Timeless Tuesday: Deconstructing the Sound of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic

Image via Marco Lombardo

The story of the group N.W.A. is perhaps the most prolific and well-known in all of hip-hop’s history (especially after the 2015 release of the biopic Straight Outta Compton). The rise and subsequent falling out of the group was a landmark moment. Not only are Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E still hugely relevant in pop culture to this day, but the break-up between these rap stars shaped the entire trajectory of hip-hop as a genre. As history goes, Ice Cube left due to his displeasure over financial means with Eazy E and the group’s manager Jerry Heller. In the years that followed, Ice Cube dropped two solo albums and exchanged beef records with his former group. In 1992, Dr. Dre left the group to sign with Ruthless Records for reasons that were similar to Ice Cube’s. All of these events led to release of Dr. Dre’s 1992 record, The Chronic.

The Chronic is undoubtedly one of the most important rap albums to ever be produced. In 2005, Kanye West said that The Chronic is the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and the benchmark he measures his albums against. The album introduced the world to Snoop Dogg whose smooth flow on launched him into stardom and record-breaking sales on his debut which was released one year later. The Chronic also introduced a new sub-genre called g-funk. G-funk became the prominent sound in West Coast hip-hop for years to come through artists like 2Pac, Warren G, and Snoop Dogg who emulated the sound on their work. Even modern day artists, most notably YG, incorporate the g-funk sound into their music.

At the beginning of the 90’s, each region of the map had a respective sound according to their geographical location. New York was perhaps the most diverse in sound and character. There was the politically charged Public Enemy whose style was loud, and jam-packed with samples. Take their 1990 hit “Welcome to the Terrordome”:

The sound is massive, but in a claustrophobic and chaotic way.  Staying with New York, the influential group A Tribe Called Quest was establishing a name for themselves by association with the Native Tongues. Their jazzy, laid-back approach to hip-hop can be heard on their 1991 song “Check The Rhime”.

This song is undeniably colorful with a jazzy horn section and a thick bassline, but the two do not exactly flow seamlessly. The song is also entirely sample-based, similar to the Geto Boys 1991 record “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me.” This introspective song became one of Southern hip-hop’s first hit records.


The sound is notably minimal and sample-based (the song only uses two samples, albeit two dope samples). These examples show how different the sound of g-funk was at the time The Chronic was released, and it was based on a few elements. Firstly, the sound was generally more simplistic and smooth. This was because of the lack of sampling and the use of live instrumentation. G-funk’s defining sound, a high-pitched sine wave pattern, is oftentimes interpolated and played on an electronic keyboard. The use of live instrumentation was one of the defining features of The Chronic, and was a technique that was never used as heavily before. Accompany this with P-funk samples, intimidating baselines, female R&B vocalists, and the genre was born. It turned the gritty inaccessibility of gangsta rap and provided it with a lush soundscape that harkened back to the feel-good times of the 70’s.


Funkadelic – (Not Just) Knee Deep [1979]

Fuck wit Dre Day (and Everybody’s Celebratin’)

The interpolated baseline was first famously sampled by De La Soul’s “Me Myself And I,” but Dre was the first to really slowwww it down. The laid-back funkiness of it perfectly suits the incredibly addictive sin keyboard that drops in at the 0:13 mark and glides through at various points.


Parliament – Swing Down Sweet Chariot (1977)

Let Me Ride

The infallible smoothness of “Let Me Ride” features a variety of elements from Parliament’s “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot.” But perhaps the best one is the sample of George Clinton’s fatigued singing during a live Parliament performance. The soothing “Swing down, I want to ride,” is just tacked on at the end above the female vocals and various “Hell yeah’s” from Dre.


Leon Haywood – I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You (1975)

Nuthin’ But A G Thang

The most well-known song from The Chronic owes a whole lot of its magic to “I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You.” Not only is this pretty much a direct rip of the general instrumental, but the famous keyboard line is a copy of the violin that comes in on Haywood’s track at the 0:50 second mark – something the biopic Straight Outta Compton gave Snoop Dogg credit for unfortunately.

That’s not how it went down. At all.


Donny Hathaway – Little Ghetto Boy (1972)

Lil’ Ghetto Boy

For the albums introspective cut, Dr. Dre borrows the intro from Donny Hathaway’s Little Ghetto Boy. What’s remarkable is Dre’s ability to take these powerful choruses and implement them so easily amidst a hard-hitting drums and live instrumentation. Even though this is possibly the most evocative vocal sample on the whole album, it’s still the live instrumentation that steals the show. There’s the whirring violin stabs (0:59 mark), the infectious jazz flute that does its thing throughout, and the invisible sine keyboard that begins each chorus. Forget The Chronic, this is one of the most divine instrumentals in all of the genre.


Johnny Hammond – Big Sur Suite (1974)

A Nigga Witta Gun

Quite simply one of the most menacing bass lines of all time. The sample was actually used a year prior on Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours,” and the Beastie Boy’s “Pass The Mic.” Both of those songs went hard, but it was tough to top the addition of Dre’s drums and the paranoid high-pitched keys. This is just another example of the massive sound Dre was able to accomplish off of the basis of only one important sample and a ton of musical improvisation.

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