Monday, February 25, 2013

Introducing... Dr. Dre!

Shout out to Darrell for this hooking me up for this post. :)
A couple years ago, I talked about Ice Cube's first appearance on wax... not as part of NWA, even before The CIA. So now I'm going to do the same for Dr. Dre... again, before NWA. Even before The World Class Wreckin' Kru: this is "Scratchin' 100 Speakers" on Saturn Records from all the way back in 1984.

Saturn was a cool, early West coast label that released stuff like Captain Rapp, Ice-T's earliest B-boy singles, etc. And on this record, they actually managed to score a couple of important debuts all on one 12": not just Dr. Dre, but also the great DJ Unknown, and also DJ "Gee."

Now, if you look at the label scan I posted, you'll see how the billing's kind of confusing. It says "Arranged and performed by Daniel Sofer," then the 12" is collectively titled "A Dr. Dre Scratchmix: 'One Hundred Speakers'," and then it goes on to list the specific tracks on the 12", which credits individual artists. Also, one side is labeled "side A" and the other "side AA," so we all get to decide for ourselves which should be considered the true "A" side of this record. So the only way to really sort out what's what is to give it a proper listen and work it out.

So, for all the artists making their debut on this single, one guy who wasn't appearing for the first time on wax is this Daniel Sofer guy. He'd been involved in funky electronic music since the 70s, and already had another 12" of his own under his belt. He did a lot of synths and drum programming for west coast artists who were transitioning from DJing to making records, including Ice-T, Arabian Prince, the Wreckin' Kru and DJ Unknown. He did the drums and bass on this record... In fact, he's the guy who wrote the manual and recorded the internal sounds for the DMX machine they all used. I highly recommend this interview with the man over at westcoastpioneers; a really important person in the development of west coast hip-hop who most people have probably never heard of. About this record specifically, he explains, "Cletus Anderson of Saturn Records had me come to the studio -- I'm not sure how I hooked up with him, probably he heard my demo -- but I was there in the studio and Unknown and Dre were rapping and scratching."

So, what we have here are essentially three variations of one song.  Not variations like on most 12"s where you'd have an Dub Mix, a Radio Edit and a TV Version. but three versions that could each stand on their own, which other early west coast singles did, too. Think of the Rappers Rapp label 12" of "When Doves Cry Rapp," which had essentially three different covers of Prince's "When Doves Cry" by different hip-hop acts from the same crew. Except in this case, the track they're all using is original to this 12", and it's by Daniel Sofer. And since this 12" is a double A side, I'll just arbitrarily decide which version to start with.

And to make it interesting, I'll start with Dre's version, "Scratchin' 100 Speakers." Specifically, this is credited to Dr and Unknown (who, remember, was also making his debut here); but as he has his own version coming up, I'm pretty sure this version is mostly Dre's. The record is labeled as being his scratchmix, after all; and that's what this is, Dr Dre getting busy on the turntables over Sofer's track. The instrumental's exactly what you'd expect if your familiar with west coast hip-hop from this era: big hand claps, cool electronic bass notes and big yet subtle drums. There are no vocals, just Dre (and Unknown?) laying some nice cuts for 1984, and bringing in a constant variety of fresh sounds. The cuts are played a little light in the mix, unfortunately, which places too much emphasis on the under-laying beat; but if you pay attention, you can hear he's already light years ahead of "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels of Steel" in terms of the kind of his cutting. The second half of the song features less cuts and lets the beat ride and change up a lot more (I suspect parts of this might be Unknown's contribution, rather than the scratching); it's never just simple loops repeating, but a very alive track, altering and bubbling all the way through.

After that we get the other artist making his debut. He's not nearly as famous as Dre, and didn't have the long or influential career of Unknown, but he still merits a mention. He's DJ "Gee," also known as M C G, who released that funky "Friday the 13th" record I blogged about a few Halloweens ago. He uses the same Sofer beat but provides his own raps and scratches to his track, "Rappin' 100 Speakers." To be honest, his rapping is a little sloppy, but his cuts are cool. This is the weakest version on the 12", but I don't think it's all about Gee being wack (I like his style in general), so much as the track is just to staccato for him. Some smoother keyboards or something behind his vocals would've really held him up, and he probably should've re-recorded some of his lines.

Then, finally, we get the "Rhythm Rock Rapp," which is ostensibly Unknown's solo version. But if you look carefully, you see Dre is credited as a writer on this version, too. It actually uses a lot of the same scratches from Dre's version, but this time they're regularly interrupted to allow for full rap verses by Unknown. Perhaps these are Unknown's cuts, and the repeated cuts are the ones he's credited for on Dre's version, or more likely, he's rhyming with Dre's already recorded cuts from "Scratchin' 100 Speakers," which would be why he gets credited for this mix, too. Either way, the ultimate effect is that this turns Dre's instrumental scratch track into a "proper" song. Unknown's raps are okay - he sounds a decidedly softer here than he would on his later projects, which of course used a lot of vocoder. Nothing fantastic, but since, like I said, Dre's version downplays the best elements in the mix, this version winds up with the most energy and feeling the most compelling.

So, yeah, this is where Dre got his start - the first time he went from DJing at Eve After Dark to working in the studio. Later that year, he'd start making records as a member of Telesis and of course the World Class Wreckin' Kru... then the rest, of course, is history. And while it might at first appear to be a humble debut, he actually acquits himself quite well and demonstrates a talent to watch out for.

Man, I can't believe this is my first Dr. Dre-related post on this blog.

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