In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.
2Pac- “California Love” (feat. Dr. Dre & Roger Troutman)
HIT #1: July 13th, 1996 (b/w “How Do U Want It” (feat. K-Ci & Jojo))
STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks
In Tupac Shakur’s short but prolific career, there’s one song that rises above the rest. “California Love” is a song that may not give you the biggest representation of 2Pac as an artist but it’s the song that’s by far his most popular, the kind that even people not into the myth and legend of 2Pac would recognize and like. Today, it’s one of 2Pac’s most streamed songs on Spotify and at the time of its late 1995 release, was by far his biggest hit. Listening to “California Love,” it’s easy to hear why people at the time went crazy for it. But when “California Love” hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1996, it didn’t get there by itself. It was overshadowed by another song.
“California Love” winds up being another casualty in the music industry’s war on the single in the ‘90s. The great critic Chris Molanphy points out in an episode of his Hit Parade podcast that “California Love” was released by 2Pac’s label Death Row Records to radio in December 1995 and in a couple of months was dominating airplay but per Hot 100 rules at the time couldn’t chart without a commercial single release. “California Love” would get a commercial release in June when it was put on as the B-side to the newest single “How Do U Want It.” By that point, “California Love” was declining in airplay but record buyers were happy to finally own the song on its own without having to spend lots of money to buy All Eyez On Me, the double album it was on. While “How Do U Want It” may have been the current hit, it practically owes its success to the better known B-side as Billboard counted both songs together in their chart position as a “double A-side.”
“California Love” was one of the many songs recorded by 2Pac for his hugely successful All Eyez On Me album but it was only one of two recorded with rapper and producing megastar Dr. Dre. Had it gone his way, “California Love” would have probably been a full Dr. Dre song rapping three verses before 2Pac visited him at his home studio and asked if he could rap on it writing his verse pretty much on the spot. The song was initially going to be put on The Chronic II, Dr. Dre’s follow up to his massively influential smash The Chronic, but it got shelved and because of that “California Love,” the version we know, wasn’t available on any 2Pac album until a 1998 greatest hits collection while a remix version appears on All Eyez On Me. In making their song, Dre and Pac also collaborated with a funk legend who got famous for a very distinct style of singing.
Roger Troutman was a musical prodigy growing up as the fourth of ten children outside of Cincinnati getting his first guitar at 5 and joining his first band at 11. As a multi-instrumentalist, Troutman spent much of his teenage years and 20s performing in a slew of bands before forming Roger & The Human Body with his brothers in 1976. After a few years, the band shorted its name to Zapp and got the attention of funk legends Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, the latter of whom got the group signed to Warner Bros. Zapp’s self-titled debut was released in 1980 and immediately established their style of electro-funk further highlighted by Troutman’s constant use of the talk box that made the songs stand out more.
Despite the cool use of the talk box, Zapp weren’t hitmakers at least in the pop mainstream. A familiar trajectory for many R&B artists in the ‘80s, Zapp were more of a presence as R&B hitmakers as their early albums and singles often did better on the R&B charts than the pop charts. (During the ‘80s, Zapp’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, their 1980 debut “More Bounce To The Ounce,” a #2 R&B hit, peaked at #86. Zapp’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Slow and Easy,” peaked at #43.) From there, they continued landing on the R&B charts including a #1 in 1982 while completely missing the Hot 100.
Not long after Zapp’s debut, Troutman began recording on his own as Roger releasing his first solo album, The Many Facets Of Roger, in 1981 and had the same performance as his group in doing better on R&B than pop with the album and its lead single, a funky talk box cover of the Marvin Gaye chart-topper “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” going #1 on R&B while only making it to #26 on the album chart and #79 on the Hot 100 respectively. It wouldn’t be till his third album, 1987’s Unlimited when Troutman found his pop chart breakthrough with the album’s lead single, the sparkling “I Want To Be Your Man,” which once again showcases Troutman’s heavy use of the talk box. The song was a #1 R&B hit while also crossing over to the Hot 100 in a big way peaking at #3 in February 1988. (It’s a 9.)
After the ‘80s, Troutman along with Zapp fell into a bit of a dry spell but found a saving grace in hip-hop. In the ‘90s, many of Zapp and Troutman’s work became very popular choices for rappers to sample including for 2Pac who used samples of Zapp’s music including in his two 1993 hits with “Be Alright” sampled in “Keep Ya Head Up” which peaked at #12 as well as “Computer Love” in “I Get Around” which peaked at #11. Around this time, Troutman began fully collaborating with rappers lending his talk box singing to their tracks. When Troutman was recruited by Dr. Dre to sing the chorus for “California Love,” it was just another job for him but a job that would come to be the biggest thing he’d ever be a part of.
As with many hip-hop songs, Dr. Dre builds “California Love” from a bunch of samples, all of them used to great effect. The driving piano riff and horns are from “Woman To Woman,” a 1972 track from one-time #1 artist Joe Cocker. Troutman’s chorus is lifted directly from “West Coast Poplock,” the extremely funky 1982 track by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People. Troutman even lifts from himself with the “shake it, shake it baby” part coming from Zapp’s “Dance Floor,” the group’s R&B #1 hit from 1982. Altogether, these samples and performances from all three artists combine to create an almighty banger that’s impossible to ignore when it’s on.
Just everything about this song is so good with the hard-hitting piano and horn-driven beat which to quote Dr. Dre’s line, “Hits ya eardrum like a slug to ya chest.” But what really makes the song to me is Roger Troutman. In terms of performances, Troutman is given the most time on “California Love” singing the chorus over and over about how California knows how to party whether it’s in LA, Watts, or Compton. His use of the talk box helps make an already catchy chorus stick even greater in your brain. Plus, I’m just a sucker for talk boxes in music so that helps too.
In the first verse from Dr. Dre, he largely acts as a warm-up welcoming us to the wild, wild west to a state that’s untouchable like Elliot Ness. Dre brags about California being a place to smoke good weed and where there’s no empty dance floor while also bragging about himself including how long he’s been in music, “I been in the game for ten years makin rap tunes/Ever since honeys was wearin sassoon.” For 2Pac, “California Love” was the first song released after his release from jail and he doesn’t waste time when he shows up halfway into the song, “Out on bail fresh outta jail, California dreamin/Soon as I stepped on the scene, I’m hearin hoochies screamin.” Compared to Dre’s deeper and more laid back delivery, 2Pac is all exuberance sounding totally excited at being able to rap again now that he’s out of jail all as he does his own bragging on the California lifestyle.
The music video also helps in my enjoyment of “California Love.” The video was reportedly inspired by 2Pac’s longtime friend and actress Jada Pickett Smith who suggested making a video in the vein of the 1985 movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. She was supposedly going to direct the video but bailed out leaving the ascendent filmmaker Hype Williams to direct. We’re taken to a desert in the year 2095 where the tribal chief played by George Clinton is holding a few people hostage who are then freed when Dr. Dre and 2Pac sneak in. From there, Dre and Pac are holding a huge party that’s not afraid to get wild before all riding off. There’s also Roger Troutman riding around the desert with the talk box in his mouth as he sings the chorus. There are also appearances by actors Chris Tucker and Tony Cox who had just starred in 1995’s Friday. I haven’t seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome but regardless this video is a total blast to watch.
Over a quarter-century later, two of the three artists on “California Love” are no longer with us. There’s obviously 2Pac who would be shot dead just two months after “California Love” and “How Do U Want It” hit #1 in a still-unsolved drive-by in Las Vegas at the age of 25. Troutman would meet a similar kind of fate in April 1999 when he and his brother Larry got into a dispute outside his recording studio leading Larry to shoot Roger several times before killing himself. After being rushed to the hospital, Roger died during surgery. He was 47.
Recently, Dr. Dre was one of the many performers at the very entertaining hip-hop-centric Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show. During the set, Dre along with Snoop Dogg, 2Pac’s labelmate on Death Row, performed “California Love” amid rumors of an appearance from 2Pac’s hologram. Despite two of the artists on “California Love” not being alive now, the crowd still went wild and it got me moving as I was watching with my friends proving that California still knows how to party.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal sampling the piano riff of “California Love” on Usher’s 1997 track “Come Back:”
(As a lead artist, Jermaine Dupri’s highest-charting single is the 1998 Da Brat/Usher collab “The Party Continues,” which peaked at #29. As a guest-rapper, Dupri’s highest-charting single is Dem Franchize Boyz’s 2005 “I Think They Like Me” remix, which peaked at #15.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “California Love” parody sung by Cartman and the boys on a 2007 South Park episode as a way to lure the homeless people in their town to California:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2010’s Iron Man 2 where “California Love” plays at Tony Stark’s birthday party:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton where 2Pac records “California Love” before gunfire breaks out:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I was one of the few people who saw the widely panned 2017 2Pac biopic All Eyez On Me when it came out and in the movie there’s a scene where “California Love” plays over 2Pac getting out of prison, arriving in California, and recording his verse on the song. Here’s that video: