The DOC: A Movie Review
by Michael A. Gonzales
In 1988 The Village Voice featured a long article by Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn, where the writer basically broke down the verbal and sonic anger that he’d heard on the Niggaz Wit Attitude, better known as N.W.A, debut album Straight Outta Compton. Featuring a cast of hard rock poets, who talked about gang banging, dealing drugs and life in some faraway land called Compton, they would soon become the new voices of young America. The group was led by nasal-voiced Eazy-E, who, along with his manager, Jerry Heller, owned their label Ruthless Records. While Ice-T had opened the door for West Coast gangster rap, N.W.A took the “Gangsta Gangsta” persona to the next level.
Producer Dr. Dre, who was the label’s in-house music man, also provided funky beats to Ruthless’ other artists, which included Michel’le’s self-titled soul album and The D.O.C.’s debut masterwork No One Can Do It Better (1989). However, as we learn from director Dave Caplan’s documentary The D.O.C., the brother, whose government name is Tracy Lynn Curry, was more than a rapper, he was also a guiding light/lyrical mentor for N.W.A rappers Ice Cube, Yella and MC Ren as well as future superstar Snoop Dogg.
Originally from Dallas, Texas, he was a member of three-man rap crew Fila Fresh Crew and was discovered by Dre. The group contributed three tracks to Ruthless’ 1987 compilation album N.W.A and the Posse. The following year he was in Cali with the West Coast bad boys. It was on the West Coast where he changed his name to D.O.C., which stood for Dick On Call. “He came to L.A. with a basketball and a suitcase,” Dre says. Yella remembers that the D.O.C.’s writing style was special. “He was different; he was a spark.”
The D.O.C. helped N.W.A craft songs for their debut and performed with them in concert while also writing lyrics for his own Dre produced joint. Of course, there were a few contracts signed and those were done without D.O.C. having proper legal representation. When the paperwork for No One Can Do It Better was being done, Jerry Heller instilled a lawyer he chose to come to the meeting and supposedly represent the rapper’s interests.
Meanwhile, Heller assured then-19-year-old that the contracts were standard, paid him $25,000 at the signing and little else afterwards. It’s a rip-off story we’ve heard many times before when it comes to young, Black artists being exploited by those shady sharks who keep insisting they’re like family. Released on August 1, 1989, No One Can Do It Better was one of best albums of the year as well critically acclaimed with hot singles “It’s Funky Enough” “The D.O.C. & The Doctor” and “The Formula.”
However, a few months after the album’s release, D.O.C. was in a horrible car accident that sent him flying through the rear window and slammed into a tree; a few of his teeth were left behind in the woods. A few days before he’d been shooting “The Formula” video and having sex with groupies, but after falling asleep while driving, he was fighting for his life. To make matters worse, a tube was inserted in his throat incorrectly that damaged his vocal chords, which turned his energetic flow into a gravelly growl.
For most people, that would’ve been the end of their journey, but for the D.O.C. it was the beginning of a new chapter that included co-founding Death Row Records with his friends Suge Knight and Dr. Dre, having a child with former childhood friend Erykah Badu and, for the last thirty-three years, trying to regain his voice’s original power. The film opens with him talking to a doctor about an experimental operation that’s never been done before, just hoping for a miracle.
Though there are a few dramatizations of The D.O.C.’s wild life before and after the accident, director Dave Caplan doesn’t sway from the standard talking head style of documentary making. Still, the story of this man’s life is so strong that I never minded, especially when those heads include Snoop Dogg talking about how much he learned from him, Eminem geeking out over his style and ex-girl Erykah Badu giving him props as a man, a father and a proud Dallas native who was once one of the best rappers in the world.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.