How Dr. Dre’s ‘Still D.R.E.’ Ushered In A New Millennium Of Radio Rap

The young rapper-producer charges into corporate headquarters like a revolutionary soldier storming a state armory. This is Dr. Dre, stepping to the notoriously menacing Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight to liquidate their professional relationship. The setting of the duel could scarcely be more intimidating. Walls are painted Grim Reaper black; both the carpet and Suge’s suit match his gang affiliations: blood red.

Dre gives it straight. He wants to escape the empire his beats helped build. “I’m doing my own thing. Starting fresh. Nobody to answer to but myself. It’s time.” Lost income means nothing. As Dre has come to see things, “You can’t put a price on a piece of mind.”

That’s how the finale of the movie Straight Outta Compton tells it anyway. Dre served as a producer on the serviceable Hollywood depiction of the NWA story and scenes like the face-off with Suge call to mind a Chappelle Show joke on how making a movie about your own life brings too great a temptation to embellish. The very final line of Straight Outta Compton sees Suge ask Dre what the name of his new label will be. With dramatic pause, he utters the word “Aftermath.” It wasn’t subtle: the Good Doctor was exiting the bleakness of Death Row towards the light of Aftermath Entertainment and a better future. But in reality, was it all so simple?

As the 20th century began to fade, Dre’s ongoing relevance was not secure. In the three years since leaving Death Row, he had seen his label-launching compilation Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath and supergroup project The Firm’s The Album drop with a thud — two of the few obvious failures of the Comptonite’s career. Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP was a commercial success, but whether or not Aftermath’s new star could establish himself as something beyond a flash-in-the-pan gimmick was far from certain.

Needing a hit, Dre put the label on his back. In late 1999, he released “Still D.R.E.,” the lead single from his second solo album, 2001. The song immediately felt like the future. The raw, buzzing grooves of G-funk had been stripped out, replaced by pristine strings, slick drums, and that blinging piano loop. It was the ultimate in neck-snappin’ technology, visionary yet West Coast to its core, and presented with a suitably stylish Hype Williams-directed music video loaded with bouncing lowriders and hard-partying crowds shot in the filmmaker’s distinctive rich color palette. Press play 24 years later and you feel the palm trees looming over your head, the stickiest California weed enters your bloodstream, and the car you may or may not be driving automatically starts to bounce up and down from its front suspension.

“Still D.R.E.” is also the assertion of a legacy in the strongest possible terms. With his most effective cohort Snoop Dogg in the passenger’s seat to provide the hook, Dre raps about his days with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, through to signing Eminem, his most obvious recent success. It’s one of rap’s most influential figures, 34 years old, saying goodbye to his youth and accepting elder statesman status. This can be when decline sets in, the artist is aged out of relevancy, and their comfortable surroundings cease to reflect the world that inspired their ascent. But unlike Alexander The Great, shedding tears when there were no worlds left to conquer, Dre craved to repeat what he’d done twice before, with NWA and Death Row: reinvent the West.

​​It’s common knowledge that Dre has never viewed himself as primarily a rapper, and so had no qualms about eschewing normal practice by using ghostwriters. For “Still D.R.E.,” a most esteemed emissary was brought in from the East Coast to complete the magic: Jay-Z, who in classic Jigga fashion, cooked up some steady-paced verses full of quotables for Dre’s laconic baritone.

The subject matter is simple: Years go by, but fundamentals are timeless. Dre is still making beats, still smoking chronic, and still feeling the same affinity for the streets that made him. One of the architects of “F*ck Tha Police” will never have time for cops, and perfecting his craft remains the highest priority. “They say rap’s changed,” he spits. “They wanna know how I feel about it.” But Dre doesn’t need to answer the question because “Still D.R.E.” says everything he needs to.

And yet the song almost never came to be. Dre actually thought work on 2001 was complete and “The Next Episode” would be first single until Jimmy Iovine, head of Aftermath’s distributor Interscope, butted in. Iovine dug “The Next Episode,” but insisted it wasn’t a lead cut. “I will lay down on the street in front of these trucks before we let that go first,” Iovine told Dre. History is built on such hunches.

“Still D.R.E.” came together in a flash of inspiration. The piano riff was gifted to Dre by one of his protegés, Scott Storch. The former Roots keyboardist was in the Encore studio in Burbank, vibing to a kick and snare pattern Dre had cooked up, deliberately trying to play something a little bit wonky, when he caught the doctor’s perfect ear. Charging in from a nearby kitchen, Dre shouted, “That’s it!” With Storch’s motif in place, keyboard player Camara Kambon, one of the new people Dre surrounded himself with after the Death Row split, worked on filling the instrumental out. “I came in and kinda ‘laced it,’ is what we would say,” Kambon tells me. “Adding what we would refer to as the ‘ear candy,’ some of the sweeping things, and panning things, or things that add the color that really give the track some presence.” By the end of the day, what they had had been sent to Jay-Z.

This ability to sense the pillar of a classic record before the music disappeared into the ether is part of Dre’s genius. “I was always amazed at how he could pull simple elements together and, bam, a hit,” Brian Gardner, the long-time Dre collaborator who mastered 2001, tells me in an email.

​​A fortnight after “Still D.R.E.” was released as a single, the maestro unleashed the full-length. The promo had not been a red herring. 2001 redefined West Coast rap. Dre’s pocket symphonies were a spotless mix of catchy key riffs, prominent strings and horns, smooth basslines, and a palpable sense of space. The album opens with the audio swell that accompanies the THX logo before movies in cinemas with the deluxe sound systems, asserting the album’s hi-end fidelity (Dre was reportedly sued by Lucasfilm for using the sound). What follows is one of the greatest party records of all time; despite Iovine’s notions, every song sounds like a single. Still not minded to spend too much time on the mic, Dre fills the soirée with talented friends. Established masters such as Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and King T share space with rising artists Xzibit, Knoc-turn’al, and recent Aftermath signee Hittman, who is omnipresent on the album.

2001 has a programmed, electronic quality — the beats feel immaculate and symmetrical. But Dre, as he had on first album The Chronic, deployed live musicians to ratchet up his sound. Tom Gordon worked as an assistant engineer on the album in Sierra Sonics Recording Mansion, Reno, Nevada, one of the studio’s Dre operated from during the period. He remembers guitar, keyboard, and bass players would jam, with Dre orchestrating the musicians like a ballet master. Dre’s team, meanwhile, had multiple outputs of the MPC drum machine going through their console with the live instruments. Once Dre found a groove he liked, six and a half minutes of the music were recorded to two-inch analog tape, which would later be used to create the beats.

“The fact that he could see the big picture on how these pieces could fit and make a cohesive jam was inspiring to watch,” remembers Gordon.

“He’s so precise about everything,” says bass player Preston Crump of how Dre would direct the sessions. “It wasn’t, like, super organic, you know what I mean? It’s more like [Dre would say], ‘We’re going to build this like this with these plans, and I’m going to do my magic on it.” Still, Crump found himself tripping off the sonics. “I was in awe listening to what he had and when he played how the kick drum was jumping out of the speakers. So much so that he blew a couple of sets of NS10.”

Storch’s piano on “Still D.R.E.” had a classical musical bent, evident when you see the various videos out there of classical pianists adopting it. Similarly, songs such as “Forgot About Dre” and “What’s The Difference” featured more orchestral elements than was typical of the G-funk era. In the case of “Forgot About Dre,” it was Kambon, very comfortable in this sphere from his work as an arranger and film composer, who created the strings section on his keyboard. From there, Eminem wrote lyrics intended for Dre and Snoop, but Dre liked Em’s reference track so much he opted to keep it.

“The introduction of the strings, the introduction of orchestral elements, was a very different thing from what Dre had done before,” says Kambon. “If you listen to ‘Forgot About Dre,’ for instance, the driving force of that, and what we did with Mary [J. Blige] and [her Dre-produced 2001 single] ‘Family Affair,’ what we did was this very kind of trance-induced,” he mimics the music of Mary J’s hit down the phone line, “that was consistent through a lot of the records that we did at that time. That’s classical music — that’s what that was.”

Dre’s search for samples was also tireless. Every time he came to Reno, he arrived with two crates of 200 albums and a crew to scour them for loops. Sometimes the chosen samples would be recreated or reinforced by drum machines and live instruments. “They would create this foundation with the samples inside the MPC drum machine, and play with the different elements,” explains Gordon, who confirms Dre’s reputation of being a studio perfectionist. “He would sit there as stuff was coming out of the MPC before going to tape and EQ it, noise gate it, and try to get as good a tone to tape so he didn’t have to fix it later. It was a very smart approach.”

Gordon also noted that Dre was a stickler for double track vocals being right on the money (this was pre-ProTools, so they had to be done organically), and refused to go along with a popular approach by compressing his elements to get his sound louder. “If you listen to the sonic response of that whole record, including ‘Still D.R.E.,’ there’s still a lot of clarity on the snares and the hats and the kicks that still hit you in the chest some compared to some later stuff that is louder,” says Gordon. “The fact they were keeping the levels down a touch and not following the Joneses to be the loudest record out there was admirable, and I think was a real testament to why the sonic quality of that record stood up.”

Gordon’s biggest contribution to 2001 came by accident. The 6-foot 8-inch behemoth — whose shock of dark curly hair inspired Dre and his people to give him the nickname ‘Stern,’ as in Howard — was actually a superfan of the John Carpenter movie Halloween, so much so that he owned a full Michael Myers costume. During one session, he quietly donned the ensemble and proceeded to terrorize the crew. Collaborator Mike Elizondo even threw his bass off in panic and tried to run away. In the wake of the pandemonium, a dozen or so people convened around Dre and his co-producer Mel-Man. Soon after, they’d concocted a beat using Carpenter’s famous piano music from Halloween, which would become the song “Murder Ink.” Gordon’s obsession would not fade: He later auditioned to play Myers in Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween reboot.

Crump suggests that Dre decamped to Reno to escape the drama in Los Angeles. He had originally wanted to title his album Chronic 2000, until Death Row opted to beat him to it by calling a compilation Suge Knight Represents: Chronic 2000 (Still Smokin’) suggested lingering bad will. Chronic 2000 became Chronic 2001, until Dre decided to abandon the reference to his first album entirely, so as not to get dragged into a copyright dispute.

2001 hit No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and has since moved twice as many units as The Chronic. There would be no more incertitude: As the new millennium dawned, Dre could still forge L.A. classics as easily as he once sold tapes out of a trunk. As a teenager, I spun my 2001 CD until it practically dissolved into dust. It was alluring to hear Dre and his crew slip into exaggerated hard-partying characters surrounded by friends, blunts, and women. As time has passed, I’ve come to realize that its misogyny was a corrosive thing to be exposed to. But Dre also maintained “Still D.R.E.”’s themes of looking back over his career with well-earned satisfaction and asserting his position at the top of hip-hop.

“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,” Dre told The New York Times in 1999. “That was the ultimate motivation for me. 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? O.K., here’s the album — now what do you have to say?’”

2001 never received the kind of critical praise of, say, The Chronic or Snoop’s Doggystyle. Regardless, it is one of the most influential rap albums of all time. It ushered Dre into a new creative phase as he drew on the same ultra-high-end form of beatmaking when producing tunes that crushed early 2000s MTV via envoys Eve, Bilal, 50 Cent, The Game, and plenty of others. Dre’s new penchant for elements of classical music can be heard on Xzibit’s song “X.” “What’s the Difference” would become repurposed into Blu Cantrell and Sean Paul’s smash hit “Breathe,” while Erykah Badu flipped the laid back grooves of “Xxplosive” into a version of her single “Bag Lady.” In the era of super-producers like Timbaland, The Neptunes, and Kanye West, Dre was right there, forging the kind of beats you could launch a fashionable headphone brand on, which, of course, he did, with Beats by Dre. 2001 wrote a playbook that beat-making disciples like Eminem, Storch, and Nottz have extensively studied. When the spotless snap ‘n’ pop of DJ Mustard’s ratchet music emerged in the 2010s, reinventing the West once more, it was easy to trace its origins back to 2001.

Dre never needed a solo hit again. His inability to finish hi next album Detox became notorious, until he finally scrapped the record for swansong Compton in 2015. But if the legend struggled to find the same inspiration and motivation, maybe it’s because 2001 and songs like “Still D.R.E.” left no lingering uncertainties. They were large enough to secure a legacy, still and forever.