Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: G-funk
Why it’s daunting: In the ’90s, it seemed like anyone with a synthesizer, a few George Clinton albums, and some antisocial tendencies could make a beat and put out an album, but only Dr. Dre was cranking out masterpieces consistently. The Chronic created an entire industry of studio gangsters, so it can be intimidating separating a handful of essentials from a vast sea of interchangeable wannabes.
Possible gateway: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic
Why: There’s a huge gulf in quality between Dre’s fussy, intricate production and the army of sound-alike producers and acolytes who followed in his wake. The Chronic is an excellent gateway for newcomers because it’s fundamentally a pop record, with mile-wide hooks and iconic single after iconic single. With G-funk (short for gangsta funk), the funk is as important as the G; Dre’s impeccable pop sensibilities made the album’s gangsta sensibility and macho posturing palatable to the masses. It’s hard to overstate The Chronic’s cultural significance. Even if you’ve never owned it, you’ve probably heard many of its songs.
From the intro onward, all the ingredients that would transform G-funk into a major cultural movement are there: woozy, hypnotic synthesizers; instantly hummable melodies rooted in killer basslines and the blunted space-funk of Dre’s beloved Parliament-Funkadelic (most notably on the Clinton homage “Let Me Ride”); bawdy, transgressive comedy inspired by the party albums of Rudy Ray Moore; big R&B choruses; sneering, profane attitude.
The Chronic joins the insanely meticulous Bomb Squad-influenced production of Dre’s NWA work with a laconic, laid-back vibe that captured the easygoing rhythms of Los Angeles. Dre smoothed away NWA’s rough edges and gave the world a whole new breed of party music, moving away from the frenetic sampling of East Coast hip-hop and embracing live instrumentation.
Dre’s early production for NWA reflected the aggressive rhythms and propulsive pace of East Coast hip-hop and an urban realm of skyscrapers, projects, and people stacked atop one another. The Chronic, in sharp contrast, feels like a summer day in Southern California; Dre created wide-open grooves for wide-open spaces. Crime had long been a fixture of New York hip-hop, but The Chronic emphasized the gang life that helped define L.A. street culture, even if the gang in question had less to do with Crips and Bloods than with Death Row Records, which label-head Suge Knight ran like a gang. The Chronic similarly reflected the influence and ubiquity of the potent strain of marijuana that gave the album its name; it was music for, by, and about West Coast stoners. Similarly, the G-funk Dre perfected here is a potent strain of gangsta rap that’s every bit as menacing as what came before, but infinitely more layered and musical.
The Chronic celebrated the L.A. good life while keeping a sharp eye out for enemies. For Dre, those enemies were everywhere: The intro and first song, “Fuck Wit Dre Day,” are full-frontal attacks on Eazy-E and foes real and imagined, including Luther Campbell and Tim Dog. Yet the beat was so smooth that they even had their nemeses’ mommas hollering “Baby.” “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” was top-notch lifestyle porn inviting the whole world to party the G-funk way, while “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” re-contextualizes the Rodney King riots as the opening shots in a revolution against corrupt authority. The Chronic can’t sustain the brilliance of its opening third, and it unleashed a Pandora’s box of dopey (literally and figuratively) skits on an unsuspecting public, but it changed the sound and style of hip-hop and pop music.
The Chronic introduced a whole new generation of future stars: Daz, Kurupt, RBX, Nate Dogg, Warren G, The Lady Of Rage and especially a skinny teenager with a sleepy, infectious drawl named Snoop Doggy Dogg who funky-wormed his way into hip-hop’s heart with his contributions to Dre’s solo single “Deep Cover,” and turned The Chronic into his own star-making vehicle. Dre and Snoop brought out the best in each other; Snoop has never been sharper or more focused than he is on this album.
Like many pioneers, Dre quickly moved on. After parting ways with Death Row and starting a new label tellingly called Aftermath, Dre released a single called “Been There, Done That” as a way of letting the world know he’d evolved beyond the gun talk and adolescent machismo of gangsta rap. The world wasn’t having it; by the time 1999’s masterful 2001 rolled around, Dre was committed to giving fans the G-funk kicks they craved.
Next steps: 2001, naturally, and Snoop Dogg’s Dre-produced debut, Doggystyle.
Where not to start: Though he instantly became hip-hop’s preeminent icon upon his death, Tupac Shakur’s albums are wildly inconsistent affairs, marred by second-rate production, sloppy hooks, underwhelming guest appearances, and a strict adherence to formula and clichés.