The Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club: Rollin' With Dre
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Reading has taken on a lot of unfair, unfortunate associations through the years. Through no fault of its own, reading has become associated with intelligence, knowledge, book-learning, libraries, colleges, librarians, and education. I'm here to tell you, that's all a bunch of horseshit. To me, reading isn't a pathway to self-actualization, or a magic ticket to a land of wonder and imagination. On the contrary, it's nothing more than a way to waste time in the least productive manner imaginable. When I want to turn off my brain, I pick up a quickie celebrity biography or half-assed show-biz memoir instead of watching television.
That's why I am officially starting a new monthly feature, The Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club. It's a forum to discuss the junk food of the literary universe: stupid, superficial pop ephemera destined not to outlast its fleeting cultural moment. When Axl Rose's maid writes a lurid tell-all, I'll be there. Wherever a half-assed boy-band has-been feels the need to sing out about his life in the pages of a ghostwritten memoir, I'll be there. I will read all these terrible books so you don't have to. It's my latest attempt to transform the stupid, pointless shit I do in my free time into the stupid, pointless shit I am obligated do for my job.
When I was a boy, my father used to discourage me from reading. "Why don't you go play outside and do something constructive with your time, instead of passively sticking your head in a newspaper?" he groused repeatedly. Well, who's laughing now? I'm totally writing about "books," using my brain-bone for a living, while he's begging for change on the street corner. Screw you, old man!
The first entry in The Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club belongs to a strange subgenre of memoirs by people who totally hung out with famous, iconic figures people genuinely care about. These books traffic in sordid gossip, sleazy anecdotes, and the second- or third-hand voyeuristic thrill of riding shotgun with the guy who rode shotgun with a towering superstar. It's a brief, insanely padded 164-page account of Bruce Williams' long stint as Dr. Dre's chief lieutenant and sidekick, and it's called Rollin' With Dre: The Unauthorized Account—An Insider's Tale Of The Rise, Fall And Rebirth Of West Coast Hip-Hop. It was ghost-written by Donnell Alexander, whose memoirs have attracted a cult following, especially Ghetto Celebrity. Has anyone read Alexander's work? Williams and Alexander adopt a rambling, casual prose style that suggests a meandering afternoon trading gossip and war stories at a neighborhood barbershop. Let others wax poetic about Dr. Dre's interior struggles—Williams and Alexander think it's enough to merely acknowledge that Dre is "a sensitive artist and shit." And shit indeed.
Williams effortlessly segued from a military career to a seemingly sweet but largely thankless gig as Dre's full-time professional flunky. Starting pay? Three hundred dollars a week, with no benefits. Ah, the insane decadence of the rap life. Fans hoping for a dishy, gossipy inside account of Dre's life will be disappointed. I've now read three books about Dr. Dre (this, Ronin Ro's briskly readable Death Row biography Have Gun Will Travel, and Jerry Heller's self-serving memoir) without learning anything about Dre except that he's a talented, quiet, internal guy who used to party extensively but now prefers a quiet, stable family life. As a human being, Dre is either an intriguing enigma or surprisingly boring.
Time and again, Williams brings up some storied piece of Death Row lore before sheepishly conceding "I wasn't there, but what I heard happened was " Gosh, I wasn't there either, and consequently didn't write a fucking book about some shit I, and every other rap fan in the universe, heard went down between Suge Knight and Dr. Dre.
We're consequently treated to thumbnail sketches of prominent figures in Dre's life and career that are fuzzy, yet maddeningly familiar. That Eminem sure did have a lot of talent and fire early in his career, but he sure seems to have fallen into a funk! It sure is unfortunate what happened to D.O.C.! Boy, NWA sure was important! Snoop Dogg sure is one charismatic marijuana enthusiast! Isn't it crazy what went down with 50 and The Game?
Beneath the hagiographic depiction of Dr. Dre as a visionary genius, a good friend, and a consummate perfectionist lie vast oceans of bitterness. This is a fixture of the hangers-on memoir, the man-behind-the-man's perennial irritation that he's coldly denied his rightful chance to shine. Williams grouses throughout that Dre never used his clout and connections to help his loyal, long-suffering sidekick get his own projects off the ground. Gosh, maybe Williams would have been better off pursuing his own dreams instead of patiently waiting for Dr. Dre to magically transform into his very own professional genie? It doesn't help that Williams comes off as a professional dilettante. He flirts with making music either as a singer or producer, then gives up. He tries his hand at acting, but that goes nowhere. He runs a club for a while, then gives that up when it grows too demanding. Gee, why wouldn't Dre want to get into business with a guy like that? Where would Dr. Dre be without good old Bruce Williams at his side, as the author has the chutzpah to inquire at one point? I'm guessing he'd be an enormously rich, influential, powerful mogul/icon with a different head flunky.
Williams worked for Dre long enough to realize that when the good Doctor called him into his office, he was a lot less likely to ask "What can I do to make your wildest dreams come true, beloved protégé and platonic soulmate?" than "Hey, when are you going to pick up my dry cleaning? Little Suzy Jo's confirmation dress isn't going to hitchhike to my mansion by itself." But late in the book, Williams and Dre have a conversation where Williams complains, "Yo Dog, why I gotta do all this stuff [running errands for Dre's wife]?" Dre accuses Williams of being an ingrate. As an example of Williams' supposed ingratitude, Dre plaintively tells Williams, "You don't send nobody no thank you cards or nothin'."
How perfect is that? The godfather of gangsta rap, the man who unleashed the strength of street knowledge on white America, is whining about not receiving thank-you cards in a timely fashion. I wish the book were a hundred pages longer so Dre could continue, "Plus, you never be responding to Evite invitations in a timely fashion. You always be sending your 'no' an hour before the party starts! That's straight-up disrespectful. And would it kill you to accept my invitation to play Scrabulous once in a while? That online word game is fun as shit!"
Rolling With Dre somehow gets both more and less interesting once Dr. Dre leaves the madness and chaos of Death Row for the boring stability of Aftermath, and trades in his playboy ways for a wife and a cozy family life. Not surprisingly, many of Williams' problems with his longtime employer stem from his icy relationship with Dre's wife, whom Williams depicts as bossy and condescending. Williams clearly feels Dre violated the G-code by putting hos above bros.
In one of my favorite parts of the book, Williams writes about how Dre's inner circle replaced a feverish sense of sexual competition with a longstanding debate over who made the best turkey tacos. Seriously, does anything better symbolize the boredom and apathy of middle-age suburban life than trading in threesomes with groupies for aprons, chef hats, and bragging rights as the baddest cook in Dre's posse? In one of the book's few revelations, Williams argues that part of the reason Dre's third solo album has turned into the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop is because Dre's life as a stable suburban husband and father is far too dull to make for compelling lyrical fodder. What's Dre going to rap about now? Beefing with other members of the PTA? The death tax fucking with a brotha's money? The pressure of having to satisfy Interscope's stockholders? Being torn between Hillary and Obama? The neighbor's sub-par lawn maintenance and septic-tank abuse?
Depending on the passage and the chapter, Williams depicts himself as either a top Aftermath executive with green-lighting privileges, or Dre's glorified flunky. It's unclear whether Williams is a practical, business-minded Damon Dash to Dre's artistic Jay-Z, or the guy who picks up Dre's kids from daycare. Books like this require a satisfying character arc, a sense that the book's events have engendered profound spiritual and emotional growth. Well, after nearly a decade and a half of serving as Dre's right-hand man, baby bird Williams finally musters up the courage to venture out of the nest and accomplish his lifelong goal of co-owning a sports bar. And not just any sports bar, mind you. No, a sports bar with holograms of famous athletes. That shit is classy. Dre must feel jealous. He may have changed music forever, but Williams is so totally going to sell overpriced drinks to yuppies within spitting distance of a Dan Marino hologram. It's a fittingly rinky-dink happy ending for a figure destined to be a mere footnote in gangsta rap's bloody, dramatic history. Someday, the full, uncensored story of Death Row and Dr. Dre will be told, but it sure won't be by Williams or Alexander.
Anywho, thanks for reading the very first entry The Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club. Please do feel free to suggest other books to cover in the series. Oh, and Monsieurs Williams and Alexander, I know this wasn't the most glowing or favorable review of your book, but I'm expecting thank-you cards from both of you ASAP all the same. Don't let me down. And if you want to include some prize-winning turkey taco recipes with those cards, I certainly won't object.
Future Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club Titles:
April: Driving Under The Affluence, Julia Philips
May: Confessions Of A Video Vixen, Karrine Steffans
June: What Just Happened?, Art Linson