Gregory “Big Hutch” Hutchinson, a.k.a. Cold 187um, is a rapper and producer who played a key role—perhaps the key role—in the sound of Los Angeles rap. His group Above the Law was signed to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records in the late ’80s, in the wake of N.W.A.’s huge success with Straight Outta Compton.
While working on Above the Law’s second album, Black Mafia Life, in 1991, Hutch had the breakthrough that changed everything. He took grooves from the P-Funk catalog, added a melodic sense inherited from a family that included noted songwriters and composers; rapped hard, streetwise lyrics on top; and came up with a sound that he called “G-funk.”
But due to label craziness, album delays, and a fateful video shoot, Black Mafia Life didn’t end up coming out until 1993, after another producer signed to Ruthless heard Hutch’s ideas, adapted them, and released an album called The Chronic—thus cementing in most fans’ minds the idea that Dr. Dre was the originator of G-funk. The Defiant Ones—HBO's documentary chronicling the rise (and further rise) of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine—is out this week, but there is another side to the story of the creation of that signature sound.
I first came across Hutch’s story in Ben Westhoff’s book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, and was so intrigued by the idea that G-funk’s real originator never got the credit he deserved that I decided to call Hutch and find out what really went down.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you first start producing?
I first started producing when I was 18, 19 years old. I started off being the producer for my group, Above the Law, and then I came to Ruthless maybe a year after that, and I started becoming a producer at the label. That where I got my start.
You have a musical family. Was your uncle a big influence on your music?
Him and my dad. We’re all musicians. I studied music since I was like six years old. My dad said I wrote my first song when I was eight. Growing up in a family with musicians and producers and writers, I was definitely influenced by my dad and my uncle.
Your uncle is Willie Hutch [the artist and songwriter best known for his soundtracks for 1970s blaxploitation classics The Mack and Foxy Brown].
My dad is Richard Hutch, who was one of his writers and producers. My dad wrote for the Jacksons, he wrote for the Miracles, he wrote for the Commodores, and he wrote for Willie Hutch. He was a writer and producer as well. My uncle was the artist.
How did Above the Law come to be on Ruthless in the first place?
We had done a demo, Livin’ Like Hustlers, and we hooked up with one of our childhood friends. His brother Laylaw was in N.W.A., and he was writing and producing with Dr. Dre at the time. He took our demo to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E in late ’88, early ’89, and they signed us in ’89. At that time, they were building the label. I think all they had at the time was N.W.A., Eazy-E, and J.J. Fad. They were developing the DOC and Michel’le, and then they brought us in on that roster.
Dre is credited as a co-producer on Above the Law’s first album. How closely did you guys work together on that record?
Well, I brought the record in 85% done. Me and Dre ended up taking all the things that I did on the 16-track and bumped it up to a 24-track. We just re-recorded everything.The songs that me and him actually produced together was “Just Kickin’ Lyrics,” “The Last Song,” and “Freedom of Speech.” But we worked together, side by side.
I produced it, but since we had a deal with Sony that Dre had to be named as the producer, that was how the legal stuff went—he got the credit as the producer. It was because of the way contractually it would have been a breach if Dre didn’t appear as the producer. That was the climate then.
You and Dre had obsessions with the same kind of music. How were you getting along in those early days?
Awesome. I learned how to make records. I would say my dad and my uncle taught me how to compose and put things together, but I learned how to actually make records with Dre—the technical aspect of it. I was a musician and a writer and a composer, I know how to play three or four different instruments. So I could play and compose. I was in the jazz ensemble, I was in the orchestra. I knew how to compose and what different instruments were and how to put things together. But I was a big hip-hop fan. So my mind of music was off the charts.
But what I did learn was how to technically make a record with him. That’s what I learned working with him side-by-side and watching him do No One Can Do It Better and seeing what he did on Straight Outta Compton and working with him on Livin’ Like Hustlers. I was 20 years old and had never done nothing like this ever in my life. So I was there for the teaching. It’s like when you come into the league as a rookie, and you’re playing with the best guy who’s playing the game right now. You’re in it with him every day. So I was down to learn anything that I could learn, and boy did I, really fast.
There was a period where you guys were making your second album Black Mafia Life, and Dre was working on the second NWA album [Efil4zaggin, commonly referred to as Niggaz4Life]. What do you remember about that period?
That was a transition where everything was kind coming unraveled. Cube left, which was kind of a footnote, really. People make it like it’s a big deal in history, but at Ruthless it was kind of a footnote because NWA was such a strong force. It was much more creative people around than there was around for Straight Outta Compton, to be honest with you. You’ve got to realize, you’ve got the D.O.C. now, you’ve got Above the Law, you’ve got all these people who are really great thinkers and very creative. You don’t just only have Ice Cube and Ren. You have Ren still around, you got Eazy still around, you got Dr. Dre and Yella around. You got me around putting input in. You’ve got a lot of guys that are really highly creative around at that time.
That’s why I think Niggaz4Life was so great, because the mindset at Ruthless was really strong at that time. But it was just about to unravel, and the question marks were in the air. Why did Cube leave? Later as things progressed, Dre started feeling a certain type of way about what was going on as well. Then it started getting really awkward. You’ve got a lot of young guys who came up from struggling, trying to make it, building this big empire, to now where it’s like, everybody’s at odds with each other.
What about the actual time in the studio? Were you guys collaborating? Were you playing each other tracks?
No. The crazy part about it is this: we were working on Black Mafia Life and they were working on Niggaz4Life, right? We were at two different studios, but we still would get a sense of what was going on. Niggaz4Life was scheduled to come out before Black Mafia Life, but around the same time. Niggaz4Life hit a point where it was about to come out, then it was stalled. By then, we had finished Black Mafia Life. At the time, they had already shot [the video for] “Alwayz Into Somethin’,” and they were shooting “Appetite for Destruction.”
It’s like when you come into the league as a rookie, and you’re playing with the best guy who’s playing the game right now.
I came on the set, and I was playing Black Mafia Life. Dre was like, “That’s incredible, man. How’d you fit that funk into it like that? What is that?” I said, “We just call that shit G-funk, man. That’s mixing gangsta shit with melodies, with classic soul/funk music.” He’s like, “That’s some next-level shit right there.” That’s how tight me and Dre were. He wasn’t saying it like he was threatened by it—he was inspired.
At that time, I was so far gone into doing production by myself that he just let me do me. He wasn’t over me no more. When he heard it, he was like, “You gonna come up off that.” I didn’t know that it was an influence that would carry on to the next record he was about to make. He appreciated the fact that, I kind of mentored this guy, and he’s coming up with something that might be next-level.
So you already had the name “G-funk,” that actual term, by ’91?
Oh, absolutely. We had that when we had done this EP between Livin’ Like Hustlers and Black Mafia Life. We had already been coining our music as “G-funk.”
We did a record [with 2Pac and Money B] called “Call It What You Want” on Black Mafia Life. That’s why if you hear Pac say, “I’m bumpin’ G-funk, but you can call it what you want,” because he asked us what our style was. He’s like, “What’s y’all style of music? What y’all call it? I want to put it in my lyrics.” I’m like, “We just call our shit ‘G-funk.’” He said, “Okay,” and he put it in his verse.
People trip out because Black Mafia Life came out after The Chronic, so they think we followed it. But we’d done Black Mafia Life when they were doing Niggaz4Life. It was done. When Dre left the label, they found out that I was producing Black Mafia Life. So they dropped us, because it was a breach of contract [to not have Dre produce]. That held us up, and when we were in transition of changing labels, Dre left to launch Death Row, and The Chronic came out before Black Mafia Life.
That explains the delay. The record was done in ’91 but didn’t come out until ’93. It was because your name was on it, and not Dre’s.
Just because that’s a breach. I took you through the story of how it all evolved into that. Once he said that he was not producing us, Sony dropped us, because their whole deal was contingent on Dre being the primary producer.
So you got caught up in Dre leaving the label.
Absolutely. That’s what happened with that record. It wasn’t done after the fact. People think it was done after the fact, but Black Mafia Life was done the same time that Niggaz4Life was done.
I just told you I played the album for him at the “Appetite for Destruction” video. He’s well into into NWA at that point. There’s no Chronic ever even thought of.
Tell me about P-Funk specifically, using records like “Not Just Knee Deep” and “Mothership Connection.” Where’d the inspiration for that come from?
I was a big Parliament fan growing up. I liked the jazziness of it, I liked the funk and the dark shit, the melodic stuff. For me, it was something that wasn’t really highly exposed in hip-hop. It was very abstract. You have to realize, in that era, people were doing abstract things. People were fusing music together.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were fusing a lot of things. You had cats like Gang Starr and Tribe—theirs was more of a jazzy approach. So I said, okay, what can I fuse into our music that suits what we’re doing, like all these other artists are doing in hip-hop? I decided to fuse really hardcore P-Funk into hip-hop when no one was really doing it. It was a few people that were doing it, but no one was doing it with melody. EPMD was just looping the funk. I’m putting harmonies and melody to it, but still having hardcore lyrics. I wanted to take what Parliament was doing and integrate it into hip-hop as if Parliament was a hip-hop group. That’s how I created it.
How did you feel when you first heard things like “Let Me Ride” and “Dre Day,” that used the same songs you used on Black Mafia Life?
That’s “Pimp Clinic.” “Let Me Ride” is “Pimp Clinic,” and “Dre Day” is “Never Missing a Beat.” And those are the records that I played for him at “Appetite for Destruction.” So I know it was nothing but influence.
I was crushed, man. I was crushed. I was a young producer who was trying to find his rhythm, trying to get his face in the game. But because I’m so young, I don’t take it as being, oh, I influenced him to do something great, he was highly influenced by what I done. When you’re young, you’re not thinking like that. You’re not thinking that you influenced one of the greatest producers in the modern era, so what does that make me? One of the greats, right? But I’m in my early 20s, and I’m like, fuck that, it’s fucked up. [Laughs]. And Eazy’s making a good percentage of The Chronic, so he’s letting it come out. I’m mad at Eric at the same time, like, how could you do this? [He said,] “Man, it’s business.” I ain’t trying to hear that. I’m like, fuck this shit. I’m mad as hell.
I heard that you expressed to Warren G at one point that you were upset.
Yeah. But Warren’s like my little brother. My whole thing with that was more on the level of, like, how could allow this to happen? And Warren said, “Look, man, that’s on Dre. I have no control over what he wanna do. I know it’s fucked up, but that’s on him.”
It’s like saying, no one’s going to come to my defense and say, “I got this from Hutch” until 30 years later. Put it like this: I didn’t come in and work on those records. But I influenced him with the ideas and the theories. No one came in and took a master from me. That would be stealing. It’s just, he used the ideas that I had and he banked off of it, and I never got credit for it. No one stole anything from me. I want to be clear about that. No one came here and took a master and rapped on my original—nothing like that. It’s just a theory.
One thing that I like to educate young producers on: all you have is your theory. When someone steals your theory, or someone adapts their theory to you and banks up off it, the worst thing that can happen is them not never giving you the credit for it. The best thing that can happen is they give you the credit for it and people respect that part of it. That’s what you want to happen. Sometimes we give our ideas off willingly, but your theory is the bigger idea, because how you think about it is how great ideas are formed. That’s what people don’t realize about it. It’s almost worse than someone stealing the actual master, because guess what, you don’t have a blueprint of the theory.
Did you express to Dre directly at the time that you were angry?
Oh yeah! We had a back and forth. Dre told me like this: “Well, if it was exclusive, then why is this and why is that?” It was some lame thing. But we all were young. So it’s like, what is he going to say: “Yeah, I took it. Go fuck yourself”? He wasn’t going to say that.
I look at it like this: I highly influenced somebody who had the power to make my sound be really commercial. And that’s how I made my peace with it.
It was just, “It was cool. I was going to integrate it into something I was doing. It ain’t like that.” I’m like, “It’s the ideas. You took the ideas from me. I’m trying to come up.” I pleaded my case to the fact that, I just want my credit. You can’t just take an idea that I had and roll in the sunset on me. That’s how I felt.
It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna beat your ass” or nothing. It wasn’t violent. It was just a question, like, “Damn, dog. I showed you that and you did that.” “It ain’t like that. That’s P-Funk.” It turned into that general idea.
How did you make peace with that over the years? Obviously, you worked with Dre again in recent years [on Dre’s 2015 song “Loose Cannons”].
I look at it like this: I highly influenced somebody who had the power to make my sound be really commercial. And that’s how I made my peace with it. I never wanted no more but for people to respect me as a producer as I am. People in the industry respect me as a producer and know what I’ve done, not because I’m the architect of G-funk or anything like that, but just because I’m a sound guy and I’m very talented.
I’ve been studying music since I was seven years old. I probably forgot more music than people have learned in the fucking school that they graduated from, because I lived this in my DNA. So for me to think that G-funk defines who I am for my whole career and the legacy of my family, I’m a fool for being uptight about that at certain points in my life. That’s how I came to grips with it.
The only time it seems like people want to talk about it is when they want to try and take a potshot at Dre. I don’t want to take potshots. Dre is a dear friend of mine. It’s not about that. It’s about saying, “Give Hutch the credit, too. He was there. He helped somebody hear something that turned into something big.” I didn’t have my hands on The Chronic, you know what I mean? He never took anything from me. They just took an idea that I had and integrated it into one of the greatest albums in hip-hop. I’m cool with that, bro! Why would I not be cool with that?