Dr Dre: The Hip-Hop Maverick Beating the Tech Titans at Their Own Game

By James O Malley on at

If you know anything about Dr Dre, it is that he was “Straight Outta Compton”. Real name Andre Romelle Young, Dre was born there in 1965 and attended school in the city. During his high school years however, and following his mum remarrying, his family moved out to the suburbs to get away from the gang violence. When he was 17, Dre fathered his son Curtis, from whom he would remain estranged until the child was 20.

As is well known, it was at this point in his life that he was involved with a number of groups on the West Coast hip-hop scene - eventually joining seminal act NWA. It was at this point he became wildly successful and seemingly went off the rails. In 1992, he broke record producer Damon Thomas’ jaw after Thomas found Dre had been sleeping with his girlfriend. In 1994, Dre was involved in a high-speed police chase which ended in him driving over a cliff. After this, he was sent to a halfway house.

Later he was asked about this behaviour by the NME, and told them “You got to realise that when I was 20 years old, I had a house, a Mercedes, a Corvette and a million dollars in the bank before I could buy alcohol legally.”

The next couple of decades saw Dre’s meteoric rise through the music industry, both as a performer and a producer and working with pretty much everyone who is anyone. He also found time for a film career, appearing in Training Day, amongst others. (He is also currently producing a biopic of NWA, appropriately called Straight Outta Compton with bandmate Ice Cube.)

Moving Into Tech

Perhaps most striking though was Dre’s move into entrepreneurship. Though his younger self might have said “F*ck the Police”, the older Dre was more than happy to work with big business with the launch of Beats Electronics.

The company was founded in 2006 by Dre and fellow music-mogul Jimmy Iovine. The company seeked to address what the founders perceived as the problem with modern music: Crap headphones. Dre apparently once said of Apple’s cheap plastic headphones “it's one thing that people steal my music. It's another thing to destroy the feeling of what I've worked on.”

It seems that Dre sees Beats as an extension of his previous career, telling Time Magazine last year:

“Everything in my life has been about sound and making music, so Beats represents just that - the improvement of sound and the dedication to everything I've been doing from the day I started.”

Beats focused on building higher quality headphones and speakers - and even consulted a number of well known musicians on the design. Since launch though, the headphone line has become something of a cultural icon - partially thanks to savvy product placement with celebrities, and partially thanks to there always being that one guy on the top deck of the bus who has his music cranked too loud.

On a technical level, the reception of “Beats by Dre” has been more lukewarm - with audiophiles saying they’re nothing special, but fans pointing towards an emphasis on bass.

After the initial success with headphones, Beats went on to expand into other products - including licensing its name and technology for inclusion in other products. In 2011 Taiwanese phone giant HTC bought 50.1 per cent of Beats for $309m - and as a result the HTC Sensation was able to boast that it came with Beats Audio.

The partnership wasn’t to last though, with HTC later selling its stake. Whilst this could have been a setback, it actually set the stage for something even bigger.

In 2014 the company launched a foray into streaming music subscription services, launching Beats Music to compete with the likes of Spotify. To differentiate itself, it made use of Dre’s extensive music industry connections and in addition to streaming tracks, it offered curated playlists of tracks from famous figures too.

Dropping Beats

It was also in 2014 that Beats caught the attention of the company that had unwittingly inspired it. Apple bought the company for a rumoured $3bn, in what is thought to be its largest acquisition to date. Presumably Dre now has a few more cars to sit alongside the Mercedes and Corvette.

At the time, the Beats acquisition had many people scratching their heads: What did Apple want with some expensive headphones? But in terms of design philosophy, Beats and Apple fit together like hand and glove: Both manufacture premium devices, with a focus on design and brand.

Perhaps the true purpose of the Beats acquisition though was only revealed by Apple earlier this week, with the announcement of its new streaming service. Though branded “Apple Music”, the service clearly has Beats fingerprints all over it. The new streaming service is attempting to differentiate itself by offering a manually curated experience, with a live radio station called “Beats 1” programmed by the likes of Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe to appeal to the achingly cool audience that Beats first attracted.

The foray into music curation marks something of a departure for the suits at Apple - but perhaps it was Dre’s maverick decision to go from music mogul to tech executive that has now caused the executives at Apple to try to become musical influencers.

In Standing on Death Row, a track written by Dre but performed by his posse, he said “There’s three types of people in the world / Those who don’t know what happened / Those who wonder what happened / And people like us from the streets that MAKE things happen." If mastering both the music and the tech industry count for anything, Dre certainly made things happen.

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Lead Image Credit: Wikipedia