As 1993 turned into 1994, there was no bigger story in American music than Snoop Doggy Dogg, the then-22-year-old breakout superstar of hip-hop. Unfortunately, the artist whose debut album Doggystyle was already a Billboard charts record-breaker also had a murder charge hanging over him.
For a groundbreaking profile, accompanied by now-iconic photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino, The Face sent Steven Daly to interview the rapper in Los Angeles. There Daly had a ringside view of the excitement, and the tensions, surrounding Snoop, producer/mentor Dr Dre, rap’s sexual politics and the gangland rivalries that put hip-hop on the frontline of America’s early ’90s culture wars. To mark today’s 48th birthday of the man born Calvin Broadus, we proudly republish Daly’s February 1994 feature.
It’s a warm winter afternoon in LA’s San Fernando Valley, and in the lounge of a recording studio eight young black men and women are gathered around a television. The youngest man is sitting on a coffee table about three feet from the screen, gazing at a compilation of his many MTV interviews. “You look like Michael Jackson there,” says one of his female friends. “The old Michael, back when he was cute.” “I ain’t no Michael Jackson,” the young man growls over his shoulder. “I’m Snoop Dogg.”
As if anyone needed reminding, Snoop Doggy Dogg is one of the most recognisable faces in America today, the first-ever solo artist to see his debut LP go straight to Number One on the Billboard charts in its first week of release. He is also, not incidentally, the first gangsta rapper to receive full endorsement from MTV. Slouched on the sofa behind him, looking on with almost paternal pride, is the other half of hip-hop’s most potent partnership, Snoop’s producer/mentor Dr Dre. As a founder member of Compton’s NWA, Dre can claim authorship of the lucrative, ever-controversial gangsta genre with its boy’s own cocktail of apocalyptic bluster and misogyny, racial slurs and dirty jokes. Thankfully today finds Dre in mellow mood, with Snoop’s debut album Doggystyle riding high in the charts and a long-awaited reunion with NWA buddy Ice Cube imminent. As Dre sees his own face appear on the TV screen he pops open a can of Coke, takes a gulp, and tops it up with Courvoisier. “Damn, I musta lost 20 pounds since then,” he mutters at the TV, shaking his head and smiling.
Snoop gets up and wanders off to skin up in preparation for today’s interview. He briefly bounces a basketball round the studio foyer, his six-foot-four frame cramped by its meagre dimensions. In the background Dre slips a tape into the VCR, one of the “Dolomite” films of the Seventies blue comedian Ruby Ray Moore. Within seconds everyone’s howling at Moore’s obscene antics and garish apparel.
The task at hand is to remix for single release the track Gin And Juice, an unusually benign expression of Snoop’s outlaw persona: “Walking down the street smokin’ Indo/Sippin’ on gin and juice,” he raps, as another of Dre’s creations swaggers mightily behind him. A joint circulates among the studio engineers to help attune their ears to the most momentous bass tones in music today; nowhere is there a sign that the young man with the basketball is an accused murderer out on a million dollars bail.
It was, appropriately enough, at a stag party that Dr Dre first noticed the rapper who was to become his star apprentice. Dre’s brother Warren G slipped in a tape of his band 213 (LA’s phone code) and something caught the producer’s attention above the carousing. The R&B/rap mix was strictly workaday, but the kid with the sleepy, almost feminine delivery might have the skills to pay the bills. He was, of course, Snoop Doggy Dogg. Born Calvin Broadus in 1971, Snoop was raised in Long Beach, southwest of LA, by a mother who’d migrated there from her native Mississippi. After Snoop’s father left home and moved to Detroit, his mother tried to keep the boy on the straight and narrow, encouraging him to keep singing in the local Baptist church choir and to stay in school, where his basketball talents had been noticed by several major colleges.
In the face of his mom’s struggle to support him and his three brothers, Snoop decided that he’d do better to study the methods of the street hustlers on Long Beach’s tough east side. He won’t directly address whether he became, as has been reported, a member of the local Crips chapter, but the blue bandana hanging from the back pocket of his freshly-ironed chinos might be a clue. What is a matter of record is that a month after graduating from high school Snoop was jailed for “possession of cocaine for sale”. Over the next three years he’d yo-yo in and out of jail for a series of probation violations.
According to Snoop, the man who saved him from slipping deeper into the gangsta life was one Mr Dwoskin, his former probation officer, who’s thanked in the sleeve notes of Doggystyle. Several times Dwoskin let him off the hook despite breaches of probation. “I was supposed to go to the penitentiary on the first violation, but he just sent me to the county jail to get my life together,” says Snoop, perched on a high stool in the studio’s soundproof booth. “In the county you might get into a squabble and get stabbed or something; but in the pen, you could die. It’s tore up, it’s corruption at its best. You have to adapt to the life, to the politics in there. That would have been a complete turnaround for me, I probably wouldn’t have no remorse.
Even while incarcerated, Snoop was continuing to rap as prodigiously as he’d done back in high school, where his rhyming skills had made him a playground superstar. “I always had my own little style in school,” he recalls with a politeness that belies his weighty street credentials. “My voice was real light, like a girl’s, and I could just hear some music and make up raps about whatever was takin’ place. Whenever I had to challenge somebody I would beat ’em. I could work the crowd real smooth because I was so little.
“In prison the older people would tell me I was too talented to be in there. I was like, why would they tell me this? They’re doin’ time and they don’t give a fuck about me. For them to overlook all that shit, it showed that I had a gift, so I figured I had to use it to the fullest.”
When Dr Dre took Snoop under his wing in 1990, the novice had vowed to make rap his career, whatever it took. As a partnership they made perfect sense, because while Snoop was out on the street dodging bullets, Dre (born Andre Ramelle Young in 1965) was creating gangsta rap with NWA, packaging urban black anger for a white suburban audience. By the time Snoop and Dre met, the NWA man already had an impressive career as a producer, with seven platinum albums out of the eight he’d produced for fellow group member Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. Dre, however, felt shortchanged by his diminutive bandmate and their manager Jerry Heller, who were already engaged in a legendary feud with departed NWA member Ice Cube.
After making the label tear up his contract (under duress, according to Eazy‑E), Dre stormed out on Ruthless to start his own label, Death Row. Mired in lawsuits, he began recording and shopping his solo album The Chronic, which would showcase his new Long Beach discovery. With admirable marketing savvy, Dre picked the soundtrack to the archly brutal undercover cop thriller Deep Cover as the moment to first let Snoop Doggy Dogg off the leash.
When Snoop loped on to the TV screens of America in the summer of 1992, initial impressions were not promising. With his shell suit-clad torso tilted to one side and his skinny arms jerking stiffly, he certainly didn’t look like any kind of menace to society. But the second he opened his mouth his ungainly appearance was forgotten: audiences were entranced by the hypnotic delivery of his homicidal mantra, “One-eight-seven on an undercover cop”. Moreover the hip-hop cognoscenti recognised in Snoop’s implacable stoner gaze a hard man with nothing to prove, someone who could drown out the thuggish braying of his one-dimensional gangsta contemporaries with a mere whisper.
Nothing more was heard from this phantom figure until the first single from The Chronic dropped that autumn. Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang lurched into play and laid down the tempo for hip-hop’s next episode. This deftly filigreed chunk of funk was nothing short of sensational, a hip-hop beam-up to the Parliament/Funkadelic mothership, melding spare beats and corpulent bass with wailing synth lines out of some imaginary Seventies cop show.
The song’s Dre-directed video offered an expansive celebration of the West Coast gangsta life, a hard-drinking, blunt-smoking, barbecuing, low-riding paradise where men are men and “woman” is pronounced “be-yatch”. Uncompromising in sound and message, …‘G’ Thang is easily the hardest rap ever to scale the US singles chart, launching The Chronic towards eventual sales of over three million. Dr Dre and his charismatic sidekick had conjured up a true Pop Moment, one of those magical confluences of time, place and face that defy prediction, yet seem so obvious in hindsight.
With each successive hit, Snoop Doggy Dogg was growing into his signature style, a tranced-out sway and heavy-lidded stare that marked him as the most magnetic figure in rap. This delicate, doe-eyed gangsta even had his own catchphrase (via George Clinton), “Bow-wow-wow yippie-yo yippie-yay”, which has now been reverberating in Jeeps, playgrounds and clubs from coast to coast for over a year.
As 1993 rolled on, few doubted that Snoop Doggy Dogg’s forthcoming solo album was guaranteed to hit Number One – if it was ever completed. With mounting delays pushing the launch of Doggystyle back towards winter, Snoop and Dre showed up to present a trophy at MTV’S Video Music Awards on September 2. Unknown to the viewing millions, Snoop’s lawyer had promised to deliver his client to the Los Angeles Police Department immediately after the ceremony in connection with murder charges.
On the evening of August 25 last year, Snoop Doggy Dogg was driving his black 1993 Jeep when an argument broke out between his friend Shawn Abrams and a man named Philip Woldemariam, who’d earlier been seen waving a gun outside Snoop’s apartment. According to police reports Snoop, Abrams and bodyguard McKinley Lee (aka Malik) chased down Woldemariam to Woodbine Park, West LA, where he was allegedly shot by Lee from the passenger seat at 7.20pm. Initial press reports suggested the victim was not only unarmed but shot in the back. Since it has yet to come to court, Snoop is forbidden by law to discuss the case, but his defence has claimed that he’d been persistently harassed and threatened by Woldemariam, who was himself on probation after serving time for firearms offences.
To close observers of Death Row Records this imbroglio was less than shocking. Dr Dre was already under house arrest, with a tracking device on his ankle, after a string of violent incidents, including an assault on a New Orleans police officer. Then there was the beating he allegedly dealt to petite TV host Dee Barnes, whose lawsuit was settled out of court for a reportedly sizeable sum. Dre’s partner, soft-spoken former pro footballer Marion “Suge” Knight (who’d scored big with publishing rights to several Vanilla Ice songs), has also faced assault charges of his own.
Whatever the background to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s arrest, the timing could have hardly been worse. Within weeks of Snoop’s release on $1 million bail, former Digital Underground member Tupac Shakur (aka 2Pac) was arrested in Atlanta, charged with shooting two off-duty police officers; the following day Public Enemy jester Flavor Flav was picked up for allegedly trying to shoot a Long Island neighbour. Three weeks later Tupac was arrested again, this time on rape charges in New York.
Ever since the Ice‑T “Cop Killer” uproar, the national media had shown an unbecoming eagerness to fan the moral outrage at the gangsta rap “threat”. For example, last June, when New York minister Calvin Butts II and a handful of followers ritually crushed some gangsta CDs on a Harlem pavement, the event was warmed up and served as real news. So when the Snoop/Tupac/Flavor story hit, the tabloid media went to town, with scenes reminiscent of the Sex Pistols’ heyday. Before you could say “Ho!”, Los Angeles radio station KACE slapped a ban on any songs that “glorify violence or denigrate women”, soon to be followed by New York’s influential WBLS. Of course, Snoop probably didn’t much help his cause by showing up in magazines posing with a selection of his favourite firearms.
“That was when I was just getting out of the streets and into the music business,” he says. “My attitude was still on the streets. It’s like Vietnam out here in California, believe it or not, and that’s how my life was at the time. People was tellin’ me to pose like that and I was just like, fuck it, I’ll do it. I done got over that shit and moved on.”
On November 23 the Doggystyle album finally dropped, outstripping even the rosiest predictions with sales of a staggering 800,000 in the first week. Amid all the sound and fury it was easy to overlook one little fact: the record was a strangely underwhelming experience.
When Dr Dre was making The Chronic, he was in a fierce struggle for solo survival, fighting free from Eazy‑E, and desperately trying to prove himself to unreceptive record labels. According to Suge Knight, even Interscope, the label that eventually licensed Death Row, gave Dre the bum’s rush on hearing early versions of the tracks. Doggystyle, in contrast, often sounds like it’s laying back and pandering to a pre-sold audience, trying to follow a blueprint for success.
From the album’s lurid cartoon sleeve to the prosaic video for ‘What’s My Name?’ (Snoop morphs into, uh, a dog), the whole affair sounds at once unsatisfying and self-satisfied, riddled with references to each and every high spot of Snoop’s year in the business. Much of the playful, unstudied feel of The Chronic had calcified into standard tales of gangsta nihilism and bitch-baiting. Worse, the whole thing was weighed down by the type of sketches which no doubt seem funny in the studio when the gin and juice was flowing – imagine, if you can, comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown with a Glock.
Still, when he’s on his game, Snoop Doggy Dogg remains hip-hop’s most compelling tale-spinner since Slick Rick, the incarcerated rap stylist whose song “Lo Di Do Di” is covered on Doggystyle. Nowhere is this truer than on ‘Murder Was The Case’, on which Snoop drops his gangsta leanings to unveil a chronicle of his own death foretold, gunned down by jealous knuckleheads
“Talking about myself being shot like that is a hard example for little kids,” he says. “I just want people to understand that those situations do take place, and just because I’m rappin’ doesn’t mean it can’t happen to me. I’m not gonna say on my records, ‘Don’t do drugs’, or this or that. I mean, I’m a basic kid. I’m gon’ say, ‘Snoop Dogg did this, Snoop Dogg did that, and it was nothin’ nice.’ If people are like I was, they can understand what I’m stressin’.
“I don’t see too many ways out,” Snoop continues, his melodious Southern twang tinged with resignation. “I know black people in my neighbourhood who had straight A’s, but who couldn’t get into college because their families didn’t have no finances. So what are they supposed to do? Go work at McDonald’s makin’ $4.35 an hour? They’re supposed to cheat themselves like that? They’re not makin’ it easy for us at all.”
Normally sparing with his words, Snoop becomes quite animated when he talks about children, with whom he seems to share some unspoken bond, a mutual fascination. “It’s hard in the Nineties because parents are starting off so young, and they don’t have time to raise their babies because they’re out tryin’ to enjoy their own lives. And the mother and father have both got to have an income because otherwise the father gets frightened and wants to run away from the problem. Somehow America’s got money to send out all over the world, but they don’t ever have time to help the ghetto. I’m not trying to be a hell of a black man white folks with money and power to put something out here.
Maybe gangsta rap’s audience of white suburban males is gleaning this very message from tracks like “Gz Up, Hoes Down”. But more likely they’re getting the same illicit buzz they get from discovering that cool “kill” move in Mortal Kombat or their dad’s stack of Playboys; having what would, in less tactful times, have been called “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”.
Black intellectual Cornell West has blamed the “gangsterisation of culture” for many of America’s current ills, the venal values of a rampant Eighties Wall Street having infected public life. Somehow Snoop Doggy Dogg doesn’t consider the strident individualism of gangsta culture to be part of this equation, or indeed to be against the interests of the black com- munity. Being a “G” is all about getting paid, he agrees, but it can be about helping others out: “a kind of Robin Hood-type thing”.
Before Snoop can explain this oblique statement, three decades of black pop erupt from the studio’s control room, interrupting his flow. His hired musicians are warming up with some favourite licks, from James Brown to Stax to Hendrix to Funkadelic. Led by Dramatics bass player and former George Clinton sideman T Green, these men are regarded with pride and affection by Snoop, who appreciates their pedigree as keenly as the most avid soul trainspotter.
The same sense of continuity is evident on Doggystyle, in Snoop’s brief flashes of sensitivity. There you’ll hear the influences of soul singers from his youth, like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, LJ Reynolds of the Dramatics, and Al Green. Wide-collar love men, none of whom would ever call their lady a bitch or ho.
“That was the music my mama played when I was young,” he says. “Al Green’s lyrics were real deep, they were reality at the time. My lyrics are about what’s goin’ down on the streets nowadays. A lot of women do conduct themselves the way I describe, and I don’t like that. I’ll be doin’ a show and a lot of women will come up to me actin’ like they want to have sex. So when I say things like ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ on my record, it’s makin’ a woman strive to be a better woman so she won’t be labelled that.”
Waiting to interview Snoop the previous night at Death Row Records, I was given a brief, unmediated glimpse of the culture that spawns such arrant nonsense. A group of Compton rap hopefuls cooled their heels in the foyer while their manager touted their demo inside. One enthusiastically described to the others a record release party the night before, reeling off a long list of all the Crip and Blood sets that were in the house. Tensions were running so high, he said, that when an argument erupted in the bar he dived for the nearest exit in fear of the big kick-off. Not to worry, he laughed, it was just a top West Coast rapper beating up his girlfriend.
When Snoop Doggy Dogg’s name was brought up, it was spat back with contempt. One of the men, a pistol in the back pocket of his shorts, pointed to his bright red apparel smugly. The answer was not Manchester United. It’s probably fortunate for Snoop Doggy Dogg that he failed to show up that night. If this is an example of what must face him daily since he became West Coast rap’s biggest star, a murder charge is the least of his worries.
No one need worry unduly about Snoop Doggy Dogg’s vulnerability in front of the Woldemariam jury later this year – as a million-dollar entertainer, he’ll be able to afford the finest justice money can buy. (He has already retained the services of John DeLorean’s former lawyer.) Snoop strenuously insists that he, Tupac, Michael Jackson (and convicted rapist Mike Tyson) are being systematically persecuted in the media because they are growing too powerful. But only a few weeks ago the media gave the lie to his theory. Just before Christmas, Snoop’s management arranged for him to give away presents to kids in hospitals and community centres in South Central LA. Among the obliging coverage of these photo- opportunities, only the LA Times dared question the motivation behind Snoop’s Santa Claus act. Not one other television station or print outlet dared raise the possibility that the whole thing was done to rehabilitate his tarnished image.
No, the flak that’s been caught by these black public figures is just a symptom of a bigger problem. In the past year hardly a week has gone by without some branch of the US media or government going into moral spasms over the latest cultural outrage, of whatever racial background. It could be Attorney General Janet Reno berating TV networks, or Bill Clinton browbeating Hollywood about their violent tendencies. (The very same tendencies that pushed America’s global box-office share from 30 per cent to 50 per cent in the Eighties.) All they’re doing is refusing to face up to the appetites of American citizens, whether for guns, drugs or the vicious entertainments of Hollywood and Compton.
Few understand America’s tastes better than Dr Dre. Unlike Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dre is untroubled by the thorny moral issues raised by gangsta rap – he’s just doing this to sell records, pure and simple, he’ll tell you. He’s in it to win it. Dre has lately been derided for chasing every trend from Prince’s eyeliner-and-lace look (with his first group, World Class Wreckin Cru) to Cypress Hill’s blunt-smoking miasma (The Chronic). And sure, he’s guilty as charged – but so what? He’s giving the people what they want: an amped-up mix of profane free speech, guns and sex. And making millions in the process – what could be more American than that?
“Hilarious, humourless, brilliantly alert and weirdly uninformed” – that’s how Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney characterised Muhammad Ali in 1966; and the same words could almost describe Snoon Doggy Dogg nearly three decades later. In a business full of contradictions he’s one of the most impenetrable stars, vacillating between insight and ignorance, tenderness and nihilism in the same breath. What never seems to waver is Snoop’s natural charm, and a humility which gives him a clear-eyed perspective on the harsh imperatives of the hip-hop game.
“Hip-hop fans are true. If you come with the bomb and keep comin’ with the bomb, they gon’ stay down wit’ you. But if you come with the bullshit, it’ll be like you’re startin’ all over again. There’s so much competition, so much talent, you gotta put your all in and do it for the people who can’t express themselves.
“At this stage I’m just developing as a solo artist, beginning to deal with the pressures. But definitely I’m ‘a grow in this game because I’m a student, I don’t dwell on the past. I don’t even listen to The Chronic no more, and soon I won’t listen to my album because I’ll be ready to turn to the next page. It’s too early to get caught up in the success of my album because I haven’t done anything yet.”
Snoop looks up and away, distracted by Dr Dre’s funky alchemy, which throbs through the walls like a Seventies blaxploitation soundtrack. As he gets up to go to work, you realise that it’s a soundtrack to him too – the soundtrack to his life.