album.
Nonetheless, with The Chronic, Death Row was now a bona fide success.
HANK CALDWELL (former Death Row Records president): Word of mouth is everything, and Death Row became really hip on the street. Every young, black entertainer wanted to be part of it, so there was no problem finding talent. There was an understanding at Death Row that [artists] weren't getting at the major companies. Kids would come in and audition right off the street.
SUGE KNIGHT: I ain't gonna throw you “Let's do lunch.” I ain't with all that. I'm still from the ghetto. I still got a house in Compton. I may not be there every night, but I still got a house there. I go there and hang out and feel it. That's where the talent's at. 'Cause when people stay away too long, they get scared of it. There's no goin' back. How I'm gonna run from something I'm part of?
DICK GRIFFEY: I was talking to an ambassador from South Africa and his daughter. Very eloquent, articulate people. Very educated. And these people had bought into it. Suge was a cult hero around the world.
JON CLARK (former Motown Records executive): Basically, it's the same thing Motown did. They took the mindset, spirit, dreams, hopes, wishes and thoughts of the people of a time period and set it to music.
DOUG YOUNG: Death Row was bombin' out of control. All you had to do was tell a girl you worked at Death Row Records — anything you want. Any shop you go into, “I work for Death Row” — anything you want. Any record store you go into, “I work for Death Row” — you come back with some promo goods. There was no club, no guest list you weren't on. “We'll fly you here, we'll do this for you, that for you. We'll give you clothes.”
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: Death Row at its peak was making about $150 million a year. For a tiny label, that was a shocking amount.
ALLEN GORDON: There was no control [over spending] at Death Row. Rap Pages printed a story about BL Diamonds, where Death Row got all their jewelry. And we have the invoices of all the jewelry that was purchased there on credit. And you go down the list, and it's “bracelet for wife No. 1 … cut gold, diamond cufflinks…” And after a while the artists started going there and ordering their own jewelry without the consent of [attorney David] Kenner, Knight or [Death Row publicist] George Pryce, any figure of authority. Suge Knight probably doesn't even know that all these artists went down there and started purchasing this jewelry.
GEORGE PRYCE: The day that I [went in to interview with Knight] he said, 'Look I'm gonna interview you when I can, but it may take a while. So I sat for seven days in the lobby, between all of these huge hip-hop types. … I sat for seven days — a solid week. … On the last day I finally saw Suge. He came down the aisle and said, “Hello, how are you? I'm gonna see you in a few minutes, but first I've got to have a staff meeting. As a matter of fact, come on in to the staff meeting.” So when the meeting was called to order, the first words out of his mouth were “Everybody, I'd like you to meet George Pryce — he's the new publicist, the head of communications and media relations for Death Row Records.” No contract, no conversation about salary, nothing. But I knew it was gonna be OK and that's just the way Suge is.
GREGORY ATRON (talent manager): Death Row didn't put out a whole lotta records — they just sold a lot of the ones that they put out.
ALLEN GORDON: And Death Row's street teams were the best. There wasn't a major urban community where they didn't know Doggystyle or [have] Dogg Food stickers posted up or even Chronic stickers when this was goin' on. I remember being in Omaha, Neb., and seeing a Chronic sticker on the lamppost. 'Cause I didn't think anybody in Nebraska listened to hip-hop.
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: Radio couldn't play gangsta rap; the four-letter words kept it off conventional radio and conventional TV. Plus, there was Death Row's name, a gruesome little logo of somebody sitting on death row with a hood over his head. That helped.
Eventually, Dr. Dre began having trouble focusing in the raucous Death Row environment.
UNKNOWN DJ: Suge Knight felt the need to have a court around him, and I don't think Dre felt comfortable with that.
FRANK ALEXANDER (Tupac bodyguard): Tupac and Dr. Dre was fine, in the beginning. You didn't see any problems. [But] from the time I worked there in '95 up to '96, Dr. Dre had only been in the studio twice. 'Pac took offense to that.
TUPAC SHAKUR***: He wasn't producing shit. All the niggas were producing the beats on my album. All the niggas were doing the beats and Dre was getting the credit.
SUGE KNIGHT: Dre wasn't doing the tracks, and Dre didn't write the lyrics.
KEVIN POWELL: Tupac started becoming the mouthpiece for Suge and started dissing Dre.
TUPAC SHAKUR: [Dre] is a dope producer, but he ain't worked in years. I'm out here in the streets, whooping niggas' asses, starting wars and shit, and this nigga's taking three years to do one song.
SNOOP DOGG: It was not a work atmosphere anymore. Success had kicked in. We were stars, and motherfuckers just loved being around us. And bringing bullshit around us. Dre wasn't for that.
DR. DRE: I just didn't like some of the things that were going on. There was nothing being done to stop it.
SNOOP DOGG: Dre likes to work in an environment where you can create. [Where] everybody's on the creative atmosphere and not about what's goin' on in the 'hood, how many niggas you shot and how much shit you did. He didn't want that.
JEWELL: Suge took over the company. I don't think Dre wanted to be a yes-man for somebody. He wanted his own situation.
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: Dre says, “I want out of this world. I want to form Aftermath, where I'm not part of Death Row. I want to live.”
NATE DOGG: When Dre left Death Row Records, that was the biggest shock. Because I was real confused how you start a label and then leave the label. I figured if you had a problem with someone … you'd make them leave, and you'd go on with what you're doing. I guess he learned it wasn't his label.
SUGE KNIGHT: Dre's departure wasn't a loss. If you've got a multimillion dollar company — maybe worth a billion dollars — and you own 100 percent and don't have a partner, then you don't have to give him nothing but his walking papers. That's great.
ALLEN GORDON: To give up 50 percent of your label and move from a dangerous situation, which Death Row was becoming, was a smart move for him.
Though few imprints have been as successful, Death Row's hit-making run was short. After the departure of Dre, Tupac Shakur became its marquee artist, but his 1996 murder plunged the label into chaos.
Knight was sent to prison for a parole violation and was suspected of orchestrating the hit on Tupac's rival Notorious B.I.G.
Snoop Dogg departed for Master P's No Limit label, while Dr. Dre's Aftermath has become one of hip-hop's most successful imprints, introducing artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar.
The 6 million copies sold of Dre's 1999 album 2001 eclipsed even the triple-platinum The Chronic. It is the latter album, however, whose influence is still felt most strongly today.
*Dr. Dre quotes taken from a 1999 Behind the Music episode
**Suge Knight quotes taken from a 1996 BET interview
***Tupac Shakur quotes taken from a 1996 U.K. radio interview
Editor's note: A pair of quotes from rapper CPO have been removed from this story, as he asserts he did not make them.