In the late '80s D.O.C. was recruited to Southern California by Dr. Dre from his childhood home of Dallas. Shortly thereafter, the Texas-bred wunderkind helped bring gangsta rap to the mainstream, ghostwriting large portions of the biggest West Coast classics, starting with Straight Outta Compton. He gave voice to the volatile-yet-comedic character of Eazy-E, and helped define the personas of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. What the MCs who used his words admired about him was not just his rhymes, but his ability to mold ideas and fragments into memorable songs.
"He showed me how to take the greatness out of the words, and combine that into a verse, a hook, a bridge," Snoop told English radio personality Tim Westwood recently.
D.O.C.'s 1989 solo debut, No One Can Do It Better, was expected to make him a star like his collaborators. Featuring his nimble, aggressive-yet-warm chops, it's considered one of the best rap debuts of all time, and Jay-Z cites it as a profound influence. But while driving home drunk and high from a video shoot for a song from the album, he fell asleep and slammed into a tree, hitting it with his face.
"I had so much in my system that they couldn't sedate me," he remembers now, over a late dinner in Los Angeles.
He fought the medics when they tried to insert a breathing tube into his trachea, causing it to scar his larynx. As a result, he speaks in what sounds like a stage whisper, almost like he's talking through a smoker's voice box. He became utterly demoralized — so much so that, when his music came on at the club, he would leave.
"I didn't want to hear that voice," he says.
Though his subsequent rap albums wouldn't prove successful — after all, he'd lost his trademark booming baritone — he nonetheless remained tight with his famous friends. He helped Dre and Snoop write The Chronic and Doggystyle, as well as Dre's best-selling 1999 work 2001, which has moved more than six million albums.
D.O.C., who is 43 and was born Tracy Curry, became relatively content in his position as ghostwriter to the stars, a post he held for two decades. But though he was one of the original owners of Death Row Records and estimates that he wrote more than half of each of the first Ruthless Records albums — including Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It, which have sold about five million albums combined — he never got his business affairs straight, and thus never received his proper publishing. Content to stay in Dre's posh houses, eat fancy meals with the crew and get blitzed, he didn't grow rich like those around him.
"I was totally in the grips of the drug lifestyle," he says. "The only thing I was really concerned with was having enough money in my pocket so that I knew I could get high when I wanted to."
Making matters worse, in late 2009 he split with Dre, who'd put him up in a rented house and paid him a $20,000 annual retainer while they worked on Dre's long-awaited album, Detox. The situation came to a head in October 2009, when, while eating dinner together at a steakhouse, the pair had a huge blowup and proceeded to part ways.
This wasn't the first time they'd taken a break from working together, but the nasty argument — which D.O.C. still refuses to discuss — convinced him that their partnership was over.
He's since sought to get his life back together, preparing for highly experimental stem-cell surgery to restore his voice, mentoring young rappers, going to Alcoholics Anonymous and settling down in his home life.
Still, the split from Dre, combined with the fact that he might never be able to rap like he once did, threatened to embitter him permanently.
"I'm probably one of the best motherfuckers to ever pick up a microphone and spit in it," he says. "But you'd never really know that because I never really got a chance to show you."
Things haven't been all that bad for D.O.C. After falling out with Dre, he moved back to Dallas and began living part-time with the stunning and iconic R&B singer Erykah Badu and their 7-year-old daughter, Puma. Also in the house are Puma's well-pedigreed half-siblings: 13-year-old brother Seven, whose father is OutKast's Andre 3000, and 2-year-old sister Mars, whose pops is venerated New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica.
With all of these musical legends coming in and out, it's quite a scene. Badu's Dallas home is a "beautiful house right off of a really nice body of water," D.O.C. says of the singer's home overlooking White Rock Lake, while adding that he remains very much enchanted with her. In fact, he hopes to film a reality show before long about the goings-on in her house, ending with a wedding between him and Badu.
D.O.C. is well-built, light-skinned and has a radiant physical presence; upon meeting him, it's immediately clear why he was groomed for stardom. He's tremendously charismatic, striding into a Mexican eatery and chatting up the staff members — many of whom he knows from his days living just across the street. For much of the latter half of the aughts, he was ensconced there, just down the street from the Record One studio that Dre liked to use. (That is, when he wasn't randomly flying his collaborators out to places like Hawaii and Reno, where 2001 was largely created.)
Flanked by his new business manager, D.O.C. sits down in a secluded booth and orders an iced tea, rather than a beer. He's "detoxing," he notes. There's truth to this, as he's been sober for more than six months. But it's also a pun referencing Dr. Dre's supposedly forthcoming album, which has become the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop, so long delayed that many doubt it will be any good — if it ever even emerges.
D.O.C. began working on Detox in 2005, after Dre had already been struggling on it in vain for years. Their efforts spawned a series of uninspiring singles, and D.O.C. began to clash with Dre over matters both creative and financial, with D.O.C. accusing Dre of not paying him what he was worth. Meanwhile, in his stunning May conversation with Tim Westwood, Snoop asserted that Dre had now surrounded himself with the wrong people, a cast of lesser-known producers, engineers and MCs. It was he and D.O.C. who represented the historical "backbone" of Dre's operation, Snoop continued, through his own gangsta bravado and D.O.C.'s song structures.
"It has to be ... holy matrimony," Snoop said. "And right now it's holy macaroni."
(Dre could not be reached for comment for this story.)
The fallout with Dre hurt D.O.C. deeply, and he returned to Dallas at the beginning of 2010, unsure what lay ahead. Then, in an interview with the website Hip Hop DX earlier this year, D.O.C. announced the crystallization of plans for a medical procedure that could restore his vocal capabilities. The science-fiction-sounding surgery would use stem cell tissues and be spearheaded by a revered Barcelona-based physician named Paolo Macchiarini — famous for performing a windpipe transplant using a woman's own stem cells.
In June, D.O.C. traveled to a Sacramento hospital for a series of tests to see if his body could handle the surgery. He's still awaiting the results, but says he feels optimistic. He even brought a camera crew to the hospital for another reality television show he's planning, to be bundled with footage from a musical talent search. He's in the process of training a handful of potential rap stars, including a genteel white 19-year-old Texas rapper named Mike Bond. These unknowns will perform lyrics he has written, and their verses will be paired on tracks with urban superstars in D.O.C.'s rolodex — a group that includes Snoop, Andre 3000 and Badu. D.O.C. says he's in talks with production companies for the program, which he plans to title I Got My Voice Back.
D.O.C. says he receives about $20,000 per year in writer's royalties. This is, of course, only a fraction of what he's owed, considering that the works he contributed to continue to sell well. Until recently the majority of even this modest sum went to the IRS, owing to unpaid back taxes. He says that a combination of loyalty, ignorance and substance abuse issues kept him from legally pursuing his publishing credits over the years.
But now he's ready for a new day. He has paired up with a crackerjack PR rep named Chad Kiser, as well as a new full-time business manager, John Huffman, who has worked hard to get him the royalties he deserves.
"We're happy now about the situation with 2001," Huffman notes, adding that D.O.C. still hasn't received his just due from his Ruthless contributions.
More recently, something else fortuitous happened to the ghostwriter — he received a call from Dr. Dre, who invited him to come back to California. Snoop was brought back into the fold as well, and the trio resumed work on Detox at Dre's Burbank studios in late July.
D.O.C. says he feels reinvigorated creatively, and that he brought Dre ideas to help "get that core audience back, with those types of songs, and that California vibe from the Chronic album." Don't scoff: D.O.C. insists that the album really is coming soon.
"He's pretty fucking close," D.O.C. says, adding that he plans to move back to L.A. for six months — time enough, he contends, to complete the work.
This go around, however, he plans a different type of working relationship with the famed producer. Instead of having Dre put him up and pay him a measly salary, he's going to rent a house for himself — "in Marina del Rey, with the artists" — and make sure he receives his proper back-end publishing. He says that Snoop has called their recent reunion "magical."
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D.O.C. isn't entirely certain what caused Dre's change of heart, as Dre told him he didn't want to focus on the past. He speculates that one factor may have been Snoop's impassioned plea to Westwood, while another is simply that their loyalty runs deep.
"We all got love for each other," he says. "I love Dre like my fucking family."
Dre appears to feel the same way. One night in the studio a couple of weeks ago, he took a break from playing his new beats to put on a Beethoven symphony. As it played, Dre noted that the composer had created the work after he had gone deaf.
"And he drilled the point into my head — that most of Beethoven's greatest compositions were created after he lost his hearing," D.O.C. says. "I got the message."