Why The Chronic Is the Greatest Album in Rap History
If you try to remember the late fall of 1992, all you see is smoke. Smoke smoldering from the rubble of post-riot L.A. Smoke sepulchral from the barrels of freshly fired AKs. Smoke swirling from the zigzags of anyone able to purchase the bomb, the real sticky-icky, the chronic.
All you hear is The Chronic -- Dr. Dre's perfectly rolled joint, which soon celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Dec. 15, 1992, release.
You might not agree that it is the greatest rap album of all time, but it's difficult to argue against its selection. Biggie or Nas' debuts may be more lyrical. A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory is looser. Wu-Tang and Outkast were more otherworldly and Public Enemy more incisively political. But no album before or since has blended those qualities like the rat-tat-tat murderer's row of Dre, Snoop Dogg, Daz, Jewell, Kurupt, D.O.C., RBX, Nate Dogg and the Lady of Rage. (For more see our feature story on the making of The Chronic.)
Hip-hop is omnivorous by design. It recycles old sounds and ideas and spits them back at semiautomatic speed. The Chronic was the culmination. It synthesized the previous quarter-century of soul music and expanded upon its possibilities.
No rap album had ever been that musical. Dre fused live instrumentation with a mosaic of Parliament, Donny Hathaway, James Brown and other impeccably selected soul and funk samples. This was G-Funk. Then he laid down some of the hardest and most hilarious raps and skits captured on tape.
"The Chronic is still the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. It's the benchmark you measure your album against if you're serious."
Kanye West wrote that in Rolling Stone, and no knows more about delivering on insane ambition than he. But The Chronic did more than extend rap's parameters -- it simultaneously revealed its roots. Things went deeper than just sampling a song like Hathaway's "Little Ghetto Boy." Dre, Snoop and the D.O.C. were connecting the blood red and marine blue gang warfare of South Central with the turbulence of the civil rights era. Things done changed. We were in the Boyz n the Hood era, and The Chronic twisted audio clips from the riots documentary Birth of a Nation 4x29x92 with the white-chalk narratives of 18-year-olds with itchy trigger fingers and homies named Lil Half Dead.
"The Chronic captured the reality that was with us -- the black cloud over L.A. that existed after the riots. Robberies were at an all-time high. The National Guard was still in Compton. People were either very timid or very violent," says Compton-bred Game, who was Dre's choice to steward the West Coast, gangsta-rap tradition to the next generation. "Even if you were from Nebraska, all you had to do was listen to The Chronic and you could feel like a gangsta."
Gangsta rap existed before The Chronic. By 1987, Schoolly D and Ice-T were banging on both coasts. The arrival of N.W.A proved that gangsta rap could even be considered a public enemy by the FBI. But The Chronic was the first to make it fun.