When Kanye West was asked by Rolling Stone magazine to write a panegyric to Dr Dre, he had no fear of hyperbole. "Do hip-hop producers hold Dr Dre in high esteem? It's like asking a Christian if he believes Christ died for his sins."
In terms of commercial clout, artistic influence and longevity, no producer in hip-hop can rival the 49-year-old who popularised gangsta rap and launched the careers of Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar. But the reason why Andre Young is about to become the richest man in hip-hop (he's currently second to Sean "Diddy" Combs with a mere $550m) isn't the music that people listen to: it's how they listen to music. Apple looks likely to buy Beats Electronics LLC, the company Dre co-founded with Interscope Records's Jimmy Iovine in 2008, for $3.2bn .
While digital music sales flatten, Beats is forging ahead in two growth markets: high-end headphones (with Beats By Dr Dre) and subscription-based streaming (with the recently launched Beats Music).
Last year Beats's share of the premium headphone market grew to 65%, with revenues of around $1.2bn. Business analysts are unsure if it's a wise purchase for Apple, and if Dre's stake will really make him, as he claims, "the first billionaire in hip-hop", but the mooted deal confirms the marketing genius of a man who has been shaping popular music for more than 25 years.
Andre Romelle Young was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton on 18 February 1965. It was a crime-plagued area during his youth but his parents, who divorced when he was seven, steered him away from drugs and gangs. (One of his own sons, Andre Young Jr, died of a drug overdose in 2008.) "I think my thing was: if you ain't gonna make no money out of it, don't do it," Dre later explained.
Music, however, paid well so he dropped out of high school to become a club DJ. He joined the electro-rap group World Class Wreckin' Cru but was embarrassed by both the music and the gimmicks: because of his stage name, inspired by basketball star Julius "Dr J" Erving, Dre was made to perform in doctor's whites and a stethoscope.
When Dre was arrested for unpaid traffic fines in 1986, local drug-dealer Eric "Eazy-E" Wright agreed to pay bail in return for production work. That led to the formation of Niggaz With Attitude (NWA) with DJ Yella, MC Ren and the pugnaciously talented Ice Cube. NWA's 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton didn't invent gangsta rap but it defined it, and Dre's production was as compelling as Ice Cube's raps. On the title track the breakbeat hit like a battering-ram while a looped horn sample became a siren signalling a state of constant emergency. Another standout, Fuck Tha Police, earned NWA a warning from the FBI and the honorific "The World's Most Dangerous Group".
Dre certainly had a dangerous temper and was arrested for various offences in his 20s. Most notoriously, in 1991 he was convicted of assaulting television presenter Dee Barnes, who later told Dre biographer Ronin Ro, "There's a lot of women that he beat up. But I'm the one who fucking pressed charges." Last year R&B singer Michel'le, and a former bandmate both made similar claims. Dre, who has been married to Nicole Threatt since 1996, has not commented on the allegations.
In 1991, immediately after producing NWA's second album Efil4zaggin, Dre left the group over a financial dispute and formed Death Row Records with fearsome former bodyguard Marion "Suge" Knight. His triple-platinum-selling solo debut, The Chronic, revolutionised hip-hop yet again. While NWA at least gestured towards the dire socioeconomic circumstances that made the gangsta life so appealing, The Chronic was cheerfully amoral, dedicated to settling scores and celebrating Dre's new-found love of marijuana.
It sounded different too. Dre used live musicians, imitating the juicy basslines and squealing synths of George Clinton's 70s P-Funk instead of just sampling them: a style known as G-Funk. "I want to be known as the producer's producer," Dre later boasted. "I may hear something on an old record that inspires me, but I'd rather use musicians to re-create the sound or elaborate on it. I can control it better."
The Chronic made gangsta rap the new norm. Not everyone was delighted – the critic Robert Christgau dismissed it as "sociopathic easy-listening" – but Rolling Stone later named it the second best album of the 90s. The music website Pitchfork called the album "a watershed moment. Every hip-hop record after had to address The Chronic in some way, either embracing or rejecting what it popularised",
Dre followed it by producing Doggystyle for his silver-tongued protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg, as well as hits for Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur. In 1996, tired of Suge Knight's thuggish antics, he left Death Row. His new venture, Aftermath Entertainment, took off when he signed a young Detroit rapper named Eminem.
Dre brought his pop instincts to bear on the 1999 hits My Name Is and Guilty Conscience. On the latter, in which he played the role of Eminem's better nature, the 34-year-old let the younger rapper poke fun at his old outlaw self: "How in the fuck you gonna tell this man not to be violent?" Dre replied: "Cause he don't need to go the same route that I went."
His second (and, to date, last) solo album, 2001, came out the same year and has since sold over 7.5m copies in the US alone. Track titles such as "Still D.R.E." and "Forgot About Dre" betrayed a defensive frame of mind. "Magazines, word of mouth and rap tabloids were saying I didn't have it any more," he grumbled. "What more do I need to do?"
Dre, who has often employed better MCs to ghost-write his lyrics, has always been a stolid, uncharismatic rapper, giving the impression that he'd much rather be behind a console than a microphone. A journalist visiting Dre's studio at the time observed how his creativity was largely editorial. Sessions would usually start with Dre programming a rhythm and telling his musicians to improvise over it, before spotlighting and developing his favourite bits. He has always been a perfectionist boss, demanding multiple takes. The late rapper Nate Dogg remembered: "When Dre walked in, it was time to work. All work and no play."
Unusually for a hip-hop producer in the second decade of his career, Dre enjoyed another purple patch in the early 00s, with hits for Eminem, Mary J Blige, Gwen Stefani and Aftermath's latest megastar, 50 Cent. Each one targeted both the radio and the club with minimal hooks over speaker-wrecking beats and bass.
Since winning his fifth and sixth Grammy awards for his work on Eminem's 2009 album Relapse, however, Dre has seemed increasingly uninterested in making music. He has been making his third album, Detox, on and off since 2001 with no release date in sight. Strangely, he didn't even produce his own 2011 comeback single "I Need a Doctor". His most recent appearance as a rapper, on Kendrick Lamar's Compton, was both boastful and elegiac: "I pass the blunt then pass the torch, of course that's my decision." Ever the hustler, he squeezed in a plug for the product that explains his absence from the studio: "them banging Dre Beats".
The idea for Beats arose from conversations about the poor quality of Apple's white earbuds with music mogul Jimmy Iovine, his friend and mentor since Death Row partnered with record label Interscope 23 years ago, who has called him "one of the best [producers] that ever lived". Last year they jointly donated $70m to the University of Southern California to establish the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation.
The phenomenal success of Beats is seen by some as a triumph of hype over hi-fi, driven by celebrity endorsements and product placement. Many audiophiles describe the headphones as lacklustre and overpriced, but then most consumers aren't audiophiles. Beats trades subtlety for power, delivering walloping bass. "Their sound is hyperbole, and there's no point arguing with that," concluded Slate.
Yet Dre himself, is not a hyperbolic character. Compared to Jay-Z or Kanye West, he barely qualifies as a celebrity and rarely courts the press. An interview with Esquire last year revealed a man who loves music and business and can live without the rest. He bragged about enjoying the studio so much that he once worked for 79 hours straight but said he had no interest in hearing his own records. "Once it comes out, for me, it's just business. Numbers."
Right now the numbers are looking very good indeed.
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