Putting it bluntly: Compton, cannabis and ‘The Chronic’ — 25 years later
The quarter-century odyssey of Dr. Dre’s debut and its role in America’s complicated affair with marijuana
The Chronic is older than Karl-Anthony Towns. So when the 22-year-old center announced his support of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s call to remove medicinal marijuana from its banned substances list, it was a star player in America’s most popular and socially conscious sport calling for legalization. An admitted nonsmoker, Towns’ perception of cannabis includes its benefits outweighing its historical and modern-day bad reputation. Dr. Dre’s debut album, celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, played and continues to play a critical role in both the social mainstreaming of and resistance to the plant that made Colorado $1 billion in eight months in 2017.
“You don’t have to actually make it ‘Mary J[ane]’ [or] ‘Half Baked.’ You don’t have to do it like that, but you could use the [chemical] properties in it to make a lot of people better. That’s something that Adam Silver has to do,” the former Rookie of the Year told ESPN. “That’s out of my control, but maybe legalizing marijuana. Not fully legal, where people are chimneys, but using [marijuana] as a beneficial factor [for] athletes, as a person living daily.”
Towns didn’t go as far as putting his knee on the NBA’s neck. But he was steadfast in his commitment to destigmatize a plant long embedded in the fiber of American culture — both positively and negatively. Hip-hop, in particular, has its own complex and appreciative relationship with weed. And that story is impossible to tell without examining the role of Dr. Dre’s marijuana manifesto.
Dr. Dre was in the driver’s seat of a career crossroads by the fall of 1992. Rap’s most sought-after beatsmith couldn’t escape the title of “woman beater” stemming from his 1991 assault of journalist Dee Barnes (he apologized in 2017’s mammoth doc, The Defiant Ones). N.W.A. had disbanded. Dr. Dre’s new music came in the form of his newly minted Death Row Records, which he formed alongside football player turned bodyguard turned executive Marion “Suge” Knight. The Chronic, Death Row’s first project, was an instant success. The 16-song album was a sonic journey featuring samples from Parliament-Funkadelic, Donny Hathaway, Led Zeppelin and others.
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The Chronic sounded different from anything on the scene and helped shift hip-hop’s ground zero out west. As a technical solo album from Dr. Dre, it was in reality an introduction of Death Row’s talent, such as Daz Dillinger and Kurupt, Warren G, The D.O.C. and Lady of Rage. By far the biggest beneficiary of The Chronic’s nationwide contact high, though, was Snoop Dogg. His appearance on 1992’s Deep Cover soundtrack, with the title song, had stoked interest.
But Snoop’s constant presence on The Chronic and his affinity for cannabis culture endeared him to millions. Numerous references to weed littered The Chronic’s intro and outro, “Let Me Ride” and “The $20 Sack Pyramid.” Visually there was Snoop’s white hat with its blurred marijuana leaf logo. “Chronic” became a permanent nickname for cannabis, in part because the mixture of Dr. Dre’s velvety instrumentals mixed with Snoop’s jazzlike cadence were a match made in gangsta rap heaven and weed fantasy.
Before Dr. Dre and Snoop helped take hip-hop’s marijuana appreciation worldwide, groups such as Cypress Hill had embraced the cause on its landmark 1991 self-titled debut. Marijuana thrived in genres such as reggae — hello, Bob Marley — and reached an artistic zenith at Woodstock.
“For a long time it was a bad word; saying ‘weed’ was like saying ‘heroin’ or something. The fun wasn’t there anymore,” Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog told Cuepoint last year. “We just had to put a cool twist back on it, like Cheech & Chong did in the ’70s, and get people to relax on the subject.” Now more socially accepted than at any point in post-President Richard Nixon America, marijuana’s crossover appeal is indisputable, found in movies, TV shows and documentaries. One environment in particular marijuana found a welcoming home is through music.
Yet, the stance Dr. Dre took on The Chronic was a stark 180 from the man who claimed on N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” in 1988: I don’t smoke weed or sess / Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage / And brain damage on the mic don’t manage. Now he laid the praise on the plant for helping him produce. “It’s sort of in this realm of pop culture being able to have some representatives who are the ambassadors of cool,” A.D. Carson, a professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia, says of Dr. Dre and Snoop’s almost instantaneous cultural stranglehold. He says he believes The Chronic helped influence an entire generation’s perspective on weed and music.
The Chronic arrived at the end of a year of civil unrest in Los Angeles, and The Chronic can be viewed as a kind of escape. “To create something new, and an alternate place to exist, that’s kinda what they’re creating with the ethos of The Chronic,” said cultural historian Timothy Anne Burnside. “The backdrop being everything with the race riots and all these things that are happening, but they’re giving people an alternate space to exist at the same time.”
Dr. Dre and Snoop, she says, are an authentic representation of life in Los Angeles, a hotbed of creativity, despair and generational fury. “Marijuana is absolutely 100 percent front and center of that,” Burnside said. “[There are many conversations] that can be had about this record, but [marijuana] is definitely at the heart of it.”
The Chronic was, no pun intended, a massive hit, selling nearly 8 million copies since December 1992. As a result, Death Row Records became a cultural supernova, and Dr. Dre today is one of rap’s most decorated businessmen, with deep ties to Apple and his famed Beats By Dre headphones. A quarter-century later, Snoop is a household name, arguably rap’s most recognizable entity and the architect of perhaps rap’s most prodigious career transformation. His name is so synonymous with the herb, he sits on the pantheon of music’s most memorable marijuana mavens, such as Marley, Willie Nelson, Cheech & Chong and Cypress Hill.
The Chronic had political implications as well. Names such as Dr. Dre, Snoop and Cypress Hill weren’t the primary inspirations behind Proposition 215, the bill that made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana in November 1996. But their collective normalizing influence on society’s acceptance of weed is indisputable. And despite critics’ moves toward maintaining marijuana as a societal ill, hip-hop ignited a THC-laced conversation that has since grown increasingly public in recent years.
“If you look at the climate in 1992, no one would have thought weed was coming,” Burn TV’s Jason Santos said of hip-hop’s role in the legislation. “We’re talking about a huge shift in the paradigm in a short period of time coming out of the Nancy Reagan years, and coming out of all the anti-cannabis stuff.”
“If a bunch of people hadn’t been raped and murdered on The Chronic, it would have probably had a different effect further out on the culture. That’s the thing. You, unfortunately, had to loop marijuana in with the gangland violence,” said journalist and entrepreneur Marcus K. Dowling.
He and Burnside are frequent co-hosts of the monthly #ClassicAlbumSundays at Songbyrd, a Washington, D.C., coffeehouse/vinyl shop. On Dec. 3, the two hosted a joint listening session and panel discussion about the album’s legacy. An album can be many things at once, they surmised. The Chronic sits on this provocative mantel. But, Dowling says, “For as positive as marijuana is and the culture is, there are also very horrible stigmatized things in. Then you add in these are very young black men and women on this album engaging in horribly violent acts. Placed in the context of stereotyping of young black men and women, it does nothing positive for anything that it’s attached to.”
There’s another branch attached to The Chronic and its place in American pop culture. A quarter-century later, legal cannabis sales are projected to surpass $10 billion in 2017. The Chronic represents an American ornament, an important chapter in the lineage of marijuana’s history. The conversation around the plant has changed dramatically, mostly for the better, in post-Chronic life. But while the industry grows faster than the plants itself, discrimination is the elephant in the room.
“That’s a history of capitalism and the exploitation that comes along with it,” said Carson. “That’s generalizable to not just marijuana, but because of that dopeness as a metaphor, I think that it’s extremely important.”
What’s 🔥 Right Now
Many men and women, particularly of color, are barred from the industry, stemming from the racially scarred history of marijuana prohibition. Retired NBA forward and legal marijuana advocate Al Harrington vented about this matter when he spoke to The Undefeated in 2016 on the topic. “It really sucks that kids have these nickel bags and ounces of weed on them and they’re felons. It don’t sit well with me,” he said. “If this is an industry I want to be in, I don’t feel right being in a position to make all kinda money off it knowing they’re still suffering.”
The Chronic played its role in forcing society to inhale truth and exhale reality about cannabis with credibility and cultural relevance that hasn’t been duplicated since. But The Chronic and its supporters understand that even 25 years later, freedom, frequently, ain’t free. A quarter-century removed, The Chronic, but really the culture that embraced it, is still chasing the perfect high.
More than ever, getting high is a societal norm, and the album, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg played a small but implicit role in that. It’s forever embedded in a history that at its core was barred off racial bias and fears. Meanwhile, many of the same men and women who have sung the album’s praises are still barred from an industry they participated in. It was illegal then. It’s America’s next big industry now — poetic dissonance rolled in the tightest joint.
Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.
The Chronic is older than Karl-Anthony Towns. So when the 22-year-old center announced his support of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s call to remov…
10 Rappers That Stay Away From Weed
Surprisingly straight edged.
April 20, 2017 at 4:11 pm
Marijuana has been around forever. It’s never been a time in recent memory where it hasn’t had a presence in my life. Unlike alcohol (which I didn’t learn to properly abuse until college), it was the one vice that I became familiar with personally, even before I indulged.
As early as middle school I soon learned that the “skunk” smell wasn’t a rodent at all, but the sweet fragrance of the mind-altering flower. Dro, weed, loud or whatever your region calls it, it was never taboo to me. It was something I just accepted as an aspect of my culture—and in a lot of ways, it is.
My mom, and damn near everyone alive in the 70’s, rolled it up. It has its own genre of music, and movies have properly reflected its influence on society. And all of this was before any of the recent lax in legislation in states across America.
Now that weed is legal in eight states, decriminalized in 13 and available for medical use in 29, no wonder 10 million more Americans smoke mary jane than 12 years ago.
So, that got me thinking. Who DOESN’T smoke weed?
Because celebs, especially rappers, have more access and resources to get their hands on the magical green leaf, I made it my personal mission to find out who doesn’t partake, and why.
Let’s see what I found.
1. Vince Staples Photo: G L Askew II
The complete opposite of his fellow Long Beach native Snoop Dogg, Vince Staples is actually a sober cat. No drinking or weed smoking. The MC, who first made his splash on the hip-hop scene rapping alongside Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, says being sober is “underrated” and that if you’re going to get high, you should go hard or go home. In this hilarious Over/Under interview he explains: “I’m all about the necessary and I’m all about going hard or going home. So if you’re getting high and you’re not off the crack rock, I got to worry about your commitment to the cause.”
Touché Mr. Staples, touché.
2. Lil Yachty Photo: Fader/Gunner Stahl
Not to be outdone by his 2015 XXL freshman class alum Vince Staples, 2016 XXL Freshman, Lil Yachty aka Lil Boat, has also decided to embrace the sober life.
I know what you’re thinking: what about the broccoli he can’t shut up about? But as he explains in his 2016 Road To Made In America interview, he attributes his success in large to being straight edge and staying in the studio. His D.R.A.M. collab was just that—a collab.
3. Tyler, The Creator Photo: Simone Joyner
It seems like Tyler the Creator does it all. He’s the leader and co-founder of the alternative hip-hop collective Odd Future, he hosted his first fashion show last summer where he debuted his new shoe Golf Le Fleur and he’s even eaten a cockroach. What doesn’t the Cali native do?
His high energy, colorful personality and fan demographic (who indulges in drugs quite heavily) doesn’t stop him from speaking on his commitment to the straight edge lifestyle.
And while y’all are rolling doobies
I be in my bedroom scoring movies
Why doesn’t he? Well, apparently it was a bad experience with a weed brownie that ruined it for him. He tells the story in an interview with the Fader. “I’ve been high before. All my friends smoke weed. I know they buy eighths and pounds and shit, and they like Swisher Sweets. Last time was ’09, New Year’s Eve. Ate a weed brownie, the worst time in my life. Not for T. This mind shouldn’t have anything in it. We was all at the studio, and I was like “Yeah, fuck it, I’ll take a small piece of the weed brownie.” I was fucked up, crying, wanted to die. This brain isn’t supposed to have anything.”
4. J. Cole Photo: Neilson Barnard
Although his freeform hair and unkempt beard may suggest otherwise, the 4 Your Eyez Only rapper, has been marijuana free since 2011.
In an interview with HipHop-N-More, Cole opened up about weed never really being his thing, and said that he really only talks about weed to relate to some of his fans. “I just had a phase toward the end of college,” he said. “That was my phase, but it was never for me.”
5. Kendrick Lamar Photo: KendrickLamar.com
One of my favorite Kendrick songs is “The Recipe.” The smooth melodic chorus chants “women, weed and weather” in a continuous loop as K.Dot. and his big homie Dr. Dre, rap about California’s greatest attributes. But the Compton native actually stays abstinent from the substance.
In a 2012 interview with Mr. Peter Parker, he talks about the habit and why he doesn’t do it.
“I used to smoke,” Kendrick said. “Smoking weed wasn’t ever a dependency for me. A lot of people use it as a dependency. They wake up in the morning angry, and smoke. It never was a dependent for me, so it never was a crutch, really.”
A GQ profile on Lamar went in depth on his decision to maintain sobriety, and in an interview with HardKnockTV, he talks about how, despite his TDE labelmates ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul smoking, he just never got into it.
I think he articulates his stance on weed perfectly on his 2010 Overly Dedicated album on a classic joint called “H.O.C”:
I go in studio sessions and feel like a nerd
Cause I’m the only nigga there not smoking no herb
You telling me the kush make you think on level 4?
I’m on 5, you saying that I can level more?
6. Kid Cudi Photo: Kevin Winter
Personally, I think Kid Cudi has the greatest weed song ever. It’s fittingly titled “Marijuana” and can easily be dubbed the smoking anthem of my generation. However, the bud loving Cudder called it quits in 2011. He announced on his Tumblr that he was giving it up because he was “happy being a new me.” On his Tumblr, he wrote:
“Give f— who thinks of me different, you didn’t care about me in the first place if you can be proud and happy for me for growing and starting a new chapter. I’m not your puppet or your tap dancing drug addict here to be your miserable muse, I always made music for me to help myself find understanding. I have finally learned from the words in my songs. I love who loves me and who really cares about me.”
At least this was the tune he sang until he released “Just What I Am,” off his 2013 Indicud album, featuring weed rap veteran King Chip, where Cudi repeatedly rattled the bass with the simple melody, “I need smoke. I need to smoke.” and “Weed is what you made, God.”
But as he clarified in a one-on-one interview with Complex in 2013, he was able to make a song about smoking weed because he stepped away from it in 2011. He was tired of being the “Stoner MC” and once he shedded that persona, rapping about it became easier. In other words, he still didn’t smoke, but because he rid himself of the smoker stereotype, he could rap about it more freely.
7. Eminem Photo: hiphopgoldenage.com
If there was anyone who we should be proud of embracing sobriety, it is Eminem, who is arguably one of the greatest emcee’s to do it.
Eminem, Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers, or whatever choose to call him, started off rapping about drugs, and the dark winding roads it can take you down, using harrowing lyrics that were both impressive, and disturbing.
However, today he’s sober. But the journey to sobriety was not an easy one. Over the years, Eminem has battled, going back and forth from stoned to clean, even recording an album called Recovery, where he spilled his guts out about his demons.
He even told VIBE magazine that he had to re-learn how to record songs while sober. To put it in perspective, he stopped mid-song during a concert in Detroit, just because he couldn’t relate to his old music anymore. He told the crowd that he doesn’t do any of that anymore, and couldn’t fully connect with the content of the songs—which is definitely a good thing.
8. Common Photo: worldofblackheroes.com
This Chicago born and raised rapper is one of the few artists that has not only represented the genre of hip-hop in a positive light, but has been a model of consistency in both his artform and personal life.
The rapper turned actor, who recently won the 2015 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song and 2015 Academy Award for Best Original Song for his John Legend-assisted track “Glory” (off of the Selma movie soundtrack), has actually never touched the herb.
And while he’s signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D music, where the majority of his labelmates indulge, Common has managed to stay away.
9. Andre 3000 Photo: factmag.com
One-half of the super rap group OutKast, Andre Benjamin, or Andre 3000, grew up with the Dungeon Family, smoking weed and rapping in a dirt basement in Atlanta, until making it big and signing with L.A. Reid.
But in a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Mr. 3000 said that he quit smoking pot and drinking in 1998 after realizing that the drug had taken control of his life. “I was kind of abusing it. I wasn’t looking my best. I had a platinum album out and I would do stuff like go to [the] projects to buy weed,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t too clever. I was putting myself in danger,” he stated.
The talented musician has managed to be weed free ever since.
10. Pharrell Williams Photo: Theo Wargo
If the ageless wonder himself were to announce that the secret to looking not a shade over 25 in your 40’s was due to a sober lifestyle, I think a lot of people would start adopting that lifestyle.
Pharrell, is a Grammy winner, bonified hitmaker, a businessman with a clothing line in its 12th year in business, author and countless of other things that we honestly don’t have time to sit here and name.
They say the mary jane slows you down, and if Skateboard P is a case study, there may be credence to that.
In a 2013 interview with Paper Magazine, Pharrell said he doesn’t do drugs or smokes at all. “Everybody else can do what they want, but that stuff isn’t for me. I’ve been drunk nine times in my life, and I ate some weed brownies once and passed out in a bathroom.”
It seems like everybody and their mama smoke weed these days, but who actually doesn't? Here's a list of those who stay away from the leaf.