Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March, 2021 | 6 minutes (1,743 words)
Dr. Dre’s Detox might be the best-known album that no one’s ever heard in its entirety. The legendary hip-hop producer’s supposed third album persisted in the public’s mind for 13 years, kept alive by rumors, leaks, and revised release dates. After first announcing the record in 2002, Dre finally admitted in 2015 that Detox was shelved because he “didn’t like it.” It’s probably just as well, because no album made by actual, fallible people — no matter how talented — could live up to such breathless, protracted hype.
Detox didn’t begin as an empty promise. We do have a few singles from the project to listen to, including “I Need A Doctor,” featuring Eminem and Skylar Grey, released in 2011.
Dre has apologized for physically abusing female partners — something that goes beyond the misogyny common in early ’90s hip hop — but only in a career as accomplished as his could such an epic dashing of hope become a footnote. Responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of millions of records sold, Dre is a rapper, producer, actor, and music industry entrepreneur — a musical architect who defined a generation of expression. He was a member of seminal rap group N.W.A. in the 1980s. He co-founded Death Row Records after that — almost single-handedly inventing the West Coast G-funk style in the process — produced Snoop Doggy Dogg, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem, to name a few, and founded Aftermath Entertainment and Beats Electronics. Responsible for game-changing albums The Chronic (1992) and 2001 (1999), Dre has nothing to prove by producing the rumored Detox.
The most interesting thing about Detox is not what it would have sounded like had it been released, but its relationship to its creator. What compelled Dre to keep working on it year after year? How, for a record that was probably never even completed, much less issued, did it become so monolithic in the minds of his fans?
Born Andre Romelle Young in Compton, California in 1965, Dre had his first local hit with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru at age 19.
L.A. is the place for you to be
To witness Dr. Dre in surgery
He has a PhD in mixology
To cut on the wheels so viciously
One year later, in 1987, Dre helped design gangsta rap with N.W.A.. Songs like “Fuck Tha Police” from 1988s Straight Outta Compton talked openly about police brutality. Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy E did most of the rapping. DJ Yella and Dre designed the beats. The music was apolitical, explicit, angry, hedonistic, and unrepentant. It set up California as home to the most innovative hip-hop of the next decade.
Dre left N.W.A. in 1991 and formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight the following year. His debut album, The Chronic, made with the help of Snoop Dogg and The Lady of Rage (among others) went triple platinum. Dre won a Grammy for “Let Me Ride.” He also was Death Row’s in-house producer, responsible for Dogg’s massively successful Doggystyle as well as acting as the supervising producer for the Above the Rim soundtrack.
Parting ways with the notorious Knight, Dre formed Aftermath Entertainment, a boutique rap label, in 1996. After a shaky start, the label signed Detroit rapper Eminem. His The Slim Shady LP was certified quadruple platinum. Dre’s second solo album, 1999s 2001, sold at least six million copies.
Flush with capital to write, produce, and record anything he wanted, Dre announced the Detox project in 2002, referring to it as his “final album.” It was going to be the story of a hit man. Rumor had it that Denzel Washington would narrate.
“I had to come up with something different but still keep it hardcore, so what I decided to do was make my album one story about one person and just do the record through a character’s eyes,” Dre told MTV News in April 2002. “And everybody that appears on my album is going to be a character, so it’s basically going to be a hip-hop musical.”
“I’ve been blueprinting, getting ideas together for the past six months or so, just trying to figure out which direction I want to take and how I’m gonna present the project,” Dre continued. “Just gathering sounds and what have you. I want this one to be really over the top.” He predicted Detox would be released in 2003.
Less than a year later, Dre admitted to giving “the cream of the crop” of his Detox beats to 50 Cent for his album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. It has never actually been confirmed that the beat for what became 50 Cent’s single “In da Club” was intended for Detox, but that cream of the crop beat helped this song go to No. 1 for the rapper.
“Dre, he’ll play dope beats…they’re automatic,” 50 said of those sessions. “[He’ll say], ‘These are the hits, 50. So pick one of these and make a couple of singles or something.’”
Having abandoned its original concept, Detox’s release date was pushed back to late 2004. “I’d describe it as the most advanced rap album musically and lyrically we’ll probably ever have a chance to listen to,” co-producer Scott Storch told MTV News. “Dr. Dre always tries to top his last one. That’s why he spends so much time putting [albums] together and they don’t come out every five minutes. He puts a lot of time, energy and genius into the stuff.”
Dre told XXL that the album would “have 12 or 13 singles. So I’m really taking my time with each one. No album fillers or nothing like that. No fast-forwarding.” But by May 2004 he’d changed his mind, telling the same publication that he wanted to concentrate on his Aftermath artists. (Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, released in 2000, sold in excess of 10 million copies.)
Years passed. Collaborators hinted at an unreleased masterpiece in other magazine interviews. “I’m thinking of making the album like a movie,” producer Imsomie “Mahogany” Leeper said, “like having 16-bar jazz pieces, live instruments.”
“I was really hoping to have it out this year, but it’s going to have to be pushed back a while because of some other things I’ve got to work on,” Dre told the L.A. Times in 2007. The following year, Snoop Dogg confirmed Detox was finished. “That record is real, it’s coming,” Dogg told Rolling Stone. “I was starting to doubt it myself and then I went up in there and he played so much music for me it knocked my head off.”
The first official release of anything from Detox came during a 2009 Dr. Pepper commercial. “For me,” Dre says, “slow always produces a hit.” He then shows a flailing young DJ how to slow a record down by putting a soda can on the turntable.
By then, Detox’s release date was scheduled for that year And indeed, singles purportedly part of the mix for Detox’s track listing dropped — “Under Pressure,” “Kush,” and “I Need a Doctor.” The last single went double platinum. The album, however, did not come out.
More Detox songs were leaked in 2011 — “Mr. Prescription,” Chillin’,” and “Die Hard.” In a long-ranging interview with The Fader that year, Dre announced he was ready to take a break from music, mused at how successful his Beats by Dr. Dre line of headphones were, and said nothing about Detox. In 2015, he confirmed that the project was dead.
“Over the years Detox has become the most long-awaited album in hip-hop history, a project that has taken on mythical proportions, and with good reason,” Nathan Slavik wrote for DJBooth. “In addition to launching several of the biggest rappers of the last two decades — Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar — Dre’s first two headlining albums, The Chronic and 2001, were classics. It was completely reasonable to be excited about Detox until it was completely insane to think it would ever drop.”
But the story wasn’t actually over. When asked by reporter Chris Haynes in 2018 if Detox was permanently shelved, Dre replied, “I’m working on a couple songs right now. We’ll see.” As if on cue, more musical snippets from the project leaked in May of that year.
The best way I’ve found to think about Detox is that it was a catch-all name for, essentially, most everything Dr. Dre was working on for 15 years. Even noted perfectionists like Dre release material. Instead, as Detox became more mythic in the hip-hop community, it served, whether Dre intended to or not, as a useful publicity tease even as the hype proved impossible to live up to. Between 2009 and 2011, the best of the hundreds of song snippets he worked on were released. In such a rapidly changing musical universe, nothing recorded for Detox, no matter how inspired, was going to remain stylistically relevant over more than a dozen years.
It’s also possible that Dre buckled under the weight of expectation. “I worked on Detox,” DJ Quik told DJBooth. “Just, in theory, Detox is a super smart-ass piece of music, but it’s all music, you know what I mean? That’s what could be the stumbling block for the record. Because it’s all music, and you got so many people to please. If you’re off with one, it won’t be a classic record. So, I understand Dre’s concerns about putting it out. But, some of the tracks I heard, oh my God, get the fuck out of here… Sound-wise, it was gonna be better than Chronic and 2001, and idea-wise.”
“By all accounts — and believe me, I heard every account there was — it seemed like the album had become any creative person’s nightmare,” Slavik wrote.
Given an unlimited budget and no deadline, could you spend the rest of your life locked in a perfectionist’s jail, constantly terrified that the music you’ll make next will be better than the music you’ve made so far, each passing day only becoming further justification to take your time, the pressure of expectation becoming suffocating until one day you realize decades have gone by and you’re even farther away from the finish line than when you started? You seemingly could, and Dr. Dre was living proof.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Matt Giles