In 1989, Tracy Lynn Curry—better known as West Coast gangsta rap pioneer the D.O.C.—was living a career of unstoppable success. His first solo album, No One Can Do It Better, was No. 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and the singles “It’s Funky Enough” and “The D.O.C. and The Doctor” had reached the top of the Rap Singles chart. As a songwriter, he’d gained a reputation for penning ruthless rap anthems. From his work on N.W.A’s trailblazing debut Straight Outta Compton to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, the Dallas native helped put Ruthless Records on the map.
But everything came to a screeching halt one night following a party in Los Angeles.
Admittedly “high as a kite,” the D.O.C. crawled into the driver’s seat of his car and took off down the freeway. After falling asleep at the wheel, he careened off the road. Without the security of his seatbelt, the D.O.C. was ejected from the vehicle and slammed face-first into a tree. His injuries were so severe, he spent two weeks in the hospital and required 21 hours of plastic surgery.
Lucky to be alive, the D.O.C. was soon faced with a sobering reality—he couldn’t speak. At some point in the chaos, doctors inserted a tube down his throat and accidentally crushed his larynx. His rap career as he knew it was over. Severely depressed, he turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the physical and emotional pain.
While this story is well-documented, more than 30 years after the accident, the full scope of its aftermath is only just unfolding. Last June, director Dave Caplan premiered the documentary The DOC at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. As the title suggests, the film centers on the D.O.C.’s life, his journey to acceptance, and his inevitable rebirth.
“I’m a spiritual guy,” he says. “I tell people it’s just a G-O-D thing, not a D-O-C thing. What I’ve come to understand is it doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you. Even if you don’t realize it at the time, it’s taking you somewhere that, at the end of the day, is so much better for you. You just got to hold on.”
Defining his purpose took years of internal work. Erykah Badu, the mother of his 18-year-old daughter Puma, was a significant part of that process. There’s a tender moment captured in the documentary where they are sitting outside on a curb, talking about a potential surgical procedure that could either make his voice better or worse. “I’m just so lost in what was, it makes it really difficult to make what is work. I can’t use this…” he says, referring to his voice.
Badu gently replies, “I can hear you.” He smiles, tears welling up. She continues. “Puma can hear you. Amber [his wife] can hear you. The boys can hear you. You have a serious decision to make.”
Meeting Badu at the Dallas Hip Hop Summit in 2002 was fate. At the time, the D.O.C. was drowning in substance abuse in an attempt to squash his suffering, but she understood why he was trying to self-medicate.
“I was empathetic to his story,” she says in the film. “He just didn’t feel good. And when you don’t feel good, you try to numb that pain, you’re trying to self-medicate, and he self-medicated to a point where it clouded his mind and became kind of reckless.”
The two fell in love, and suddenly he was sober, eating vegan food and proclaiming “Fuck the D.O.C.” He was Tracy Curry again for the first time in years.
“I gotta go back to the G-O-D thing, right?” he says to me, of his time with Badu. “Every single person in my life—including you—come at a time to do a thing, and it’s so important to this journey, and they all shine the same way, including you. Mike and Erykah and Dr. Dre and Snoop and you—so many other people you can’t fit into an hour-and-a-half movie. But what Erykah did was I wasn’t even on this plane, literally and figuratively. I was in outer space. Erykah lassoed my foot and pulled me back down to this planet, sat on me, and I understood this was where I was supposed to be, and she gave me a beautiful baby girl. Erykah was the beginning of real change, and she’s here to this day.”
While their romantic relationship didn’t last, their friendship remains beautifully intact. He adds, “I’m over at her house all the time. She lives about 15 minutes from me. She is the love of my life. She’s one of the people who [was] a gift to me sent to help me be who I am today. And for her, I am so grateful.”
The D.O.C.’s time with Badu, coupled with the life-altering accident, ultimately led him to his purpose—helping others, specifically young kids. The 54-year-old is currently in the process of establishing his own school called D.O.C. Inc., an institution that will help mold the minds of future generations and steer them on the right path.
“My mission statement now, the thing that I think about as soon as I get up in the morning, is this school I’m trying to build in the southern sector of Dallas,” he explains. “It’s super important, and I know it’s gonna be impactful. It’s me being a father, not just to my own kids but to all of our kids. The shit I went through was purposeful so that I could understand enough to go and talk to a certain population of kids that some motherfuckers can’t get to.”
The D.O.C.’s humble demeanor and infectious smile are all signs he’s finally in a good place. Last June—in what he describes as another “G-O-D moment”—he was introduced to NOFX frontman/producer Fat Mike, who let him shoot part of The DOC at his Las Vegas home. In turn, Fat Mike connected him with indie rap staple Ceschi Ramos and the Get Dead’s Sam King, who were making music under the moniker Codefendants. One day at Fat Mike’s house, Mike played the D.O.C. some of their music, which he found intriguing.
With Fat Mike’s encouragement, the D.O.C. contributed a verse to the single “Fast Ones” from the group’s latest album, This is Crime Wave. It was the first time the D.O.C. recorded a verse in more than 15 years. Noticeably gruff but as powerful as ever, his voice added a raw element to the explosive track. A video would follow, and the D.O.C. found himself filming amongst a colorful cast of characters, including Freestyle Fellowship’s Myka 9, the Shape Shifters’ Awol One, and producer Factor Chandelier. The opportunity only fueled the D.O.C.’s fire for making music, and in April, he headed to Austin to perform with Codefendants at the Punk in Drublic Festival, his first live rap performance in nearly 30 years.
The D.O.C. was back.
“It was just fucking cool as shit,” he says. “I hadn’t been to something like that in years. Love was everywhere. If I’m being honest, I had no idea that people really fucked with me like that. It was a big deal. Luckily, a camera guy was there and captured everything. It was a fucking moment. I had no idea that’s who Fat Mike was. The guy let me use his house to shoot the documentary, and he’s funny. I just liked him. He’s a good guy. But I had no idea that was who he was. That guy is something else. He’s incredible. He’s a movement. I didn’t know that. It was a real experience.”
He continues, “I haven’t performed in so long. But it must be like muscle memory because I didn’t skip a beat. My bones don’t move as fast as they used to, but all the movements are all the same and people react the same. I went outside and talked to the people, and they were so expressive and heartfelt. They all knew my story and felt my pain. I didn’t know that side of the world existed. It was a blessing.”
For now, The DOC film still isn’t available to a wider audience, something he recently addressed on Twitter. On April 28, the D.O.C. was asked about its release, and he replied, “There is an unnamed company trying to keep you from seeing it.” He remains confident, however, it will arrive this summer. In the meantime, the D.O.C. is fielding offers and focused on manifesting the school. He says he’s ready to go “full blast” and encourages anyone who wants to get involved to reach out to him directly: [email protected].
“Anybody who wants to know what I’m doing, wants to know about this documentary, or wants to help me with this mission, reach out to me and talk to me ‘cause as a family, we got shit to do,” he concludes. “And I need all the help I can get. Anybody who knows me and feels my pain and understands this struggle knows what’s in my heart and what I gotta go do. And I need your help, so holler at me.”