Digital Cover: The Making Of Michael Jackson's 'Xscape' Album

Michael Jackson's posthumous Xscape album is truly a treat.

Out tomorrow (May 13), the nostalgic-yet-modern LP unites the likes of Timbaland, Stargate, Rodney Jerkins and Justin Timberlake to update unreleased tracks from the MJ archives.

To celebrate the release, VIBE unearths an art piece commissioned to Mr. Brainwash for the album cover—one that was ultimately not chosen for the final project—and rounds up the album collaborators for an in-depth making-of piece.

Remember the times with us. And let the King of Pop rock your world once more. —John Kennedy

- The Making Of: An Oral History Of Michael Jackson's Xscape Album
- Exclusive: Mr. Brainwash Talks Creating Unreleased Xscape Artwork
- Stream: Michael Jackson, "Slave To The Rhythm"
- Stream: Michael Jackson, "Love Never Felt So Good"
- Stream: Michael Jackson, "Xscape"

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Jonathan Exley

Michael Jackson's June/July 1995 Cover Story: 'ACTION JACKSON'

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June/July 1995 issue of VIBE Magazine.

Michael & Me

Reporting By: Omoronke Idowu, Shani Saxon, Joseph V. Tirella, Josh Tyrangiel, and Mimi Valdés

JIMMY JAM, producer/songwriter (worked on HIStory album) Michael's the most intense person I've worked with. For him, everything is about the music and how to make it better. He also makes work a lot of fun. He's a kid at heart—his office is not like a normal office. He has all the kids' toys. A lot of times we'd be in session, in the middle of playing a video game, and he'd be, like, "Well, we got to do this. But go ahead and finish your game, though—I don't want to mess your game up."

The thing about Michael is his talent. If you put Michael onstage without the explosions and the other dancers, he'll still command the stage.

There's a song called "Childhood" on the new album, and I think for the first time, Michael has put a lot of his feelings on record. That song, for right now, defines where's he's at—the way he feels about himself and the way people feel about him.

HEAVY D, MC/label executive (rapped on "Jam," 1991) I was in California the first time I heard Michael Jackson wanted to record with me. I was, like, Nah, no way, he's too big, it can't be true. Then I got a call from Michael's people at my hotel telling me he was interested. But I still wasn't believing it—I thought they were setting me up for a TV practical jokes show.

So me and my partner go to the place, and while we were waiting we were talking and cursing up a storm—I was thinking that if it was a blooper show, they wouldn't be able to use it. Then Michael called and said he was on his way. When he got there he was just, like, 'Hey, how ya doin?'"

Michael's just as regular as everyone else. We talked about all the normal stuff guys talk about. He's real smart. People forget that he's the most incredible entertainer we've seen in our lifetime. His name is Michael Jackson, not Super Michael Jackson. He makes mistakes just like all of us.

My favorite Michael Jackson song is "Music and Me." It's an old one, about him and his music, his love for music, and the time they've had together. It's like a song that would be sung to a girl, but it's all about music.

R. KELLY, singer/songwriter/producer (worked on HIStory album) I thought it was funny when I told Michael Jackson I didn't want to fly, and he was giving me reasons why I should. I kept looking him in the eye, and I kept saying "uh-huh, uh-huh" and "oh, I see," knowing all the time that I would not be getting on a plane.

Working with Michael was definitely not just another day at the office.

KENNY GAMBLE AND LEON HUFF, producers (the Jacksons' Destiny album, 1978) Gamble: When we took Michael in the studio to overdub his voice, he had so many different ideas about songs, writing, and producing, I told him he could really record himself. He was very curious about a lot of things. He's a creative, spiritual, caring person.

Nineteen eighty-one's "Rock With You" is the most what Michael's about. I really believe he and Quincy have a magic together. Michael is a miracle.

Huff: When Michael and his brothers first came to Philadelphia, Gamble decided to walk them from the hotel to the studio. As they were walking, they were rushed by a group of girls. The brothers escaped by going into a movie theater. Once they made it to the studio, these girls camped outside the studio—and this was for a six-month period. To see 100 girls laying outside a studio at 3 and 4 in the morning for Michael and his brothers was something else.

My favorite Michael song? Nineteen eighty-seven's "Show You the Way to Go."

NAOMI CAMPBELL, supermodel/actress/singer (appeared in "In the Closet" video, 1992) Michael is very involved and on top of everything he puts his name on. He's shy and sweet, considering all he's accomplished, but he's a prankster. When I was doing the video, we had water pistol fights. He's a perfectionist.

TEDDY RILEY, producer (worked on Dangerous and HIStory albums) He's the greatest. Innovative. Black.

SLASH, Guns N' Roses guitarist (played on Dangerous and HIStory albums) He's a fucking brilliant entertainer, a complete natural. He's the only guy I've ever met that's real—for that kind of music. I grew up listening to the Jackson 5. I used to love "Dancing Machine."

We've been friends for a while, so he just lets me do what I want to do. I get a basic framework, and I just make up my part and they edit it. I wonder sometimes what it's gonna sound like, [Laughs] but every time, they do a great job. He's very shrewd. He's got a great, sarcastic sense of humor. People always ask me, "Is he weird?" Well, he's different. But I know what it's like to be weird, growing up in the music business.

I have to admit working with Michael Jackson is different than working with your basic, gritty rock 'n' roll band. One time when I went to play for Michael, he walked in with Brooke Shields, and there I am with a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Jack Daniel's in the other, and my guitar hanging low around my neck. And he doesn't care. That's not the way he is, but I don't have to change for him. He accepts me for what I am.

TATUM O'NEAL, actress/friend I never worked with Michael, but he and I had a really wonderful friendship when I was 12 and he was 17. He used to dance with me, we'd talk on the phone all the time, and he'd say how funny it was that I was 12 and I could drive and he was older and couldn't. Michael used to come to my house when I was living with my dad, and I remember him being so shy. Once he came into my bedroom, and he wouldn't even sit on my bed. But another time when he was over, he played the drums, my brother played guitar, and someone else played another instrument, and we had a jam session. I had the tape of it, but I lost it somewhere.

When I was 12, he asked me to go to the premiere of The Wiz with him, and my agent at the time said it wasn't a good idea, maybe because they felt he wasn't a big enough star yet. He never talked to me after that. I think he thought I just canceled, but it wasn't me at all. I was a child doing what I was told. I want you to print that, because I don't think he ever knew that. I lost touch with him because of it, so I don't really know him anymore. But I love him; he's one of the nicest, most innocent people I've ever met. I love "She's out of My Life" because I think it describes our friendship at that time.

DALLAS AUSTIN, songwriter/producer (worked on HIStory album) Working with Michael is a different type of work. You're pressured timewise, but not by creativity or money. So you're left with mad freedom. You'd think he'd be very controlling, but if he likes you enough to work with you, he wants your expertise, not just another Michael Jackson record.

"Heal the World" and "Stranger in Moscow" from the HIStory record are, like, the makeup of Michael. I think he's taken on the responsibility to make changes in the world. He's the only real superhero. Think about it.

LISA MARIE PRESLEY-JACKSON, former wife Michael is a true artist in every facet of its nature—extremely aesthetic and very, very romantic. This is who he truly is despite degrading comments made in the past by certain larva.

Michael, as well as myself, have been severely underestimated and misunderstood as human beings. I can't wait for the day when all the snakes who have tried to take him out get to eat their own lunch and crawl back in the holes from which they came.

We know who they are and their bluff is about to be called.

QUINCY JONES, longtime collaborator/legendary producer Michael can go out and perform before 90,000 people, but if I ask him to sing a song for me, I have to sit on the couch with my hands over my eyes and he goes behind the couch. He is amazingly shy.

What people forget about him is that for the first time, probably in the history of music, a black artist is embraced on a global level by everyone from eight to 80 years old. People all over the world, especially young people, have a black man as an idol.

Reporting by Omoronke Idowu, Shani Saxon, Joseph V. Tirella, Josh Tyrangiel, and Mimi Valdés

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Dan Winters

Snoop Dogg's Sept 1993 Cover Story: 'HOT DOGG'

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Sept. 1993 issue of VIBE Magazine.

His album is the most eagerly anticipated debut in hip hop history. Join Kevin Powell for a Snoop Dogg-day afternoon.

Written By: Kevin Powell Photographs By: Dan Winters

INSIDE the television room of the Village Recorder studio in West Los Angeles, Snoop Doggy Dogg stands nose-to-nose with his cousin, a tall, copper-complexioned man who is wildly defending his point. “That’s how you want it?” his cousin says, trying to cover his concern for Snoop with a display of machismo.

“That’s how it’s gonna be,” Snoop replies.

“You’re doing it, there it is,” says the cousin, dejectedly.

“This shit don’t make no sense to me right now,” Snoop retorts with a wave of his hands. “I want to be loved.”

I half listen to their disagreement and stare at the massive television set mounted on the wall behind them. On the screen, the talking head of former Los Angeles police sergeant Stacey Koon is babbling about Rodney King, the need for law and order, and the South Central rebellion, which occurred a year ago this day. Like a restless toddler, Snoop spontaneously lunges over his cousin’s left shoulder blade, molds his long fingers into a gun, and aims at the screen, directly at Koon’s mouth: “Bam!” Taking the oral bullet as a cue, the man eases off Snoop’s case and retreats. Confused by the swirl of events on and off screen, I ask Snoop what’s going on.

“He was telling me,” he begins in his syrupy southern twang, “for security purposes I need to probably hire him….” I fade out Snoop’s voice for a moment, mentally juxtaposing last year’s explosion of black rage with the fact that at that time no one, save the local underground scene, had ever heard of Snoop Doggy Dogg. Like that display of raw energy, Snoop blazed through rap music last summer on a mission, his drawl chanting from jeeps and groove-filled clubs— “‘Cuz it’s 1-8-7 on a undercover cop” —helping propel Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover” single to number one on the rap charts. If that tease wasn’t enough, on Dre’s multi-platinum The Chronic (the title was suggested by Snoop and by his own estimates he contributed a good 65 to 70 percent of the lyrics), Snoop’s singsongy-hardcore style broke loose from the other guest vocalists on the album and stole the show. These performances marked him as one of the few rappers in hip hop history to establish a firm and identifiable presence before the release of his own debut album, Doggy Style, slated to hit the streets in early September.

But in spite of the buzz around Snoop’s rap career, he refuses—as evidenced by his argument with his cousin—to succumb to the demands of fame. Until recently he had no car, and he still shares an apartment in Long Beach with his first cousin That Nigga Daz, and barely notices any of the women who parade in and out of the studio in search of him, Dre, or rapper the D.O.C. So here he is—21 years old, six foot four, pencil thin, and quite obviously only one generation removed from his family’s Mississippi roots—arguing about his ability to protect himself against overzealous fans and envious knuckleheads. In essence, then, Snoop is more than hype. He’s just a regular kid from the block who happens to have a rhyme virtuosity that’s the envy of rappers on both coasts.

With his weary, understated cadence, Snoop Doggy Dogg has upped the hip hop ante: 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.

And, on the surface at least, Snoop’s lyrics are his reality. He still packs two guns (“It’s just a protection thang. A nigga ain’t gonna be out there slippin’”), and he never roams without the Dogg Pound—Daz, Kurupt, RBX, and his other buddies from the ‘hood. So he doesn’t even worry about the static that inevitably results from walking a fine line between ghetto life and life as a rap star. Perhaps subconsciously, Snoop’s final response to his cousin’s interrogation is also his declaration of who he was and who he claims to be. “I ain’t young no more,” he concludes. “I’m grown.”

Snoop's weary understated cadence has upped the hip hop ante: No waving of baseball bats, no spitting in music videos, no bald heads.

THE VILLAGE RECORDER, according to an engineer and the platinum and gold albums that punctuate the walls, has been home to Cher, Eric Clapton, and Alice Cooper. For Snoop it is currently the only home he has other than Long Beach. Inside the studio, former N.W.A member Dr. Dre sits behind the control boards snapping his head back and forth to a contagious, bass-driven sound. Contrary to his media image, in person the burly Dre is reserved, even shy. The Dee Barnes incident and other legal entanglements still haunt him—most recently, he is being sued for breach of contract by Ruthless Records, Eazy-E’s label. But there’s no denying his talent: With The Chronic, Dre managed to produce one of the more innovative albums—rap or otherwise—in recent memory. Now the head of his own company, Death Row Records, Dre isn’t hesitant to praise Snoop Doggy Dogg’s contribution to the rap genre.

“Snoop is gonna be around a long time,” Dre says, his thick hands palming each other, searching for words. “He’s always coming up with different concepts and he’s good in the studio. He can go on and ad lib a fuckin’ song if he wants to. And it would be funky.” Dre pauses again, then flashes an uncharacteristic smile. “Matter of fact, we did that on ‘Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang.’ We put a little freestyle thing on there—I don’t think they knew I was recording.”

Meanwhile, the studio overflows with young black men milling about, some eating Fatburgers, some staring into space, others whispering loosely constructed rhymes to no one in particular. Snoop walks around the tiny studio like a wound-up scarecrow with a pink notepad tucked beneath his armpit. Snoop’s hair is braided, his long, dark body a mannequin for a Death Row leather jacket, a black WeedWear T-shirt, very baggy gray pants, and old-school low-top canvas Converse sneakers. As accessories, a gold stub sparkles from Snoop’s left ear and a gold chronic leaf pendant rests firmly on his chest. Like most homies in the L.A. area, Snoop is overdressed, but he’s such a cool brother you would never know it’s 85 degrees outside. Snoop is so laid back one gets the impression that he’ll never write the lyrics for this latest Dre track. Between puffs on a blunt, he jots words down on the notepad, then turns around to me.

“You want some smoke?”

“No, I’m ay-ight,” I say, because I don’t smoke marijuana, and besides, the chronic is so potent I already have a contact. Oblivious, Snoop blows more smoke in my direction. Someone flips on the studio television set and coincidentally BET’s Rap City is playing “Deep Cover” and “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” back to back. I look at Snoop: the smoking and writing have ceased. His eyes are glued to the screen.

“That’s like classic shit,” Snoop says matter-of-factly. “The beginning of the whole episode, how we put this shit together. Just watching our work from the beginning to where it’s at now is to see a drastic improvement.” That “drastic improvement” understates the relationship between Snoop and Dre. They have become friends who clearly respect each other’s talents. Snoop eagerly sums it all up: “Whatever it takes to keep it as a family thang,” he says. “We don’t want it to be just business—we want it to be family and business, so whenever shit gets salty, niggas can break away with no problems.”

SNOOP DOGGY DOGG was born nearly 22 years ago in Long Beach, California, the second of his mother’s three sons (his older brother is 24 and his younger brother is 14). Southeast of Los Angeles, Long Beach is a bustling, multicultural port city known for its beautiful split-level homes. However, much like South Central L.A., Long Beach’s black community is bunched into the East Side, where poverty, drug trafficking, and gang activity is just part of the day.

Snoop’s family—like most black families on the West Coast—migrated to California from the Deep South after World War II in search of work and better economic opportunities. Snoop’s parents were never married, and none of the three boys share the same father. Nicknamed “Snoop” when he was a youngster—perhaps because his long face, thin lips, and wide ears resemble those of a cartoon canine—he refuses to tell me his real name.

“That’s my real name,” he says, amused at the secret he is keeping from the public. “That’s the key to my life, Snoop Dogg. I snoop. I don’t like nobody snoopin’ on me, I snoop on them, youknowhumsayin’?”

And I do know what Snoop is saying. Ghetto life creates its own terms for survival, its own names, its own heroes. Nicknames like “Mook” and “Pop” and “Smoky” populate every inner city in America, each moniker attached to a body that is repelling the constraints, both real and imagined, placed on that world. In Snoop’s case, yeah, he may have grown up a lil’ ghetto boy—fatherless, poor, more a student of the streets than of school—but at the very least his name debunks the myth that you know him. You may know his type but you don’t know him.

His childhood was rough, he says, though early on Snoop had a passion for sports and his mother took him and his older brother to church every Sunday, where he sang in the choir. Instinctively, Snoop leans into my tape recorder: "I want to thank my momma for putting me in the church.”

But neither the church nor sports were enough to keep Snoop out of trouble. His older brother, the most tangible male presence in his life, was his role model. And his brother’s inclination toward street life influenced Snoop. “I would want to smoke weed and just kick it in the mix, but he’d be like, ‘No, nigga, I don’t want you hangin’ with me.’” Unwilling to take no for an answer, Snoop formed his own clique and hit the streets.

Raised on the East Side of Long Beach until he was 15, Snoop moved with his family to North Long Beach and began in earnest his career as a hustler. When he noticed several of his homies from the East Side selling drugs in his new neighborhood, Snoop figured his chances of making real money were worth the next step he took. “I started selling every kind of narcotic you could think of,” he says. “It wasn’t no shit I was trying to hide. I mean, the preacher knew I was selling dope—everybody knew. It was getting me paid and I was like, fuck it, a regular job ain’t paying this much and I ain’t got to be dealing with no boss. I’m my own boss on the streets.

Snoop says he was also affiliated with the gang element of street life. “I really don’t even say I was involved with no gang as far as Crips or Bloods,” he states. “I was associated because that’s my surroundings. That’s what I was brought up with and that was just me.”

However, Snoop is critical of the gang violence in Long Beach, a violence so deadly he insists that we cannot conduct any of this interview there, even though this anniversary weekend is allegedly devoted to gang unity. “It’s Crip on Crip out there in my neighborhood,” he says. “I hope they wake up and smell the real flavor and see there ain’t no positiveness in killing each other. I wouldn’t want to chance me and you being out there doing an interview, youknowhumsayin’, and somebody come at me wicked and either I have to let off on them or they have to let off on me.” But there is an up side to gang life. “Niggas will do anything for you: do time for you, take a bullet for you, kill somebody for you. You can find that kind of love on the streets.”

Snoop was arrested for drug peddling only 30 days after his graduation from Long Beach Polytechnic high school. Over the next three years, he would be in and out of county jails on three separate occasions. It was the time behind bars that changed his focus.

"My name is the key to my life," he says. "I don't like nobody snoopin' on me—I snoop on them."

“That was the key to my whole life,” he says, leaning back as if considering where his other options might have led him. “I was always good at rap, but I never really had no study habits because I didn’t think nobody would put no money into me or see my talent—my true talent.” That talent had been there all along. Snoop’s interest in rap dates back to its early days and a song called “Super Rhymes.” He memorized the lyrics and performed them for classmates, even taking credit for the song. As admiration for his rhyming skills grew, he abandoned the plagiarism and created his own songs.

Throughout his hustling days, Snoop maintained his interest in rap, closely monitoring the careers of N.W.A., Eric B. & Rakim, and his all-time favorite rapper, Slick Rick. The parallels between Rick and Snoop are particularly clear: both have unusual voices and rhyme styles that have helped to redirect hip hop, both tell stories—serious and comical—about the urban milieu, and both are young black men who have been incarcerated.

Once he was out of jail, Snoop produced several underground tapes in hopes of getting a record deal. One was passed onto Dr. Dre by Snoop’s homie Warren G, also a resident of Long Beach and Dr. Dre’s brother. Snoop and Dre connected in early 1990, and Snoop was invited to sit through the recording of N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin album. Broke and unemployed but determined to make it as a rapper, Snoop suffered tremendously during this period—borrowing money, being fed by friends, sleeping on whatever couch was available. “Shit, I was doing bad, man. That’s what you call paying dues, you know? But that’s the shit I had to go through after I gave up selling dope. I told myself I had to be right in life and when you say that, you’ve got to give up everything that’s negative.”

While he was living with an aunt on the East Side, Snoop signed a 90-day record deal, but it wasn’t the kind of rap he was interested in doing. “I didn’t want to be no R&B rapper and no motherfuckin’ crossover rapper," he says. “I don’t want to be wearing no flat-tops and all that other R&B-ass shit. That ain’t me. I want my shit to be 100% gangsta shit.”

Snoop’s patience paid off. With the disintegration of N.W.A. following the dispute between Dre and Eazy-E, the door was opened for the haunting “Deep Cover,” which introduced a nation of rap fans to Snoop Doggy Dogg. Like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” “Deep Cover” attacked crooked police, but not too many people picked up on the song’s slippery lyrics. “Murder of an undercover cop,” Snoop says, his face crinkled into a mischievous smile as he explains the meaning of the police code number that served as the song’s hook. “We was hollerin’ that shit all on TV, ‘1-8-7 on a undercover cop.’ If they would have went in-depth on that song, there would have been some shit out of that. But it’s the way we put it down.”

Snoop’s performance on The Chronic, especially on "Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” “Dre Day,” and “Lil’ Ghetto Boy,” only solidified his status as hip-hop-vocalist-meets-gun-toting-renegade in the tradition of rebel artists as diverse as John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. “‘G’ Thang” has to be the hardest top-five hit in pop-music history, its unfettered melodies and cocksure lyrics doing for black boys what Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did for the long-haired grunge crowd: providing a naughty anthem for a subgroup with a constantly changing self-definition. For Snoop’s audience, that definition suddenly included the word “gangsta.”

By Snoop’s reasoning, “a gangsta runs his own thang. He’s got his own mentality, he’s his own gang, he don’t listen to nobody but himself. And he programs himself around being intelligent and staying above the rest of the competition out there.”

“Would you describe yourself as a gangsta?” I ask. He smiles wickedly. “Oh, I’d like to say I’m a smooth macadamian."

SNOOP and Daz are sitting in a corner of the studio, bobbing their heads in unison to Dre’s track. A dwarf in comparison to the lanky Snoop, Daz nevertheless has Snoop’s respect and freely offers revisions to the lyrics Snoop is mouthing. Because of the unprecedented success of The Chronic and the tremendous potential of Doggy Style, concern has been raised about Snoop’s lyrics, particularly his frequent use of the word “bitch.” Not anticipating getting called on this issue, he answers weakly: “I don’t call a woman a bitch until I feel that she’s a bitch,” and justifies his use of the word as “studio work.”

I think back to his comments about his mother, particularly the gratitude he feels toward her for all the support she’s given him. The question begs itself: Are all black women “bitches” except our mothers? Later Snoop would, like a child feeling cornered, feebly respond, “It’s just a word, you know, that you grew up with. It’s some shit that’s hard to shake.”

Given the paucity of role models and leaders in the black community, it is now a foregone conclusion that rappers are the voice of youth and, as such have the potential to mold opinion. Snoop, like too few black boys before him, has managed to survive and represents something real, something doable to ghetto youth trapped in inner cities across America. The challenge for someone of Snoop’s stature is in understanding who he himself is and how his past binds him to his core listeners; to use his lyrics not merely to tell stories but to offer other possibilities, other definitions. It won’t be enough for Snoop to say he has “skills like a motherfucker” if those skills prompt more young men to kill each other or to disrespect and abuse women.

Rap, in Snoop’s opinion, shows “that a lot of kids are trying to do something positive. Young niggas was killing each other and they was getting a lot media hype. Now you’re getting a lot media hype because there’s a lot of black teens that are doing rap. So, which sounds better to you?”

Actually, it might sound better if rap were truly the great liberator it claims to be. Individual freedom (in the way of money in the pocket, groupies, etc.) does not equal community uplift. But perhaps that’s going too far ahead of the game. Brothers like Snoop just want to get paid, be able to move their mothers out of the ghetto, and have a nice car and a nice home. Snoop says that given the chance to live his life differently, he might’ve even gone to junior college, unaware that that option in and of itself shows the limitations of a black boy’s dreams, if there are any dreams to be had at all.

Snoop knows the kind of stories he wants to tell. Real stories, violent stories, misogynistic stories, stories that have no beginning, no middle, no end...they just are.

THERE'S a song on Snoop’s debut album called “Who Am I?” —a smoothed-out track with a chorus of female vocals passionately harmonizing his name. Snoop sits in a corner rocking back and forth, still mouthing lyrics for another song with Daz as the crowded studio bops to the groove. “Motherfuckers be trippin’ off me, but I be trippin’ off of them,” Snoop says, whimsically, of his growing legion of admirers. It surprises him, all the hoopla, and Snoop claims he didn’t know about the buzz until interviewers told him it was so. Perhaps he really is that focused, that unconcerned about fame and women. Perhaps his life and hip hop music are one and the same, on-edge, provocative, challenging, yet still limited by their particular worldviews.

Much of Snoop’s life has been a reaction to external forces: the instability of his family, the poverty and crime and gang life in his neighborhood, his years spent on the streets hustling drugs to survive. Hip hop has afforded him a path out—not only a way to make money, as he puts it, but also the means to define himself, for once. Snoop is adamant about asserting his independence at last. “I demand my respect,” he says. “Every move I make is for me and I’m a man, so can’t no man tell me how to make my moves in life.”

Some apparently think otherwise. In recent months, numerous rumors of Snoop’s death either by murder or drug overdose have filtered through the streets. Some people have gone so far as to call Snoop’s grandmother and announce his death to her.

Still obviously uncomfortable with his new celebrity status, Snoop grudgingly admits these rumors are probably fueled by simple jealousy. “I don’t want to think like that, but I have to, ‘cuz it’s like that sometimes,” he says, his facial expression blank, unfazed by the thought of dying young.

Frankly, the imminence of death is in Snoop’s head every day. One can imagine him scanning local newscasts filled with reports of homies dead from street violence. “Yeah,” he mumbles in another direction, “it’s on my mind heavily ‘cuz I lost a lot of homeboys at an early age….” And he doesn’t complete the thought because he is tired of reacting. Snoop really wants to believe he can finally make his own moves without others dictating his steps.

“I ain’t dead,” he says defiantly, his long body again bent toward the tape recorder as if the machine were broadcasting his words straight to the streets. “I’m still breathing. Stop trying to mark me dead before it’s my time.”

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Daniel Hastings

Wu-Tang Clan's Sept 1997 Cover Story: RIGHT AND EXACT

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Sept. 1997 issue of VIBE Magazine.

Written By: Mimi Valdés Photographs By: Daniel Hastings

At an organic-food store next to his Razor Sharp headquarters in Manhattan, RZA picks up some hand soap, natural shampoo & conditioner, and a five-pound jar of something called Batherapy that promises to “change ordinary tub water into a refreshing, beneficial spa-like bath.” He hops into a white Range Rover, readying for a one-and-a-half-hour drive to his home, affectionately named the Wu Mansion, although no one but he and his brother Divine actually lives there. It’s situated in a remote area of central New Jersey on five lush acres of land, complete with cornfields and roads with rustic names like Deer Trail. The rest of Wu-Tang use the home as a clubhouse, sleeping over whenever they have to get work done in the tiny basement studio.

“Keeping it real four years ago and today is different,” says RZA, the abbot and architect of Wu-Tang Clan, the most powerful force in hip hop today. “I’m not inspired by all that other shit from before — boosting Polo and Hilfiger all day. My life is different now.”

Indeed, since his debut as Prince Rakeem in 1991, with a bevy of seductresses cooing in “We Love You Rakeem,” his first video, you could say things have changed in RZA’s life. Six years later, he’s a major player on both entrepreneurial and artistic levels in the music biz, touted not just as a sonic visionary but also as one of the industry's best negotiators. RZA studied the game and rewrote the rules. Now, instead of being pimped, he’s the Mack, having set up deals with almost every label — a feat not accomplished since the mighty George Clinton did it in his heyday.

Under his shrewd, painstaking auspices, the nine grimy nuhs of Wu-Tang Clan have created an unprecedented business pyramid, built on a unique, impregnable foundation. All of the Wu’s individual projects — specifically deals for Method Man (Def Jam), Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Elektra), Raekwon (Loud/RCA), GZA (Geffen), and Ghostfae Killah (Razor Sharp/Epic) — are 50 percent partnerships with Wu-Tang Productions. The Wu-Tang Clan familia, separately and collectively, have sold more than four-and-a-half million records, and debut albums from Inspectah Deck, U-God, CappaDonna, and Shaolin chanteuse Tekeitha are in the chamber, awaiting release. Furthermore, each Wu member with a solo deal contributes 20 percent of his earnings to Wu-Tang Productions. This way, everyone profits. It’s pure, communal capitalism at its finest.                                                                   

What kind of power Wu got? Sales power. In the June 1997 issue of Icon magazine, RZA broke down their earnings like so: “Let’s say Raekwon has a fourteen-percent deal, he gets fourteen points. A point is usually worth about seven cents. Estimate seven cents, multiply by fourteen if he’s getting fourteen points, and that’s ninety-eight cents. Maybe one dollar to $1.03.” That translates to about a dollar per record. “So, say Raekwon sells eight hundred thousand records, that’s eight hundred thousand dollars.” And that percentage varies between Clan solo members and the group as a whole. “Like, Meth might have a fifteen-point deal. Wu-Tang Clan might have a seventeen-point deal. And it escalates. If you go gold, you get another point. You go platinum, you get another point. I got a deal right now with Gee Street. My shit is eighteen points. That’s A-artist status.”

“RZA is a master of planning. He bases all his decisions on the long term, never short term,” says Def Jam’s Russell Simmons, another self-made mogul. “His decisions represent a development for a real audience. He takes risks. It shows the foundation audience you are serious about them, reminds them that they’re the ones who count, who you make the music for. Creatively, he’s the most important figure in hip hop because he reaffirms what the culture is all about.”

RZA’s juice card is completely full — and he’s not running out of credit anytime soon. In fact, since Wu-Tang Forever, the booming sophomore double album from the gods known as the Wu-Tang Clan, exceeded all expectations after its June release on Loud Records (selling more than 600,000 copies in its first week out), it’s safe to say that the Wu World Order has been firmly established.

Wu-Tang Forever is exactly what Wu-Tang devotees, both Stateside and worldwide, expected and craved: rugged, symphonic, compelling hip hop. Two hours of beautiful noise for a populace so hungry for real music sustenance, it would eat CD covers. “Wu-Revolution” sets it off, a rambling rant that serves as an appetizer for the feast that follows on “Reunited.” “For Heavens Sake” is pure, unadulterated WU, complete with dramatic violin solos, sped-up sonic snippets, and, naturally, rhymes that don’t quit.

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RZA’s pensive tracks take the Wu to other frontiers stylistically: Check “Bells of War,” with its warm organ melody and easy thump, or the seductive guitar pluckings of “Black Shampoo,” for proof positive. “Impossible” soars with its plaintive piano and Ghostface’s haunting eyewitness account of the cold-blooded shooting of a friend: “He pointed to the charm on his neck/ With his last bit of energy left/ Told me ‘Rock it with respect.’” Tekeitha’s raw, uneven declarations (“You will never defeat the gods...impossible!”) will have you believing like untainted scripture. And speaking of scripture, Forever’s packed with Wu’s trademark coded verses extolling Five Percent Nation idioms. They beckon you to “have your third eye open.” And you certainly should: You don’t want to miss a thing.

 

As the Rover pulls into the driveway, I can see Ghostface doing dishes through the kitchen window. He’s just finished cooking up a turkey-sausage and pasta dinner, which several Wu members and friends gobbled up with a quickness. The house itself doesn’t have much furniture, but it does boast an elaborate chess set and table with two chairs, and a strange-looking palm tree.

Inside, there’s a game room with two plush chairs, a small couch and a high-tech projection television with no screen that casts a huge, flawless image of Sony Playstation visuals onto the wall. Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa are playing VR Golf ‘97. “Fuck Tiger Woods,” says Meth jokingly as he sinks a putt.

Clubhouse mode is always in effect around here. Time spent at the Wu Mansion is all about work and relaxation, which is increasingly hard to find these days. Needless to say, this spacious home represents a far different scenario from their project days at Staten Island’s Park Hill and Stapleton.

“I feel like dealing with the business slowed me down more,” Meth says, lounging luxuriantly on the sofa. “But there ain’t nothing better than waking up in the motning and knowing you ain’t doing anything illegal, that cops have no reason to fuck with you, and your rent is paid.”

But handling fame can sometimes be just as daunting. “The hardest thing is no privacy. When you’re used to being somebody that could just blend in, making that adjustment is not easy,” continues Meth, who’s known to don a mask and gloves — as he did for our cover — to shield himself from the public’s ever-probing eye. “I’d rather just rhyme and make loot without anyone knowing me. I don’t really mind the autographs, but I could do without feeling like I’m on display every time I go somewhere.” With a dead-serious mug, he says he’s gonna disappear in five years, like Michael Paré’s brooding Eddie in Eddie and the Cruisers.

“But then there are those situations when you’re just a regular nigga again. Like every time we get on them airplanes,” Meth says. “Even if we sitting in first class, they still treat us like shit. The lady just kept walking by my dirty tray, like, seven times, but took everyone else’s.” It’s during these times that an autograph request from a fan actually comes in handy.

“Going on the road is the best part,” says U-God, looking away from the game’s incessant twinkle. He came home from Bear Hill Penitentiary just in time to rhyme on two cuts of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Clan’s million-plus-selling debut.

During two years on lockdown, U-God was shuttled between four different prisons in New York’s state system. “Things, things, things,” he says when asked what put him there. “No murder. No rape. No child molestation or anything weird like that.”

Adjusting to the whirlwind of acclaim and activity was difficult at first, he claims, but now he looks forward to it. “From being a one-spot-all-your-life motherfucker to smoking the world’s greatest shit in Amsterdam and having them roll out the red carpet in Japan is an awakening experience.” At the mention of Japan, Meth starts rattling off some useful phrases in Japanese. “You hear that?” continues U-God. “He can do that because he traveled. Hearing that nigga talk Japanese, that makes me happy.”

“This Wu thing came out of nowhere. It was a vision, but I don’t know if all of us saw it going this far,” says Inspectah Deck, who is arguably the one MC in the Clan who people sleep on the most. Bet on that to change when his solo debut gets released on Loud next year. “In the beginning I was just rhyming. I didn’t know nothing about the business. I was just laying low in the cut trying to learn — royalties, points, everything.

“Nine sets of eyes and nine brains make a big difference in this motherfucker,” Deck adds. “I’m in heaven right now. Why would I ever leave this shit?”

Ah yes, that magic number — nine. In the beginning of the Wu-Tang saga, much ado was made about the group’s size — how they’d never make any money with so many members, or how they were bound to break up once success infiltrated the Wu cipher. But as they’ve shown,they had it all figured out from the get-go. “We made history sticking together,” says Deck. “They talking about how we gonna split the money, not thinking we gonna it in the pot and just build together.”

Just like any successful conglomerate, the Wu-Tang Clan constantly strive to elevate their overall organization in every division: product development, production, performance. “We like NFL niggas,” explains Deck. “We look at the video tapes of our shows to find out what went wrong. We always study how we look, what we could do better, whether it’s less talking between songs, changing the song order — anything to take this further we with it.”

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One thing’s for sure, I offer: Those Wu shows got way too many gods onstage. Heads nod in agreement. “It got to the point where you didn’t know who was performing,” says Meth. Are they maintaining that tradition this time around when they tour in September with Rage Against the Machine, though? “Oh no, no, no,” Meth says, laughing. “We had millions of meetings about that shit, even right there before the show, like, ‘Niggas, do not get on the stage. We ain’t playin’ that shit tonight.’ But then a few would make their way, and the whole ruckus would start.” Adds U-God: “Doing that kind of messed us up a little bit with the promoters.”

Masta Killa, the latest official Wu member, knows a little something about ruckus. He invited some in late 1993 when he punched a writer whose favorable article in RapPages was accompanied by illustrations the Clan weren’t thrilled with. “I had to sit back and learn from individuals who had knowledge in the game,” says the new lyric swordsman. “I’m just happy to have a chance to shine in the light they gave me.”

The hours have passed quickly, already it’s nearly 4 a.m. Bodies stretch, the Playstation gets turned off, and Deck turns the TV channel to a late-night martial-arts flick. The others simply look around for pillows and blankets to scoop up, seeking spots on the floor to sleep on since the bedrooms upstairs are already taken. In the morning, boxed toothbrushes and little tubes of toothpaste are dug out for distribution among the overnighters.

 

About two weeks later, Genius, a.k.a. The GZA, walks into my house accompanied by a friend, and they’re both amazed at the size of my cat, Loochie. After I assure the pair that Loo won’t bite, GZA sits down at the dining room table to discuss his Clan kin and the upcoming record, which, at this point, the group hadn’t begun recording. Even he, the man deemed as spiritual leader of the group, can’t explain the Wu’s significance in simple terms.

“Our songs, the slang — everything is mathematically put together like a puzzle,” GZA says. “There’s a significant science behind everything.”

And it’s this “significant science” that may explain their sometimes-contradictory stances. Like when RZA complains about R&B in hip hop then has girls singing (or something like singing) his hooks, or when he says hip hop ain’t about fashion, even as new Wu Wear retail shops are opening. And what about their prounity, unified-black man talk, followed up by the blackened eye of a black male journalist? Whatever. Maybe it’s some typical do-as-I-say-not-as-I do business. Maybe it’s some god science we aren’t supposed to understand until the new millennium. Guess as long as the tracks are banging and passionate, the skillful rhymes are there, no one cares if mere mortals can’t comprehend their logic.

“We didn’t know anything at first, but you learn more and more,” GZA offers, stopping occasionally to make sure Loochie isn’t lurking nearby. “We learned from trials and tribulations. We’re still dealing with the same things, but we’re making more moves. Everything else is still the same.”

Genius is also the Wu warrior who has delved into the visual side of their music joyride. The 10 videos he’s directed include his own for “Liquid Swords,” Case’s “I Gotcha,” and DJ Muggs’ “Third World.” “Videos are transporting energy,” he says. “You can say something, and you’ll hear it, but then you’re drawing your own picture.” He makes it sound so easy. “It starts with a treatment, a vision, and then getting production to pull it off.”

The recipe for this universally influential music ain’t that complex either, according to GZA. “It’s not organized with a structure. RZA will have a beat, and each individual decides whether they feel it or not,” says GZA. “We work best under pressure. That’s how we get the music done. But it’s not pressure from the label. It comes from each other, telling the next man to come through to get on a track.”

“We keep it tight, though,” Genius guarantees. “The nine represent one.”

 

Why is it impossible to get nine mofos in one spot at one time for one damn picture? It takes us nearly an hour, deep into the wee morning hours, to assemble the group on their own front lawn — and, mind you, everyone was present at the Wu Mansion, with the exception of Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Ghostface Killah seems to be the only one, besides the photographer and me, who sees a problem with this helter-skelter photo-shoot scenario. “We try to keep each other on point, like, ‘Why you late for this shit, man?’ We was starving,” he explains, in part to justify his brethren’s nonchalance, “and when you start paying bills with no problem, it makes a nigga get lazy fast.”

Can’t say that for Ghost, though, whose tag-team lyric assaults with his Wonder Twin, Chef Raekwon, make for Wu-Tang Clan’s most compelling verbal vistas. “The one thing about this whole thing is that it’s a chance to be somebody,” says Ghost with brutal candor. “To be recognized for something I do? That shit is peace right there.”

As spiritual brothers and creative partners, Wu-Tang may operate with one mind, with one goal — but nine dudes moving in nine different directions is just that. Chaotic, maddening, and endlessly frustrating — for the label, the press, and, at times, for each other — when trying to complete an album as heavily anticipated as Wu-Tang Forever. To escape distractions, the Clan had to break for L.A. to ban it out in marathon studio sessions.

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“The hardest thing is all this moving around,” Raekwon says thoughtfully. “We have so many deals, the Wu album is a family reunion. It’s like not seeing your brother like you used to when you were hungry.” Like anything else, the master plan does take its toll.

Ask Rae and he’ll tell you that the Clan are comprised of “slang doctors,” practitioners of street poetry who “take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride through chambers that touch parts of your mentality and make you think in certain ways. It’s the way of the gods.” And they do move in unearthly, mysterious ways. Rae and Ghost, for instance, come with that do-or-die, Mafioso steelo, laced with humor, mysticism, and mind-blowing detail.

“No one can compare to Wu. Ain’t another team gonna come around like this for about another twenty years,” says Ghost, his handsome face wrinkled in seriousness. “We doing things like sending our people to college , looking for the loyal motherfuckers to go learn that trade and come home to work with the family. See, it’s all about advancing.”

 

Easily the wildest, most unpredictable member of the Wu family, Ol’ Dirty Bastard — or Osirus, his most recent manifestation — is all about drama. Even the announcement of his name change during last September’s “Day of Atonement” in the wake of Tupac Shakur’s death came in an unexpected fashion: via a lean somber ODB, his head shaven and his face awash with earnestness. Far cry from the bloodshot-eyed frantic fool who fell on his butt in his “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” clip.

After pursuing him for at least a month, I finally hook up with ODB outside Elektra’s Midtown Manhattan offices. He’d just finished a meeting with CEO Sylvia Rhone, so we sit on some stone benches that are usually filled with lunching businesspeople. The night is cold and breezy. Dirty laughs each time a gust sweeps by, willfully defying the elements with wicked glee.

The perennial question that surfaces in any conversation about Ol’ Dirty Bastard is whether the out-of-control MC is still in Wu-Tang, since he always seems to be missing from major Wu events. “I can never be out of Wu-Tang,” he says. “We blood. I would’ve never been anything if it wasn't for Wu-Tang. I just be going off on my shit. Dirty just be missing in action, but it’s all good. I just don’t like doing the publicity stuff too much. All that extra shit is difficult for me. I’m the wrong motherfucker to be asking questions, because I don’t give a fuck about all that shit.”

As we know, life is sometimes problematic for Dirty. He did a stint last year on Rikers Island for violating probation on a charge of beating up a club bouncer. And, of course, episodes of his snatching whole stages from Doug E. Fresh and the Roots are legendary. “I don’t like to see wack-ass niggas doin’ a show. If they not doin’it right, I’m gonna show ‘em how it’s done,” he says matter-of-factly. “I apologize for being like that, but that’s me. IT’s something I’m trying to control.” He blames his erratic behavior on alcohol. “I got Indian in me, and you can’t give an Indian alcohol. Once Dirty get that shit in his system — that firewater — he get crazy.”

Dirty’s newfound concern for making life better can also explain his name change to Osirus, an Egyptian deity. “Chinese, white, black, blue, the alien kids in the sky, they all belong to me,” he says, attributing the change to his desire to reflect a more positive attitude toward children. “I go to the schools in my area to talk, and when the kids call me Ol’ Dirty, it makes me feel bad. I always tell them righteous things, but the mothers be looking at me funny ‘cause of my name.” True to form he’s even decided to divide his next solo album between the raunchy ODB and the wise, humble Osirus.

“I slack up a little bit, but you know what?” Dirty queries with a diabolical grin. “Now it’s time to terrorize the world. If it wasn’t for me, the world wouldn’t be as fun.”

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