Dr. Dre is one of the biggest success stories in all of hip-hop. However, there was a time when he wasn’t as media savvy. In our latest #HSTBT, we explore a violent outburst that could have rendered him D.O.A.
With the announcement of his first new album in 16 years, Compton, as well as the forthcoming release of the N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, the next two weeks promise to have Dr. Dre at the center of attention in popular culture. For countless young people who grew up during the new millennium, Dr. Dre’s name has meant more in the tech space – with his Beats by Dre line and Apple deal – than it has in the music arena. However, Dre has earned his place in the conversation as one of the most successful rappers of all time based solely on the strength of his music and production alone.
Despite his image in the press these days – which includes a $70 million USD endowment to the University of Southern California to create a new undergraduate program called The USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation – there was a time when Dre could have become a pariah had social media and the Internet been a more prominent part of society.
In the late ’80s/early ’90s, Denise “Dee” Barnes was both known as a rapper and television personality. As an artist, she notably released material on Delicious Vinyl. She also appeared on the Dr. Dre-produced West Coast Rap All-Stars 1990 posse cut, “We’re All in the Same Gang,” which saw her featured along the likes of King Tee, Tone Loc, Ice-T, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Eazy-E, MC Hammer and more.
As a TV host, she anchored Fox’s program Pump it Up! which first debuted in 1989 and saw her interviewing the likes of De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Heavy D, Biz Markie and many more notable acts of the era.
During this same time, N.W.A was entrenched in bitterness between its remaining members – Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella and Dr. Dre – and Ice Cube who had left the group in December 1989 over disputes about music royalties he felt he was owed for his contributions to their debut album, Straight Outta Compton. When it came time for Ice Cube to air his feelings about his former group, he looked no further than Dee Barnes and her show’s prominent platform.
While the interview in question doesn’t exist online, Barnes recalled the content to The Source in 1992, saying, “A year or two into the show, as things are going well, I tried to get N.W.A. on ‘cause they don’t really talk that much. I got ‘em on and we do a nice little interview. This goes on October ‘90. About a week later, I do an interview with Yo Yo on the set of Boyz N the Hood and Cube was there. And Cube came in the middle of the interview and said some things about N.W.A.—‘cause at the time they were having a riff out here. The producer at the time, Jeff Shore, he was the one that put [the segment] in. Cube just said it joking and I was left standing there. The cameras were still rolling so I said, ‘Sister Dee, always in the middle of controversy right here on Pump It Up!’ You know? What am I gonna do? Then [Jeff Shore] said, ‘Cut! That’s great! I’m gonna put it on the N.W.A. show’…He said it right there and I said, ‘Naw, you crazy?’ I didn’t want those two groups fighting anymore. I didn’t want it to be because of Pump It Up!, like we instigated something.”
On January 27, 1991 – during a record-release party for Bytches With Problems (BWP) at Hollywood’s Po Na Na Souk club – Dr. Dre confronted Dee Barnes over the TV package in question. A Los Angeles Times report in June of that year didn’t reveal any specific details of the attack, but it did note that Barnes had filed a $22 million USD lawsuit against Dr. Dre for assault and battery and emotional distress, and charged the other N.W.A members with libel, slander and emotional distress.
Eazy-E elaborated on what N.W.A thought was a disrespectful move by Dee Barnes and her Pump it Up! producers, commenting to The Source, “It’s like this: We did Pump It Up!, we did a little something on him [Ice Cube]. She [Dee] set it up. Then she had him come back and do his little clip on us. So we figured everybody that’s gonna be settin’ us up to do these TV shows and interviews—that all of a sudden slide him in after they hear our side of the shit—that make us look like clowns. We’re fuckin’ up everybody! Everybody. I don’t give a fuck who it is.”
On July 23, 1991, The Los Angeles Times ran a followup to their initial report with a firsthand account from Barnes as to what exactly took place. “He [Dr. Dre] picked me up by my hair and my ear and smashed my face and body into the wall,” she said. “Next thing I know, I’m down on the ground and he’s kicking me in the ribs and stamping on my fingers. I ran into the women’s bathroom to hide, but he burst through the door and started bashing me in the back of the head.”
With no video evidence to tie Dre to the assault, one could assume that he could have potentially gotten out of hot water had he and his N.W.A cohorts gone silent on the allegations. However, Eazy-E, MC Ren and Dr. Dre himself took the exact opposite approach.
In speaking with Rolling Stone in August on of 1991, Ren remarked “she deserved it – bitch deserved it,” while Eazy-E echoed his sentiments, saying, “Yeah, bitch had it coming.”
Even Dr. Dre himself thought he should weigh in, stating, “People talk all this shit, but you know, somebody fucks with me, I’m gonna fuck with them. I just did it, you know. Ain’t nothing you can do now by talking about it. Besides, it ain’t no big thing – I just threw her through a door.”
Twenty-six-year-old Dr. Dre pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery charges in August 1991 and was fined $2,513 USD, sentenced to 240 hours of community service and 24 months probation. Judge Frederick Wapner also ordered him to pay $1,000 USD to the California Victims Restitution Fund and to produce an anti-violence public service TV announcement.
While no one can be exactly sure why Barnes didn’t receive a settlement, Newsweek reported in June of 1991 that “[Barnes’] lawyer had offered not to bring suit if Dre would help [her] rap group with some music.”
In a 1991 diss song against the entire West Coast entitled, “Fuck Compton,” New York emcee Tim Dog rapped, “I’ll crush Ice Cube, I’m cool wit Ice T/But NWA ain’t shit to me/Dre beating on Dee from Pump it Up!/Step to the Dog and get fucked up.”
When Eazy-E and Dr. Dre’s feud intensified after the latter left N.W.A, Eazy-E made mention of Dre’s attack on Dee Barnes on several records. On “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s” he quipped “beating up a bitch don’t make you shit.” On “It’s On” he cracked “body slammin’ bitches make [sic] Dre a bigger man.” And on “Wut Would U Do,” he remarked, “Dr. Dre/Straight busta/ Never broke a law in his life/Besides beatin’ up Ricky Harris’ wife.”
On Eminem’s debut album, The Slim Shady LP, he and Dr. Dre traded verses on “Guilty Conscience” as if a person’s inner monologue. Eminem cracked, “You gonna take advice from somebody who slapped Dee Barnes?” At the time, their working relationship was just beginning, and Eminem was unsure if Dre would find the humor in the line. According to the book Eminem: The Stories Behind Every Song, Dre actually fell off his chair from laughing so hard upon hearing it.
In a conversation with HuffPost Live on Monday, VIBE magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Datwon Thomas said of the incident between Dr. Dre and Dee Barnes,”It’s a moment that needs to be documented because it shows that this man [Dre] doesn’t have just shiny spots on his resume. He has those dark moments. It is something that he had to answer for and I think he does step up and try to talk about it when addressed. But it’s hard to address him about it because he doesn’t do interviews like that. He just said it was an unfortunate incident. It’s just hard to get those really deep answers to those questions that you want from Dre. It’s really tough.”