Illustration by Zack CauseyHow Dr. Dre and Jonathan Gold might have ended up slurping ramen together on Sawtelle at 2 a.m. could have only happened a couple ways. Andre Young, at the time an ascendant hip-hop impresario who’d turned an incendiary rise from agitprop gangsta rap beginnings into the smoothed-out G-Funk whine and bump that defined the era and the place; and Gold, the slightly precocious and frumpy chronicler of epoch and geography who was, in his way, just as much a product of the Southern California sun, friction and sprawl, had little in common on the surface.
Dre’s greatest accolades—as a Grammy Award-winning producer, entrepreneur and headphone-maker—and Gold’s—as a Pulitzer-winning food writer—were yet to come. The chasm between them might have seemed great. The hirsute, hobbit-like Gold must have been out of place in Death Row Records, with the likes of Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg (who nicknamed the writer “Nervous Cuz”), and the D.O.C. much more common in the halls. As Dre laid down what became the classic Chronic album, Gold, there on assignment from Rolling Stone, brought his openness and curiosity to bear, becoming a fixture during recording.
I’d show up to the studio and everybody’s nervous about being interviewed, so I’d just kind of hang out all day.
“One of the things I used to love to do is just take as much time as someone would give me,” Gold said of his technique. “I’d show up to the studio and everybody’s nervous about being interviewed, so I’d just kind of hang out all day. Then you just come back the next day and you’re in the studio like it’s no big deal. And eventually, they’re talking to you.”
And Dre talked to Gold a lot. Starting from his NWA days (Gold wrote one of the first cover stories on the group) to the genesis of Death Row. In fact, as a writer covering music, art, theater, film, and food for the free alt LA Weekly, Gold coined the term “gangsta rap,” so you’ve got him to blame for that. This was right about the time that he also started his column “Counter Intelligence,” which carved a vast swath through Los Angeles dining and later moved with him to the Los Angeles Times. Back then Gold wrote about food and music in equal measure, going back and forth, profiling a band then swerving over to Pico Boulevard, an especially unlovely thoroughfare bisecting LA, that Gold made it his mission to eat his way down.
But to fawn over his sentences, as good as they are, is to partially miss the point. It’s like lauding Hendrix for his fretwork.
He might have stopped covering music, but the music never stopped informing his prose. The rhythm and beats of his language catapulted Gold into the top tier of food writers, a set not normally considered for their contribution to letters. In fact, Gold remains the only one of them to ever receive a Pulitzer. But to fawn over his sentences, as good as they are, is to partially miss the point. It’s like lauding Hendrix for his fretwork. Gold also opened new realms and didn’t just blur the lines between dining and eating, he fused four-stars and food trucks and forged bonds in ways that changed the culture.
In the documentary, City of Gold, Gold says that he doesn’t consider himself a moderately successful food writer, but a “failed cellist.” In the ’70s he’d studied music theory and cello at UCLA before, as a shy classical music nerd, being introduced to punk rock via an X and Screamers show in Downtown LA, and proceeded to plug in his cello in a band his own bother calls “terrible,” the Weirdos. These “failures” led him to LA Weekly, Gourmet and New York (during which time then-Village Voice restaurant writer Robert Sietsema claims to have put on 25 pounds due to Gold’s influence), and back to Los Angeles, the city which was the really the only place he could be from.
Andre Young, of course grew up in Compton, and Gold was raised nearby in South Central. Perhaps this partially explains their rapport. Or maybe it’s just that Gold was that way with everyone—from rap moguls to dishwashers. But read some of their back and forth, from interviews in Compton to later discussions at Dre’s West Valley mansion, and it’s not hard to picture the pair retiring late one night after a recording session for the Chronic or Doggystyle to a Japanese neighborhood not far from the studio that has a great little ramen place Gold had just discovered to bond over shared noodles and broth at some dirty counter.
Now that he’s gone, Los Angeles feels different. It’s difficult to imagine the city without Gold the same way it’s difficult to imagine a New York without Lou Reed in it. Both changed the way people perceive the cities they did so much to redefine.
Jonathan Gold is survived by bad electrified cello, a nation of neighborhood fetishizing food bloggers, Beats headphones and Roy Choi.