Doctor’s Adversary: Diagnosing Dre’s All-Time Worst Beats

Did the Super Bowl finally get its halftime show right? In honor of Sunday's big game, Pete Hunt breaks down the times Dr. Dre missed the mark by a few yards.
By    February 10, 2022
Photo via YouTube

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Pete Hunt thinks Joe Burrow’s chain game is super underwhelming.

This Sunday’s Bengals vs. Rams matchup at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood will be the first Super Bowl held in the Los Angeles area since 1993. To celebrate the occasion, halftime musical festivities will be handled by hometown hero Dr. Dre, who will be flanked by fellow Angelenos Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, as well as Eminem and Mary J. Blige. The setlist will be heavy with Dre-produced smashes, from “Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang” to “Real Slim Shady” to “Family Affair,” and the entire spectacle will serve as a testament to André Young’s Midas-like touch and decades of chart dominance.

It’s a well-earned recognition. Anyone who doesn’t have Dre on their top ten dead or alive producer list is lying to you. His unimpeachable credentials reflect not only his strengths as a beatmaker but as a sonic innovator and talent amplifier. He gets career-best performances out of artists and makes them sound absolutely amazing in the process. Nobody’s drums hit harder. Nobody’s vocals sound crisper.

You can obviously learn a lot about Dre’s brilliance by simply listening attentively to classic cuts like “California Love” and “In Da Club.” But if you want to really understand how his production process works, you’re actually better off going to the other end of the spectrum. After all, even the greatest of greats have their low moments, and scattered across Dr. Dre’s 30+ year career are plenty of creative misfires that you probably won’t be hearing at halftime—or at any other time of your life, unless you’re a real Aftermath compilation die-hard.

The great thing about these songs, though, is that they actually showcase how Dre’s signature sound has evolved over different periods and how he’s adjusted his formula when working with different collaborators and musicians.

So in honor of Sunday’s showcase of his biggest hits, let’s dig deep into Dr. Dre’s all-time worst tracks:

Bobby Jimmy & The Critters – “Wienie Whistlers”

Bobby Jimmy & the Critters were a 1980s comedic rap act fronted by radio personality Russ Parr—and briefly featuring one-time N.W.A. member Arabian Prince—who created novelty songs with titles like “Big Butt” and “We Like Ugly Women” that got airplay on the Docter Demento show. The group was eventually picked up by Priority Records and “Wienie Whistlers” (part of a 12-inch single with “NY/LA Rappers” and “Fone Freak”) was one of their first releases on the label. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright was credited as executive producer, and production was thus naturally handled by one Dr. Dre, whose Herbie Hancock-sampling beat is far better than a song that culminates in a bloody phallus really deserves.

Given that this is clearly a novelty track, it does feel slightly unsporting to lead off this list with it—especially when its retroactive cringe level is closer to the Jerky Boys than Diceman Clay. But look, when you’re skimming through Dre’s production discography you simply can’t ignore a song called “Wienie Whistlers” so here it is.

(Also worth noting that Battlecat and DJ Pooh were eventually roped into producing tracks for Bobby Jimmy’s Hip Hop Prankster album, which included such classic cuts as “Jock Itchin'” and “Somebody Farted.”)

Jimmy Z – “Funky Flute”

Jimmy Zavala was a versatile session musician who had worked with Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, and the Eurythmics before he connected with Eazy-Z and Ruthless Records and began contributing to N.W.A. tracks. Dr. Dre produced his entire debut album, 1991’s Muzical Madness, which features “Jimmy Z” channeling Ron Burgundy over groove-oriented blues, pop, and soft rock numbers. Jimmy accompanies his own horn playing with spoken word-style vocals and crude sexual innuendos (“you like to blow it don’t you”) about the flute. There are moments on the album—like, maybe 45 seconds tops—that hint at New Jack Swing or maybe even acid jazz. But Dr. Dre’s production otherwise adds nothing of interest to the proceedings, and his rapping actually makes him a willing accomplice according to the California penal code.

You should definitely read Jimmy’s accounts of the recording sessions, though.

Miscellaneous – “As The World Keeps Turning”

The 1996 compilation album Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath was marketed as Dre’s transition away from gangsta rap—a point made didactically with lead single “Been There, Done That.” When the album flopped (which in 90s parlance meant it only went platinum once), conventional wisdom suggested that audiences simply wanted the old Dre, not a would-be Quincy Jones.

It’s true that the violent and sexual content that characterized Dre’s past work was toned down on Aftermath, but it wasn’t really the G that was missing—it was the funk. The album’s keyboard playing and string samples sound much closer to John Carpenter than George Clinton, and the familiar Moog synthesizer that was all over The Chronic and Doggystyle only makes a few brief appearances. Atmospheric flourishes are instead provided by the Flexatone, a metallic percussion instrument often used as a sound effect in Dragon Ball Z and other cartoons. If you’re listening carefully you can hear it on nearly every track—it’s especially recognizable on “Been There Done That,” “Please,” and “Sexy Dance”—and Dre was clearly relying on the instrument and other pieces of percussion to add texture and depth to the recordings.

This production trick leads to diminishing returns when employed too frequently, and no track exemplifies this like “As The World Keeps Turning,” which rolls out chimes, guiros, maracas, sand shakers, castanets, and—yes—the Flexatone, and then lets them dart from left to right in the mix like insects buzzing around the performers. “More cowbell” is the unavoidable association here, but that instrument’s usage on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” seems muted by comparison. Against this bustling backdrop, the underwhelming rapping (by a crew appropriately called Miscellaneous) almost feels like an intentional choice, lest any bar distract from the maraca work.

(Aftermath does contain one real gem: King T’s “Str-8 Gone,” which features absolutely top-shelf Dre production. The dense instrumentation that drowns out the rapping elsewhere on the album is in perfect balance here, and the Hammond organ that comes in on the chorus sounds straight from “Tha Shiznit.”)

Nas – “Nas is Coming”

Flashback to early 1996: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Liquid Swords, Labcabincalifornia, Dr. Octagonecologyst, and All Eyez on Me have all dropped over the past six months. Reasonable Doubt is next in the queue. But the date you’ve got circled on your calendar is July 2, when Nas’ follow-up to Illmatic is finally released. Lead single “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” is a little more radio-friendly than his past work, but it still bangs. And listen to this—there’s supposedly a Dre collaboration on the album!

Now imagine purchasing It Was Written from Sam Goody’s or whatever and rushing home so you could listen to track 7, “Nas is Coming,” featuring the good doctor behind the boards. The song opens with a weed-soaked conversation between Dre and Nas. Translation: This is going to be so epic that they don’t want to rush right into the beat. Now come the keyboards… and some weird bell noise? (I told you the Flexatone was everywhere!) The drums kick in. Nas is rapping. “Fatal, not fictitious / I rock the cable ’86 shit / Foreign cars young with crazy bitches.” You’re nodding along. It’s no “G Thang,” but it’s definitely a groove. Now the chorus:

Nas is coming
Nas is coming
Nas is coming (Nasty Nas is coming)
Nas is coming
Nas is coming
Nas is coming
Nas is coming (Nasty Nas is coming)
Nas is coming

Well, maybe the rest of the album will be better? And if not, there’s a new Tribe Called Quest dropping in a few weeks, plus something from this group called The Roots.

Eminem – “Just Lose It”

To really understand why “Just Lose It” is so awful, you have to consider the musical elements that made previous Dre and Em collaborations so successful.

As the familiar origin story goes, the Slim Shady EP famously made its way into Dr. Dre’s hands via Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine. He immediately loved it and wanted to work together. “I met Eminem about two days after that,” he told VH1, “and the next day we were in the studio at my house. We came up with four joints that night and three of them made it onto his first album.”

The first song they finished together, “My Name Is,” sounds completely different than any previous Dre production. The intertwined layers of instrumentation that dominated The Aftermath compilation are gone. Instead, the song is built around a single Wurlitzer keyboard riff (from Labi Siffre’s “I Got The…”) that meanders along at a narcotic pace, accompanied by equally plodding drums. This provides plenty of open space for Eminem’s vocals and instantly quotable lyrics.

The triumph of “My Name Is” established a TRL-friendly formula for lead singles that Dre and Em would successfully reproduce on “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me”—and much less so on “Just Lose It,” which is a pale imitation of those monster chart-toppers. The primary culprit here is Eminem, whose wordplay had by then devolved into Pee Wee Herman squeals, fart noises, and wacky accents. But the beat isn’t doing him any favors. It’s ostensibly a dance song, just not one that anyone would ever willingly dance to. And the uptempo production only encourages Em’s worst songwriting impulses.

It’s notable that Eminem never had another hit song that worked in this vein, despite trying again with Relapse’s limp lead single “We Made You.” His successful singles going forward would all be mid-tempo ballads with pop singers providing the choruses, à la “Love The Way You Lie” and “​​The Monster.” And when Dre and Em connected again for would-be Detox single “I Need a Doctor,” they pulled from this new radio-friendly playbook.

Eve – “What”

As noted above, “My Name Is” represented a new type of Dre beat—sparse arrangements, full-bodied instrumentation, and clean and clear production using the most expensive gear available. This new yacht rap sound was tested again on tracks like “Buck ‘Em” and “Bitch Please” from Snoop’s Last Meal album, and then absolutely perfected on Dre’s magnum opus, 2001. It also worked just as effectively with pop and R&B tracks, and Dre soon had hits with Eve & Gwen Stefani (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind”) and Mary J. Blige (“Family Affair”).

Frequent collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Mike Elizondo described Dre’s preferred style from this period as “a hypnotic core groove beneath the vocals, with subliminal changes coming in and out, that keeps on cycling,” and the songs listed above—along with “In Da Club” and “How We Do”—are perhaps the best examples of this winning formula.

The only shortcoming with this approach is that if the core groove driving the track doesn’t quite work, its flaws only become more glaring with repetition. Enter “What,” the second song on Eve’s 2002 album, Eve-Olution. The short synth riff that runs throughout the track isn’t very compelling and the staccato string section doesn’t add much either. You keep waiting for one of those “subliminal changes” Elizondo mentions to help the track build towards something, but nothing happens.

The other Dre cut on the album, “Satisfaction,” is much better—possibly because it also features Elizondo, who presumably adds the thick bassline and other musical elements. Dre has always been open about the fact that he’s not that great of a musician himself, and has thus always surrounded himself with talented players and arrangers like Elizondo, Scott Storch, and Colin Wolfe. “What” really would have benefited from studio collaborators like these chiming in with additional ideas.

XZibit – “Choke Me, Spank Me (Pull My Hair)”

We don’t really need a mini-essay to describe this track’s shortcomings. The song starts with singer Traci Nelson moaning “choke me, spank me, pull my hair,” followed by Xzibit describing various sex acts, and then “choke me, spank me, pull my hair” returning for the chorus. Maybe if this was Peaches or LL Cool J or Peaches featuring LL Cool J it might feel edgy, like something you’d play in a Berlin sex club. But Xzibit has never been much of a lothario on wax (he pimped rides, after all), and struggles here to sound seductive. The propulsive beat Dre cooks up works well enough, but given that he’s generally credited as being a producer in the broadest sense—not just a beatmaker—it feels fair to delegate some of the blame to him as well.

Jay-Z – “Minority Report”

If we’re being charitable, we could describe “Minority Report” as somber—but really it’s just boring, which is the worst thing you can say about a Dre and Jay-Z collaboration. Granted, it’s hard to strike the right tone on what’s intended to be a mournful track about the government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina. But it’s not like the Coldplay template—plodding beat, half-whispered vocals—was the only option available. Look no further than Dedication 2’s “Georgia… Bush” for a perfect example of how anguish can be expressed alongside righteous anger.

Worth noting that Dr. Dre mixed all of the tracks on Kingdom Come and produced four. Two of his other contributions, “Lost Ones” and “30 Something,” are among the handful of good songs on an otherwise disappointing release. (“Trouble” has real “You kids get off my lawn!” vibes.)

Raekwon – “Catalina”

So this is actually a pretty decent track, and if it had landed somewhere on Detox then it wouldn’t be on this list. But every preceding song on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II attempts to recapture RZA’s Purple Tape production vibe—dusty vinyl samples and boom-bap drums—or at least manages not to clash with it. Dre was still working within his 2001-era sonic palette, though, which means “Catalina” feels like a Marvel CGI character dropping in on a 70s Shaw Brothers movie. There’s a good reason this one was sequenced near the end of the album, as it feels more like a bonus track than a fifth single.

By the time the very-solid Compton arrived a few years later, Dre’s production work felt a little more diverse, due in no small part to the new cohort of collaborators he was working with, including Focus… and Trevor Lawrence Jr. And if we ever do get a Detox album, it will likely sound completely different than the singles and outtakes that have dribbled out over the past decade would suggest. No matter which direction his future work goes in, we can only hope the Flexatone remains a relic of the past.

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