Dr Dre (feat. Snoop Dogg), Still D.R.E. (1999)


Artist: Dr Dre (featuring Snoop Dogg)
Title: Still D.R.E.
Description: single; album track, 2001
Label: Interscope
Release date: 1999
First heard: 1999

I’m representing for them gangstas all across the world
Still hitting them corners on the low-lows girl
Still taking my time to perfect the beat
And I still got love for the streets

If I say I’ve lost touch with hip-hop this century, that’s true of most musical genres so part of a broader pattern of disengagement which I put down to my age and to how shit music now is. As for hip-hop, I gave Jay-Z my best shot and appreciated The Black Album, but that’s a decade old now. I found 50 Cent exciting to begin with, but his flame quickly went out. Eminem made some great records, but crashed and burned and I don’t find his nasal whining easy to listen to any more. It’s hard to imagine that Kanye West was an artist to take seriously at one time, but he lost me at Graduation, which, again, is some years back. Sasha Frere-Jones gave such a positive write-up for Virgina duo Clipse in the New Yorker around the release of their third album Hell Hath No Fury, I bought it without hearing a note and was with them for a while. Buy that was 2006. There’s a theme here. I had a later dalliance with MF Doom’s excellent Born Like This in 2009, but the pickings had, for me, become slim.

I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint exactly where hip-hop I parted company but the Wu-Tang Clan’s weak swansong 8 Diagrams, which I loyally paid money for in 2007, was certainly a watershed. My patience ran out. Maybe I grew out of it, or it grew out of me.

I remain attached to the genre, historically. It really shook me out of the rock ghetto in the 80s and continued to provide exotic sustenance through the 90s, especially when Dre and Snoop Dogg helped define the low-riding G-funk sound. Doggy Style, for all its juvenile content, was a set text at Q magazine of all places, thanks to the influence of our dear leader Danny Kelly. Dr Dre’s The Chronic was much in evidence in the office, too; what nobody in those days called a “game-changer”. But its belated follow-up 2001 remains a preeminent Millennial work. Its lead-off single is the definitive article; a “previously on” recap of Dre’s empire-building interim (“Guess who’s back?”).

Bragging about how good at rapping you are was a thematic linchpin of early hip-hop, but this was quickly overtaken by bragging about how successful at rapping you are when the genre struck oil. As a producer and mogul, Dre’s showing-off is strictly business: “Since the last time you heard from me I lost some friends/Well, hell, me and Snoop, we dipping again/Kept my ear to the streets, signed Eminem/He’s triple platinum, doing 50 a week.” It’s not a new thing for artists to achieve success and turn kingmaker, but I still find it sweet that Dre bigs himself up by bigging up his new signing. “My last album was The Chronic,” he states, baldly, for the record.

Even his preeminence in the field is couched in a line about his judgement in a shifting marketplace. “They say rap’s changed, they want to know how I feel about it.” Whatever the view, he’s insistent that we know he’s “still got love for the streets.” The streets are lucky to have his patronage.

It’s not always easy to describe why you like one rapper’s voice over another’s. I like the sheer amount of saliva Method Man seems to work up, and the way Dre signing Nate Dogg (RIP) sounds like he can’t quite fit in all the words he wishes to get out, but these are rare examples of me putting my finger on it. It’s more about intonation and rhythm with Dre – the way the word “still” is employed, for instance, driven into the ground like a stake – and of course his avuncular sparring with naughty nephew Snoop Dogg, happy to play second vocal fiddle to his boss, with a complementary and complimentary “uh-huh”, “fo’ sho'” and “Nigga”, plus the defining refrain, “If you ain’t up on thangs”. Snoop also gets to vibe a solo verse about marijuana (“No stress, no seeds, no stems, no sticks” – we want to know how he feels about it).

Underpinning all this vocal tennis is one of the great pilfered-or-otherwise cinematic/orchestral riffs in all of hip-hop, an insistently plucked string instrument – and two notes of cello to start? – which is not credited as a sample and the song’s composition is shared between Dre, Snoop, Jay-Z and producers Mel-Man and Scott Storch, so I’m assuming it was played for the track. Is that likely? You can usually identify samples with an Internet search, but nothing comes up for this one. Any clues gratefully considered. In the video, unsurprisingly, Dre and Snoop rock along in a car. Play this song in a car and it’s impossible not to do just that. It’s a low rider.

Because rap is all about dead presidents, the fact that, as a single, Still D.R.E. sold four million copies in America is significant. (It went Top 10 here, too.) No longer underground, if hip-hop doesn’t go quadruple platinum, can it really be said to be hip-hop at all? But of all at rap’s top table, I find Dre one of the most palatable. Since putting out 2001 in 1999, he appears to have recorded and scrapped the follow-up – and his proposed “final album” – Detox. If he never puts it out, as hinted, he’s done enough already, as an architect, administrator, scout and musician.

He’s the same age as me. Bastard.

Electric Light Orchestra, Mr Blue Sky (1977)


Artist: Electric Light Orchestra
Title: Mr Blue Sky
Description: single; album track, Out Of The Blue
Label: Jet
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977

1977 was the year punk broke wide open: God Save The Queen, Damned Damned Damned, Sid replacing Glenn Matlock, The Clash, Oh Bondage! Up Yours, Blank Generation, Never Mind The Bollocks. I, meanwhile, could be found sitting cross-legged on the carpet of the family living room listening intently to the Concerto For A Rainy Day, which comprised Side Three of Out Of The Blue, a double LP whose generous gatefold sleeve, complete with lyrics, gave a 12-year-old something to get his head round while the lush, orchestral music flowed from the modest speakers attached to Mum and Dad’s “music centre”.

Crucially, I did not grow up with an older brother, as I was the eldest. Many of my friends did. To generalise wildly, my recollection is that those with older sisters had a greater affinity for soul. As a consequence of having elders to follow, these second or third children developed a more “mature” taste in music, which for 70s boys generally meant progressive rock or heavy metal, and it meant LPs, not 45s. It’s inevitable that younger siblings absorb older music. But if you’re the eldest, you’re the canary in the mineshaft, figuring it out for yourself. (In the years hence, my younger brother Simon used to sneak into my bedroom to listen to my punk records when I was out.) I discovered ELO, and their classic sixth and seventh long-players A New World Record and Out Of The Blue, through my Dad. They were his band. I was being handed down my formative musical taste – and my first favourite band! – from a parent. (I liked my Mum’s Elvis records, too.)

ELO’s was pretty sophisticated symphonic rock – literally Dad rock, if you will – and a natural evolution from the asunder Beatles who’d enraptured Jeff Lynne’s generation so, but it wasn’t prog or metal, it wasn’t intellectual or visceral. It wasn’t cool. It was pop music played by rock musicians and a longhaired string section, wasn’t it? Nevertheless it electrified my 12-year-old ears and lit my fire.

I loved Mr Blue Sky then, when it became their seventh top 10 hit and I love it 45 years later. Can you imagine how many times I’ll have heard it in the interim? (It used to be on Smooth 70s, for a while my default adult kitchen radio station, at least once a day.) It does not tarnish. From the clearly faked “radio announcement” and crude thump-thump-thump intro riff, through the cloudbursting joy of its verses (“don’t you know, it’s a beautiful new day, a-hey-hey”) and the punched-up chorus, they cook with gas for a full five minutes, using Vocoder and choral effects to tip a simple pop tune into sepulchral glory. It takes a certain chutzpah to illustrate the line “running down the avenue” with a panting sound – and indeed to link the songs in the Rainy Day concerto with what sound like BBC rain sound effects but which Lynne actually recorded in Munich. It’s so uncool it becomes cool. Little wonder if stands up so well to the test of cover versions, my favourites being one by the Delgados, and of course Jim Bob’s mournful take, which he recorded for my Radio 4 sitcom of the same name, and which I will always cherish.

Having self-consciously forsaken ELO in my teens, and found some new bands of my own, I rediscovered Jeff, Bev, Hugh, Kelly, Mik, Richard and Melvyn in young adult life when all bets were off again, and I found that I really appreciated the craft. If you know Out Of The Blue, you’ll know The Whale, for instance, a haunting instrumental for cetacean lovers, and Birmingham Blues, a personal hymn to home: just two examples of the band’s versatility and voracity. I joined the ELO Fan Club and memorised their names and taught myself how to draw them all; that’s how much I loved them. And I knew which band member appeared where in the airbrushed inner sleeve illustration of the bridge of the logo spaceship. And Mr Blue Sky was my favourite song by my favourite band.

Until 1979, which is the year punk broke wide open in Northampton.