Saturday, January 23, 2010
Dr. Dre Discusses Headphones & The Delayed 'Detox' With The Guardian UK
With a reputation that precedes him, it's a daunting experience awaiting Dr Dre. Over six feet tall, with shoulders wider than Joan's during Dynasty's heyday, it's not only his physical presence that's commanding. Boasting a back catalogue of some of the best rap records ever created, the man's a hero, a myth, and a legend.
Today, Dre is found in a carpeted and cavernous Best Buy in New York's Union Square, where he's holding a press conference not to promote his long-awaited album, Detox, but for his electronic consumer brand, Beats By Dre. It's an incongruous location to find a multi-millionaire genius; a bit like going to see Robert De Niro promote Freeview in Argos. Yet, judging by the queues and the trilling sound of the tills, it's been an effective event for a brand which includes headphones, laptops, speakers and DJ software. Surrounded by fans, label reps and assorted Beats staff, it's a relief when he muscles through the melee with a warm grin and a firm shake of the hand.
"Aftanoooon," he smiles, attempting an affable British accent of the Dick Van Dyke variety. "'Ow are ya?"
Andre "Dr Dre" Romelle Young is perhaps the only producer to have changed the course of music over three decades (maybe four, if he ever releases Detox). In the 80s he bought us unbridled rage and provocative refrains via LA rappers NWA. Next, he ushered in the marijuana-marinated "G-Funk Era", both on his own album, The Chronic, and Snoop Dogg's seminal debut Doggystyle. In 1999, he proved worthwhile white rap wasn't just limited to the Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass with his protege, Eminem, before unleashing 50 Cent on to the world in 2003. In the pop sphere, he's worked with everyone from Gwen Stefani to Tupac, Nine Inch Nails to Jay-Z, plus Mary J Blige and Burt Bacharach. His eye for a star and ear for sound is arguably second to none; stabbing, sample-free synths, heart-stopping drums and tense, taut percussion being among the Doc's trademarks.
"Engineering and mixing are absolutely key," he says of the post-production process that helps ensure such perfection. "Once a song is done, for me personally, it's usually two or three days to get the mixdown." Indeed, Dre has produced scores of sonically indelible records. He raps, too; Eminem, Snoop and Jay-Z are all rumoured to have ghostwritten tracks for Dre.
"You know, it's real weird. I've looked at pictures that my mom has of me, from when I was four years old at the turntable," says the former DJ of his transformation. "I'm there, reaching up to play the records. I feel like I was bred to do what I do. I've been into music, and listening to music and critiquing it, my whole life." Of his fastidious approach to production – Detox has been some eight years in the making (so far) – he's at a loss to describe how he does what he does. "Once that sound is right, once that mix is right, it's a feeling that you get, here," he says tapping in the general direction of his heart. "It's unexplainable."
This painstaking process isn't the only reason Dre has kept his fans waiting. For the last three years, he's been waylaid wading through designs and technology for the range of headphones he's been producing alongside Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine, who's with him at Best Buy today.
"If you know about Dr Dre, these headphones weren't coming out until they were perfect, or else we would have had Detox five years ago," cracks Iovine. The Pacino to Dre's De Niro, at first glance they're an unlikely duo; the wiry, wise-cracking, fast-talking New Yorker, and the self-contained, quiet Californian, straight outta Compton. Yet though Iovine may talk a mile a minute while Dre is somewhat more muted in his musings, this polar-opposite pairing are a powerful partnership. Iovine signed Lady Gaga, Pussycat Dolls, Gwen Stefani, and Timbaland, while Dre owns Aftermath, distributed by Iovine's industry goliath; Eminem and 50 are among his signings. Not only partners in money-making, the two have been friends for over 19 years.
"Our kids play together and everything," says Dre (who also points out that Iovine's tea-making abilities are "the sh*t"). "We're pretty close."
"I didn't know a lot about hip-hop in 1990, I was from the rock world," shouts Iovine, a former producer for Simple Minds and U2. "I'd listen to hip-hop and sonically it sounded terrible. A guy brought in a tape and the first thing that hit me was the sound. I said, 'Whoever's combining these worlds like this, is doing something no one's done before. I gotta meet this guy.' And that's what got me interested in Dr Dre."
Distilling Dre's innate sense of sonic precision led the pair to devise a different way of reversing the record industry's loss-making mishaps. "I'm just trying to be a creator in among all this shit that's going on," Dre says about hawking high-end headphones. "I just want to get my music out and make sure that it's heard in the right way. That's all I give a f**k about."
Rather than the tried and tested trainers and tracksuits that most artists flog when they begin to merchandise themselves, they brought Beats By Dre back to the essence of the Good Doctor's brilliance.
"Three years ago we were talking about the deals that acts do," Iovine remembers. "We said, 'We gotta do something about sound.' We went from analogue to digital and the digital revolution all went terribly wrong. So we said, 'Screw the sneakers, lets get into headphones and speakers.'"
Jimmy and Dre's main reason for wanting to diversify is because the way in which we listen to music has deteriorated so dramatically.
"[I did this] because it's sound. And I know a little bit about that," Dre chuckles, before explaining that an MP3 downloaded from the internet, particularly illegally, can be as much as 10 times lower in quality than vinyl or even a CD. Coupled with the fact that many are listening to music on mobile phones or through tinny speakers, it all makes Dre disgruntled. "Once it gets to your computer, everything's compressed. It's like smashing sound," he explains. "So we're trying to fix that."
Beats phones are proving quite a celebrity draw, with Lady Gaga and P Diddy designing their own lines. Iovine and Dre have also pulled in some famous pals today to spin for the crowd after they've finished their press conference; twice during our interview Iovine, mid-sentence shouts "WILL.I.AM" as Will.I.Am walks by the green room we're sequestered in. "DAVID GUETTA!" he yells again a few minutes later, telling the assembled throng of staff that "Elvis just walked in the room!" And to me, "You don't know what you've hit on here. No one will ever have these two guys together again." Indeed. However, putting the dance DJ and Dre together does elicit more insight from Dre. He apparently "had a ball" at Guetta's F**k Me, I'm Famous night that he runs with his wife in Ibiza.
"I have to go out to clubs now," he says, referring to preparations for Detox's release. "You need to understand what people are listening to."
Which brings us, neatly, back to the album; headphones are all well and good but what everyone wants, including the kids who queued for hours to see Dre in Best Buy, is Detox. When is it dropping? There's a shy grin and a little nod: "I'm working hard on it. I'm stopping to work on other artists in-between, but the minute it's done and I feel it right here," he says patting his heart again, "that's when it will come out. Hopefully the beginning of 2010." (Needless to say, a few weeks after our chat he releases a statement to say it probably won't be before 2011 now. Sigh).
Still, however and whenever it arrives, Dre feels he might have created the perfect song on this album. Almost.
"I don't think I've done that record yet. I'll know what it is when it comes; I know exactly what it is in my head, but I haven't done it yet. It's close."
We will, he assures me once again, hear it soon, though: "I got some sh*t coming, believe me." -- Hattie Collins (source)
(main photo courtesy of ABC News)