Been there, done that

Pub date April 30, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW Bruce Williams and Donnell Alexander’s Rollin’ with Dre (One World/Ballantine, 192 pages, $25) is a strange and sinister book. What makes it strange is that it’s actually about Williams, who worked as a bodyguard, valet, personal manager, and confidante for Dr. Dre. It’s his biography, not Dre’s, so it falls into the category of an insider’s tale. Typically I avoid this subgenre like I avoid the boasting "friend of a friend of somebody famous" at a party.

But as I read about Williams’ small-town upbringing, love of sports, time overseas, arrival in Los Angeles, and 20-year tenure as Dre’s confidante, Rollin’ with Dre took on a picaresque sheen. Plus, its story is intriguing. Thanks are due to ghostwriter Alexander, who helps mold a samurai-like image of Williams.

As for Dr. Dre, Williams and Alexander render him an introverted genius most comfortable in the studio, surrounded by friends and fellow artists. Suge Knight at Death Row and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope serve as the story’s ravenous, predatory lords, preying on Dre’s talent. Williams plays the part of loyal, selfless guardian from Dre’s early days with NWA through his blockbuster success with Eminem and 50 Cent. He keeps dire forces at bay so the artist can create masterpieces and travel the world.

A surprising thing about Williams’ book is how little actual sex and violence it contains. It’s rare that a tell-all is so frank without giving way to lurid gossip and dish. Rollin’ with Dre is a manly man’s tale, complete with free weights, fast cars, drinking contests, and plastic bags of stagnant urine dropped from building-tops. There are bitches and niggas here, yet the book is damn near scandal-free. In places it appears that Williams is still protecting Dr. Dre, only this time from the potential fallout of his tell-all.

We get the story of a reasonably stable, sober, law-abiding father and husband who once guarded a mutually beneficial arrangement with a mega-star by tapping into a cool detachment acquired from his days as a Marine and as a corrections officer. Indeed, a remote tone permeates even the most intimate of passages. When near the deathbed of Eazy-E, for example, Williams’ emotional investment in the moment seems sparse. With every flying fist, whizzing bullet, and falling body, he shakes his head, says "That’s a shame," and keeps moving. The same tact that served him well in his profession sometimes leaves the reader outside in the cold.

Still, Rollin’ with Dre‘s glimpse into the creative process of a world famous hit-maker is compelling, as is its look at the pitfalls and perils of the unscrupulous, violent, and larcenous world of corporate gangsta rap. Throughout the episodes involving groupies, the tales of blunts getting smoked, and weapons being brandished, Williams seems to effortlessly walk a tightrope that separates cool-headed big guy from Type A gung-ho asshole. Yet Alexander allows him to stumble on enough occasions for the reader to suspect the book’s overall sheen of sugarcoating. With violence, double-dealing, and revenge the norm, how could anyone survive for more than 20 years without getting a little blood on their hands? There seems to be a lot going on between the beats.

"Gangsta," Williams remarks at one point, "I don’t know if it’s right, but I know that it’s true." It’s that perspective that makes Rollin’ with Dre sinister.