EVEN IF YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT the man, Dr. Dre's ""Been There, Done That'' is a video strange enough to freeze a channel-surfer's thumb: a Busby Berkeleyan ballroom-full of sleek couples in evening dress, all of them black, doing the tango in subtly infernal light, to violin music as eerily insistent as the soundtrack to a fever dream. But only when you realize that the sexy yet Buddha-like master of these slinky revels was both a founding father of gangsta rap--his breakthrough hit was N.W.A's ""F--- tha Police''--and a bona fide bad boy in real life can you truly appreciate how odd this all is. It must have surprised some of Dre's old homies to learn that last August he spent three days in a dance studio in the San Fernando Valley taking tango lessons. Then again, maybe not. As a kid in Compton, Calif., he wielded the turntable at his mother's house parties. As a teenage skating-rink deejay, he was considered the best ""mixologist'' in L.A. As a self-taught producer, he's been called the Phil Spector of hip-hop. If he did take it into his head to do the tango, Dre would be the last guy in the world to try to fake it.
""Been There, Done That'' appears on the forthcoming album ""Dr. Dre Presents... The Aftermath,'' a wide-ranging compilation of music by various emcees and singers he's produced for his new Aftermath Entertainment company: hard-core hip-hop, sultry R&B, but no gangsta rap. ""It's run its course,'' he says. ""You're not going to get the sales talking the same old s--t.'' It's the first release in four years from a producer who's sold more than 30 million records and who's survived several lifetimes' worth of controversy, contention, legal troubles and outright danger in his 31 years. N.W.A's nonstop profanity, misogyny, gun-happiness and pre-Rodney King, pre-Mark Fuhrman defiance of the LAPD--which eventually made them the first gangsta rappers to hit No. 1 on the pop charts--was just the beginning. Dre went on to produce the still more controversial rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, who seemed to act out their misogynist and violent scenarios in real life. (Earlier this year Snoop was acquitted of murder; Shakur got shot last year, was convicted of sexual abuse and was murdered this September.) Both Dre's professional rEsumE and personal rap sheet--breaking another producer's jaw, hitting a cop, slamming a female talk-show host into a wall--make ""Been There, Done That'' a remarkable departure. It's an explicit renunciation not only of actual violence but also of the violent language that made him his multimillions: ""A million motherf---ers on the planet Earth/Talk that hard bulls--t 'cause that's all they're worth.''
""I'm on a completely different page now,'' says Dre, whose real name is Andre Young. ""I've done some wild and crazy s--t, s--t I'm not proud of. But I've grown up a lot in the last five years.'' He's sitting on the patio of his Tudor-style house in Calabasas, Calif., where an oil painting of Dizzy Gillespie greets visitors in the foyer. (Among Dre's other projects: learning to play jazz trumpet.) He won't stay here much longer; he's bought an even bigger house in Chatsworth and is giving this one to his mother. (In ""Been There, Done That,'' in which he portrays himself as a ""black Rockefeller,'' he lets slip the new home's exact price: $5.3 million.) Financially, he's landed on his feet; professionally and personally, he seems to have a gift for getting out while the getting's good. In 1992, he won release from a contract with Ruthless Records, the company he'd formed with Eric (Eazy E) Wright, his childhood friend from Compton; after half a dozen gold and platinum albums, Dre claimed, he was barely making $90,000 a year. Legend has it that Wright released him only after a visit from ex-bodyguard and record-mogul-to-be Marion (Suge) Knight and colleagues carrying pipes and baseball bats. Dre and Knight started Death Row Records, whose first release, Dre's ""The Chronic,'' introduced Snoop Doggy Dogg, won a 1993 Grammy and sold nearly 5 million copies. Soon the company was worth an estimated $100 million.
But the atmosphere at Death Row began getting on Dre's nerves. ""It was like being at a party and not knowing anyone there,'' says Dre. ""There was a lot of negative stuff going on there that had nothing to do with the music, and I wasn't comfortable with it. I was the co-owner, and people--and I mean the wrong kind of people--were coming up to me on the street saying "I'm on your label.' I didn't even know them.'' Meanwhile, Dre was winning increasing respect in the music industry--but was considered untouchable because of Knight's formidable presence. ""Everybody wanted to deal with Dre because they know he is rap,'' one executive recalls. ""Any label would have signed him quick and for much cash, but they couldn't before he split with Death Row because nobody wanted to deal with Suge.'' Dre says he decided to leave last year, while serving a five-month sentence for violating parole on an assault conviction. (His infraction: leading police on a drunken 90-mph car chase in his Ferrari.) ""That was my wake-up call,'' he says, ""because all I could do in that cell was think. My mom said that going to jail was the best thing that could have happened to me, and she was right.''
Dre left Death Row in March, and Suge Knight loyalist Shakur began dissing him in albums and interviews. (Among other things, Shakur called Dre a traitor for failing to attend Snoop's murder trial.) ""Tupac didn't know me, so what he was saying didn't affect me at all,'' says Dre now. ""He was speaking for someone else, jumping into something he didn't know anything about--which was his style.'' Dre got what he calls a ""comfortable'' sum of money on leaving Death Row, but didn't get the master recordings of the music he'd produced: legend has it that Knight and some colleagues paid him a visit at home--which legend Dre confirms. Knight is now in jail for violating parole on a 1995 suspended sentence for assault (he allegedly failed a drug test), and the FBI is investigating Death Row for alleged gang connections and money laundering. ""When I walked out the door,'' says Dre, ""that ended my relations with that company. What happens or doesn't happen isn't my problem.''
So all in all, it's no wonder Dre's so into the word ""aftermath'' these days. The wake-up calls were ringing off the hook. Paternity suits. Eazy E's dying of AIDS. ""It was tough, really tough to see him like that. But I'm glad I got a chance to make peace.'' In May, the man whose records dissed bitches and ho's got married, and his new company is run by five black women he calls Dre's Angels. ""I hired women be- cause it cuts down on the bulls--t,'' he says. ""No fighting and s--t, just good work being done the right way because black women are the strongest and most hardworking people on earth. The s--t I talk on records is just that: s--t.'' OK. We processed his doing the tango, we can process this. But so help us, if he starts saying Pardon my French, we're out of here.