Dr. Dre, hip-hop's most reliable kingmaker.

How popular culture gets popular.
March 10 2005 3:35 PM

The Game Is Up

Why Dr. Dre's protégés always top the charts.

The Game
Dre got Game

Chart-topping albums come in two flavors: those that steadily build word-of-mouth buzz before bubbling to the summit, and those that are obviously pre-ordained to hit No. 1. The Documentary, the debut album from Los Angeles rapper The Game, fits squarely into the latter category. Weeks before his first single, "How We Do," started playing nonstop on the radio, The Game was already gracing the cover of hip-hop magazines and pitching Sean John duds on a Sunset Boulevard billboard.

Pre-launch advertising can guarantee a nice first week of sales, and The Documentary didn't disappoint: 587,000 copies sold in its first seven days. But The Game's debut has legs, too—it spent six weeks atop Billboard's R & B/hip-hop chart before finally being bumped to No. 2 by sensitive crooner Omarion last week.

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The industry's hype machine, then, obviously made a smart bet investing in the ex-crack dealer born Jayceon Taylor. How did they know he was a sure thing? Ask The Game, and he'll certainly credit his own lyrical genius. A critic might grumble that the album—with its focus on guns, grams, and easy sex—was cynically designed to appeal to teens who romanticize thuggery. Then there's the fact that The Documentary,though it bears The Game's byline, is more a product of the Dr. Dre assembly line than anything else.

The last explanation is the most convincing, given Dre's Midas touch in recent years. At the ancient age of 40, the former Andre Young finally has his hitmaking formula down to a science—just plug in a new rapper and clear some wall space for the platinum records. The Documentary is Dre's fourth major triumph since founding Aftermath Entertainment in 1996: Before The Game, it was 50 Cent, and before 50 Cent it was Eminem and Dre's own comeback album, 1999's 2001. How did Dre become hip-hop's most reliable kingmaker?

For starters, credit Dre's exceptional knack for creating catchy pop hooks. The Documentary features one of the most addictive singles of the past year, "How We Do." The lyrics are about as thick-headed as they come—"When beef is on I'll pop that drum/ Come get some"—but the 10-note synthesizer refrain that loops throughout is what listeners really remember when the song ends.

Dre has been perfecting this stripped-down sound since he joined Death Row Records in the early 1990s. Dre's formative work with N.W.A was heavy on sample-driven anthems punctuated by aggressive bass kicks. But on 1992's The Chronic, Dre shifted gears and started pushing the melody to the front. Instead of merely sampling funk hits, he hired session musicians to cover their best parts on synthesizers—usually just the catchiest six to 12 notes, slowed down to stoner speed. It was as if Dre took a magnifying glass to every P-Funk classic and zeroed in on the most addictive three-second segments. The whining 10-note synth line in the chorus of "F--k Wit Dre Day," The Chronic's first single, is unforgettable. And unforgettable singles move albums; how many consumers bought The Chronic simply because they couldn't shake "F--k Wit Dre Day" from their minds?

But this aesthetic genius alone doesn't account for the speed with which Dre productions ascend the charts; plenty of hip-hop producers know how to put together a catchy song. Dre became a mogul, rather than a mere superstar producer, because of his innate grasp of two core business principles: quality control and the law of supply and demand.

Take Dre's notorious perfectionism: He'll record literally hundreds of tracks for a single album, 95 percent of which end up in the trash. He could make a quick buck by releasing, say, several albums worth of 50 Cent outtakes, but he has wisely resisted the urge to dilute the Dre brand. Contrast that attitude with what Master P did at No Limit Records in the late 1990s when he released album after album by talent-free family members. Master P's name became synonymous with craven profiteering; Dre's quality control has preserved his reputation for churning out worthwhile material.

And Dre isn't just consistently good—he's good in a consistent way. No matter if the front man is 50 Cent, Eminem, The Game, or Dre himself, the man's sound is similar from album to album. Dre achieves this by working with up-and-coming talents rather than established MCs who might want too big a say in how the album turns out. Dre was attracted to The Game because of his gangster persona and laid-back vocal style, but a more important factor might have been the young rapper's willingness to subordinate his technique to the Dre formula—the beats come first, and the lyrics are dessert. Meanwhile, ego clashes recently scuppered planned collaborations between Dre and Rakim, and Dre and Ice Cube.

Dre also realizes that once he's created a star, he can no longer exert his preferred level of control. Which may be why he rewards his former protégés with labels of their own (Eminem has Shady Records, 50 Cent has G Unit). It gives them something to do, which frees him up to look for more pliable talent. The end result? A sound that's so consistent the industry's hype artists can bank on it. Magazines and clothing companies can be confident that the pre-release capital they spend plugging Dre's protégés is a safe bet—sort of like buying hip-hop's version of municipal bonds.

When it comes to winning this kind of free, pre-release exposure, Dre has one last trick up his sleeve: He keeps himself scarce. Contrast the Dre approach with that of more prolific beatsmiths. The Neptunes, for example, rent themselves out as hired guns so often that a new Neptunes-produced track is certainly no cause for an XXL cover story. Dre, on the other hand, rarely takes on freelance work for non-Aftermath artists, preferring to keep his creative focus on projects he controls completely. Since 1998, only five albums can truly be considered pure Dre projects—the first two releases from Eminem, the debuts of 50 Cent and The Game, and his own 2001. The scarcity of Dre's work ensures that each release is an event, one that garners lavish media and consumer attention. And as music snobs are forever complaining—and the inexplicable success of Ashlee Simpson's Autobiography proves—exposure is what really propels an album to No. 1.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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