How do you know when you're truly the man? How about when the your the mayor of Los Angeles buys your mansion? That's what happened to Grammy-winning rapper-producer Dr. Dre this April, when Mayor Richard Riordan paid almost $3 million for Dre's five-bedroom Victorian. That's not the only precious real estate that Dre controls. His 1999 album, "Chronic 2001," still hovers near the top of the Billboard charts after more than 30 weeks, where it was eclipsed by Dre's own protege, Eminem. Add to that his superhot "Up in Smoke" tour (this week's stops: Boise, Indianapolis and Columbus), and you begin to think that his popular theme song, "Dre Day," is something of an understatement. It's looking more and more like Dre's Year.
Considering the year (or two) he's just come off of, that's pretty amazing. His previous album, "Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath," was disappointing--in fact, so disappointing that it took Dre two years to put the pieces together again and head back into the studio. That followed an equally public business disaster. In 1996 he left Death Row, the record company he helped found, after creative differences with CEO Suge Knight. His visibility sank; millions in publishing royalties vanished. At one point Dre, 35, had taken so many body blows, even Mike Tyson felt free to take a bite out of his ego. "I was hanging out with Mike one day, and he straight out said, 'Man, everybody's saying it's over for you. What you going to do?' " says Dre (whose real name is Andre Young). He laughs now. It wasn't so easy to laugh then: "The word on the street was I couldn't do it anymore. One writer said my only prayer was to work with Snoop again."
And so he is -- and with Eminem, Ice Cube and the rest of the seminal rap group N.W.A. With its mixture of old-school and current hip-hop performers, the "Up in Smoke" tour has turned into one of the hottest tickets of the summer. Since opening in mid-June in San Diego, the show has sold out many of its 43 scheduled stops. It's an incredibly elaborate production, with nonstop lasers, custom-made videos and a 40-foot skull oozing red light. Total cost: $2 million, more in the league of rock-and-roll blockbusters than the usual stripped-down rap concert. "I really wanted to give people a show that wasn't just rapping but really creatively something to see," he says. "I wanted to take it to the next level."
If the concert feels like a rap celebration, there's a good reason. Collaboration -- from N.W.A to Snoop Dogg and now Eminem -- has always been good to Dre. He readily admits that his work with Eminem helped bring him out of what he calls his "cold spell." But he also says that he never totally lost faith -- the angry lyrics to his hit song "Hello" notwithstanding: "I started this gangsta s--t/And this is the motherf---ing thanks I get?" "I didn't let negative thoughts linger too long," he says. "It's not easy doing what I do. I lost that feeling for a while. Going to work wasn't fun anymore. But you can't panic. It ain't nothing but a thang."
Now that he's gotten himself back on track, Dre is going to start helping his old friends too. After the tour ends in August, he'll coproduce Snoop's next album -- a smart move, considering that the rapper's last two efforts under the guidance of Master P's label were lukewarm. Even more imminent, Dre and the guys from N.W.A have talked about a full-fledged reunion, almost a decade after the group imploded amid name-calling and financial discrepancies. "The feuding was never really that serious," says Dre. "We traded insults via wax, but it stopped there. It never got violent. And it was sorta fun. Harsh, but fun." Harsh but fun -- sounds like the old Dre is back, at last.