Career Killers — Mass Murderers Edition: How Dr. Dre Killed a Bunch of Careers

Yo Dre, stick to producing.”

Ice Cube wasn’t alone in his assessment of his former N.W.A. bandmate’s skills (or lack thereof) as a rapper. Always more comfortable as a producer, few saw much of a future for Dr. Dre as an M.C. when he went solo in 1991. Indeed, with his new record label, Death Row Records, which he co-founded with former NFL lineman and bodyguard Suge Knight, Dre’s talents would probably best be utilized behind the scenes, doing what he did best: producing killer songs and albums for other rappers.

Arguably, he wasn’t even the most well-known Dre that had a doctorate in the hip hop world. I’m sure most people were wondering why the co-host of Yo! MTV Raps was dumping Ed Lover and going solo — I know I certainly was.

So, of course, Dr. Dre rolled up his sleeves, went to work and released a solo album in 1992 that became one of the greatest and most influential of all time. It’s been said by many that while The Chronic did not invent gangsta rap, it certainly popularized it and made it mainstream. It made Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (then “Snoop Doggy Dogg”) into household names and blazed a trail for many, many other rappers to follow.

In fact, The Chronic’s success was so profound and complete that if rappers wanted to have any success in the period immediately following its release, they pretty much had to follow Dre’s G-Funk template: slow-to-medium tempo, laid-back vocals, a sing-song chorus, heavy synthesizers and funky Parliament-inspired samples.

That’s not to say that any rapper who didn’t follow the blueprint suddenly found themselves with tons of free time on their hands. The Beastie Boys continued churning out multi-platinum albums throughout the 90s while the Fugees released one of the most successful and acclaimed rap albums of the decade. The East Coast rap scene also thrived, which set up the bi-coastal feud that ended up having tragic consequences.

But for the rap acts listed below, they found out, the hard way, that it wasn’t just Dre Day. It was the Dre Era.

“I’m in a murderous mind state with a heart full of terror/ I see the devil in the mirror,” — “Natural Born Killaz,” Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.

Fusion Groups/Alternative Rap

In the late 80s/early 90s there were a number of groups that combined hip hop with other genres of music.

There was the peaceful psychedelic R&B stylings of P.M. Dawn, which resulted in a #1 hit in 1991 (“Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”) and two other monster singles the following year (“I’d Die Without You” and “Looking Through Patient Eyes”).

There were the jazz infused melodies of groups like Us3 and Digable Planets. The former hit the Billboard Top Ten with “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” in 1992 while the latter peaked at #15 that same year with “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” Other well-known jazz-influenced groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest didn’t have as much success on the singles charts, but sold tons of albums, were highly respected and had strong fanbases.

But perhaps the biggest of these groups was Arrested Development. Boasting a gospel influenced sound and a positive, Afrocentric message, the group looked like a commune sprung to life. They distinguished themselves even more with their songs, which dealt with topics like spirituality, homelessness, social change and equality.

Their approach yielded immediate commercial dividends, as the band’s first three singles (“Tennessee,” “People Everyday” and “Mr.Wendal“) reached the Billboard Top Ten while its 1992 debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… went quadruple platinum.

In addition to their chart success, Arrested Development became critics’ darlings as their album got near-universal acclaim. They won “Best New Artist” at the 1993 Grammys and their album topped the Village Voice’s influential year-end list — beating the likes of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Madonna’s Erotica, and fellow rappers The Beastie Boys and Ice Cube. Some critics even cited their eclectic and genre-blending style as the future of hip hop.

What also made them stand out was that they were highly critical of gangsta rap and the violence and misogyny that were often central to its lyrical content. For instance, in “People Everyday,” band frontman Speech raps about how he “ain’t Ice Cube” and takes a bunch of ignorant guys to task for “buggin’ out, drinking the 40 oz, going the n—- route” and then “Disrespecting my black queen/ Holding their crotches and being obscene.”

The band doubled down on their approach with their 1994 album Zingalamaduni. With songs about housing, drugs, abortion and Black pride, Arrested Development consciously set themselves up as the main alternatives to gangsta rap. The New York Times even wrote a story called “Can Good Guys Challenge Gangster Rap?” that primarily centered around them.

Of course, good intentions don’t always translate. When it came to Arrested Development, frontman Speech may have had positive messages but he often came across as preachy if not outright condescending. It worked fine on their first album, but by the time of their follow up, a lot had changed. Many rap fans were, no doubt, tired of being preached to.

So when The Chronic caught fire, Arrested Development were an obvious casualty — especially after setting themselves up as gangsta rap’s antithesis. Zingalamaduni failed to even go gold and the band broke up in 1996. They reunited in 2000, although Speech has been the only constant member of the band.

Indeed, most of these alternative rap/fusion bands found themselves obsolete once Dre’s fusion of gangsta rap and funk became the standard in hip hop. Some, like Digable Planets, broke up, while the others toiled on until they became nostalgia acts.

“Let me ride, just another homicide” — “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’),” Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg

Public Enemy

At first glance, Public Enemy should have had no problem surviving the Dr. Dre Era.

For one thing, Public Enemy were a major influence on gangsta rappers. The band’s aggressive tone and anti-police, anti-establishment and anti-government lyrics provided a template for lots of artists to follow if they wished to express their anger and frustration with the status quo.

In fact, Public Enemy were so controversial and provocative that they made a lot of gangsta rappers look like Raffi.

After all, they thought nothing of saying things like “Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you oughta listen to” and “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant s—t to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Motherf*ck him and John Wayne.” Or filming a video where they show politicians in Arizona getting assassinated as revenge for cancelling MLK Day as a state holiday. Or having a bunch of paramilitary-style backup dancers who, no doubt, scared the crap out of lots of people.

Compared to that, Dre and Eazy E making diss tracks about each other or 2Pac talking about sleeping with Biggie’s wife seem like child’s play.

Instead, Public Enemy found themselves to be out of step with the post-Chronic landscape.

Maybe, with so many other provocative and controversial rappers out there, Public Enemy no longer stood out. Or maybe controversy was starting to catch up with the band — there were the various accusations of antisemitism that dogged Chuck D for most his career and resulted in Professor Griff’s termination; a serious motorcycle accident that eventually retired DJ Terminator X; and Flavor Flav becoming a reality show star/joke, to name a few.

Or maybe the post-Chronic music scene just didn’t have room for a political act like Public Enemy. Much like with Arrested Development, it’s possible that people wanted to hear about the realities of living under the constant threat of urban decay, gang violence and police involvement without reflecting on the causes or potential solutions to those problems. As author Cheo Hodari put it, “Public Enemy sent you to the bookstore just as easily as they sent you to the dance floor.” They may have made people uncomfortable but they also made them think. Maybe listeners didn’t want that anymore, or they just wanted the catharsis without the reflection or introspection?

As with Arrested Development, Public Enemy made clear what they thought of gangsta rap. On “Give It Up,” the lead single from their 1994 album, Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, Chuck D makes several derogatory references to gangsta rap while the music video lampoons its many tropes and clichés. At one point in the video, Public Enemy use a space laser to change guns into books — an appropriate metaphor given the band’s longtime reputation but one that came across as heavy-handed and cringeworthy, especially in light of where rap was at that moment.

And just like Arrested Development, Public Enemy paid the price. Muse Sick ended their steak of three consecutive RIAA-certified platinum albums (“Give It Up” became their highest charting single, though). A string of lineup changes and hiatuses kept them from maintaining their momentum whenever they did have some success, like with 1998’s theme from He Got Game. Today, they’re more of a legacy act — albeit one that will always be relevant thanks to the themes and content of their songs, which, let’s just say, have aged pretty well.

“Killing motherf—–s if I have to, peeling caps too” — “Deep Cover,” Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

M.C. Hammer

You could make the argument that, at one point in the early 90s, M.C. Hammer was the biggest music star in the world. “U Can’t Touch This” wasn’t just a hit, but an era-defining song that has become so ubiquitous almost everyone knows it or knows of it. It also catapulted Hammer into pitch-man, Saturday morning cartoon, and fashion icon. Basically, if you had a product you wanted endorsed, Hammer would do it — as long as the check cleared.

And, to be fair, it wasn’t like he was just some flash in the pan or a one-hit wonder. “Have You Seen Her” hit #4 and “Pray” peaked at #2 on the Billboard 100 — both outdoing “U Can’t Touch This” (#8). The following year, “2 Legit 2 Quit” and “Addams Groove” both hit the Top Ten giving him five in his career (one more than 2Pac). Meanwhile, his two albums during this golden era did big business, as Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Them (1990) went Diamond and hit #1 on the Billboard 200 while Too Legit To Quit (1991) went triple platinum and went to #2.

However, Hammer’s fortunes quickly changed — and not just because he was spending the equivalent of the gross domestic product of a small nation. Once the Dre Era was in full swing, Hammer’s brand of family-friendly rapping coupled with high energy dancing and expensive, Michael Jackson-style music videos suddenly became passé.

So Hammer decided that if he couldn’t beat them, he’d join them. First, he dipped his toe in the water by adding a harder edge to his sound, releasing The Funky Headhunter in 1994. That album wasn’t just unsuccessful but it made Hammer look like a phony and poser (ironically, he was a lot more gangsta than any of us thought at the time).

Since dabbing his toe in the water didn’t work, Hammer decided to dive into the deep end. In 1995, Mr. “We’ve Got to Pray Just to Make It Today” signed with Death Row and became label mates with Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. None of his songs were ever officially released, although bootlegs have leaked out over the years. His stuff wasn’t bad, but it sounds weird — like Hammer rapping at half speed to second-rate G-funk beats while 2Pac and others rap circles around him.

Like many of his label mates, Hammer left Death Row after 2Pac died and Suge Knight went to prison. He went back to his classic sound and released a few little-noticed albums. His last album of original material came in 2009 — since then, he’s embraced his role as a legacy act, doing various nostalgia package tours. Just don’t expect to hear any of his Death Row stuff during those shows.

“We did the numbers, and you looking like another statistic” — “Genocide,” — Dr. Dre

New Jack Swing

In the late 80s/early 90s, New Jack Swing meant money.

Originating with R&B trio Guy, New Jack Swing was a product of combining R&B, pop, dance music and hip hop.

The beauty of New Jack Swing was that it could easily integrate into a pop sound, allowing established stars like Michael and Janet Jackson, NKOTB, Paula Abdul, Kylie Minogue, Whitney Houston and others to give themselves a harder edge without compromising their overall style. It also allowed newer artists a chance to play to a wide audience of pop, hip hop, R&B and dance fans.

As such, many wanted in. Teddy Riley would become the dominant figure in New Jack Swing, as the Guy member would use his group’s blueprint to produce many hit singles and albums for the likes of Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, NKOTB, Patti LaBelle, Blackstreet, Hi-Five, Wreckx-n-Effect, Keith Sweat and many others.

Riley was hardly alone, though. The likes of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Babyface, L.A. Reid, The Bomb Squad and others produced New Jack Swing hits for many different artists. Some, like En Vogue, TLC, Bell Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men ended up having some staying power while others, like Color Me Badd, SWV, Jade, Montell Jordan, Another Bad Creation, After 7, and Tony! Toni! Toné! (but not Tony! Toni! Toné! TonEe?) ended up fading away after the Dre Era started.

So what happened? Well, Occam’s Razor holds that the most obvious answer is usually correct. Simply put, New Jack Swing is fun. It makes you want to dance and have a good time. “Hip-hop was getting a little bit darker,” producer Bosko Kante said in “The Oral History of New Jack Swing.” “Dr. Dre really started to take over; that was another sound that was more cool to be. The New Jack Swing sound was happy. It wasn’t cool to be just happy.”

Because of that feel good factor, when New Jack Swing acts tried to pivot to a harder, more gangsta-rap oriented style, it rang hollow. Look no further than Bell Biv Devoe. The New Edition spinoff saw instant success as their first two singles (“Poison” and “Do Me!“) hit #3 on the Billboard 100 in 1990.

Three years later, things had changed considerably and BBD decided to try and change with the times. With the subtlety of a howitzer, the band released the imaginatively titled “Gangsta” in 1993.

Despite that title, “Gangsta” was not written in response to the rise of gangsta rap or G-funk. The song dates back, at least, to 1991, when BBD guest starred on an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

For whatever reason, it sat on the shelf for another two years, during which time the music scene had changed a lot. As such, when it did come out, it was easy to see it as pandering — or a desperate attempt to keep their fans from jumping ship to the USS Chronic.

For one thing, it definitely has a harder edge than BBD’s previous songs. There’s a more overt hip hop beat and the video looks a lot like the ones Puffy would popularize in a few years’ time. But it’s still an upbeat dance tune that was out of step with what was popular at the time.

Plus, the song, which is about a dangerous woman, is something they had done before and better. With lyrics like: “It’s obvious to see/ She’s dressing better than me/ Driving a Benz and making money/ Don’t even have the time to call me honey,” “She carries a gun/ Just for fun” and “And if she catches you with another lover/ You’re a dead mutha…” this song violates one of the cardinal rules of gangsta rap, which is that men are the ones with the power. I’m sure a lot of rappers had their own opinions about this song.

Fans did too. While the song just missed the Billboard Top 20, it presaged trouble for BBD. The trio’s uninspired 1993 album, Hootie Mack, went gold but that was an eight-fold decline from its predecessor. One critic even wondered if anyone outside of BBD’s accountants were anxiously awaiting this Hootie Mack‘s release. Others wondered if BBD’s hearts were still in it, what with Biv seemingly devoting more time to his record label and a New Edition reunion on the horizon.

Indeed, Ricky, Bobby, Ronnie, Mike, Ralph and Johnny had all leaned hard into New Jack Swing, so when it went out of style, they were left without much choice but to reunite. New Edition recorded a 1996 album that managed to hit #1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum. However, a turbulent and disastrous tour nearly ended New Edition for good and caused its members to splinter apart once again.

Like many of the artists in this piece, though, they persevered and eventually found their niche as a nostalgia act. Oftentimes, you’ll see New Edition or its various offshoots taking part in New Jack Swing or 90s R&B package tours — where, presumably, it’s still okay to have fun and be happy.

“Rat-tat-tat-tat late at night with my gat” — “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” Dr. Dre

Pop House/Eurodance Bands

New Jack Swing may have been dominated by producers, but that’s nothing compared to the trend of pop house/Eurodance bands in the early 90s.

Groups like Black Box, Snap!, Technotronic, 2 Unlimited and most notably, C+C Music Factory were primarily producer driven vehicles that often featured a revolving door of vocalists and rappers. Sometimes, they even included cover models or beautiful lip-syncers who didn’t actually perform on the records but were there to give the band a more marketable image. Or they took vocals from a legendary singer like Martha Wash and used them without giving proper credit.

There were some bands that were created organically by the performers, like The KLF (which has a very convoluted history).

But otherwise, these bands were very formulaic — and that extended to their songs. A big, bombastic hook, uptempo dance beats, a repetitive chorus (usually sung by a woman with a large vocal range, like Martha Wash) and usually, a hip-hop or spoken word section (oftentimes from a rapper with a deep, baritone or bass voice like Freedom Williams), either for the verses or bridge. Not all groups followed this formula. For instance, Technotronic often had Ya Kid Kay rapping the verses and singing the chorus (when they weren’t using a model to lip sync her parts, like in the video for “Pump Up the Jam“).

For the ones that followed the blueprint, they were often rewarded with hit singles and record — until Dre came along. For instance, Black Box and Snap! had two Top Ten hits, The KLF and La Bouche had one Top Ten and one Top 20, and Technotronic had three Top Tens.

Then there was C+C Music Factory. Founded by producers by David Cole and Robert Clivillés, the band embodied many of the tropes listed above. They used Martha Wash vocals and didn’t give her credit until she sued. They used a baritoned rapper who had a smooth flow and could dance like M.C. Hammer. Their songs had big, sexy hooks sung by Wash, Zelma Davis and other female vocalists.

And their songs were not just fun but successful. Their debut single “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” hit #1 and became one of the defining songs of the 1990s. Their next two singles, “Here We Go (Let’s Rock & Roll)” and “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…”, cracked the Billboard Top 5. Those monster singles propelled their 1990 debut album, Gonna Make You Sweat, to #2 on the Billboard 200 en route to a 5x platinum certification from the RIAA.

And then, that was pretty much it. The band lived up to the “Factory” part of its name, swapping in rappers and singers as if they were interchangeable parts. That had always been the intention — using new voices, keeping things fresh and giving chances to young up-and-coming rappers and singers.

Indeed, many house acts did similar things where they swapped out the rappers and singers who were on their hit records for lesser known (and, presumably, cheaper) talent.

It may have made business sense, but it made them all look inauthentic. Music fans wanted authenticity at that point, as evidenced by their embrace of grunge and gangsta rap, which seemed more real and reflective of everyday life than other genres.

Additionally music fans don’t just fall in love with songs or albums. They also embrace the people who make it. Would Snoop Dogg still have become a big star if Dre had swapped him out after “Deep Cover” and used Nate Dogg or Warren G on “G Thang” instead? Would fans still have loved Nirvana if they had replaced Kurt Cobain after Nevermind? Maybe, maybe not. But Dre and Nirvana knew better than to try and find out.

Not the house bands. For C+C Music Factory fans, many of them, no doubt, thought that Williams was the star and didn’t appreciate or care that he was on a contract. Seeing him and Davis no longer involved after the first album must have been disorienting and maybe even demoralizing. It’s certainly a strange way to try and build a fan base. Sure, Clivillés and Cole may have been the owners but I doubt most fans were buying the records and seeing their concerts mainly because they wanted to learn about production.

After Williams exited and the Dre Era got underway, their fortunes declined considerably. Their 1992 single “Keep It Comin’ (Dance Till You Can’t Dance No More),” which featured Q-Unique as rapper and Deborah Cooper as vocalist, barely cracked the Top 100. Two years later, they used rap group Trilogy and brought back Wash and Davis and had a minor hit with “Do You Wanna Get Funky?”

But that was pretty much the last gasp for the band. Cole died in 1995 and the band released one last album with Vic Black rapping and a female group called A.S.K. M.E. on vocals. Then, Clivillés retired the C+C Music Factory name.

Or so he thought. Apparently, he and Cole never bothered to register the trademark for the band name, something Williams realized when he hit the nostalgia circuit. Williams filed for the trademark and now tours under the name “C+C Music Factory,” something Clivillés called “the biggest insult in the world.”

Like many of the acts in this post, C+C Music Factory (Freedom’s version) does a lot of 90s package tours these days. Maybe they should do a festival featuring a mega lineup of all the artists listed above and call “Dre Killed Us Palooza,” “Glastonburied By Dre” or “The Doctor Was In So We Were Out” Festival.”

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