Interview: The D.O.C. on vocal rehabilitation, Tupac and mental health

The D.O.C. is one of the most important figures in hip hop’s history. As a founding member of the G-Funk style that was popularised by Dr. Dre, NWA, Eazy-E, Outkast and Snoop Dogg, The D.O.C.’s music legacy is undeniable.

From penning lyrics for the greats like Dre at 18-years-old, to writing on one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, to releasing a certified platinum debut solo album at 21 called No One Can Do It Better, The D.O.C. found success early and quickly.

However, his career was dashed when he drove under the influence, crashing his car while wearing no seatbelt, flying out the window and crushing his larynx, leaving him voiceless. Decades of substance abuse ensued while he took up ghost-writing for other artists.

In 2015, at the age of 46, The D.O.C. announced his voice had returned. It was a turning point for the artist who’d spent the majority of his life being told he’d never be able to speak again.

He’s now in Australia shooting the Benjamin Millepied reimagining of the Bizet opera Carmen, with Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Melissa Barrera (Vida) and we hopped on the phone while he quarantined.

How’s quarantine going?

It has been horrible. I don’t like it at all.

What’s your set up like?

Well it’s cool. It’s a nice hotel suite. It’s pretty big. There’s a balcony. I mean it’s as good as it could be, but it’s still not, I don’t like being confined in a space.

Yeah, no, I don’t think anyone does, to be honest. The D.O.C., I want to go back to the start of your career. You began as Doc-T in Fila Fresh Crew as a teenager. What did your dedication to ‘doc’ come from?

I went to California and started working with the NWA guys. It just felt like a natural sort of thing since they had an acronym, to change mine to an acronym as well.

Okay, what about when you first got onto the scene? Where did you pick that pseudonym from? Why ‘doc’?

Oh, it was just by chance actually. The guy who I started rapping with, his sister – when I decided I was going to be a rapper, his sister had just come home from work and she was a lab technician and she had a doctor’s jacket on, and so I just said, I’m going to be a Doc.

You’re undoubtedly a surgeon of syllables.

What was those early days of penning verses like? Do you have any practices or methods that you would recommend to people wanting to get good at word-smithing?

It’s a spiritual thing for me really and I enjoy words. I enjoy writing, I enjoy the art of communicating and when I write songs, for me, they’re all like little books and you have a nice beginning, a nice middle and, a nice end to it. Like any other piece of good literature, but when you add music, it takes on a spiritual element and usually I’ll just sleep with headphones on and let the music blast in my ear all night and by the time wake up, the song is done.

Damn, wow. What a lullaby to go to bed with. Do you listen to much current hip hop?

I have a listen. I don’t listen to much, only the stuff that’s popular, I guess. You hear it all the time on social media or you hear it on the radio. But, I don’t get to listen to a lot of the current music just because it’s not in my demographic. It’s usually been for the youngsters, so I let them have that, but I’m attracted to it. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with where hip hop is right now. I think it’s simply where it is and how I connect with the young artists where they are and respect them and support them, and if I can help it at all.

You were a part of one of the most iconic hip hop crews in all time, NWA. You obviously helped with Straight Outta Compton, and I want to ask you about that album in particular. Did being Texan impact the process of writing such an identity-based album with a bunch of Californians?

Not for me, I’m a writer. It would be just a difference, like between writing a fictional book and non-fictional book. Writing for me, it was much easier to write based on a character, than it was writing LA music from the title of the characters that they were based on rather than writing for them as individuals. I don’t know California, but I do know gangsters. I know gangster bullies. I know death and destruction and murder and killing and shooting and stabbing. I know all that. I’ve seen it often. All my life. So I can write that pretty easily.

Did you ever have an alter-ego you went into when you were writing?

No, I’m just a country boy from Texas. So I write from my heart. So it’s all me.

Yeah, as you said, it’s a spiritual thing.

Was there sort of a distinct moment in that era where you felt infinite or on top of the world?

There was a moment in the Straight Outta Compton tour, when – it was the point when we went through Dallas, Texas, my home. Now, because this is a tour with LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Run-D.M.C and De La Soul, and NWA. Now my record hadn’t even come out yet, but NWA allowed me seven minutes at the beginning of their show just to get out and warm the crowd up for them. And, when I took the stage that night in Dallas, I got more of an applause than anybody that was on that was on that tour. Just the year prior, I was at a show, and later I was on stage with those guys and the crowd was losing their minds because it was me, and in that moment, my mother was there, it was out of a dream. It probably the best night of my life, as far as the music industry is concerned.

That would be pretty amazing in front of a home crowd. You’ve talked about it in the past that you’d want to see a documentary about the darker sides of that era than the film that we’ve already seen. What do those darker sides entail?

Well, I can only speak to myself. I don’t want to get into everybody else’s dirty laundry. But for me, when I had that accident, I went through a really dark period where only drugs and alcohol could get through to me and make me feel better about myself. I couldn’t. Scars on my face made me… I had to look at it every day, the sound of my new voice, I had to hear it every day. I couldn’t get away. It was only being fucked up really, for lack of a better way of putting it, that allowed me to get by.

Now we’re in age today where everybody’s talking about mental health and everybody’s talking about drug addiction and everybody’s talking about depression. But back in those days, I was going through all of that shit and nobody was talking about it. I had to suffer through it on my own and even the guys that were closest to me, [Dr.] Dre, Snoop [Dogg] and all those guys, they were on another path than I was so they couldn’t really relate to that. They would tell you that they never knew I was struggling because I didn’t want anybody to see that side, which is probably why I was so up all the time.

That’s really hard to not have that sort of support network that we kind of take for granted nowadays. What was your turning point then at being at peace with your voice and this new way of life?

Well I’ve only very recently gotten there, to that point, maybe, a year or so ago right. But, the turning point for me was when Erykah [Badu] and I got together and Badu gave me this little baby girl named Puma. Puma was the turning point in my life because she gave me someone – because that little baby loved her daddy so hard, she made it impossible for me not to love myself.

What are the realities of voice rehabilitation to that extent?

Well, there was no information. I mean, look, there was nothing. Nothing.

Right. Did they tell you that it was irreversible?

Yes.

How did you start getting your vocal chords working in the right way?

Well, the body’s an entire machine. It was designed to heal itself and if you give it the proper nursing, and you give it the proper tools, it’ll heal itself. Unfortunately, over those thirty years, I was giving my body lots of BS the whole time. So it made it difficult for it to heal itself, but slowly but surely it developed itself into what I have today.

I use my vocal cords a certain way, I can make sound, but it’s not sound that has enough power for me to change it and make distinctive, make those voice distinctions that would allow me to use it musically. But, they work, and so who knows what will happen to the future?

Exactly and the most important thing is that we’re here now and that it works! I’m also really keen to ask you about the legacy of Tupac. Obviously he is someone that you intersected with throughout your career. What was your last living memory of him?

My last memory, living memory of Tupac was hanging out in Atlanta, Georgia with him and MC Breed. We headed to the club, but we got kicked out.

What’d you get kicked out for?

Because we were young and dumb and just wiling out.

Do you know where you were when you found out about his passing?

I was still in Atlanta. Now, when I was hanging out with Tupac, he hadn’t yet become a Death Row guy. He was still just him and there was about maybe a year later, it was almost exactly a year later, they had locked him up and he had gotten out and went over there with those boys.

That’s crazy.

You’ve tracked America through a lot of phases. What is your relationship with your country like currently? I know you work with civil rights activists at the moment. Does that impact your national identity?

No, I’m just a man that happens to be African-American, that understands that the only real peace that we have is if we could develop a kind of love for one another, as a race of beings that will allow everybody to have enough. I don’t care that some people want to be so rich that it’s just fucking sickening. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me are those certain people who seem to not want other people to have enough because the great lie is that there’s not enough, and I don’t serve a God that doesn’t make enough. There’s enough. There’s enough for everybody to have. Enough. Even if you want to have a three gazillion trillion dollars, that’s fine. Let’s just make a line, put every single human being on the planet as enough.

If you do that then you will eliminate all crime because the only reason crime exists is because people are trying to get what they don’t have. And, I don’t mean money, so they could go out and fucking ride in cars. I mean, money so they can feed themselves and see their families and take care of their children and have healthcare. All the things that are basic. If you make that line and create some sort of system that’s worldwide, but one which establishes that line for every race for human beings then there’s a chance that we might really be able to have something on this earth.

You’re in Australia to film, Carmen, the musical. That’s a bit different for you – how did that opportunity come about?

Well, about a year ago, Erykah called me, and she said that there are some people that are interested in talking to you about a movie. I was like, great, and she said it’s a musical and I was like a musical? She was like, yeah, they know about your voice, they said, it’s a small part, but your voice works well for the character and you have to do a song. Can you write a song?

Of course I can write a song. I wrote it and recorded it and they loved it and so now I’m down under shooting my first movie and it’s pretty fucking wicked. But the opportunity, I’m also shooting a documentary this year, so it gave me an opportunity to spend a couple of days rubbing elbows with you Australian people, and bring my own cameras here.

What an amazing opportunity and what a good spot in the world to be at the moment.

I know right?

Only two weeks, so then you’ll be fresh out. The D.O.C., thank you so much for chatting with me. I really appreciate it, and I guess as the saying goes, “No one can do it better.” So it’s been an absolute honour.

You can keep up to date with The D.O.C. on Instagram and Spotify. A release date for Carmen has yet to be announced.

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