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