BY ANGEL JENNINGS
LOS ANGELES TIMES (MCT)
COMPTON, Calif. — Every fall, economics teacher Louis Stewart puts aside the textbooks and gives his students at Centennial High School in Compton a lesson in Dr. Dre 101.
He pulls out the Forbes magazine list of America’s richest celebrities and points to Dr. Dre, who is usually high on the list. Most of his students assume the only way a Compton native could have become so wealthy is through professional sports, Stewart says, “because that’s all they know.”
Stewart explains Dre’s rise from the streets of Compton to rapper to music producer to co-founder of Beats Electronics, the high-end, bass-heavy headphone and speaker company.
With Apple Inc.’s recent purchase of Beats for $3 billion, Dre (real name: Andre Young) is now being hailed around town as Compton’s first billionaire and an even more powerful role model in a community where opportunities for young people often seem few and far between.
The milestone is also prompting some to reassess their feeling for Dre, who at times in his career has been a divisive figure in Compton.
Gangsta rap and gospel
Some in the community blamed Dre and his N.W.A. bandmates for casting the city in a bad light.
Their 1988 debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” chronicled the plight of living in one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. It was dark, and the graphic lyrics were laced with violence and rage.
For years, Compton tried to shed the image as a birthplace of West Coast gangsta rap. It spent millions of dollars hosting an annual gospel festival in an effort to become the gospel music center. The wildly popular event brought gospel performers from across the country.
In recent years, however, these concerns have faded as Dre emerged as a successful businessman who left his gangsta rap past behind.
Compton Mayor Aja Brown, no fan of gangsta rap, recently offered Dre a key to the city. Like Stewart, she sees Dre as an inspiration for the city and its youth.
“It’s a source of pride for the community that someone could come from such humble beginnings and reach a considerable level of success — and not necessarily for his artistry — but for his business acumen and really being an entrepreneur,” Brown said.
Left decades ago
In the past, Brown has shied away from honoring Compton-bred rappers and athletes. She said she did not want youngsters to view music and sports as the only pathways out.
But Dre is different, she said. Because it was his business sense that propelled his success.
“The majority of people, especially young people, know Dr. Dre because of Beats by Dre, not necessarily from him being a rap artist,” she said. “That was over 20 years ago. They see Mr. Young as a business person and entrepreneur.”
Dre hasn’t actually lived in Compton in nearly three decades. He moved to Westlake Village, Calif., in the late 1980s. Around that time, his Mercedes was stolen at gunpoint in Inglewood. He told reporters at the time that living in “dangerous places” affected his mental state and he had “to get out to keep (his) sanity.”
Days after selling Beats, Dre bought a $40 million Brentwood compound previously owned by supermodel Gisele Bundchen and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Then he put his current Hollywood Hills West home on the market for $35 million.
Dre has described himself as the “first hip-hop billionaire,” though Forbes magazine has estimated his net worth at $700 million to $800 million after the Beats sale.
Sylvia Nunn Angels, a grassroots organization aimed at reducing gang violence, threw a tribute last month, proclaiming June 19 as Dre Day.
Architect behind N.W.A.
Dre got his start as a deejay before forming N.W.A. with four local musicians, who included rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube, in the 1980s.
As the group’s producer, he was the architect behind N.W.A.’s hard-core rap sound that was known as gangsta rap. A media storm erupted over the explicit content in N.W.A’s 1988 hit “F — tha Police.”
Parents groups tried to ban the album from stores. The FBI issued a “warning letter” to the rap group’s record label, saying the song encouraged “violence against and disrespect” for law enforcement officers.
Stewart, the economics teacher, said Compton’s image changes from that of a working-class area to “this perception of gangsta land, and N.W.A. had a lot to do with that.”
“I’m a fan of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, but their music affected Compton,” he added. “They all mentioned Compton by name in their songs, and it changed people’s perception.”
In the early 1990s, Dre got in trouble with the law and spent time in jail for a probation violation. He’s said in interviews that his time behind bars changed him. He slowly moved away from the gangsta rap culture, focusing more on producing music and developing new artists. He’s now considered one of the music industry’s legendary producers.