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., two p.m., six 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.”