The history of music culture changed forever in the 1980s when Andre Romelle Young, aka Dr. Dre, became active in the Los Angeles music scene. Beginning with the romance-themed, Prince-like wardrobe and makeup looking World Class Wrecking Cru, Dr. Dre blazed a trail unlike any other. His story is one half of the four-part HBO documentary series The Defiant Ones, which also focuses on Dre’s business partner Jimmy Iovine, a music legend himself.
As a hiphop kid I first became aware of Iovine when, as head of Interscope Records, he partnered with Death Row Records to release the classic Dr. Dre solo album The Chronic in 1992. Iovine’s credits since the 1970s read like a recording industry all-star team—John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, U2, and Nine Inch Nails. It was this supreme ear for talent which led Iovine to Dr. Dre in the early 90s.
From the start, Dr. Dre demonstrated unique versatility as a musical savant who was also a competent rapper. One thing The Defiant Ones, which Allen Hughes directed, reminds us of is that, for the first decade of his career, Dre’s brilliance was consistently undervalued as it related to the success of the outfits he was with at the time, from World Class Wrecking Cru, to NWA, to even Death Row. Also included in the documentary is the necessary interview with Dee Barnes, the former TV host Dr. Dre assaulted in 1991—the 2015 NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton was accused of glossing over this very low point in Dre's career.
For me, a couple of favorite things stood out watching The Defiant Ones. One was the raw, archival studio footage from various cats Dre produced over the years. We hear the story of how early on Eazy-E was not at all a polished rapper, and then we see outtakes of him making mistake after mistake in the recording booth during the making of his landmark solo album Eazy-Duz-It in 1988. We watch a young Snoop Doggy Dogg lay down verses for his 1993 solo debut Doggystyle, which, because of his performance on The Chronic, was one of the most anticipated records in music history. We marvel at a fresh-out-of-Riker’s Island Tupac Shakur, as he burns blunts, downs shots, and locks in as he delivers his rhymes.
The second point I really valued was the time devoted to Tracy “The DOC” Curry. Originally from Texas, DOC was a loyal and integral part of the lyrical writing team behind early NWA and Eazy E material, and appeared on the NWA song “Parental Discretion Iz Advized” from the album Straight Outta Compton. When DOC’s turn came, he and Dre produced his one and only album, the 1989 classic No One Can Do It Better. Later that year the DOC was involved in a car accident that severed his vocal chords, of all things. In a massive twist of fate, the self-described “kid with the golden voice” now sounded gravelly and for all intents and purposes, was through as a vocalist. This cruel and underrated artistic tragedy always reminded me of the premature end of NFL and MLB superstar Bo Jackson’s career, when he suffered a freak hip injury playing running back for the Raiders that led to degeneration and eventual replacement.
The Defiant Ones is yet another chapter in the continuing historic documentation of West Coast hip-hop. The intertwined professional stories of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, which culminated in the sale of their boutique headphones brand Beats to Apple for $3 billion in 2014 (a deal almost derailed by Dr. Dre’s premature celebration on social media), speak to the cultural power that has arisen out of hiphop, the ultimate do-it-yourself movement. One of this series’ lasting lessons is that work ethic and talent, which does not preclude a willingness to learn, are the consistent ingredients for ultimate success.