The auteur of one of the 1990s’ most influential hip-hop albums, Dr. Dre (Andre Young) started out in the early ’80s as a house-party/club DJ in South Central Los Angeles. He first attracted national attention as a rapper and producer in N.W.A, the group that introduced West Coast hardcore rap to America’s mass market. Most listeners got their first taste of gangsta rap’s profound nihilism on 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, which contains “(Fuck) tha Police,” N.W.A’s most prescient and inflammatory moment: a tale of police brutality and civilian revolt that prefigured Rodney King, the city’s riots and the nation’s sudden awareness of the LAPD’s racist habits.
In N.W.A, DJ Yella laid the foundation of punch-drunk backbeats and nearly forgotten funk samples; Ice Cube, MC Ren and the late Eazy-E looked at the streets around them and called it as they saw it. Dre provided the war-zone background noise-dicing and splicing sirens, gunshots and sinister keyboard creeps to intensify the tracks’ grim realities.
N.W.A disbanded in 1990, freeing Dre to a bigger field of endeavor, retreating behind the lines to first expand on his career as a producer, working with such posse members as chanteuse Michel’le and rapper The D.O.C., as well as joining forces with ex-UNLV football star Marion “Suge” Knight to start up Death Row Records. Dre reemerged as an artist in 1991 on “Deep Cover,” rapping with his young protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg on the movie soundtrack single. The song’s languid edginess, driven by a compulsive piano loop and Snoop’s nasal bite of police slang, offered a preview of the album that would follow a year later.
If N.W.A took gangsta rap off the streets and put it into the hands of record buyers, The Chronic took it to the next level — onto MTV and mainstream radio. Dre named his sound “G-funk,” paying homage to George Clinton’s P-Funk, which The Chronic liberally sampled. Sneakily menacing synth and loping rhythms snake under alternately sing-songy and hardcore raps — delivered by Dre, Snoop, The D.O.C. and a large crew of extras — in supremely insidious grooves. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” “– Wit Dre Day” and “Let Me Ride,” are as danceable as they are complexly crafted, but all of Dre’s production wizardry can’t mask the nasty misogyny that is essential to his mythos. Dre lays it all bare on The Chronic‘s unlisted finale, “Bitches Ain’t Shit but Hoes and Tricks.” (His no-contest plea to a 1991 charge of beating Pump It Up hostess Dee Barnes gave the lie to Dre’s insistence that his gangsta persona is nothing but a pose created to sell his art.)
The Chronic‘s success exposed Dre to more than just scrutiny of his public misconduct; it also caused an exhumation of certain past accomplishments he would probably rather forget. Concrete Roots compiles some of his ’80s work. With the exception of Michel’le’s smooth kiss-off “No More Lies,” the mostly sub-B-side cuts are a weak mix of filler and watered-down, post-disco rap from Dre and Yella’s pre-N.W.A outfit, the oft-ridiculed and ridiculously attired World Class Wreckin’ Cru’. Keep your money: there’s good reason Dre didn’t want you to know about this stuff.