20 Years Of Doggystyle: VIBE Veteran Kevin Powell Looks Back At Snoop’s Classic Album

Features

/ November 22, 2013

Kevin Powell knows a thing or two about hip-hop. Back before the 47-year-old New Jersey native embarked on his current career in politics and public speaking, he was a scrappy young scribe penning stories on hip-hop artists for any publication who would publish them. In 1992, his writing lead him to the very media outlet you’re reading right now, and a year later, in September 1993, VIBE chose to Powell to pen the cover story on Snoop Doggy Dogg that would officially launch the magazine. He traveled to Los Angeles to spend time with Snoop in the studio, and eagerly looked on as the 21-year-old crafted one of the most heavily anticipated hip-hop albums in history— Doggystyle. On the 20-year anniversary of the album’s release, we got on the phone with Powell to look back on his experience.

VIBE: Prior to going to work on the story with Snoop, had you met him at all and if so what was your relationship like?
Back in the 90s is we had a lot of access to artists. We were all in our twenties, so we all went to the same parties, same events, and I know that I definitely crossed paths with Snoop at some point. It might have been Jack the Rapper in Atlanta, or might have been Jack the Rapper where I met Tupac. People give you their trust if you’re just real, and don’t try to badger them. And Snoop opened up a lot as a result of that. There was a lot of stuff going on around The Chronic, around the shooting [of Phillip Woldermarian], with the murder case. We were very fortunate at VIBE to get the trust of a lot of major artists at that time, including Snoop and ‘Pac.

Kevn Powell: Do you have any profound memories from being in the studio with him?
What I remember most is Snoop writing on a pink notepad and he’s drinking gin and juice. That’s how the song “Gin and Juice” got made. And I just remember how incredibly gifted he was with his ability to come up with rhymes quickly. I’ve seen artists labor over lyrics, but Snoop was clever. What I also remember is David Ruffin Jr., son of the late lead singer of the Temptations, being there, and working out the hook for that song.

This was a year after the riots. What was the vibe like in Los Angeles?
It was cool. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when things started erupting between Suge and Puffy, Tupac and Biggie, that there was a lot of tension. But at that point, nah, people were excited. Because you have to remember, The Chronic was massive. That whole year, 1993 was a huge year in hip-hop. People were just happy to be a part of that scene. California for years had been in the shadows of New York.

In the article you wrote: “No waving of baseball bats on album covers, no spitting in music videos, no bald heads. If you want a rapper who dramatizes the harshness of ghetto life, this is it.”

We definitely had a criticism going on internally in hip-hop going back to the 1980s, where it was obvious that certain heads were popping up who weren’t really living what they were talking about. It was just to sell records. But Snoop was legitimate because he really was a Crip, he really was a part of the culture, he really was from the streets and that shooting really did happen. So it wasn’t like he was making anything up. His life really was his art and vice versa.

Doggystyle is particularly misogynistic. Could an album like this be made today?
Twenty years ago— even though the LGBT community for example has always been organized— it wasn’t as organized as it is now where they’re like “No, that’s not acceptable.” Women are organized in a certain way, including a lot of women who grew up on hip-hop, who said at a certain point, “This is not acceptable for us.” I think they’re right.

So, should we be celebrating these albums or should we be looking back on them with a jaded eye?
We should be celebrating them. It’s incredible art. Snoop is an incredible MC, an incredible poet. When Dre introduced him with “Deep Cover,” that was pure genius. To talk about cop killing using the coded language of the police force, that was subversive stuff. It was provocative to us. And keep in mind, this is all on the heels of the LA riots, so it was already this deep tension between the police and the community.

Right.
Snoop and Pac and Wu-Tang, what they represented at the time, they were like super heroes to us. So we absolutely need to look at it holistically… hip-hop should not be put in some kind of category as if it’s something so offensive that we can’t celebrate it even with the contradictions in it, because American music, no matter what genre, has always had contradictions… Frank Sinatra had a record talking about getting high on cocaine, in the 1940s.

When’s the last time you listened to Doggystyle?
[Laughs] I listen to all music. I listen to everything that’s out today. But I definitely listen to what i call classic hip-hop. So Snoop is important to me. He really helped to solidify the power and the impact of West Coast hip-hop. He helped to give us G-funk. You listen to songs like “Murder Was The Case.” This was really profound stuff. You listen to “Gin and Juice,” then look at the video, it’s like a mini-movie.

And it’s a musically rich album.
One of the things I loved about Doggystyle was that Snoop acknowledged the legacy of a hip-hop pioneer, Slick Rick, with “Lodi Dodi.” There’s an incorporation of legends like Bootsy Collins. Snoop started that stuff, like let’s bring all these different folks together who have made this thing that we’ve built hip-hop on. That’s important to acknowledge with Doggystyle.

He even had The Dramatics on there. Snoop seemed to be informed by the music that came before him.
[Snoop and Dre] were music historians, they weren’t just hip-hop heads. [Dre] wanted to be Quincy Jones. He didn’t say he wanted to be some hip-hop person. It’s hard to fathom it now but The Chronic and Doggystyle and west coast hip-hop pretty much dominated the middle part of the 1990s, so much so that someone like the Notorious B.I.G.—who I love, I’m from Brooklyn; he’s from Brooklyn— but there’s no denying, ‘Pac was right. Biggie and Diddy took what the West Coast was doing and just put a East Coast spin on it. That’s how impactful the West Coast sound was at that time. And it definitely was because they paid homage to what came before them.

A lot of the artists involved with Death Row wound up suing each other. When you were around, did it seem chaotic, like it was hard to tell who was doing what?
Nah. It was clear that Suge and Dre were the CEOs. Suge handled the business. Dre handled the music. It was very simple, they just came together to make really incredible music. It felt very normal to me. By that point in 1993, I had already been in the studio with everyone from Public Enemy to Ice Cube to all kinds of folks, and it was the same energy. Just a community or family of people coming together. The folks that were there were Daz and Kurupt and the people who were part of that Death Row family at the time. It wasn’t anything crazy like that. Not even close to it.

What was the anticipation like for Doggystyle?
Snoop was considered the next big thing in hip-hop. When I think about the history of hip-hop, there was LL when he was young. There was Snoop. Eminem. In present times, Kendrick Lamar. There’s really been less than ten artists since 1979-1980 that their debuts were hugely anticipated on the level of Doggystyle.

Snoop was 21 at the time. Did you get the sense that he understood the levity of the situation or was he just like “whatever?”
None of us did. We were kids running a magazine. We barely had anyone at VIBE at that time over 30. Everybody was young and all the artists were young… I think because we were young, like Snoop was young, and because we were of the culture like Snoop was of the culture, there was a trust there. So what I liken it to is how back in the early days of Rolling Stone John Lennon felt comfortable talking to Jann Wenner, because they were the same generation. That was what was happening with us.

So he wasn’t aware that he was involved with something that would make history.
The thing was, Snoop is…. they were from the hood. They were from poverty. They were just happy to get paid doing what they love to do. It was just exciting, man. That’s the spirit of hip-hop. One minute you can be totally anonymous, and the next minute you’re a rock star. And that’s what he became, because of his work with Dre and Death Row. “Deep Cover” introduced him. And then out of all the artists on The Chronic, Snoop’s the star. And you knew Doggystyle is going to solidify his place in hip-hop history. We just knew that, and it did, because we’re having a conversation about it twenty years later.

If you were to sit a young kid down today and play him/her Doggystyle, what would you hope they take from it?
My assistant, she was born in 1993, so she has no memory of Doggstyle. And she’s a feminist, a very brilliant talented young lady. I’d say here’s a snapshot of what was happening in America— in hip-hop America, in black America, in urban America— in the early 1990s. Some of it may sound very harsh to you. Some of it may make you angry. Some of it may piss you off. But you’re also going to have some music that is incredibly funky and really pioneered a lot of stuff we’ve seen since then. In a lot of ways I feel like what’s happened since Snoop and Dre is that you have a lot of watered down versions of it. The difference is Snoop actually is a great MC. A lot of these folks who’ve come after are just bad imitations, carbon copies. And I would say this is probably the pinnacle right here— this album, and this time period— of what what was happening with West Coast hip-hop. And Snoop was the leader of it.