Dr Dre was once accused of bringing Compton into disrepute but now he's hailed as the area's first billionaire

For years Dr Dre was criticised for bringing his hometown into disrepute. Now he's being hailed as an entrepreneur and Compton's first billionaire, writes Angel Jennings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm

Every autumn, economics teacher Louis Stewart puts aside the textbooks and gives his students at Centennial High School in the Californian city of Compton a lesson in Dr Dre 101.

He pulls out Forbes magazine's 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".

The majority of people, especially young people, know Dr Dre because of Beats by Dre, not necessarily from him being a rap artist ... They see Mr Young as a businessperson and entrepreneur
Aja brown, compton mayor, on changing perceptions of the rapper-producer 

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's recent purchase of Beats for US$3 billion, Dre - real name Andre Young - is now hailed as Compton's first billionaire and an even more powerful role model in a community where opportunities for young people seem few and far between.

The milestone is also prompting some to reassess their opinion of Dre, who at times in his career has been a divisive figure in Compton. Some in the community blamed Dre and the other members of rap outfit N.W.A. 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 US. 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 a gospel music centre. The wildly popular event brought gospel performers from across the country.

In recent years, however, these concerns have faded as Dre became a successful businessman and left his gangsta rap past behind. Aja Brown, Compton's mayor and 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," she says.

In the past, Brown has shied away from honouring Compton-bred rappers and athletes. She says she doesn't want youngsters to view music and sports as the only pathways out. But Dre is different, she says, because it's his business sense that propels 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 says. "That was over 20 years ago. They see Mr Young as a businessperson and entrepreneur."

Dre hasn't actually lived in Compton in nearly three decades: he moved to Westlake Village, California, 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 US$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 US$35 million. Dre has described himself as the "first hip-hop billionaire", although Forbes has estimated his net worth at US$700 million to US$800 million after the Beats sale.

Brown has tried to reach out to Dre through the president of the University of Southern California, her alma mater and where Dre has funded an academy for the arts. She has not received a response yet, but she's hopeful. Some residents in Compton have taken matters into their own hands. Sylvia Nunn Angels, a grass-roots organisation aimed at reducing gang violence, threw a tribute for Dre last month, proclaiming June 19 Dre Day.

That evening, about 30 people converged on an empty blacktop on Long Beach Boulevard for a party in his honour. Dre's tunes blasted from the speakers, and the smell of chili and barbecue filled the air. Some guests wore T-shirts with Dre's face under the title "Compton's First Black Billionaire". The DJ for the event was 15-year-old Chris Desrosiers. Over the blare of the music, the teenager explains how Dre has bean an inspiration for him. "I want to be like him," says Chris, a student at King Drew Medical Magnet High School. "But I'm going to get my business degree first."

Dre got his start as a DJ 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 hardcore 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 says Compton's image changed from that of a working-class area to "this perception of gangsta land, and N.W.A. had a lot to do with that". The economics teacher says he's a fan of Dr Dre and Ice Cube "but their music affected Compton. They all mentioned Compton 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 on producing music and developing new artists. He's now considered one of the music industry's top producers.

In 2008, Dre and longtime business partner Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine released the first pair of Beats by Dre headphones. Last year, Dre and Iovine established a US$70 million endowment at USC to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation - to train those interested in the music technology business.

The gift drew praise from many quarters - but there were critics who questioned why he gave to the private university rather than to historically black colleges or even high schools in his hometown.

Still, officials and activists in Compton hope Dre will become more of a force in the city. Dre did not attend the party in his honour last month. But the community group gave him an award anyway. Activist Marvin Kinsy, who led the ceremony, says: "Dre continues to put the city on the map."

Los Angeles Times