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’s 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.