Getting a national holiday named after you is tough to do. In the U.S. you have basically two options: discover the country (already taken) or stand up for liberty and justice against the kind of opposition that tends to involve assassination attempts. The government is hardly likely to give everyone the day off to celebrate the birth of the guy who's arguably the most important hip-hop producer of the past two decades. But Dre Day parties, held on Dr. Dre's birthday, have become a nationwide phenomenon even without the blessing of the feds. I'm pretty sure they're already a bigger deal than whatever people do for Groundhog Day.
Dre Day was born in late 2002 at the headquarters of Burlesque of North America, a Minneapolis-based company with a somewhat fuzzy identity. "It has changed a little bit over the years," says Burlesque co-owner and creative director Mike Davis, "but at the end of the day it's a graphic-design studio that mainly works for clients in the music industry. And then over the years we've opened up an art gallery, and we've been throwing events involving mainly DJs and dance parties."
Davis says the inside jokes and chatter around the office have more or less always been thick with Dr. Dre references. But on that fateful day more than eight years ago, "Fuck Wit Dre Day (and Everybody's Celebratin')," one of the singles from Dre's 1992 solo debut, The Chronic, sparked a train of thought that led somewhere. "Like, people would just joke about the idea of Dre Day," Davis says, "and then we were like, 'Oh man, what if there actually was a holiday called Dre Day.' And you know, that just led to another idea and then another idea, and in about five minutes we had basically made the blueprint of what would become the first Dre Day party."
That first Dre Day was held on February 18, 2003, Andre Young's 38th birthday, at Minneapolis's 7th Street Entry, a small club attached to the venue First Avenue, where Prince played in Purple Rain. Minneapolis punk luminaries Dillinger Four performed a set of Dr. Dre covers. DJs spun tracks from Dre's extensive catalog. Slug, front man of the hip-hop group Atmosphere, hosted a game show called The $20 Sack Pyramid, which until then had existed only as a parody of The $20,000 Pyramid in a Chronic skit. (Instead of the "20-dollar sack of indo and a 35-dollar gift certificate to the Compton swap meet" the winner takes home on the album, they gave away merchandise and pot brownies.) There was also a refrigerator onstage stocked top to bottom with 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, in homage to the 1993 video for "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang."
"It was just a great party," Davis says, "where everyone could listen to all the Dr. Dre hits from his long career and, you know, just celebrate all the music that he's worked on."
Dre Day might have remained one of those weird bits of Minneapolis cool, like mock duck pizza and the Double Deuce, if it weren't for the sticker packs Burlesque made for the party. The stickers—simple, eye-catching designs with iconic portraits of Dre, Snoop, and members of N.W.A next to some of their most memorable quotes—were catnip for what Davis lovingly refers to as "total rap-music DJ geeks." Turntable Lab, a New York-based music and gear shop whose online store is a go-to spot for total rap-music DJ geeks around the world, sold a whole bunch of the sticker packs, then got involved with organizing the first New York Dre Day in 2004.
"More than anything the stickers are what has taken the sort of Dre Day brand out of Minneapolis," Davis says. "We've had people saying, like, 'Oh man, I saw your stickers on the back of a motorcycle in Houston.' Or 'I saw them in Seattle' or 'I saw them in Japan.' Like, they are just starting to get all over the world."
In 2009 Chicago got its own Dre Day, put together under the auspices of Burlesque by a group of locals that included promoter Nigel Ridgeway, aka DJ Trew, who runs a PR and marketing firm called Ground Lift Media, and DJs Jake "Pickel" Lorenz, Big Once, and Kool Hersh. "The first one, we were bare bones," says Ridgeway. "We were at Small Bar on Division. You know, it was a miserable February night at a tiny bar. You know, we had DJs, we had the photo booth with the Chronic cover—you know, people put their heads in. But it was pretty much just DJs." Last year the party moved to a slightly bigger venue, the Darkroom, and added live performances by a group of local MCs that included Psalm One, backed by five-piece hip-hop/funk band the Jordan Years.
This year the event is moving to a still bigger venue, the Double Door, which puts Chicago's party in the same league as the celebrations in Minneapolis and New York. Ridgeway and Lorenz promise it will include almost everything G-funk fans have come to expect from Dre Day: sticker packs, live performances of Dre classics (by artists including Mic Terror and the Opus), The $20 Sack Pyramid, and a photo booth where partygoers can take Dre's place on the Chronic cover art. The organizers are also offering a free downloadable nine-track collection of Dre covers and remixes at Ground Lift's Bandcamp page. The one thing missing will be 40s: the Double Door isn't going along with the idea of selling them. "It's tough to get bars to agree to that, just for the rowdiness factor," Ridgeway says.
The traditional values of Dre Day demand that celebrants frown upon anyone who treats it like an ironic joke—and that's one of the best things about it. "There is no irony with Dre Day at all," Lorenz says. "We're all guys who grew up on N.W.A, and we try to make it as cool as possible. And you kind of get to be like a big kid, you know. You can decorate the stage but not make it hokey. There's still a lot of honor in it, you know?"
The parties inevitably attract some white hipsters who might look like they're partying in air quotes, but Davis points out that a Dre Day crowd takes all kinds: "the hip-hop kids, the skaters, the punk-rock kids, the thugs, the college kids." One of the only things all those groups share, he says, is a genuine love for Dr. Dre's music. "People grew up with N.W.A, people grew up with Eminem, people grew up with 50 Cent," he says. Dre "has just been doing so much music and has managed to stay relevant over so many different eras of hip-hop and rap music that he's able to connect with so many different people.
"And you know, like, hey," he adds. "If people want to show up and act a certain way, that's on them."
It's a testament to the breadth and depth of the love out there for Dr. Dre that this year Dre Day is being celebrated everywhere from Tampa to Winnipeg. Burlesque doesn't try too hard to maintain ownership of the concept, and pretty much anyone is welcome to throw a party. "There's one that we didn't even know about in Lincoln, Nebraska," Davis says. "It makes me wonder how many others there are." He expects Dre Day to continue spreading, and dreams of the day it earns a spot on the calendar. "We would just love to see it become an actual national holiday," he says.