Newsmaker: Dr Dre

The hip-hop mogul is set to become the first rap billionaire, with a mooted US$3.2 billion (Dh11.75bn) bid by the tech giant Apple to acquire Beats, the headphone and audio accessories company that he founded in 2008, writes Kevin Hackett.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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To know anything at all about almost any rap artist, all you have to do is listen to their lyrics. When Andre Romelle Young, aka Dr Dre, released his 1999 single Still D.R.E. (actually written by Mr Beyoncé himself, Jay Z), it was obvious to all that here was a guy who took himself very seriously indeed. He’d been away from the spotlight for three years or so and, heaven forbid, some people might not have known what he’d been up to, perhaps not even known who he was. But he was back. “Kept my ear to the streets, signed Eminem, he’s triple platinum, doing 50 [thousand units] a week,” he rapped. Yes, he’d been busy making money and he wasn’t about to let any upstarts think they could muscle in on his ’hood. But nobody could even dream of doing that now. Everybody knows about the D.R.E.

You will have seen them. Often brightly coloured, large and indiscreet, the headphones he attached his name to have, since they hit the market in late 2008, taken the world by storm. Audiophiles may scoff at their lack of sonic range, rubbishing them at every turn as nothing more than a case of style over substance, form over function, but that won’t matter to Dre. Because these cans have made him untold millions and now he’s set to become even richer. The richest man in the world of hip-hop, no less, and that really does take some doing.

But the people who reacted badly to the news this week that the tech giant Apple was about to buy Beats Electronics LLC, the firm set up by Dre and his business partner, the music producer and entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine, saying that if Apple wanted to market its own trendy headphones then it could easily have done so and outsold the ubiquitous Beats by Dr Dre, were missing the point. Apple doesn’t need that side of the Beats business, lucrative though it obviously is. What Apple really wants, is to get its mitts on the newly launched, subscription-based, music-streaming website, Beats Music.

The resulting deal, if indeed it comes to pass, is said to be worth a staggering US$3.2billion (Dh11.75bn), which would make it Apple’s single largest company purchase in history and Dre an instant billionaire, assuming that he retains a 15 per cent stake. Not that Dre was struggling to make ends meet, you understand, because up until now he’s been valued by Forbes as being worth $550 million. That piffling amount made him the second wealthiest artist in hip-hop, after P Diddy (or whatever he’s calling himself these days), but Dre looks likely to be sitting on top of the rap pile within a matter of weeks. And, to be fair to the man, he’s worked hard for it.

Anyone who’s gone into a studio with Dr Dre as their producer has remarked that it’s a case of getting straight down to work. There’s no downtime, no messing around, no frivolity – you’re there to do a job and by thunder he’ll see to it that you do. Multiple takes, constant fettling and polishing (he once remarked that he’s spent 79 uninterrupted hours in a studio) might have taken their toll on the artists that he’s nurtured over the years, but they’ve made Dr Dre a force to be reckoned with in the hip-hop scene – the man’s a phenomenon.

It was while discussing the poor quality of Apple’s earbuds that come with every new iPod or iPhone, with Iovine, back in 2006, that the eureka moment happened and Dre decided to do a much better job. Eschewing the tinny, almost spineless sound reproduction that millions of Apple users had resigned themselves to, the resulting Beats by Dr Dre headphones delivered a whacking great big-bass sound from the word go. But the real genius was in the packaging and the marketing. On every box the headphones are supplied in, there’s a message from the man himself, telling the reader that what they’re about to listen to is music the way he hears it when he’s in the studio making it. And while Apple’s snow-white earbuds have all but disappeared from the ears of commuters the world over, Dre’s wildly differing colour schemes have been brightening the world while the thumping bass drivers have been entertaining their users. Beats by Dr Dre brought with them an unprecedented sea of change – headphones had become cool again.

Between 2008 and 2012, they were made under licence by Monster, an American company best known for its high-quality audio and video cables, after which Beats took everything in-house – just the way Dre likes it. He’s a self-professed control freak.

Born in the southern Los Angeles city of Compton, reckoned by the FBI in 2010 to be the eighth most dangerous city in America, on February 18, 1965, Andre Young was the firstborn son of Theodore and Verna Young. Music was part and parcel of family life, with his father belonging to an R&B singing group, although he and Verna separated when Andre was three years old, eventually divorcing in 1972.

Compton was notorious for its gang culture and the violence that goes with it. In 1976, Dre began his schooling at Vanguard Junior High School, but he ended up transferring to different schools because of either gang violence or poor grades. By the time he was 16, he had fathered a son, Curtis Young (himself now a rap star, going by the name of Hood Surgeon).

In the mid 1980s, Dre was attending nightclubs and getting into the emerging rap scene, and he took on the job of DJ at The Eve After Dark club, going by the name Dr J, before changing it to his current moniker. In 1984, Dre joined World Class Wreckin’ Cru, a group that would go on to define the sound of a generation of West Coasters, and, two years later, he met the rapper Ice Cube, with whom he founded one of the most controversial groups of all time, NWA, whose explicit lyrics detailed in the most graphic terms what life was really like on the streets; what life was like as a gangster.

But production was his real interest and his involvement as an actual artist began to wane. He produced Snoop Doggy Dog’s seminal debut in 1993, again redefining the sound of West Coast rap, and, in 1996, he set up his own record label, Aftermath Entertainment. In 1998, he signed Eminem and, in 2003, 50 Cent – two of the biggest-selling rap artists of all-time – and he’s released two solo albums (The Chronic in 1992 and 2001 in 1999) that are recognised by critics as being truly groundbreaking. Clearly this is a man with an outrageous talent for business, as well as ­music.

“Magazines, word of mouth and rap tabloids were saying I didn’t have it anymore,” he once grumbled, however. “What more do I need to do?” And it was this overly defensive attitude that purveyed his last full album release, but while he was busy sulking because people had forgotten about him, his business brain was still ticking away and he kept himself in the public eye by winning Grammy awards for his production work and appearing in a number of Hollywood films, such as the Oscar-winning Training Day.

But it was the headphones that really made Dr Dre a household name the world over. You can often get the measure of how popular any product is by seeing the amount of fake items flooding the marketplace and Dre’s headphones are no exception. People just want to be seen with these brightly coloured cans on their heads, regardless of sound quality (especially the often not-working-properly counterfeits). Other, more serious brands might offer a purer, more defined sound, but nothing else out there looks quite like a pair of Beats and that, in this day and age, is of paramount importance to a generation of listeners to digital music.

Dre and Iovine have, thanks to their incredible success, become generous philanthropists, donating a $70m endowment to the University of Southern California to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. Their goal? “To shape the future by nurturing the talents, passions, leadership and risk-taking of uniquely qualified students who are motivated to explore and create new art forms, technologies and business ­models.”

The first class of the academy begins in September this year, by which time it’s likely that Dr Dre will be a billionaire. As musicians go, he’s put in more graft than most, and it’s paid off big time – something to think about the next time that you see someone wearing a shiny pair of orange, blue, white, red, black or diamond-encrusted headphones. They don’t seem so silly after all, do they?

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