HBO’s “The Defiant Ones” shows how LA’s legendary traffic helped form Dr. Dre

A tricked-out 1964 Chevy Impala, the car of choice for a young Dr. Dre.
A tricked-out 1964 Chevy Impala, the car of choice for a young Dr. Dre.
Image: Reuters/ Mario Anzuoni
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Dr. Dre’s musical genius came straight out of Compton’s car culture.

In the 1970s and 80s, as now, Los Angeles was known for its sprawling layout and unavoidable traffic. Growing up in LA neighborhood Compton (as Andre Romelle Young), the boy who would later become rapper Dr. Dre knew how important it was for music to sound perfect in a car.

“[You’re] in your car all the time; the first thing you do is turn on the radio,” Dre said in The Defiant Ones, a four-part HBO documentary whose third episode aired on July 16. “When I do a mix, the first thing I do is go down and see how it sounds in the car.”

That goes the other way too: There’s a scene in The Defiant Ones where Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine—co-founder of Interscope Records and also the subject of HBO’s documentary—test out Beats Audio speakers in a Chrysler SUV. They make sure that the bass knocks perfectly to songs produced throughout their careers. Dr.Dre turns on 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” for example, and immediately instructs sound technicians in the backseat to turn up the bass and fine-tune the specs.

The cars of Dre’s childhood listening sessions were often lowriders, preferably the 1964 Chevy lowrider impala—often referred to in West Coast rap as the “six-fo.” The ideal ride had an advanced Alpine stereo and customized subwoofer systems (a subwoofer brings out the lower frequencies in the music; a powerful one is the reason you can feel a song’s vibrations from a few blocks away).

In The Defiant Ones, Dre says that these advanced audio systems, combined with the amount of driving time required by LA life, honed his focus on sonics and the clarity of every beat. That awareness helped form his own musical style. Or, as Ice Cube put it in the documentary: “If you didn’t have subwoofers in your car, you wasn’t shit.”

While people still listen to music in their cars today, most individual listening now happens through earbuds. (And to see how Dre feels about your average earbud’s sound quality, just visit Beats’ About Us page, titled “People Aren’t Hearing All The Music.”) Dre and Iovine say they created Beats to be the headphone equivalent of that Chevy six-fo with a customized sound system. The headphones are engineered to make listeners experience the music as if they were in Dre’s studio, or car.

Dre’s now-legendary music style is definitely the only good thing to ever come out of LA’s bumper-to-bumper traffic.