Musician Colin Wolfe built beats with Dr. Dre for The Chronic, NWA’s Niggaz4Life, and Jimmy Z’s Muzical Madness

Dr. Dre changed the game at least three times: N.W.A, Death Row Records, and Eminem. But if Death Row was the Motown of the ’90s, Colin Wolfe was G-Funk Brother #1.

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Colin Wolfe Dr. Dre

Venice, California, is a haven for creative types. The beachside city is permeated by a beatnik postmodernism vibe, influenced by the lingering residue of ’60s psychedelia (Jim Morrison reportedly channeled his muse here). Enclaves of galleries, artist lofts, and the sporadic weed dispensaries dot Venice’s labyrinthian streets. Jewelry makers peddle their trinkets on the sidewalk, skaters zoom by pedestrians. Even LAPD is kinda chill.

Lodged among this hub of activity is a nondescript two-story Victorian house turned recording studio. Inside is a beehive of productivity: an engineer is recording vocals in one of the downstairs’ Pro Tools suites, a TV promo sound design session happens across the hall. In a cramped control room upstairs, composer Colin Wolfe listens to a rough mix of Pills, the new EP from a duo called Dose. Wolfe–a laid-back dude who exudes L.A. cool–smiles and nods his head to a bubbling indietronica beat, pausing only to warmly greet the steady stream of the studio personnel. In the midst of this neo-hippie collective, you’d never guess that Wolfe revolutionized the sound of hardcore hip-hop with Dr. Dre.

Dr. Dre changed the game at least three times: NWA, Death Row Records, and Eminem. Detox may (or may not) prove to be the super producer’s superfecta. Nonetheless, The Chronic is arguably his magnum opus. Picking up where NWA’s machine-gun funk left off, the album not only refined the dense layers of his beats; it gave the hip-hop industry a potent contact high. Everybody and they mama had to have the squealing Minimoogs on songs, everybody had to revisit the Mothership, and everybody had to start hiring proficient session musicians.

But if Death Row was the Motown of the ’90s, Colin Wolfe was G-Funk Brother number one. His bass and synth-laden grooves infused The Chronic with a level of sophistication never before heard in gangsta rap, while providing a sonic blueprint for Dr. Dre’s subsequent production aesthetic. Two thousand twelve marks the twentieth anniversary of the good doctor’s solo album debut. In commemoration of the release, Wolfe steps out of the shadows and provides rare insight on how he put more bounce to Dr. Dre’s ounce.

 

When did you start making music?

I grew up in Baldwin Hills [in Los Angeles] and started playing a little bit of drums and trumpet in elementary school. Then went to Palisades [Charter] High School, as far as the whole L.A. bussing situation. For some reason, my new high school friends wanted me to play bass. I bought one from a pawnshop and learned “Day Tripper” [by the Beatles] note for note. Being in a band with a bunch of White dudes out in the Palisades, I was introduced to a lot of rock shit—Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who. On my own, I was into stuff like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Level 42, and Mark King, who was this bad-ass White boy. But Zeppelin was definitely one of my all-time favorites. John Paul Jones was killing that bass. His influences were James Jamerson, all of that Motown stuff. You can hear it in his hand. He’s just real funky with it. Anyway, after high school, I went to UCLA as a biochemistry major, studying to become a scientist and gigging in my spare time.

How did you hook up with Dr. Dre?

It was around ’88 or ’89. Someone called me to play at the China Club in Hollywood one night. I was doing a bass solo and that’s when the whole Ruthless Records camp walked in. The double doors opened up and in comes Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, Dr. Dre, and [Ruthless session keyboardist] L.A. Dre. They were in the house to see Jimmy Z., who just got signed to the label and was playing after my set. I got off stage and they asked if I wanted to go on tour with Michel’le. They were putting her band together to go on the road. I said, “Hell yeah!” The next day, they asked if I knew any other musicians. So I got my friends on board, the keyboard player Justin Reinhardt and Chris Claremont on guitar. Those dudes did some work with us on The Chronic. But from that point on, I was with Dre every single day. We were always working.

Were you a fan of his work before that time?

No. My brother introduced me to NWA. He played “Fuck tha Police” for me and our granddad when it first came out. [laughs] That was my introduction. After every other rhyme, I was like, “Yep, yep.” I got where they were coming from. But I didn’t keep listening to them after that. I just kept listening to what I was listening to. I didn’t seriously get into hip-hop really until I linked up with Dre. I was always in the car with him listening to stuff.

NWA 100 Miles and Runnin'Up until your arrival, Ruthless session guitarists included Mike Sims and Stan “The Guitar Man” Jones. What was the first project you got down on?

The first thing we started working on was the 100 Miles and Runnin’ EP [1990]. I didn’t get credit in the liner notes, but I played bass on “Just Don’t Bite It” and “Sa Prize.” “Just Don’t Bite It” was originally a sample. Dre used “Watermelon Man” [by the Headhunters]. But when Herbie [Hancock] heard the lyrics, he was like, “Uh, no.” [laughs] He wouldn’t clear the sample. So we said fuck it and made our own track.

Describe the studio environment.

Everything was recorded at Audio Achievements down in Torrance. On a typical day, Yella would be in the studio at nine in the morning working on whatever other stuff. Dre and I would get there at noon, then MC Ren and [NWA collaborator] Laylaw would come in shortly thereafter. D.O.C. would come at some point. Eazy would usually roll through later in the day…if he came in at all. [laughs] He just came in to do what he had to come do. But you would always find me and Dre there after everyone left. We’d finish NWA sessions at six, then worked on Jimmy Z.’s record until about midnight. Did that schedule every day for years. Monday through Friday and then took off the weekends to relax, you know.

Sounds pretty structured.

Yeah, man, it was. As far as coming up with the tracks for NWA, we would first write down a bunch of song titles and listen to some records. Sometimes Dre would build a drum track in the MPC [60] or SP [1200] first. Then we’d get inspired by a groove, switch a note or two. I’d usually have an idea of what we’d want then come up with something pretty quick for it. Once we had the title and track, D.O.C. would usually write Dre’s verses, Ren would always write his own. Different people would write Eazy’s verses—sometimes D.O.C., sometimes Kokane. I’d usually be the one to record Eazy and Dre’s vocals because I was good at punching in.

Damn, that’s some education. Is this where you developed engineering chops?

Yep, even on the mixes. I’d have my duties, Dre would have his, and the engineer [Donovan “The Dirt Biker” Sound] would have his. This was before console automation. If you fucked up, you’d have to start again. [laughs] Then it got to the point where I was at the tape machine doing splices. Dre taught me all about working in the studio.

NWA Niggaz4Life / Efil4zagginSo from 100 Miles and Runnin’ to 1991’s Niggaz4Life, you and Dre established a solid working relationship. You were definitely an integral to the Ruthless sound.

When Niggaz4Life and [Eazy-E’s unreleased second solo album] Temporary Insanity were coming together, me and Dre definitely had our momentum as far as us working together. Everything about those sessions came together naturally and organically. We came up with all the concepts…

But Yella was credited as coproducer on NWA and Eazy-E albums. Exactly how did he fit into the creative fold?

By basically just doing some scratching. When he was doing his stuff in the morning, he was using ideas Dre and I didn’t use. But we did go in the room and play live together on “I’d Rather Fuck You.” Yella was on drums, I re-did Bootsy’s bass part [interpolated from “I’d Rather Be with You”].

I always had the impression that the Niggaz4Life sessions were tense with infighting and drama. Hip-hop’s Let It Be, if you will.

I’ll tell you what happened. It was because Suge Knight started coming in the studio. Suge would come in at, like, eight, and he would bring in his crew. He brought around this producer Erotic D. We worked with him a little bit, but then Suge started hanging around us and got in Dre’s ear, saying Eazy’s fucking him, this and that. Dre slowly started believing it. There was no tension during the last NWA sessions–everyone was cool, Eazy was mad cool. But it was Suge…

Did you ever feel like you were getting screwed?

Nah. Dre and Eazy were always fair with publishing rights and money. When I worked on a song, Dre would say, “Let’s split it evenly.” We didn’t get into all the details, never had any qualms about that. For instance, he insisted I got a cowriting credit on “Real Niggaz Don’t Die.” Dre started off with the drum track [from Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution”]. I came up with the bass part [hums line] before he put that Rare Earth [“I Just Want to Celebrate”] and the other samples in.

Jimmy Z Muzical Madness Dr. DreTell me about Jimmy Z.’s album, 1991’s Muzical Madness. On the surface, it seems like an oddity in the Ruthless catalog, but it is somewhat of a musical segue between Niggaz4Life and The Chronic. What was the idea behind the record?

We were simply stretching out on that album. We weren’t trying to do what we were doing with the NWA stuff. [We were] trying to be a little more musical with it. More instrumental, even jazzy in a way. The three of us sat down and kinda talked about it, but pretty much just went for it and everything happened. Jimmy played harmonica, the magic flute, sax, trombone…he’s a real musician. Dre wanted him to incorporate those instruments into the sound. Then Jimmy put this weird twist to it. We just made some crazy records and had fun with the album.

The label didn’t really give the album a proper push, ostensibly due to the internal conflicts happening at Ruthless. Did it have potential to do better commercially?

I think it would’ve done well overseas. Either Japan or the U.K. It would’ve been appreciated more out there. Out here, it’s hard to say. It would’ve had to been one of those records that banged and became a fluke hit. Unless we had a big pop hit on there, and it was played all the time. Dre knew some DJs he could go to that might’ve broke the record but…there was no radio format for hip-hop-jazz-funk fusion back then. KJLH and KDAY—those were our main L.A. Black stations. NWA, on the other hand, wasn’t even thinking about radio play or even trying to go there. We were making records people didn’t want to make! But they had a different kind of fan base where radio didn’t matter.

The move from Ruthless Records to Godfather Entertainment (later to become Death Row Records) has been well documented in all its Sturm und Drang. The good, the bad, and the ugly. During that transitional period, Dre celebrated his new independence with the release of the single “Deep Cover” in 1992. How did that all come together?

I think that project came through Dick Griffey somehow. We were actually halfway done with The Chronic and took a break to work on the Deep Cover soundtrack. Death Row had a whole bunch of different groups signed at the time. They were all on the soundtrack. As far as the song, we had one more night to come up with it. We were all at Dre’s house in Calabasas. He had the Sly Stone [“Sing a Simple Song”] beat going. So then I’m listening and I had this Clevinger, a little fretless bass. I’m thinking to myself, “Damn, what can I do that will be out there…the kind of shit we like but jazzy?”

We were listening to a lot of Tribe Called Quest then, with that jazz sound. So I was like, “A tritone–that’ll be the bomb diggy.” I did [imitates bass line] and it worked. As soon as Dre heard that, we laid it down and Snoop wrote the verses. I did the keyboards and a friend of mine, Eric Borders, did some guitar work. I think Dre did some keys too. The next day we took it up to the SOLAR Record’s studio–where we was doing The Chronic–put all the other instruments on there and mixed it. That was that.

Dr. Dre The ChronicGo back to the beginning of The Chronic. What was Dre’s impetus and concept for the album?

The D.O.C. pushed him to do it: “Yo, Dre, you need to do your own thang!” But I remember one day, Dre and I had a big discussion about the sound of the album. At the same time we were like, “We need to do some P-Funk-sounding shit.” We wanted to make a real Parliament-Funkadelic album. Just get really deep and go out there with it. I was a huge P-Funk fan back in the day. We re-did some of their stuff for Niggaz4Life, some of their bass lines. You know, doing certain songs, I would go back and listen to those old records. Like [Parliament’s] “Sir Nose Devoid of Funk” and “I’d Rather Be with You” [by Bootsy’s Rubber Band]. I grew up on that style, so it’s embedded in me. Take “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’),” for instance. I was thinking of Bernie Worrell when I was doing those kind of sounds. And that’s why the Moog is so predominant on The Chronic.

The Moog was as instrumental to G-funk as the Prophet-5 to new wave. When did the instrument get introduced into the studio repertoire?

Dre had me buy the first one back during Niggaz4Life. I found it in the classifieds or something. I think it was because we were listening to so many Parliament-Funkadelic records and dug Bernie’s sound. We were like, “Well, shit…we need to bring a Moog up in here.” Yeah, the first time I played it was on “Alwayz into Somethin’.”

Did Dre have The Chronic title in mind for the album? It’s rumored to have been called Overdose at some point.

He didn’t have the title in mind in the beginning. Overdose could be true though. I think I remember something about that. But I don’t remember who came up with The Chronic title.

The name references a strain of bomb Cali bud. Just how influential was marijuana in the whole recording process and lifestyle?

Man…Dre had just started smoking. We weren’t smoking during NWA. We started smoking when Snoop and them was all up there. [laughs] That’s all they did. That’s when Dre slowly started smoking a little bit. We would mainly get our drink on. Gin and Socko, Hennessey, E&J…that was our shit!

The party was in full effect at the Death Row camp. It seems to have been documented on the album.

Shit, we was just hanging out, playing dominoes, everybody was cool. Everybody was hungry and broke at that moment in time. The whole thing was simply to make good records. No egos or nothing like that. But on every holiday, it would usually be me, Dre, and Michel’le. We’d head to Dre’s mom’s house first, then we would go up to [Michel’le’s] mom’s. It was always us three. Me and Dre would build model planes…believe it or not. [laughs] Watching movies.

Speaking of films, Dre always had a cinematic approach to his soundscapes. From the album skits down to the music. Was this a conscious approach?

Me and Dre were deep into movies. He used to own this thing…a Lucasfilm CD sound library. It cost about $5000. We first used these in the NWA sessions. That’s where all the different sounds came from. Like offices, police stations, and various shit. That inspired Dre to want to get into movies at some point. We actually wrote a script then called The Root of All Evil with [director] Ben Bazmore. Some film people looked at it and there was interest. But we never pursued it or anything. Dre did eventually [direct] the “’G’ Thang” video though.

Do you recall the early album sessions or was it a work-in-progress?

It was always a work-in-progress. Sometimes, we did pre-production at Dre’s home studio, sometimes we just went to the SOLAR building and did stuff. Dre had a Triton console at his house. When we had the fire at the house, the board was in storage, so I got it out and put it back together, working on tracks. And Snoop and the Dogg Pound were always at Dre’s house. We had barbecues every weekend, we’d come up with tracks and stuff. There were so many MCs up there, which made it easy to come up with concepts.

Did you use the same production process on The Chronic as you did at Ruthless, i.e., song titles/concepts first then the music?

Yeah. We’d build a track with drums, bass, keys, then guitar. In that order. Drums and bass were the fundamentals. Dre usually did that in about ten, fifteen minutes. But, occasionally, we’d have a chord thing to start us off or maybe a melody in your head. Sometimes, it would be us replaying something. There was really no set way. As far as engineering, I recorded most of Dre’s vocals on the album by punching in. Nowadays you can do six, seven takes and digitally edit them together to make one good one. Back then, we had to punch in line by line because we were working with tape. Whole different game. [laughs]

Were there any studio jam sessions?

We wouldn’t jam so much. Every once in a while but not a lot. One time, Dre had Zigaboo [Joseph Modeliste] from the Meters in the studio, so me and him started jamming. Dre got it on tape but I don’t know what he did with it. But we had various musicians come to the studio. Kenny Copeland [from Rose Royce] came through one time to jam. So did Ernie Isley, but that was at Ruthless.

There’s been a point of contention over the years about other producers contributing music to The Chronic. Notably uncredited work by Warren G., Daz Dillinger, and Chris “The Glove” Taylor. Did they any role in shaping the sound?

Warren didn’t have a big influence. He would occasionally come in with some lyrics and that “Deeez Nuuuts” skit. But as far as the tracks, not that much input at all. Daz was slowly trying to get into the creative mix. He was starting to come in there with ideas, towards the latter half of the record. Daz did do the drums on “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.” Dre found the instrumental break and I played bass and guitar along with it. But for the most part it was me and Dre who would build the tracks.

Let’s discuss some of those tracks.

With “Dre Day,” I was again thinking P-Funk when I came up with the bass line. That’s exactly what I was going for. Once that comes in then you can hear the other stuff around it. I think Daz did something with the melody line. [imitates tune] I added the guitar, Rhodes, and the strings to the record. It’s kind of related to “Deeez Nuuuts” with the prominent Moog. On that one, I was just vibing with the off-beat feel of Dre’s drums and came up with the bass and melody, making something funky.

“The Day the Niggaz Took Over” was pretty much a sample, but I played a reggae riff on the break. We was messing with reggae back on Niggaz4Life. We liked that feel. Besides this song though, the whole energy of the riots went into the making of The Chronic. There was even a song on there [“Mr. Officer”] talking about “fuck Darryl Gates,” and this and that. Interscope heard it and said, “No, we can’t put this out!” So we had to take that off the album.

I think Warren G. brought the Leon Haywood sample around for “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.” Matter of fact, I was the first one to hear the song’s lyrics. Snoop was in jail and used to call up to the house. I picked up one time and Snoop was like, “Yo, man, I just wrote this rap called ‘G’ Thang.’ Check it out–tell me if you think Dre gon’ like it.” He rapped it for me and I said, “Hell fuckin’ yeah!” We had to record that song three different times, I believe one time the tape was left in the car and got messed up. Another time it got accidentally erased. The only live instrument on there was me playing the [synth] string part and live bass. Dre added an 808 to the kick to make it thump harder.

One day, I was alone in the control room and Dre and Daz were up in the back room, trying to mess around on the keyboard for the “Bitches Ain’t Shit” bass line. So I stepped in the doorway and I could hear whet they were trying to do…I said, “Man, look out, y’all trying to do this.” [imitates bass line] I straight did it, recorded it, and then I was like, “Yo, I got another part,” and did the high Moog part right after that.

A friend and I brought a Zeppelin record [“When the Levee Breaks”] up to the studio for Dre to check out. He dug it and did his thing with the drums for “Lyrical Gangbang.” We listened to it and I did the [synth] melody. “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” was one of the last tracks recorded. Greg Royal, the engineer, had a lot to do with that song. He influenced that one by introducing the Donny Hathaway sample [“Little Ghetto Boy”], but I played the bass on it.

When the album was done, Dre said he needed an intro, I was like, “Cool, I got it!” That became “The Chronic (Intro).” I just came in with something because I knew what mood I was going for. Dre programmed the drums and I played all the instruments on the track. We had the same approach on “High Powered” and “Stranded on Death Row” but those were stringed basses tuned down real low.

Dre later became notorious for obsessively looking for the perfect beat, which would subsequently delay album release dates. How long did it take to wrap up The Chronic?

Considering the break with the Deep Cover soundtrack, I’d say it took a year to finish. The fourteen songs that made it on the album, the three skits, “Mr. Officer” and four other leftover tracks that I can’t remember the names of. But it wasn’t a year straight. We had our different holidays and what not in between. We didn’t really have that usual noon to midnight workday structure like at Audio Achievements. Dre and the D.O.C. had owned the SOLAR studio so…it wasn’t like on someone else’s dime or whatever. We’d might mess with it at Dre’s crib on the weekends. But I was always working at the house studio regardless.

The album dropped in December 1992. Your name was conspicuously missing from the remixed singles and Dre-produced Dogg Pound cut, “Niggas Don’t Give a Fuck,” on the Poetic Justice soundtrack.

When they started The Chronic mix at Larrabee West, I went to Atlanta to work on MC Breed’s record [The New Breed]. The shit was getting crazier and crazier at Death Row. I saw that the more money that was coming in…motherfuckers was getting wild. I just wanted to do music; I didn’t want to do all that other shit. [I] started working with Dallas Austin. Loved that lesson because I then learned how to write songs. I learned how to produce hip-hop with Dre but learned how to write songs with Dallas.

Dre went on to produce Doggystyle with a new crew of session musicians called the Death Row Players. Some pop music critics labeled Snoop’s debut as a sequel to The Chronic. I don’t necessarily agree, but your sonic fingerprints seem to be all over that LP. Especially on “Tha Shiznit” and “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?).”

Oh definitely. They were still using the Moog and all that, graduating from the formula we just left. I thought it was a dope album. The shit! Definitely in its own class. But Doggystyle is mostly all Snoop influenced. So it’s on a different level than The Chronic, you know what I’m saying. I think it’s hard to compare the two.

Things came full circle for you in 1996. You got to work with George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars on the “If Anybody Gets Funked Up (It’s Gonna Be You)” remix. How was that experience?

For me, it was inevitable I was going to work with them. [laughs] George’s son did the record originally. The label liked the sound but didn’t like the music. So then Erick Sermon got it–they still wasn’t feeling it. So then they gave it to me and I crushed it. They went crazy.

Then you got the chance to reconnect with Dre in 1998.

I recorded with him on the 2001 record. The first thing we did was “Forgot About Dre.” I originally did it for Dawn Robinson when she was on Aftermath. But it found its way on Dre’s album. I was only a session musician this time, not a cowriter. I wasn’t too happy about that…but it’s all good. [laughs] I also played bass on “Xxplosive.” They called and flew me out to Reno, where he was working on the tracks. Me and the guitar player laid our parts down live along to Dre’s drum track. I was working on King T’s album out there too [1998’s shelved Thy Kingdom Come].

The atmosphere during 2001 had to be different than The Chronic sessions. But was the chemistry still there?

The chemistry was still there. This time Glove had a big influence on everything. I was friends with all those guys so everything was still cool.

What did you learn from working with Dr. Dre?

He always said to keep things simple…just the ways of working and coming up with stuff. He used to say, “Pay your taxes on time and if you can’t afford to buy ten of something, don’t buy it at all!” [laughs] Dre’s always been cool man, real down to earth. Definitely deserves everything’s he’s achieved, because he worked hard for it. He puts in his hours. Definitely one of the best engineers around. He makes records that pop…puts that hump on it. Dude has a hell of an ear–crazy ear. He can hear different things, chords and shit, like crazy. As far as a musician, I remember him playing all the instruments on one of them Niggaz4Life records, “Appetite for Destruction.” Dre played everything on there.

Finally, what are your thoughts on Detox?

[pause] Man, I can’t see it coming out. He takes his time and I get that, but this is too damn long. I think that after his son died, he took a lot of the records off because of the lyrical content. You know, about drugs and this and that. From what I understand, that turned him around. And I think that what’s on the radio changed his idea about what people are going to like right now. Dre’s always knew what the next new sound was, he was always ahead. But I think he’s turned off right now. I’ve heard a few things off Detox and they’re really dope.

As dope as the classics you made together?

It’s different. People have this idea in their head about what a “Dr. Dre sound” should be, like as opposed to just him coming up with some genius shit. Let him do his thing.

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4 Responses

  1. Awesome!

    – Nam-An
  2. would love to work with C.W.

    i’m in the industry, and i just cannot find him.

    C.W.’s a don. musician.

    [email protected]

    insanemacbeth
  3. revisited ‘The Chronic’ tonight after several years away and wanted to know more about this Colin Wolfe guy who was listed as a co-writer on several tracks, so i googled his name and stumbled on this article.

    damn. this is an awesome interview. props to Wolfe, an obviously talented musician who is a part of music history, but is humble enough to accept his role. i’m going to keep digging to find more stuff he’s been involved with.

    – theMike
  4. Great , the best interview i’d ever read about the recording process of an hip hop album.They should make a documentary of the chronic with all the artists involved in the creating procees. Big props to Colin Wolfe

    – med

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