By Eileen Shapiro
Legendary, iconic and audacious Hip-Hop mogul, the original VJ of MTV’s Yo MTV Raps, Doctor Dre, was kind enough to speak in depth and intimately for several hours regarding music, his radio show, Fleshwound, his podcast 2 Bind Mics, the music industry, and life in general. Without a doubt one of the most ingeniously effervescent, animated, and brilliant man on the planet, I must admit that being in his presence was a complete honor and privilege.
I met him at a nondescript diner near his residence on Long Island accompanied by his beautiful wife and his friend Darrell. It was there that he candidly and vibrantly discussed his career on “Yo MTV Raps,” his beginnings at Hot 97 radio, his producing and recording experiences, Michael Jackson, Prince, Queen, the Commodores, Boy George, Arsenio Hall, his family, his childhood, and celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Yo MTV Raps. He also spoke of a relentless desire to fullfill future creative endeavors that he hadn’t even thought of yet.
Scientists believe that the gravity inside a black hole is so powerful that even light can escape. Such is the personality and the knowledge possessed by Doctor Dre…..”Music is not about trends, it’s about evolution”….”I build bridges, I don’t build walls”…..Andre Brown. If you need to be truly inspired….check it out….
Doctor Dre, how would you describe your radio show, “FLESHWOUND,” and the music that you play during it?
You saw my show. My show is a free form show. Yes I play rap music, yes I play R&B and soul, but I also play other music that I like. I play Bowie, I play Thompson Twins. It’s not that I play Bowie just to play Bowie. I play the music I grew up with because that’s what I like. I think that music should be played universally and not segmented. I think that’s half the problem why the music industry is the way it is. With all these shows like The Voice and Idol….. all of these contest shows to be honest destroy the music industry. I don’t know what those executives were thinking…””Let’s reboot American Idol, it will work”….” Did you pay attention to what the decline was”?… Between the judges and the show itself you eliminated the most important part of the show when you took away all the gag guests. The gag contestants, that’s what people wanted to watch. There were so many people known for that then the actual people that won… and if you go back and look at all of the winners only one or two of them are successful. Do you know why it doesn’t work that well, because after all of that coaching, that’s not being an artist.
Yes, a lot of TV can be over-produced.
I couldn’t believe it …. last Thursday night, I knew it was coming on so I turned it on and it was; “The Last Days of Michael Jackson”. “He knew he was gonna die? They made a show about him dying before he died….” that’s crazy. That’s a whole other level of artistry. What I liked about it was he sat down and was explaining why he did things the way he did. When they were doing the “This Is It” tour, none of us understood how sick, not mentally sick, but physically sick Michael Jackson was. He was on stage since he was five years old. His body broke down in ways that we don’t understand. He would leap off the stages, bounce around, dance around. Your hips are going, your knees are going, your lungs…everything in there was starting to change. Remember Michael took off 10 years and then said he’d do it one more time. That’s why he was so exasperated about wanting to do it again, because he knew it was tough to do what he did so well. He always kept trying to outdo himself. There’s a certain age that you hit a stage and perform at that magnitude, you’re gonna say, ” I can’t do that anymore”. When he died they said that he was abusing drugs but the man had bad hips, he couldn’t walk. He said when you jump off the stage in high stilettos….he might have been short, but when you fall….you fall. Michael was always chasing “Thriller”. I’m like dude, that’s done, now do what you want to do.
Like Prince as well.
Remember the last couple of shows he was sitting at the piano. People wondered why he was sitting at the piano. It was because he couldn’t walk. He really couldn’t walk. You keep imagining Prince at “Purple Rain”… It’s 30 years later. You see it’s that adrenaline that gets you back up. But when you walk off and say good night and they put that towel around you, and you get back to your hotel room, your body says: “ARE YOU CRAZY?”
So I am wondering what it feels like to be a living legend?
You know, that’s such an interesting term for me. When I say interesting, when I started this with my friends and peers, when we did what we did, we never thought about that. I always looked up to other people. When I entered that show I called him my mentors and people I looked up to. That’s what drove me to do it. And now people said, “no it’s you doing the stuff”…I look at myself and say, “am I that old”? …Yeah, I’m old now…I’ve been doing this a couple minutes.
I know that you don’t think about being a legend while you’re doing it, but right now you are it. So do you feel any different, like oh my God I’m a legend?
I wish I could say yes. But I really don’t because I still haven’t done what I really want to do yet. I know people say. “What are you talking about…..MTV Raps, a movie, The Beastie Boys, Hot 97, what else do you have to do’? I always put a new challenge in front of me. Doing the Doctor Dre “Fleshwound” show, is a challenge to me. It’s a challenge every week to do it. You still got to come up with the stuff. And then I’m working with people that have never been put in the form we do. I got to go, “Ok, you’re use to free-forming it this way, but now I wanna do it this way so that people who are listening will have a better understanding of what you wanna do”. Now I’m in teacher mode…so now I’m a teacher….Then I do my podcast, “2 Blind Mics,” with my partner Thomas Reed, who just happens to be blind. “2 Blind Mics,” it’s so cool because he lives in the Poconos and I live out here. But people call into it, and there are guests to the shows…”wait a minute…how do you all do that?”
Now this summer we’re going to actually shoot the pilot for the video version of it. Everyone wants to see what we look like and what we need to do with it. I haven’t even tapped the pulse of the craziness in my body and the energy of what I want to do. It keeps me motivated and alive. Because I keep saying that’s not enough. Then I listen to other people’s things, people that I idolize and wow, that kind of drives me. So when we started doing Doctor Dre’s “Fleshwound” it was designed to be a late night show. That’s what the whole idea was, from 10 to 12. I asked people did you ever see Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, Jimmy Fallon? Jimmy Fallon is not that guy. He’s a Saturday Night Live guy and he’s great at that. But then trying to bring that to the Tonight Show…. it took Jay Leno 20 years to master it after he took over Johnny Carson. You have to have that little sense of direction, you have to know what you’re looking for out of an audience. For me I say if I get you for 10 minutes, I’m going to hook you up for another 10 minutes. If I can hook you for two 10 minutes, I’m going to get you for another 10 minutes. Then I just won the night. If I can play a tune that makes you go “Hey What”, then I’m happy. My son and I program the show. Sheldon has a lot of input on it. I say “Sheldon, that music is cool, but look what happens when I play this….” I think the first time he caught onto it is when I played “Can We Talk” by Tevin Campbell. The song came on and everybody started singing it. I said, “You see what you’re doing” He said “Yeah”.
All of these networks are looking for new and original shows….why don’t you go for it?
You have a lot of people out there that all wanna be on TV….and what they really wanna be is on Facebook Live. There’s got to be a balance. Do you have your actuality ready, do you have your questions ready? Then all of a sudden people start to say ” Wow he’s not just sitting there winging it, but yet it sounds like he’s winging it”. That’s the challenge, you make it seem like it’s so easy that anyone can do it, but yet you try to make sure it’s important, yet compelling to people to keep people’s attention. That’s why I try to win little spaces, not try to win the hour. When I watch Colbert, I watch it from 1130 to 12, depending on who he has as a guest. I’m locked into what he’s gotta say. I go back and forth between him and Kimmel. I don’t use the DVR because now I want to have that feeling live. I want to feel that energy when they taped it for real. That’s the same thing I want out of doing the show. You can say I’ve studied this for a minute. Even when I watched Arsenio Hall come back. His greatest mistake was he thought he was coming back to 1990s. Rather than going “everything has changed, I’m gonna change, let me show you how I look right now. I’m going to come out in a nice jacket, no tie, my hat backwards, and I’m going to hang out”. You did that already, I was just talking to Darrell about that, they’re going to bring back “Yo MTV Raps,” with Doctor Dre….I’m not gonna do that! I did that. That donkey is laying on the ground, his tongue is hanging out of his mouth, and there’s no water in the trough. That’s a dead donkey ….”come on donkey, just get up”…NO! And you don’t want to damage that thing that you did then because that was that time. And you were good at that. It’s not that I can’t do that today, I’m not 25, and everyone in it that pays attention is different. Things I did then would not work.
So therefore “FLESHWOUND”….
I can bring on someone like Dr. Jackson, he’s got this, he’s got that, he’s a research doctor…he’s got a PHD. Then I can have Busta Rhymes on my left, or have Boy George….and we’re not talking about how are people treating you since you did “Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me”. No, dude…let me ask him, how’d you guys come up with “Culture Club” ? Where’d that come from? What drives you? Whatcha feel about what happened with George Michael? People say, ” I thought he was just rap music”…NO! “He’s got a lot more to him than just that. He actually follows my stuff….he knows of me”? The world knows of Boy George. I don’t want the industry to dictate to me, I’m going to dictate to you. And if you don’t like it, I’ll do another one because the technology allows me to do that now. Why criticize? You don’t have to like my painting. I’m sure they didn’t like Picasso at first.
He had to die to become popular.
Then people said, ” this is abstract art. This is something different”. And that’s what makes hip-hop so special. Not because it follows every trend. Music is not about trends, music is about evolution. Music is going to constantly evolve. If it doesn’t it becomes itself, it eats itself, and we’ve always seen those cycles, and cycles, and cycles. I mean I can go from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson to Prince, and you’ll see this canvas that they evolved from. One of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen Prince do was at The American Music Awards. He came out and did “Let’s Go Crazy”, but he changed the whole thing. Wait a minute…that’s “Let’s Go Crazy”, and I caught on to it…..that’s being an artist. And he didn’t care if I didn’t like it. I am being an artist, check it out, all I want is the exposure. Then criticize. Everyone’s driving to be this legacy person before you even put something out. I had this conversation with my son who said, “I want to be famous, I want everyone to know my name”. I said, “Why don’t you do something you enjoy”. He said, ” But look at what you did”… We had no aspirations of being famous, it was something we did because that’s what we loved to do, and we loved the music.
What does your son do aside from helping you program the show?
He goes to school at Five Towns College. He is a multi-musician, guitar, piano, drums, trumpet ….self-taught. If he hears me play some music he can just play it. The last person that I knew that could do that was my father. My father was the first chair violinist in the New York Philharmonic. He would hear a song on the radio and would take his violin and would play it. I asked him how he did that and he said, “eight notes are eight notes”. Honestly he would intimidate the crap out of me. I am the world’s greatest bad trumpet player on the planet. I can sit on the stage and make you think I was Louis Armstrong. I was great at faking it. I could do that all day long. If I asked my dad to help me he would tell me to run the scale for him. He would say “tell me the scale and then play it”. I said, ” Tell me the scale, I thought you knew it”… He’d get pissed and tell me “are you wasting my time or are you going to do this”? He was training my mind, He wanted me to be able to do the unexpected. He could read music like crazy.
Is your dad still alive?
No, my father passed when I graduated high school. It’s probably half the reason I do what I do. Darrell always says, “well look what you’ve done”. I always say there is a huge hole in my heart because my father wasn’t here and didn’t see it. That’s what makes my relationship with my son so interesting. I told him “I’m marveling at him every day that I see him and get to talk to him, my father didn’t make it to my 19th birthday”
That’s so sad.
I asked myself one time about him to a medium, and she said “What’s wrong with you”? She said, “You know what’s about to happen to you” I told her I didn’t know. Then she said, ” Your father had to go so that you could do what you had to do. He taught you everything you needed to know, now it’s on you”. I answered, “What are you talking about”? She exclaimed, ” I see your future, you’re gonna ride it high like a comet. You’re gonna crash it, and then that second time you’re gonna ride it even higher…the second time, that’s gonna be you’re big thing”. She was dead serious. She was right. This was like 1981, when I was in college. She said “he’s” smiling at me all the time, even in my roughest times he’s smiling , cause he’s saying, “you didn’t quit”. So that’s what drives me. My mom is 91 and my son was born on her birthday.
When is your birthday?
Mine is December 5th.
That is Sam Stevens birthday, the James Bond of the Music World. The one who’s music I just played for you.
I gotta get the Tux out of that dry cleaner. I’m wearing the white jacket with the black tie. I’m doing my Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.
You have a very positive outlook on life to say the least.
People ask me how I do what I do in my condition. I never looked at it as a problem. I look at it as something that you walk through and the higher power will take care of me. I’ve got too much to do. I’ve been told that I need to go out there and be the voice of the thing that needs to be. It’s only going to become an asset, and not a liability. If you look in the Bible it asked, “Who shall lead them”. And it says, “The blind shall lead them”. The shadow that’s excluding me isn’t impeding my vision. I would never see all God’s beauty, every time the sun comes up I can feel the rays of the sun. Does a rose smell any better whether I see it or not? It’s still a rose…..you get to understand what’s really important in life.
Are you ever scared?
Always. But the fear is something that keeps you grounded. What I’m scared of is failure and not being able to get back up again. Failure is just a symptom of success. In order to be successful like I am, it’s because I tried a lot. I still have a lot to learn.
A lot of artists are coming back now from the 80’s. I was just talking to Tom Bailey from Thompson Twins the other day. His view point was that it was a matter of all the fans from the 80s have now raised their kids, and they want to have fun again. What’s your thoughts on that?
Lionel Richie was going to go back on tour as the commodores. That’s cool but then Thomas McClary passed away. You just can’t replace Thomas McClary. That’s why I tell other groups that I deal with, “hey guys you need to get back together before somebody dies”. You can’t replace somebody, it’s not the same. That’s what’s interesting about that new Queen movie coming out. I’m a DJ from the street, from Westbury to New York City, to around the globe and “Another-one Bites the Dust” was always in my set…”We Will Rock You”, was always in my set. There was other Queen songs we played, ” We Are the Champions”, I don’t know how many times I played that at the end of the night. The song is incredible, it is what it is. Freddy Mercury had a background in opera. He took that on the stage with him. Sting still gets out there in his 60’s, and Shaggy makes records. Elton John retired. He’ll be back again. He’s gonna go home, sit there, look at the kids, look at his husband …he’s gonna say, ” Let’s get back on the road”. He’ll get out there and play that piano…because it’s in him. It’s in you, you love that feeling, you love that applause and that roar. If I were Billy Joel I would do a documentary about doing piano bars all over. You just walk into a bar unannounced and sit down by a piano and then start playing. People would say that guy sounds just like Billy Joel….it is Billy Joel. If I were him I would play 100 bars around the world…it would work. That’s the kind of stuff I think about. So when I say I want to go on a two week tour to the UK and Dj, we’ll just put the songs out. I don’t know about you but I don’t think Paris Hilton is a better Dj.
Which Doctor/Dr. Dre came first?
It was me, even though people say there’s a little gray area, mine didn’t come from Music. Mine came from sports, from basketball. Actually when I first started DJing I never used Doctor Dre. When I started it was like DJ, and your last name. You know when I hated DJ Brown? When I saw it on a shirt. It said, “My name is DJ Brown, ask me again and I’ll knock you down”. A Little Rascals line…. and I kept trying to find ways to make it seem cool, and nothing was cool. Not that I don’t like my last name it just doesn’t sound cool. I went through so many different crazy names. And then someone said to me, Doctor Dre….and Doctor Dre works. Ok let’s do it! The first time I put it on the sweatshirt I wanted to do something different. We went and got short sleeve bright gold sweatshirts, and we used black and red letters. Then I had “Dr. Dre The Fearless Leader”. That’s when I spelled it Dr. Dre, but then I found out about the other one, I said Doctor Dre, and everyone took to that even more. The man is a huge success, Dr. Dre…
Are you friends?
I wouldn’t say friends, we just acknowledge each other’s presence of who we are. Everybody said how do you two survive, and I’ll be honest with you… with the personal tragedy he’s had in his personal life, I would never wish that on anybody. It’s really weird but, he became famous on my show. When they asked if I wanted to play his video I said yeah. Why should I hold him back…..he’s just doing what he does. I never wanted to hold someone back from an opportunity, especially if that’s what you do. What’s interesting in the first songs that he did, like “Boys in the Hood”, he was using my songs in his songs.
History has always intertwined itself. And the crazy part is we are both the same age, he is Andre Young, I’m Andre Brown. Many years ago we were going to do a record together. Doctor Dre and Dr. Dre ….we had to figure out how to do it while maintaining our own identity.
I think you should do it now.
Nah…that’s water under the bridge because it would be …..I would do a song with him if he wanted to do a song together. But finding the right song,…..I want to have more creative form for what I’m doing. That’s one of the reasons that I stopped recording. When that whole era came around, and as cool as it may have been to a lot of people, I didn’t agree with it. Not because of the music, but I always said I couldn’t perform something that I couldn’t perform in front of my mother. Even on my album I did some suggestive stuff but my mom said, “It’s ok”.
Do you have an idol?
There are too many. I have to say one of my biggest idols would be Earth, Wind and Fire. I remember the first time I saw them when I was a child, I saw them at Nassau Coliseum. The gentlemen wwere spinning upside down, and then I went to the “All N’ All” concert in 1977, and the stage was set up, and there were tubes. I looked at the tubes and they were all sitting in the tubes…How did they get there? Because when you were sitting and you looked at the tubes they were empty. And the tubes were up high. And I looked at it and thought, “this is gonna be something”! They descend and then they landed and the tube goes up, and they were standing there…OMG, they were in the tubes…It dragged me into wanting to be a performer, watching their musicianship, their vocal sound was as good as the record. I’ve been to a lot of performances and everybody can’t perform live. But they could! This is crazy. I sat there and said “that’s the greatest group I’ve ever seen perform live”. I’ve seen James Brown, right here at Westbury Music Fair, and he had to fight his way off the stage. My father was there and he dragged us back stage to meet James Brown. I watched him perform and I said to myself, “I can do that too”. He was amazing! I had to be 6 or 7… how do you remember that? You cannot forget James Brown. I saw the Jackson 5 perform at the Westbury Music Fair, and I met them for the first time at Westbury. They wanted to play basketball so they opened up the high school and invited certain kids to go there. It was the first time I ever met Michael Jackson. Then I went to the concert, again…. ridiculous! So then watching them there and then going to Nassau Coliseum to watch them perform when they did “The Triumph” tour, …. I mean these were the idols…. watching Rick James, watching the Commodores, …..this was commanding! Then I went to my first AC/DC concert, I was sitting there getting blown away at the Colosseum by the sound and the beats. It was crazy. Then the pinnacle of it all was Parliament Funkadelic. I watched them so many times. Going to that show in Massachusetts when that skull came out, and they put this giant joint in his mouth…. one of the craziest concerts I’ve ever seen was George Clinton and the P Funk All-Stars at the Apollo theater. So we were at the Apollo theater at what was called sound check. We went there like four in the afternoon. There was an 8 o’clock start. Do you know they played from four in the afternoon until 3 o’clock in the morning. At 11:00 PM George walked out and said “OK that was sound check, now let’s get it on”. The whole Apollo was rocking! We walked out of there wet.
Photo Credit: Billy Hess Photography www.BillyHess.com