In Part 2 of her series on Authenticity, musicologist Naomi Kavka explores the expression of music as identity in the complex personae of Dr. Dre.
by Naomi Kavka
Full disclaimer, I couldn’t fit everything I wanted into this article. I could write for years on this subject, there’s just so much to talk about. In this article, I am going to focus on a few facets of authenticity in Dr. Dre’s album 2001. It’s going to ignore a lot of stuff in this album, and also in the lengthy history of hip hop. For some great information on the history of hip hop, I encourage everyone to check out Jennifer C. Lena’s book Banding together: how communities create genres in popular music.
When I first got into Dr. Dre, it was through his 1999 release 2001. I love so much about this album: the production, the collaboration, the skits. But above all, I am enamored with how complex a persona Dre presents. That’s not to say this album is without problems (many cite the violence, misogyny, general use of curse words) but the very fact that Dre released a cinematic hour-long album at the height of the single release craze of the 90s is something to be admired. In that hour, Dre spends a great deal of time asserting how he is still relevant. Not just in hip hop, but in thug life. I didn’t quite understand why this theme was so prominent. He seemed pretty legit to me, especially listening to it without the context of his history in rap. I was aware of his present success (currently he is possibly the richest musician ever?) but had very little knowledge of his upbringing, and his work in World Class Wrecking Cru, N.W.A., or even his first solo record The Chronic (1992). So, let’s start with The Chronic.
It’s 1992. Dr. Dre just quit N.W.A., and released his debut solo album The Chronic on Death Row records. This is a hard album. Following in the trail of being a criminal hardass in N.W.A., this album is swimming with references to thugs, murder, and good old-fashioned Cali weed. It also has what might be one of the most cold hearted lyrics ever: “.44 reasons come to mind why your motherfucking brother is hard to find.” This album was critically acclaimed, and came out during the height of the East/West conflict (see Tupac, Biggie Smalls, just don’t watch Notorious – that movie sucked). He claims his position not only as a skilled rapper and producer, but also as someone not to mess with (a man with the master plan, if you will).
Now, it’s 1999. You put on 2001. The album was intended to be a cinematic experience, and opens with that crescendo you’d hear at a movie theatre before a film starts. The first line: “things just ain’t the same for gangstas” marks the first track, “The Watcher”. This track is fascinating to me because Dre takes the time to explain many different aspects of his identity. In fact, throughout the album, he is essentially just explaining himself and his position in the rap world.
Here are a few things Dr. Dre says about himself:
– he is an OG
– he is a family man
– he has got a lot more to lose than you
– he ain’t a thug
– he ain’t no bitch neither
– he suggests you lay low
– he is representing for gangstas all across the world
– he still doesn’t love police
– he still rocks his khakis with a cuff and a crease
– he still got love for the streets
– he still has guns (what you think he sold them all?)
– he just wants to fuck bad bitches, for all them nights he never had bitches
– he just took some ecstasy
– he is producer/talent scout
– he is, most of all, still Dre.
But what does it mean that he is “still Dre”? That you can still identify with him? That he is still talented? Or still dangerous? There are many contradictions found in that list. Conceptually, fucking bad bitches and doing ecstasy doesn’t fit with what one would consider a family man. He insists on several occasions that he’s gone straight, makes legitimate money, provides groceries for his family, and so forth, but still owns guns, and has to fear for his safety. Why does he cling to so many different hats? He pays taxes, makes millions of dollars, and moved away from the place where he felt unsafe. Is he suffering from some sort of PTSD or just trying to sell records?
It’s important to remember that authenticity does not really become an issue until something is commercial successful. The success of a genre is rooted in how effectively a sense of authenticity can be marketed. Hip hop in particular is lyrically obsessed with the authentic. There is a constant need to assert one’s dominance in their field, to have the sickest beats, to be the strongest, toughest, richest, most powerful, but most of all, to be from the streets (of COMTPON). So it’s not surprising that 2001 would give so much musical real estate to that topic. However, I really do think it’s more than that. Maybe Dre really does still have love for the streets. He also takes time to explain what differentiates him from the streets. Most of those differences are his level of success, and his ability to ignore petty gossip. He’s still relatable because he’s reaching into his history (Easy-E, the D.O.C., Ice Cube), but he’s also better than you.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dre explained his motivation behind the album:
“For the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of talk out on the streets about whether or not I can still hold my own, whether or not I’m still good at producing. […]Magazines, word of mouth and rap tabloids were saying I didn’t have it any more. What more do I need to do? How many platinum records have I made?”
At first it comes off as a little self-conscious. But he caps it off with a smug confidence:
“O.K., here’s the album — now what do you have to say?”
Music as an expression of identity is a unique type of performance. I get the impression that Dre felt obligated to cater to traditional representations of masculinity in his genre. He still relates to the idea of having physical power, if only lyrically. When it comes to our own personal identity we juggle hats constantly. If you’re a parent, you wear your parent hat around your kids, but put on your professional hat when you go to work, your fancy hat when you go to a fancy restaurant. It’s why you dress up for a job interview, put on nice music when the in laws come over, and wear your good underwear when you think you’ll get lucky. This album is like that concept, only we get a candid view of Dre as he performs all these different roles that he feels comfortable in or still obligated to do.
A recent example of this type of contradiction is Rick Ross, who was recently “exposed” for having worked as a correctional officer. Seemingly, this does contradict his established image as a criminal, but it also did no harm to his record sales.
Ross argued that his previous job does not discredit the lifestyle he presents in his music: “The gun talk is official. Look up [notorious Miami gang member] Kenneth ‘Boobie’ Williams. Look where he’s from. That’s not nothing to be proud of. I wish that on no man. But, just to let you know, that’s what I witnessed. It’s a reality. I cannot discuss certain people that’s still in the streets, and I will not. I took a street oath, and I’mma live by that, and I’mma die by that. And it’s not about a music career, ’cause that shit, I’m good. It’s about me and being in the streets.”
Andreas Hale marked Rick Ross’s expose as “singlehandedly chang[ing] hip-hop’s motto from ‘Keep It Real’ to ‘It’s Just Entertainment.’” I disagree, because I question when the authenticity was established and subsequently diminished. And really, does any of that make their music inauthentic? I argue no, because ultimately the performance of authenticity is more impactful than the literal authenticity of the performer.