How Dr. Dre’s 2001 ushered in a new era of hip-hop

Musical history is littered with flagpole moments, momentous occasions whose import and cultural repercussions are better understood from the vantage point of hindsight. November 16 1999, seven years after the release of Dr. Dre’s solo debut The Chronic, and three years after he began working on its sequel, is one such date.

Forward thinking in title as it was in sound, 2001 arrived at the tail end of a year that had seen many of hip-hop’s biggest stars, such as Jay-Z with Vol 3…The Life And Times Of S. Carter or Nas with both I Am… and Nastradamus, release albums that felt like the audio equivalent of treading water. Although Mos Def, The Roots and Pharoahe Monch all released critically acclaimed albums, hip-hop generally was in need of a new direction. G-funk, the George Clinton-influenced gangsta rap that Dr. Dre had helped popularise in the early ‘90s had run its course on the West Coast and Bad Boy Records’ dominance in the East was similarly in decline, following the death of its main star The Notorious B.I.G.

A shrewd businessman, Dre gauged the public’s desire for something new and exciting, and ushered in the year by signing and producing the breakthrough album from Eminem. Following the success of The Slim Shady LP and its hit single My Name Is, Dre was primed for a comeback.

While the loud drums and whiny synths of The Chronic timestamp it to 1992, the production on 2001 has aged well, which is in part down to Dr. Dre’s own meticulous mix and preference for analogue equipment. At a time when the industry was transitioning into digital recording, the album was recorded through an SSL desk — the same used on Dre productions since 1990 — through a Neve 1073 mic preamp to tape, which aids the round warmth of the all important low end.

But the biggest contributor to 2001’s lean, organic sound is its employment of live instruments. The album credits reveal that all of the songs feature a variation of the same core of musicians, being bassist Mike Elizondo, keys players Scott Storch and Camara Kambon, guitarist Sean Cruse and percussionist Taku Hirano, with Dre programming the drums on his MPC3000. The tracks evolved out of jam sessions between the core group, the result of which is a record built around simple, hook-laden grooves.

Though there are samples used on 2001, the majority of them were reportedly replayed, for example the dramatic, orchestral horn blast from David McCallum’s The Edge fits The Next Episode so perfectly because it was recorded specifically for it.

“I want to be known as the producer’s producer,” Dre told The Guardian in 2014. “I may hear something on an old record that inspires me, but I’d rather use musicians to re-create the sound or elaborate on it. I can control it better.”

Another signature of 2001 is its use of string and brass sounds, which both embellish the grooves, such as the horns on What’s The Difference and add a lush, orchestral quality, such as the synth strings on Still D.R.E. and Forgot About Dre.

Both of these arrangement techniques — orchestral flourishes over lean grooves indebted to ‘70s soul jazz — are responsible for 2001’s legacy beyond hip hop. Tracks from the album, particularly The Next Episode, have become staples for instrumental soul and brass bands, with Khruangbin, The Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band and Breakdown Brass having all recorded notable versions. In 2017 New York based musician Sly5thAve released an entire album of orchestral jazz covers of Dre material, featuring four pieces from 2001, while the UK’s No Strings Attached are currently touring the world performing An Orchestral Rendition of Dr. Dre: 2001.

For hip-hop itself the album pointed a way forward for the genre that could be gritty and commercial at the same time and without pandering directly to an R&B audience. The following year saw Jay-Z — who also co-wrote Still D.R.E. — release his Dynasty album, which notably featured This Can’t Be Life, his first collaboration with the then unknown producer Kanye West.

“‘Xxplosive’ off 2001, that’s [where] I got my entire sound from,” West later told Rolling Stone. “If you listen to the track, it’s got a soul beat, but it’s done with those heavy Dre drums. Listen to This Can’t Be Life and then listen to Xxplosive. It’s a direct bite.”

“Hearing Xxplosive for the first time,” recalled Kendrick Lamar when listing his influences for Complex in 2012. “Hearing the The Car Bomb intro, the sound effects on that were crazy. It sounded like a movie. I remember being a kid and thinking it sound like an actual movie.”

The album’s orchestral flourishes were indeed designed to promote the concept of the album as a cinematic event, to the point that intro track directly sampled the sound played by THX before their films, resulting in a swift and expensive lawsuit from Lucasfilm.

However, not everything on 2001 holds up to scrutiny. By that stage of his career, Dre was clearly more comfortable behind the mixing desk than the microphone, and so 2001 is a group effort vocally, with the majority of the rapping being handled by his close circle. With so many posse cuts, at times Dre as a personality does feel slightly distant, with the obvious ghostwriting for his verses failing to communicate much in the way of charisma.

Similarly, with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that many of his chosen collaborators were not up to the task. This is true in particular of the newcomers, Hittman, whose career would begin and end with 2001, and who somehow manages to be completely forgettable despite the fact that he appears on 11 of the 23 tracks, while Xzibit offers little more than an interesting voice. It’s Dre’s established mentees that really shine as rappers, with Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Kurupt all delivering some of their career best performances and sounding fully invested in giving the project, and the man who had formed each of their careers, their all.

Lyrically much of the album is juvenile and derivative, with many of the songs being fixated on a narrative of abuse and hate towards women – shock-value humour which hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s hard to imagine that Dre, who has spent recent years trying to promote the image of himself as a serious genius and nice guy, thanks to his self-produced portrayals in Straight Outta Compton and The Defiant Ones, would release an album like this today.

20 years on and 2001 still sounds ahead of its time, a sprawling, imperfect masterpiece whose influence is still being felt in and beyond hip-hop.

Article originally published on Embedded audio originally broadcast on 3RRR FM on Thursday November 14 2019.

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