In 1989, The D.O.C.'s promising career was cut short when his vocal cords were severed in an accident. Two months ago, he announced his voice is back. We talked to him about it.
Photo courtesy of The D.O.C.
It’s one of music’s most tragic stories: In 1989, The D.O.C. was a promising young rapper from Dallas living it up in LA at the center of hip-hop’s most important crew. His was one the names in the posse listed on the cover of N.W.A. and the Posse. He was right there with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Eazy-E on the way to generation-defining fame. His debut album, No One Can Do It Better, reached number one on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and would go on to sell more than a million copies. And then The D.O.C. crashed his car.
The accident severed his vocal cords, effectively ending his music career. The doctors told him his performing voice would never work again. The D.O.C. faded from the spotlight. He continued to work closely with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and his writing is all over each of Dre’s iconic albums, including the recently released Compton. He released more music, including the 1996 album Helter Skelter and the 2003 album Deuce, rapping using his limited falsetto voice. But it wasn’t the same. His voice came out in a more skeletal rasp instead of its previously authoritative, swaggering sneer. The D.O.C. who might have gone on to be one of hip-hop’s defining figures instead became more or less a footnote, a namecheck for the real heads.
This story has a happy ending, though.
In August, The D.O.C. announced on Twitter that his voice had returned. It was fortuitous timing, too: The N.W.A. movie Straight Outta Compton had just been released and was a smash hit. Interest in the music and figures from that scene was high, and The D.O.C., as well as his accident, was featured prominently. Fans and news outlets excitedly chimed in celebrating the announcement. But it was less clear what it actually meant.
Well, now there’s something concrete. Earlier this month, The D.O.C. announced a homecoming show in Dallas. He’s also been recording new music, although he’s not sure what his plans are for releasing it. He’s taking the return slowly. But this Saturday’s show, his first in decades, is cause enough for celebration. I gave The D.O.C. a call to find out what it feels like to get your voice back after all these years. His speaking voice is still a crackly rasp; his words are pure inspiration.
Noisey: You announced a couple weeks ago that your voice is back. What does that feel like?
The D.O.C.: It’s a very weird feeling, to be honest about it. When I use my vocal cords, it kind of feels like what it feels like when you put your shoes on the wrong foot.
You must have been thinking about this and imagining it for years. What were your expectations for this moment?
I don’t have expectations anymore for anything. The doctors told me that those vocal cords would never work. So the fact that they’re working means that there’s something bigger at play. And so I’m going to look at it from a spiritual perspective and know that I could be in the middle of a moment that’s not really of my doing or my planning, but it’s very positive, and it’s very powerful, so I’m going to just continue walking.
How do you know they work again? How did you realize it? Did you go to the doctor or anything?
Well, you can’t make tones without the vocal cords. You have two different cords. You have the regular cords and falsetto cords. The cords that I’m using to talk to you with right now are falsetto cords. I use my regular ones to contract and vibrate and make a tone. Once they started working, then I could manufacture tones and notes. I can make harmonies. I can make music with my voice. It’s nowhere near as strong as it used to be. It’s super deep, and it’s a beginning. I wouldn’t say that I’m ready to start making records today. But the fact that they work and that I can manipulate it to make music, it means the world. So the first people I wanted to come show that to was my family back in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Yeah, you’re doing a concert. What is that going to be like?
Well, I got onstage last week at a concert in LA, How the West Was Won. It was me and Warren G and The Game and ScHoolboy Q. And I got up there and did a ten minute set of all the old records from No One Can Do It Better. My voice is not strong enough to compete with that old voice, but it’s enough of me able to do it that I feel comfortable performing to those old tracks. And there was so much love that I don’t think people even cared about the voice thing. They just wanted to see me doing it. So it felt really funny. I felt like I was in a weird space and time. It was a trip. But the crowd was amazing. I mean it was really freaking cool. The people in California seemed to have loved it. So it makes me feel good about going back to Dallas. In Dallas, they’ll get a chance to hear the actual voice and new records that I’ve recorded here that nobody’s heard yet. So everything is riding on Saturday night. And if Dallas-Fort Worth pushes me up, I think The D.O.C. may very well be back.
So you have been recording some new music then?
Yeah, I’ve recorded two brand new songs. And they’re dope. They’re great. I’ve let a couple of people hear them. And they are shocked. They wonder how it is I can do it. Like what’s going on, mechanics in your throat. And I can’t tell you, just so you know. I haven’t went to see any doctor. I’m not even concerned with what a doctor has to say because He made this thing work, so I’m just going to ride with Him.
That makes sense. I’d imagine it’s a little scary to use your vocal cords and not know the effects but also at this point kind of who cares what happens?
That’s right. I’m almost 50 years old. So it’s the story that matters the most. It doesn’t matter if I come back and I’m the greatest of all time. That’s not what this is about. This is for people who are struggling, finding their way through it, and realizing that there’s something spiritual about all of us. It’s for someone struggling with depression or substance abuse, domestic abuse—anything that you’re stuck in the middle of. If you are spiritual and faithful about your situation, you’ll make it through it. And my life is a testimony to that.
That’s really inspiring. You have been able to record with your speaking vocal cords, the falsetto ones, right?
Yeah, I’ve never stopped recording.
But it doesn’t have the same depth.
Yeah. Music is about depth. Music is about harmony. Music is about notes and tones. So when all I have is raps, I can’t build on that as a foundation. But with the other voice, then I can start with a tone, and I can add an octave to that, or a fourth or a fifth and build it into something bigger than just me by myself.
What has it been like all these years writing music and having your musical talent and not being able to express it?
It’s been a real struggle. And I’m sure that I tried to commit suicide a whole bunch of times. Lots of drugs and alcohol, and not being able to do the one thing that you really love doing. It was a real struggle. But through all of it, I never turned my back on anybody. I never said anything ill of anybody. I love and have respect and admiration for everybody in my past. I don’t have any animosity toward anybody. And for God to tell me, He’s always put me in a position that I could do something special, and I’m really trying to do the right thing.
Are there certain people who have been particularly supportive and who you’ve been able to rely on?
Snoop Dogg has always held me up. He’s always held me above the fray, and that keeps me relevant. Wherever he goes, he takes my name with him when he does interviews. He’s talking about me. He keeps me alive, and that feeds my spirit. And there’s been a few other people that have been there to help me in other ways. But Snoop Dogg is one person that I would always say has been one of the key people who has kept me moving in a spiritual sense, which is probably the most important part.
I’m happy to hear that. Speaking of that, I feel like a lot of people have just recently learned about your story, because of the N.W.A. movie. Did you have a chance to see that or have any opinions?
I saw the movie. It was a great movie. I didn’t go to any premiere, I went to the regular movie like everybody else. I really enjoyed it. Was it 100 percent accurate? No. Was the way I was portrayed in the movie 100 percent accurate? No. But, I give poetic license to the people who wrote that story, it was a romantic sort of version of that time period. I support it 1000 percent. I really enjoyed it. But I’d to tell my side or my story, if you will. It’s a little dirtier, a little darker, but the redemption quality is through the roof, and I think that there’s a message in it that the whole world can relate to.
Do you live in Dallas now or in LA?
I live in LA. When I want to come home, my heart my love is for Dallas, but it’s not as easy to work here in Dallas as it is there, so I’m trying to put people in the right place in the right conversations so we could do things at home more.
All this time you’ve still been doing songwriting.
Yeah. I’ve written for Dre forever, helped him write this Compton record. Taken artists to California, trying to get guys on. I never left, I’ve just been in the back.
What was it like working on Compton? I think people never expected they were going another Dr. Dre album.
It was fun. We were trying to enjoy ourselves. We all worked hard because we wanted it to be successful.
Anything else you’re excited for with the Dallas show?
I’m excited about the future, the possibilities, that’s what the show in Dallas is titled because that’s what it’s all about, the possibilities. I’m giving them just a taste so they can see the possibility for me and us as a city, as a group.
Does this open up more possibilities beyond music for you?
My life is about something bigger than what I was. It’s not about a 50-year-old guy coming back to rap. This movement is bigger than me. I’m just trying to be a vessel for something really positive, and music is going to be the key that we use to walk in the door. But when I go around the country as an ambassador for this music, my conversation is about something infinitely more important, the four elements of hip-hop, peace, love, unity, and understanding. Sorry, peace, love, unity, and having fun, I’m trying to get the music back to that place, instead of just money, money, money. Let’s put some love back into it and help each other be great.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.