"We go until it happens," rap producer Dr. Dre says about all the time he spends in the recording studio searching for hits, once as long as 79 hours in a single stretch. "When the ideas are coming," says the man who is one of the half-dozen most influential producers of the modern pop era, "I don't stop until the ideas stop because that train doesn't come along all the time."
Some hip-hop fans, however, must be wondering if this particular train isn't off the track. Dre (real name: Andre Young) has been working on his third solo album, "Detox," for nearly eight years, a time frame that invites uncomfortable comparison with such earlier pop music train wrecks as Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Axl Rose. All three were fabulously successful artists who found it so hard to live up to their own expectations that they each ran into creative paralysis.
But there are differences between Dre and the others, he and those close to him say. The 42-year-old Compton native hasn't just been working on his own album all these years.
As a producer and head of Aftermath Entertainment, Dre has also contributed to albums by Eminem, 50 Cent, the Game and others. Plus, he has "mixed" tracks -- fine-tuning the musical dynamics -- for more than a dozen other artists, including Gwen Stefani, Eve and Mary J. Blige.
Dre will now devote two months to working on Eminem's new album. "We'll be trying to get his thing done and work on a few things on my own project," Dre says.
It's an exhausting pace and it's possible only because of what Dre calls his obsession with the studio.
To achieve his level of success -- Dre has put his seductive hip-hop stamp on albums that have taken in more than $1 billion worldwide -- you obviously need musical talent.
"Dre is 'the Natural,' " says Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine. "Lots of producers have hits, but he does far more than that. He's a creator who has moved popular culture three times . . . with gangsta rap, G-funk and Eminem."
Yet the more you talk to Dre, the more you realize that another key element has been a mental toughness that enabled him to walk away from fast-lane excesses and a runaway ego.
Dre's greatest gift, in fact, may be the strong will that has helped him to recognize the most important things in his life -- the recording studio, his family and, most recently, weight training -- and strip away everything that doesn't serve those priorities.
In the early '90s, Dre was being hailed as the new king of hip-hop for defining gangsta rap with N.W.A and then expanding rap's mainstream appeal with the alluring G-funk style that combined melodic, old-school R&B and hard-core hip-hop sensibilities.
But amid the sudden fame, Dre appeared to be spending as much time partying and in court as he did in the studio. The turning point came after he served time in jail in 1995 for violating the probation he received after breaking another rap producer's jaw in 1992.
He jettisoned the bad behavior and, among other things, severed ties with trouble-plagued Death Row Records, signing a multimillion-dollar deal with Interscope Records and the Universal Music Group that resulted in Dre's Aftermath label.
The accompanying hoopla and dollar signs led to another hazardous period. After closing the deal, Dre went on a signing spree, convinced he could turn out hits with virtually anyone. He admits the move took a personal and professional toll.
"When we started Aftermath, we had something like 20 artists and it was driving me crazy," the 6-foot-1 producer said on the patio of his English-style country estate in the West San Fernando Valley. "I couldn't sit down and focus on any of it, plus it was doubly hard because you ended up crushing these people's dreams when you had to let them go."
On the strength of his name, "Dr. Dre Presents . . . The Aftermath," a 1996 album, was certified platinum (1 million sold), but it had little lasting effect. The humbling experience taught Dre that even with his talents he, as a producer, needs quality artists and a top support crew to make noteworthy records. Aftermath too went through a stripping back process. Its roster now includes fewer than a dozen artists.
"People are always coming up to me, thinking I've got some magic wand that can make them a star and I want to tell them that no one can do that," he says. "Making hit records is not that easy. But it took me time to realize that myself."
Now, Dre is planning another dramatic move, one designed in part to give him even more time in the studio. The long-awaited "Detox," he says, will be his final solo album.