With the first full trailer for F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton — the story of N.W.A. — dropping last night at the Grammys, it felt the time was right to pull this story from the Playboy archives. A check in with D.O.C., the writer-lyricist who helped craft the West Coast sound that would propel Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg to their stratospheric heights. The man who gave voice to some of rap’s greatest voices has languished in the background. Until this story first dropped in March 2013.
One of the few things you can be sure of in this world is that rapper-producer Dr. Dre is not finished with his third and possibly final solo album, Detox.
Dre has been working on it off and on for a decade. There are indications it may come out sometime soon—but then again, there always are. It happens over and over. Somebody from Dre’s camp lets slip a speculative release date in the press, the anticipation starts up again, and then Dre sees his shadow and disappears back into the studio.
Detox has become one of those mythically unfinished records—like the third My Bloody Valentine album, which took more than 20 years to see release, or Chinese Democracy before Axl Rose finally deigned to crap it out into the world. The conundrum of its perpetual imminence is just something you live with as a fan of rap music. When the rising L.A. MC Schoolboy Q rapped, “Word to Dr. Dre/Detox is like a mix away” on his 2012 album Habits & Contradictions, he may as well have been stating a constant truth, a fact about the landscape: Detox is just a mix away. Crenshaw High School is 30 minutes from the Hollywood Hills. That mountain is 10,064 feet high.
And yet people haven’t stopped caring. So last summer, when British hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood had Snoop Dogg on his BBC Radio show, he asked the question everybody asks people close to Dre, namely, “What’s up with Detox? Is it ever coming out?” This time, though, instead of saying what Dre’s associates usually say—that Dre’s a genius who’ll serve no wine before its time, but, man, is this record going to knock your fucking socks off when Dre’s ready to let people hear it, which will be soon—Snoop said point-blank that Detox wouldn’t get done until Dre called in two people to work on it: himself and the D.O.C.
“D.O.C. and Snoop Dogg is the backbone,” he told Westwood. “When you take them out of the equation, it’s not gonna work.”
Uninformed hip-hop fans would have reason to ask, Who the hell is the D.O.C.? It’s been nearly 25 years since the rapper released his astoundingly great debut album, No One Can Do It Better. It was produced by Dr. Dre when Dre was churning out hot product at an ironic-in-retrospect pace: In a single year Dre made the D.O.C.’s album, as well as N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and N.W.A co-founder Eazy-E’s solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It. The D.O.C. was a cocky, charismatic young rapper with a knotty, complex flow—his delivery had more bob-and-weave than your average West Coast rapper’s, and he reminded people of East Coast guys like Rakim. The kid with the golden voice, he called himself. Within three months he’d sold half a million records—until injuries to his vocal cords sustained in a car accident rendered him barely able to speak and totally unable to rap.
After that, the D.O.C. was a living ghost. He made two would-be comeback albums, but his real career existed behind the scenes. It became an open secret that he’d ghostwritten rhymes for Dre on The Chronic and 1999’s 2001 and polished lines for Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. The D.O.C. was a fixer, a problem solver, a hip-hop Winston Wolf. Once a breakout star, he now existed in hip-hop as a legend in the background of other people’s rhymes. Dre shouted him out (“Like my nigga D.O.C., no one can do it better”) at the end of “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” the first single from The Chronic. More than 10 years later, so did Brooklyn-born Jay-Z on “Public Service Announcement”—“HOV, not D.O.C./But similar to the letters, no one can do it better.”
Tips of the hat to a rapper’s rapper. But the Westwood thing was different. The Westwood thing was Snoop calling out Dr. Dre, telling him and the world that only the D.O.C. could save Detox. That yes, in fact, no one can do it better.
Late one Thursday night, in the control room of a recording studio in an office park somewhere in South Dallas, the D.O.C.—whose real name is Tracy Curry, though his Dallas friends all call him Doc—pushes the talk-back button on the mixing console and addresses the kid on the other side of the glass.
Doc is 44 now, tall with a little weight on him, hair in twists. The kid on the other side of the glass is 24-year-old Dallas rapper Chad Bailey, whose rap name, I swear, is Plaboi. He’s just finished a run-through of a new song—a midtempo Rick Ross–style come-kick-it-with-a-boss jam called “So Amazing”—and now Doc is giving Plaboi some notes.
“You sounded like a 17-year-old guy who’s happy to get some pussy,” Doc says. “I want you to sound like a 30-year-old guy who likes to fuck.”
He’s been doing this with rappers for years. When he started out here in Dallas, with the Fila Fresh Crew, he would write all the lyrics, then teach his partner Curtis “Fresh-K” Benjamin how to say them. He did it with Eazy-E in the early days of N.W.A, with Dr. Dre, with Snoop Dogg. It’s not that these guys, on their own, didn’t have talent, presence and persona to burn—especially Snoop, Doc says; Snoop could rap his ass off. But Doc understood song structure. He had a feel for form; he knew how to make an artist think like a craftsman.
The first few lines of “So Amazing,” which Doc wrote, are “Let me paint you this picture./I got you naked, we rollin’ out by the Bonaventure./Couple shots of Patrón, so you know it’s official.” I can’t tell you how the rest of the song goes, because Doc spends the next 45 minutes making Plaboi—who has raw talent and takes constructive criticism like a champ but has clearly never been directed like this before—do the first few bars over and over, seldom letting him get past “Patrón” before cutting him off.
“It’s a conversation,” Doc tells him. “Don’t rap it. Just conversate. When a female hears this, she’s supposed to wanna fuck you.”
Ever since the accident, Doc’s speaking voice has been a flat, crackly growl. He makes a weird Cyrano, coaching Plaboi through what’s supposed to be a seduction song. Another take. Doc listens with his head down on the console. Plaboi’s still putting too much mustard on it—too much Lil Wayne, not enough Drake. Or think of “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” how what grabbed people about it was the matter-of-fact way Dre and Snoop delivered their rhymes, just a few degrees of swagger away from normal speech. Doc and Snoop wrote that.
“You got too much comedy on it,” Doc tells Plaboi. “This is a song about fucking. You ain’t gonna walk in the club with a rubber nose hangin’ off your dick. You wanna be swangin’. This is Colt 45 malt liquor.”
Finally, after a couple more takes, Doc gets on the talk-back and says to Plaboi, “I’m gonna need you to take this song home and learn it, kinfolk. Because you learned it, but you learned it the way you do it.”
Then he says, “I gotta blow,” and looks around the room for Duke.
Duke’s real name is Steven Blackmon. He’s married to Doc’s sister, but Doc calls him his brother. Duke has a goatee, box-fresh Converses, a little gold in his teeth and a white iPhone earbud always dangling from one ear. He doesn’t talk, but he’s silent in a not-unfriendly way, like he’s just saving battery life or paying attention to things that aren’t you.
Duke has two jobs: He drives Doc around all day, and he makes sure Doc blows into a GPS-equipped wireless portable Breathalyzer called a Soberlink every day at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Condition of his parole. If he tests positive for alcohol, he goes to jail.
“You supposed to blow at two,” Doc explains. “You got until 2:30. At 2:31, you’re late. And if the president didn’t call and tell you not to do it, your excuse won’t wash.”
He’s learned that the hard way. In 2011, on Thanksgiving Day, Doc—who was on probation for DWI at the time—was at home with family and figured he’d have a beer. One turned into a six-pack; he blew dirty the next morning and ended up staring across the desk at a new probation officer, who looked at Doc’s file and said, “You’ve got a drinking problem.” Doc, with that tone he can take with people sometimes, said, “No, I’ve got an authority problem.”
She violated him back right then and there. Doc lucked out, though: He landed in front of a Dallas felony court judge named John C. Creuzot, who was near the end of his 20 years on the bench and had lately become a stalwart proponent of diversion programs, in which repeat offenders facing jail time are instead steered into rigorously supervised treatment and counseling.
Doc spent January through March 2012 in county jail—the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, here in Dallas—and then did seven months in rehab. He didn’t see his eight-year-old daughter, Puma, whose mother is the singer Erykah Badu, whom he’s known since they were both aspiring rappers hanging out in the same Dallas teen clubs. Didn’t see his own mother. Saw his manager, John Huffman, exactly once. But he got sober. On November 6, 2012 he was released from rehab; now, after 30 days of enforced curfew, he has started to rebuild his life.
He goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where the older gentlemen in their slacks and good shoes remind him of Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite, as though any minute Queen Bee herself is going to kick down the door. There are four things on the backseat of Doc’s car: Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, a copy of The 50th Law (a Machiavelli-for-managers textbook co-authored by Robert Greene and 50 Cent), a three-disc bootleg mixtape entitled Love Justice: 90s Street Romance Music and a laptop bag that could keep a hot-air balloon anchored.
This morning, Duke drives him and Huffman out to a middle school in Cedar Hill, southwest of Dallas, so he can talk to a classroom full of at-risk kids about the importance of not squandering their potential, about how jail “ain’t where you want to be.” It’s the first time he’s ever done a speaking gig like this; afterward he tells me, “What you just witnessed was the first moment of my adult life.”
The next phase of his adult life, in the manner of many modern bids for redemption, involves a reality-TV show. A pilot has been shot, laying the groundwork for a show on which Doc coaches a handpicked cast of local Dallas rappers—Plaboi is one of them—and teaches them to deliver lyrics he’s written. They’re calling it I Got My Voice Back. Maybe it will be a premium-cable series. Maybe it will come out in snippets online. They’re keeping the concept loose as Doc figures out what to do next. Surgery is now available that can fix what happened to Doc in that accident, surgery that didn’t exist back then. Surgery that doesn’t actually, technically, exist as an option in this country. There’s a doctor in Spain who, using stem cells, grew a whole new trachea for a woman who’d lost hers in an accident. Maybe the show will be about Doc exploring those options. He’s not sure yet. The surgery’s no joke, and he would do it only if he thought it could help change the laws regarding stem-cell research in this country.
“At this point, at 44, it’s gotta be for some other reason than for me to fuckin’ rap again,” he says. “It’s gotta be a bigger cause.”
What’s important right now is that he do something positive with this second chance he’s been given—even if it’s just putting Dallas’s hip-hop scene on the map a little bit.
“Houston had their chance,” he tells the kids. “Atlanta had their chance. Them boys in Louisiana had their chance. L.A., New York, Chicago—Dallas, we’re the only ones that haven’t had our shot yet. We’ve got some of the best young producers, some of the best young singers—everything they got, we got. Matter of fact, we might be better than them. I was.”
This is a story about two men who have enormous power over each other because they need each other. Doc has made two comeback albums since the accident, 1996’s Helter Skelter and 2003’s Deuce. Both of them have their moments, but neither featured Dre as producer, neither got his endorsement, and neither sold. And Dre has never finished a solo record without Doc’s help—whether Dre needs him as a lyricist, a sounding board or a good-luck charm is hard to say, but he needs Doc as much as Doc needs him.
Their creative lives have been entangled since the moment they met in Dallas in the late 1980s, sometime after N.W.A released their first single, the epochal outlaw manifesto “Boyz-n-the Hood.”
Doc and the Fila Fresh Crew had made a few records by then. When DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s ingratiating novelty-rap act started catching on, Doc wrote his own Will Smith–style goofy everyman song, “I Hate to Go to Work.” In the video he’s in a shirt and tie, groaning through a case of the Mondays, uttering no epithet stronger than sheesh. A few months later, when they heard “Boyz-n-the Hood” for the first time, they felt embarrassed. “Boyz-n-the Hood” wasn’t shirt-and-tie rap. It wasn’t put-upon-nice-guy music. It was matter-of-fact menace, realness über alles.
“The world was changing,” Doc says, “from ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ to kids just don’t give a fuck.”
Not long after that, Dre comes through Dallas. As a favor to Fila Fresh Crew manager Dr. Rock—they were both in the L.A. electro-funk group World Class Wreckin’ Cru for a minute—he agrees to produce some tracks for the group. In the studio, he sees Doc rapping, sees Doc coming up with rhymes and feeding them to Fresh-K, sees potential for him as a solo act—but he also sees a guy who could potentially help put words in Eazy’s mouth.
He takes Doc aside and says, “Come to California. We’ll both get rich.”
Nobody thought of L.A. as any kind of hip-hop mecca back then. Growing up in Dallas, Doc absorbed mostly East Coast influences. When he first heard rap music, it was Run-DMC, Fat Boys, LL Cool J. He had his mind blown the first time he heard Rakim and Slick Rick, rap’s first master of linear narrative.
Doc learned to love words by reading to his paternal grandmother—big books, way over his head. He’d sung at the arts magnet school. He loved Richard Pryor, wanted to be a comedian. His sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stevens, would let him do five minutes of stand-up at the end of class on Fridays if he had refrained from being a fuckup the rest of the week. This was probably the best year of his life, he says. His parents were together, living in the suburbs. The next year they split. Doc moved back into the projects in Dallas with his maternal grandmother. “She was a loving woman,” he says, “but her love was stern love. Her love had knuckle prints on it.”
Now for school Doc was bused way out to Highland Park, where the white kids threw the N word around freely and the imported ghetto kids ran in self-protecting packs. “I spent a lot of time inside,” Doc says. “It kept me alone, imagining the future, contemplating what I wanted to be.”
All the contradictions, all the ontological slipperiness concerning realness and criminality and theater that have shaped and undone hip-hop from the gangsta era forward—it’s all encoded in N.W.A’s DNA from the jump. They deal in painful, unvarnished truth and violent exploitation-flick fantasy. They’re black music’s Sex Pistols, simultaneously a scourge of hypocrisy and a world-class con job. In addition to being the bank, Eazy is a street dude with unassailable cred, but he can’t write rhymes—his “reality raps” are scripted by Ice Cube and MC Ren. They’ve succeeded in turning Eazy into an icon—the Ruthless Villain. But now they need somebody to get him on the radio, to write him lyrics whose every other word isn’t bitch or motherfucker. Cube is already writing for Eazy, but he isn’t going to smooth Eazy’s edges. Doc says that back then “Cube was always Cube. He was going to say, ‘I’m going to cut your throat and leave you in the Dumpster.’ That’s just what it is.” That’s where Doc comes in.
“I’ve always known how to talk to white people,” Doc says. “I knew if you made it funny and clever, it would be less threatening. You could say whatever you wanted as long as you let ’em know it’s a joke. Don’t take it to heart; I’m not really going to cut your heart out. But I might.”
A few days after Doc arrives in California, Dre drives him to a recording studio in Torrance, where most of N.W.A is waiting. Doc meets MC Ren and DJ Yella, and he meets Eazy. Eazy’s one of those guys. Not a star quite yet, but he already has a magnetism. “When Eazy was in the room,” Doc says, “you knew it. Even if you didn’t see him walk in. It would spread. That’s what kind of person he was.”
But even a matinee idol needs a script. Dre puts on a drum track—a big rubbery funk loop from the title track of Bootsy Collins’ 1977 sophomore album, Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!—and says to Doc, “Can you write Eazy something to this?” In 10, maybe 15 minutes Doc has a lyric, and “We Want Eazy” ends up being the highest-charting single off Eazy’s solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It.
There’s a “We Want Eazy” video. Nobody asks Doc to be in it. He’s pissed, like “Damn, I wrote this fuckin’ song” pissed, but he doesn’t say anything, worried if he does they’ll tell him to fuck off back to Dallas. At N.W.A shows he’ll be out in the lobby, hearing people talking about Eazy, about how Eazy’s the greatest, off some songs Doc wrote. But there’s not much he can do. He isn’t a full-fledged member of the band. He’s a fifth Beatle. Around this time he starts going by “the D.O.C.” instead of “Doc-T.” He wants to associate his brand more closely with N.W.A’s. The letters in “D.O.C.” don’t stand for anything. He just wants his own acronym.
It didn’t help matters that his name doesn’t appear in the album credits. Sometime after “We Want Eazy” blew up, Doc gave Eazy the publishing rights to the song, accepting a gold chain as payment. He never officially signed anything, he says, but he also says he was never much of a businessman, that he would have signed whatever Eazy put in front of him. He didn’t expect Eazy to claim later that the gold-chain deal entitled him to all the songs Doc wrote during his tenure with Ruthless Records, from Eazy-Duz-It all the way through N.W.A’s second album, Niggaz4Life—but today he admits he probably should have.
“It’s not that Eric was a bad person,” Doc says. “But he was a dope man. Taking advantage of people is part of that territory. You can’t feel any kind of way about it.”
The chain has a gold nameplate with diamonds in it, just like the ones the guys in N.W.A were starting to buy, but smaller. I ask him to ballpark the chain’s retail value.
“About three grand,” Doc says with a tight, weary smile. “I don’t know if Eric knew he’d just fucked the shit out of me, but I imagine he did.”
There wasn’t time to worry about it. Things were moving too fast. N.W.A was going somewhere every weekend, doing shows. “It was nuts, on some Beatles kind of shit,” Doc says. “A zillion kids fuckin’ shaking the van because you sitting inside. Eazy-E fans, man. They wanted that little dude. And he was loving it. He took full advantage of the perks. Ended up costing him, though.” (Eazy died of AIDS in 1995, at the age of 31, after running through groupies as though he were keeping score by the pound.)
The shine finally started to trickle down. N.W.A’s first national tour opened in Nashville in the spring of 1989, with Doc doing eight minutes a night as an opening act. The crowds dug him. No One Can Do It Better dropped that June; within three months it sold 500,000 copies. By the end of the tour he was doing 30-minute sets. Radio picked up on “It’s Funky Enough,” a Dre production with way more commercial reach than, say, “Fuck tha Police.” Years later, when Rolling Stone asked Chris Rock to make a list of the greatest rap albums of all time, the comedian put No One Can Do It Better at number 11. “I was going to school in Brooklyn,” he wrote, “and the only time you could see rap videos was on a weekend show with Ralph McDaniels called Video Music Box. D.O.C.’s video for ‘It’s Funky Enough’ premiered, and D.O.C. had an L.A. Kings hat on. When I came to school on Monday, half the kids in Brooklyn had L.A. Kings hats on. It was official.”
By the fall of 1989, Doc is feeling like a star. He’s partying and drinking. At his side is Suge Knight. Suge had played college football, had suited up for the Rams a couple of times. Suge has ties to the Bloods, or finds it expedient to let people think he does. Suge is either a concert promoter or a security guy or a record executive on the rise, depending on who asks, and in the meantime he deals in physical intimidation.
“A lot of people called him my bodyguard,” Doc says, “because he was a 300-pound dude who beat people up after I made a mess. But no—he was just a buddy.” After a while no club in Hollywood would have them, Doc says, “because invariably I’d get drunk, slap some woman on her ass and start a fight. And he’d beat up a bunch of people, and then I’d get the girl and go home. He loved it. He’s a bruiser; that’s what he did.”
But Suge has ideas and connections. Suge and Doc talk about starting a label together. Suge knows Dick Griffey, founder of SOLAR Records—an old-school industry dude, one of those guys “who’s got enough nuts to get it done by any means necessary,” Doc says. “Griffey packed a gun every day in his little office. He’d pull it out and sit it on the table.”
The label is still coming together that fall when Doc celebrates the completion of principal photography on two music videos—including “The Formula,” in which Dre plays Frankenstein and Doc is the monster he’s bringing to life—by spending the following day driving around partying and chasing girls. Around 3:30 a.m. he leaves a girlfriend’s home in Beverly Hills. On Wilshire Boulevard a cop car flashes its lights at him. Doc tries to get away; he hits a couple of right turns, parks his Honda Prelude on a side street and gets low. A few seconds later, a cop taps Doc’s window with a billy club. Maybe because he’s still wasted, Doc jumps out of the car and starts performing for the cops right then and there, like the famous rapper he is. The cops laugh and give him a ticket. Doc has all his gold and platinum records in the trunk of the car; he takes them out and poses for pictures with the cops.
Thirty minutes later on the freeway, he falls asleep at the wheel and hits a concrete divider. He’s thrown through the window and smashes into a tree face-first. The cops have to pry his teeth out of the tree bark.
“Rap musician Tracy Lynn Curry of the D.O.C. was in stable condition after losing control of his car on the Ventura Freeway, authorities said. “Curry, 21, suffered injuries to his face, including damage to one eye and his nose, said California Highway Patrol Officer David Grajeda. He was in stable condition Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said spokesman Ron Wise.“Grajeda said Curry had alcohol on his breath after the accident Tuesday and was arrested but released before being booked so he could get medical attention.”—Los Angeles Times, “Rapper Injured in Car Wreck,” November 17, 1989
“The whole West Coast hip-hop movement changed direction the night I had that accident,” Doc says. “Everybody’s fortunes changed that night.”
When he arrives at Cedars-Sinai, Doc has so much stuff in his system the doctors can’t sedate him. When they try to intubate him, he thrashes around and the tube damages his vocal cords. He endures 20 hours of reconstructive surgery on his face. Amazingly, he comes through the accident without a single broken bone—but after the intubation his voice is destroyed. He can speak, but the golden voice is now a ravaged croak. Half his gift gone, just like that.
There’s psychological fallout too. His hits become a curse. “I couldn’t stand to listen to myself,” he says. “If I went to a club and they played my song, I’d have to leave.”
People tell him he should retire, go out on top instead of trying to make another record with his fucked-up voice; Dre is one of them. Dre still has work for him behind the scenes. In January 1990, Ice Cube quits N.W.A to go solo, and Doc becomes the group’s principal songwriter, supplying lyrics for “Alwayz Into Somethin’,” “Appetite for Destruction” and other songs on Niggaz4Life, N.W.A’s final full-length album, and for the EP 100 Miles and Runnin’.
At Suge’s urging, Doc starts whispering to Dre, urging him to let Suge take a look at Dre’s contract. You may know how the story goes from here. Suge convinces Dre to leave Ruthless Records and sign with his new company, which he and Doc are calling Funky Enough Records. Suge convinces N.W.A manager Jerry Heller and Eazy-E to let Dre and Doc out of their Ruthless contracts; he allegedly brings two large men toting lead pipes and Louisville Sluggers to the meeting to set the mood. With Dre in the fold as house producer, Suge proceeds to build Funky Enough into one of the biggest rap labels in the country. Except he’s no longer calling it Funky Enough. The label is now called Death Row.
Doc helps talk Dre into making a solo album, promising to write lyrics for it. Dre’s stepbrother, the rapper Warren G, brings a charismatic 20-year-old rapper from Long Beach into the fold, Calvin Broadus, who goes by Snoop Doggy Dogg. When they start making The Chronic, Doc still has money, a Benz and a place near Agoura Hills. Snoop and Warren G move in. Snoop can rap, but Doc works with him on turning rhymes into actual songs. He sends Snoop upstairs to a spare bedroom, makes him write for an hour. Doc goes over what Snoop’s written, like an editor, saying, “This line’s really cool. Let’s cut this one out. This one is dope, but it would sound better if you put it here.”
“I’d smooth out the rough edges,” Doc says.
At some point it’s made clear to Doc that despite having been a founding partner in Funky Enough, he no longer owns a piece of Death Row. There’s not much he can do. And you eat well when you’re making records with Dre. Even when Doc has to cut his overhead and move into a one-bedroom apartment with Snoop and six or seven other guys, it’s exciting enough not to feel like privation. They’re partying, but they’re also creating music, writing hits for Dre. And whenever the money runs out, Doc hits up Dre and Dre has his handlers cut a check and Doc buys 40s, weed, even ecstasy—this before every rapper in the world got into ecstasy, Doc says, “back when X was brand-new and nobody did it but white kids from Orange County.” It took the edge off.
“People were getting beat up in the studio,” Doc says. “It turned into gangland. There was Bloods and Crips in there every day, and there was always that thing in the air—you didn’t know whether or not there’d be some shooting. There were shots fired in that place. The only way I felt comfortable there was being loaded.”
And yet it felt safer somehow than trying to figure out what to do next. And when he finally does leave, years later, in 1994, it isn’t because of the violence or because he’s been dicked out of his piece of the company or anything else. It’s because he has a fight with Dre. Doc writes a song he wants to record as a comeback single, fucked-up voice and all. But Dre’s making a record called Helter Skelter—a duets album, him and Ice Cube, back together for the first time since N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. And when Dre hears Doc’s song, he decides he wants to record it himself. It’s the last straw. Doc packs up and moves to Atlanta, where he works with the rapper MC Breed.
In 1996, with help from the Dallas producer Erotic-D, Doc finally puts out his second solo album; as a jab at Dre, he calls it Helter Skelter. Dre’s Helter Skelter is never finished.
They’ve been on and off ever since.
“Dre and I have had this break-up-to-make-up kind of thing for fuckin’ 20 years,” Doc says. “I think it’s partly because we respect each other and partly because I don’t give a fuck how much money you got, I’m not going to take shit from you. I’m not going to kiss your ass. I remember when you didn’t have one dollar. Now that you have 100 million of them or 500 million of them, that don’t make your ass no less funky to me.”
Last year, not long after Doc went to rehab, Huffman got a call from Dre’s people saying Dre wanted Doc to come to Miami to help him out with a song he was cutting with Jay-Z and Rick Ross, which would eventually be released as “3 Kings” on Ross’ 2012 album God Forgives, I Don’t, and Huffman had to explain to Dre’s people that Doc was indisposed. When I talk to Doc in Dallas, he says he understands that this may have been the last straw. “I think he’s at a point where he sees me as, you know, ‘You’re never going to get it. You’re never going to figure it out,’?” Doc says. “And I don’t blame him for that. I haven’t given him any real cause to see that I’m not the same dude I was then.”
(When reached for comment, Dre’s longtime publicist spoke kindly of Doc but told me Dre and Doc’s relationship was complicated and that Dre’s willingness to participate in this article would depend on where he and Doc stood. A subsequent attempt to reach Dre through his Aftermath label also yielded nothing. A few months after I left Dallas, Doc’s manager told me Dre’s people had gotten back in touch with Doc. Doc has written five new songs for Dre, and he’s working on more new material for Detox with Memphis producer Jazze Pha.)
Plaboi takes a seat on the couch in the back of the studio control room, next to another I Got My Voice Back cast member, a 30-year-old white rapper who records under the name Blaze Won. Doc steps into the recording booth. He’s written some new lyrics for a song he wants Blaze Won to record and wants to cut a demo version for Blaze to study. A studio engineer named Hal Fitzgerald plays the beat. It’s an elegiac, synth-driven instrumental—kind of a rap power ballad, like something Eminem might emote over. Lyrics about war, “chemical verbiage,” the weight of history, politicians lying to Fox News.
Doc takes a few runs at the song, and then—jokingly, almost off-mike, like a warm-up—he starts saying some of the lines in this voice. It sounds a little like Rick Ross, a little like Abe Simpson, a little like Vito Corleone’s ghost. What it doesn’t sound like is Doc’s usual sandpaper growl.
There were these two Mexican kids with him in rehab, Doc tells me later, who to annoy people would walk around making weird-ass yawning noises without moving their mouths. One day one of the kids made the sound, and Doc got mad and made it back to him, as if to say “I know it’s you, motherfucker,” and after a second he realized that when he’d made the noise, it didn’t come out flat and gravelly like his regular voice. Without even trying, he’d used some other part of his throat to generate a tone.
“I tried to do it again and couldn’t, and then I let out a big-ass yawn and did it again. Every time I yawned, I yawned loud and tried to make that note stay, like a clear note. Once I started doing that, it got a little stronger.”
He’s tried rapping in this voice before, but this is the first time he’s done it in front of people. You can tell it’s not something he’s physiologically meant to do—he gulps air between bars and can’t get too many words out at a time. He keeps asking Hal to stop the tape, wind it back, let him punch it in line by line. But in spite of all that, it’s working. He’s rapping.
When Huffman walks in and hears the sound coming out of Doc’s mouth, his eyes bug out.
“You hear that?” he says to Hal. “What can you do with it?”
“I don’t know yet,” Hal says. Huffman doesn’t look at Doc in the booth, as if making eye contact might break the spell. He’s staring over Hal’s shoulder at the Pro Tools readout.
“That is fucking insane,” Huffman says. “That is fucking insane, dude.”
His newly adapted voice is only a little more expressive an instrument than his gravelly postaccident one. But there are possibilities. If he can create a tone, maybe he can Auto-Tune his vocals, like all the hot rappers do these days. They can piece together a song on the computer. He could put something out—just a single. Maybe he won’t put his name on it.
See how people respond if they think it’s a whole new guy.
“One day that shit’s gonna work,” Doc says, hanging his headphones on a music stand, “and it’s gonna freak you guys out.”
He’s decided to keep the song he was demo-ing, rewrite the lyrics to suit his own story, maybe put it out as the first new D.O.C. song in almost a decade. Duke gets on the freeway and Doc opens his laptop, cues up the beat in iTunes and opens a Word document—lyrics in all-caps boldface. The beat plays softly for the rest of the ride as Doc tinkers on-screen, fine-tuning a new first verse:
“I watched the world pass while sleepin’ in first class Usin’ bodies, rotten from following the world’s path Huh, kissing the devils’ asses while they laughin’ As if now for better or for worse I’m married to the math Not a Catholic, but rosaries tatted, a confused addict 5150, medication habit, illegal racket White rabbits scattered through purple hills Another tragic ending, I can feel it, my heart’s rapid, the end’s near Another classic, sadly, whose Achilles heel was smokin’ and drinkin’ to cover cheers and hide fear Lost in resentments, and usin’ pain so cavalier Now I’m left with dreams of Puma Knowing what greatness is Always contemplating what could have been Leaving me emotionally suicidal for 20 years Cursing my higher power I choose to call God’s ear And even after all of the shit I gave I’m still here, I’m still here”
Doc is bobbing his head almost imperceptibly, fingers moving on the keys, making tiny fixes—“smokin’?” becomes “smoking,” “but” becomes “cuz.” It’s a work in progress, but he knows he’s onto something.