Dr Dre: He’s all ears with golden Beats

From producing records to inventing the most desirable headphones in the world, the pursuit of perfect sound has made the LA hip-hop artist rich

And they said there was no money left in the music business. Dr Dre, the architect of the West Coast gangsta rap sound of G-Funk, has been revealed as the biggest earner in hip-hop with an income of $110m (£70m) in the past 12 months – and he hasn't released an album since 1999.

Dr Dre (real name Andre Romelle Young) is the man who made rap music bump and bounce with all the smooth style of a pimp's "six fo" Chevy Impala rolling along the pot-holed streets of the Los Angeles ghetto. He is "the most influential producer in hip-hop", as Peter Shapiro put it in The Rough Guide to Hip-hop.

Dre is the beatmaker who introduced the world to Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent. His own 1992 debut solo album The Chronic lifted the very epicentre of hip-hop out of New York City and relocated it in his own California hood of Compton. But though his earnings will include production royalties for such classic rap tunes as "In Da Club" (50 Cent), "What's My Name?" (Snoop Dogg), "The Real Slim Shady" (Eminem) and his own hit "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang", the fact remains that Dre's long-awaited but yet-to-be-released long player Detox has been mired in production hell since 2005.

Headphones are the reason for Dre's latest prosperity. The kind of bulky aural accessory that many thought had become redundant a decade ago when Apple was encouraging iPod users to listen through the dinkiest of ear buds has been made immensely covetable, thanks to the cool conveyed by Dr Dre.

Six years ago, Dre and his long-time music industry partner, Jimmy Iovine, came up with the idea of a headphones line called Beats by Dr Dre, which arrived on the market in 2008. In those two years, Dre worked intensely on honing the product with industrial designer Robert Brunner, who had preceded Jonathan Ive in making Apple a byword for desirable consumer electronics gadgetry. In no time at all, Beats by Dr Dre had seized almost 10 per cent of the headphones market and, earlier this year, Dre and Iovine sold 51 per cent of their Beats Electronics company to the Taiwanese technology company HTC for a whopping $309m (£190m).

The attraction to consumers was not just the sleek design and zipped carrying case. It was also the distinctive "b" logo that encouraged users to wear their cans in public and show fellow travellers just how serious they were about their music. The phones dropped a hint that the wearer might just be someone musically famous – a rapper or a producer perhaps. This was also the sell from Beats Electronics. Dr Dre's pitch was that "people aren't hearing all the music. With Beats, people are going to hear what the artists hear, and listen to the music the way they should: the way I do".

Dr Dre was offering to unlock something that wasn't normally apparent to the mere punter. For the musical earpiece market, the Beats headphones were the equivalent of the film and television industry's 3D glasses or high-definition pictures. Indeed, they are sold as HD headphones. The marketing strategy included product endorsements from some of the biggest names in music such as DJ David Guetta and pop stars Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. The strategy helped to ensure that sales of Beats by Dr Dre were not just confined to musical nerds but also had mainstream appeal.

When doing music production, Dr Dre is a self-proclaimed perfectionist who has been known to make a rapper do as many as 107 takes on a recording before accepting it. His headphones were thus not just a shallow sales ruse but the introduction of a genuinely innovative product – even if they did cost an eye-watering (and profit-generating) £280.

In an early review of the headphones on Geek.com, Joel Evans commented: "I was floored. Not only did I hear the highs and lows, but I heard background noise in a live broadcast of a James Taylor song that I've heard hundreds of times, but never before heard the noises. I also felt like the sound was coming from behind me at times, which is no small feat for a pair of headphones."

During an era when music was being increasingly listened to on lightweight mobile phones, suddenly headphone chic suggested something even heftier than the plastic headbands that had largely disappeared with the Sony Walkman a generation ago.

But that is Dr Dre. He has an ability to reinvent the past and make it feel like the future. It is the same formula that he used to take the Seventies funk of George Clinton and Isaac Hayes and turn it into the G-Funk of the Nineties. The results are not derivative. Rather than following the traditional hip-hop route of sampling older tunes, Dre likes to create something more malleable and current by using live musicians to build upon the influences of the past.

His sound often draws on the Moog analogue synthesizer and Rhodes keyboards and, from his favourite studio position sitting behind an Akai MPC3000 drum machine, he urges his cohorts on with the passion and commitment of an orchestra conductor.

In a music genre where artists have been known to be cut down in their prime, Dr Dre is a survivor in every sense. He has been a major player in the rap game in each of the past four decades but is only 47. Meanwhile, so many other hip-hop icons have died young, from his Death Row Records labelmate Tupac "2Pac" Shakur to Eazy-E, with whom Dre founded the notorious group NWA in 1986.

"Niggaz With Attitude? Ain't nobody gonna put that out," fellow group member Ice Cube said when the name was first suggested. Ever practical, Dre is said to have responded: "We'll break it down to NWA and wait till people ask." But there was no ambiguity in NWA's incendiary hit "Fuck Tha Police", which propelled the success of the album Straight Outta Compton and attracted the attention of the FBI.

The Los Angeles Police Department will not be impressed that, 24 years later, Ice Cube is a successful film actor, and Dr Dre, who also has some movie acting credits to his name, has a wealth estimated by Forbes magazine at $250m (£157m).

He is not yet as wealthy as the New York rap entrepreneurs Diddy, who is worth $500m (£314m), and Jay-Z, who is said to have wealth of $450m (£282m). But last year, thanks largely to his headphones project, Dre made almost three times the amount of his East Coast rivals. He is also said to be planning to emulate the success of Jay‑Z in the drinks market by bringing out his own Aftermath brands of cognac and vodka, named after the record label he set up when he walked away from Death Row in 1996.

It's a remarkable story for someone who had to be removed from his inner-city school because of the threat of gang activities and who dropped out of the education system altogether to pursue a career as a DJ, later joining a rap group called the World Class Wreckin' Cru. He is the father of five children, one of whom died aged 20.

Dr Dre was never hip-hop's greatest performer on the microphone. He wouldn't make most lists of the top 50 rappers of all time. But as he is a survivor of the life-threatening rivalries that plague the rap scene, so too has Dr Dre managed to endure in a career sense. As well as defining West Coast rap, he remained at the cutting edge throughout the 1990s by reaching out to Detroit's Eminem and New York's 50 Cent. If he had any doubters at the end of the millennium, he answered them with the infectious hit "Still D.R.E." from his album 2001.

The gold dust of Dre's production skills is still in great demand. And his fans are excited by rumours that, as well as finishing Detox, he is planning an instrumental album called The Planets, a rap version of Holst's opus. Considering his previous achievements, it doesn't seem an unduly ambitious challenge. Because this is a doctor who appears to have a formula for every situation.

A Life in Brief

Born: Andre Romelle Young, 18 February 1965, Compton, California, US.

Family: Parents Theodore and Verna Young. His half-siblings and step-siblings include the rapper Warren G. Has five children, two with his wife Nicole Threatt.

Career: Joined World Class Wreckin' Cru in 1984 before forming gangsta rappers NWA with Ice Cube and Eazy-E in 1986. Released solo album The Chronic in 1992. Founded Aftermath Entertainment in 1996. Winner of six Grammys. Created Beats by Dr Dre headphones in 2008.

He says: "I'm really protective of my family, myself and my image. It's one of the reasons for my longevity in the business."

They say: "The only thing that I'm scared of is not livin' up to the expectations of Dr Dre and Eminem." 50 Cent

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