“Last Man Standing”
After Dr. Dre’s departure and Tupac’s murder, the Death Row empire is in need of rebuilding. It’s time for the Doggfather to step up. —Ronin Ro (December 1996-January 1997)
“When my son was brought into this world, and I realized me and his mama made him, that was beautiful. I was, like, Damn! Bringing life in is beautiful. Now how about saving some lives insteada taking lives? People say, “Snoop Dogg is a bad influence.” “Snoop Dogg takes lives.” Lemmeturn that shit around. Now I’m fittin’a save some lives. Now, what y’all gonna say?”
There’s a siege mentality inside Can-Am Studios The Tarzana, Calif. Sound lab once frequented by the Death Row family – ‘Pac, Dre, Snoop, and the rest of the gang. Now, Dr. Dre is busy setting up his own label, and Tupac Shakur is fighting for his life at the University of Las Vegas Medical Center. He and Death Row CEO Suge Knight were caught in a drive-by shooting five days earlier which has left the label’s artists, employees, and bodyguards introspective and edgy.
Nate Dogg, however, is trying to finish his contribution to the forthcoming album A Death Row Christmas. The potbellied vocalist wears a short-sleeve black dress shirt, beige pants, and a gold chain. His cousin Butch, a gospel singer, is in the recording booth fumbling with Nate’s poignant lyric: “Blessed are those who receive/ All of their Xmas dreams/ I can’t complain / And I’m hoping that’s the way it remains.”
George Pryce, Death Row’s dapper, bald, fifty something publicist, pulls out a long, thin Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultral Light. He lights it, and bobs his head. A 30-year publicity veteran, he’s been working overtime from Knight, managing the crisis day by day. He’s supposed to hook up an in-depth interview with the label’s last remaining star, Snoop Doggy Dogg, but under the circumstances, that’s looking less and less likely.
The studio television catches Pryce’s eye, and he leaps to his feet. “There’s Suge! They’re running an update on ‘Pac. I gotta go see what’s going on.” Minutes later, he returns, visibly depressed. “Seems Old Boy is getting worse.”
“Nothing cool about that,” Nate grimly replies. Putting his song aside for the moment, he agrees to discuss the Crip-infested county he and Snoop came up in and still big up on their albums. “Long Beach is fast,” Nate says. “Every day you hear something bad, somebody gets hurt. It’s like, ‘Man, it ain’t like I just wanna go get you, but you killed my homie.’ What am I supposed to do?! There are certain rules: If you know somebody did something, you don’t just say, ‘Ay, po-leece, I know who did it!’ it’s more like, ‘Okay, I’ll take care of it.’ “
Nate says he could sing before he could talk, and music – together with his mother’s strong guidance – was his only refuge from running the streets. After he left the church shout, Nate’s singing led him to Snoop and DJ Warren G, who formed the group 213 in 1991. After Dre enlisted Snoop’s chilling vocals on the bicoastal classic “Deep Cover,” Nate says, “but I was a Dre. Dre fan. I was a believer. I believed all in that dream.”
He hopes that his upcoming album, G-Funk Classics Vol. 1, will move an audience that’s become desensitized to random killing. “These days you never know what’s gonna happen. Perfect example – not to bring this, but, uh… Tupac just got shot. It had to be, what, five, 10 guards around him? I been with these same guards before, and I had my little gun and I’m, like, I’m taking it with me. The like, ‘Naw, don’t take it, we got you.’ Makes me wonder: Did Tupac say that that night?
“We’re fucked up,” he continues, his voice rising. “We need help bad. We run around killing motherfuckers, shooting all them people that’s our same color. I think everybody just lost hope. Just, ‘Fuck it. No matter what, we end up dead or in jail so I’ma just act the fucking fool.’ Only comment at this time I can say about anything is, Pray for Tupac. That’s about it. The rest of it don’t seem to make no sense right now.”
We were all brothers, and for him to be gone like that … it hurts me a lot. It took a whole lot out of my heart when he left me. ‘Cause he’s my hero. People don’t know how deep, loving, and caring ‘Pac was. He was more than a rapper or an actor, he was a real friend.
On Friday the 13th around 4 p.m., L.A.’s Channel 7 reports that Tupac Shakur has been pronounced dead. George Pryce answers his phone on the first ring. “It’s true,” he says. “He’s gone. I’m trying to talk to Suge, to prepare a statement. I spoke with Snoopy – he’s back from Vegas. I told him we’d come by the studio but I don’t think we’ll do it tonight. I’m very busy now, okay?
A call to Dr. Dre’s new label, Aftermath Entertainment, yields nothing. “You know Dre ain’t trying to get wrapped up in all this,” says a spokesperson. “Nothing personal, but he doesn’t want anyone from Aftermath saying anything about it.”
RBX, however, who left Death Row three years ago and recently signed with Dre, is anxious to discuss the situation. “Suge’s style was suave,” says RBX, who’s known Knight since they both played football for UNLV. “Fat-ass motherfucker, but he could move.” When his cousin Snoop first began working with Dre, RBX used to drive the teenage rapper to the producer’s home. Dre heard RBX free styling one day, and said, ‘You should rhyme too.’ Within a year, he’d appeared on Dre’s triple-platinum landmark, The Chronic. But he and Suge were already bickering over contractual issues.
RBX remembers that he, Snoop, and Tha Dogg Pound had just finished a performance at the New Regal Theater in Chicago when he decided enough was enough: “It was over some bullshit. There were eight people performing that night. We came into the dressing room after the show and saw eight things of chicken,” he shrugs. “I just went and grabbed some chicken, and everybody else followed me and started eating too. Turns out that Suge invited some of his homeboys up there – he ordered the chicken for them. He came up there: ‘Who ea’in’—Aw, you mawfuckers eatin’ my chicken?!” I didn’t wanna be fucked with ‘cause I just ate. I’m like, Man, why you beefin’ over some fuckin’ chicken! That’s what it was. Motherfuclers took that shit and blew it up. That was just one of the straws.”
Another was the label’s decision to fill snoop’s minimovie, Murder Was the Case, with images oft “the devil going in Snoop, possessing him, being his king.” Death Rowers wanted RBX to portray the devil. “I was, like, No. Y’all are entering some shit, you don’t even know what you’re getting into. I want no part of this. And don’t be trying to take my voice and do some shit with it on them computers to put me on there. ‘Cause if you do, I’m coming at you. Straight-up.”
RBX was long gone by the time Tupac signed with Death Row. Still, he knew his friend Dre was having problems with ‘Pac, who’d begun spreading rumors Dre was gay (see “Toss It Up” on Shakur’s posthumous Makaveli release). RBX was preparing an answer before he learned Shakur had been shot. “I felt it was gonna happen,” he reveals sadly. “Rappers can’t keep talking trash. You ain’t really out there gangbanging, so why you gonna promise that shit? You got to grow up. If you’re 30, still talking like you 16, you might be retarded. You might need to get your shit checked.”
RBX says he thought the shooting would, at worst, force ‘Pac to retire. “Then I heard: TUPAC SHAKUR DEAD and was, like, Aw, no. That’s crazy. The little beef I had with him? I squashed it. ‘Cause I ain’t with this shit. When he passed, he stepped over. He’s with the Father, he’s on my team now. I’ll give him a ‘Rest in Peace’ and go about my business.”
I wanna live now, and I wanna see y’all live. That’s what it’s about. A lot of people afraid to say, ‘Hey, I wanna live, and I wanna keep y’all alive.’ You don’t have to be afraid to be about peace, to not wanna get on and squab, not wanna kill. It’s cool to be ‘peace.’ What’s wrong with living and seeing tomorrow?
Dressed entirely in black, George Pryce rises from his seat at Death Row’s Beverly hills offices. Rows of framed portraits by Pryce’s computer say a lot about his role at the label: Suge’s son, the spitting image of his dad, holds a cell phone to his ear. Snoop’s wife sits in profile with their smiling son on her lap. Before the recent drama, Death Row was in the process of expanding, signing MC Hammer, releasing a greatest hits album, opening an East Coast office run by old-school beat master Eric B. But now this…
I can tell Pryce is under stress. Snoop is high in the studio and isn’t returning calls. Phones are ringing. Receptionists say over and over, “We’ll be issuing a statement.” Everyone wants to know when Tupac’s memorial will be held, and where. Pryce is having trouble finding a venue. One place would have been perfect but some numbskull blurted out that he was from Death Row. Pryce sighs and lights a stogie. “I’m trying to book the memorial at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium,” he says. “This police station is right across the way. They have this parking lot where people can mingle – for anyone who’s upset about not getting in. I’m also trying to do it in the morning so we won’t attract people who like to ride,” says Pryce, hoping for a violence-free-affair. Then he adds, only half jokingly: “But Suge loves that shit.” After a couple of days, the memorial gets indefinitely postponed.
That night a Compton-area Crip with music industry ties speaks of the fighting that’s broken out since Tupac was shot in the company of Knight, whose preference for red clothing is well known. “War is an understatement,” he says calmly. “Six [Crips] from over here died, and five [Bloods] over there died. They got me boy the other day, coming out his house in the morning. One day the nigga was here, the next he’s not, all because of that Tupac thing.”
Captain Steve Roller of the Compton PD denies that Tupac’s death has touched off a gang war. “Our intelligence sources haven’t given us any indication that these killings are connected to the murder of Tupac Shakur in Nevada. I’m sorry to say it, but gang members do get killed.” Days later, 23 gang members are arrested in connection with Tupac’s shooting.
Right now, with the loss of my big brother ‘Pac, it’s real difficult. That’s a hard pill to swallow. But I can’t let him down by not doing what I’m s’posed to do – keeping Death Row on top. I know that it’ll make him upset to know my album’s slowed down by me sobbing or crying. The show gotta go on.
Six days after Tupac’s passing, George Pryce – chain smoking and frazzled – finally gets Snoop to commit to uttering a few words on tape. Death Row’s last superstar is under the gun. On top of everything else, the label is pressuring him to finish Tha Doggfather, his follow-up to the 4.8 million-selling Doggystyle album, and he isn’t happy about it.
Snoop’s holed up in the Digital Shack, a small, unassuming studio, where he’s working with DJ Pooh. Every wall is adorned with gold or platinum RIAA platters, mostly for Pooh’s collaborations with Ice Cube. Dressed entirely in blue, Snoop sits on a couch engrossed in a Sony PlayStation football game. Tha Dogg Pound’s Kurupt, session pianist Priest “Soopafly” Brooks, and towering bodyguards surround him.
In Studio A, Snoop sits with his back to us and bobs hi head. “Snoop Bounce,” Pooh’s reworking of an overused Zapp break beat, starts to play. The new song has scratches on it, quotes from early EPMD, and a voice wailing Death Rooow. Snoop listens intently, head bowed. “Snoop Upside Ya Head,” like so many Death Row releases, exploits an old song’s nostalgia value. Snoop seems unsure how to deal with unenthusiastic journalists. On “Up Jump tha Boogie,” he chants an old Sugarhill Gang lyric. The engineer stops the song; the sample is crooked – the kind of mistake that happens when you rush. “Ay, lemme hear ‘Doggfather,’ “Snoop drawls, then leaves the room. More glossy radio pap; a generic Jodeci chant, quotes from Run-D-M-C. “Yo, I ain’t trying to floss,” Snoop says, “but (Murder, Murder, Murder) was the case that they lost.”
The first thing Snoop explains is that Tha Doggfather was created to “please people.” Like Hammer (who in May 1994 said, “Me and Snoop are one and the same”), Snoop wants to become a pop music superstar. For him, being in control is important. He’s proud that he was able to have input on production, mix ideas, and mastering levels. Asked if it is different from Doggystyle, he nods and replies, “I ain’t got no Dre producing. Dre didn’t do one beat. It’s my flavor.” The mention of Snoop’s former label mate inspires lengthy monologues. On hearing that he’s expressed sadness about ending their partnership, Snoop shakes his head.
“I can’t say I miss him, but I can say I appreciate him for leaving,” he says in measured tones. “If he wouldn’t have left, I would’ve been some cutthroat trying to be up under his wing and follow in his direction. Now I have to take the lead and try to be better than him. I ain’t got no beef with Dre or nothing negative to say about him. It’s just all about moving on, being a man, and making music.
“And I’m glad Suge was man enough to just let Dre go,” Snoop adds, “without no big ol’ fight or fuss. That’s the way we came into it, and that’s the way we should leave.” Snoop’s suddenly pensive, like he’s thinking about his own situation, about what would happen if he ever decided to bounce. “If a nigga got differences,” he continues, “a nigga got differences. Let him go his way.”
“I’m not mad that Dre’s gone. I’m happy. Because I’m able to do the type of shit I always wanted to do. I wanna be artist and executioner. That’s why the music is more…it’s so happy. It’s not ‘Fuck everybody, I’m mad, I’m ready to do something.’ It’s some happy, cool shit that a smiling motherfucker can play for his kids.”
Four years ago, Snoop was nobody, I remind him. Might he b suffering from a post-Dre syndrome? Snoop sucks his teeth at the suggestion. “You can believe the hype and say Snoop ain’t gonna be shit without Dre,” he replies coolly, “or you can say Dre ain’t gonna be shit without Snoop. It’s all on you.” Not that he’s collaborating with DJ Pooh, Snoop leaps into revisionist history: To him, Pooh and Dr. Dre were the West Coast’s two production pioneers. “Dre was getting all the props but Pooh’s work is just as good – if not better.”
“I plan on giving them a complete album,” he says, pulling out all the stops. “Meaning a complete stage show live — and pay-per-view – and donning a minimovie with a soundtrack. Sooner or later, movies and cartoons for the kids, like Romper Room, Doggyland. I really wanna have a cartoon like Fat Albert where I can narrate.” He sips from a can of Sprite and turns the tables on me: “Now lemme ask you something,” he says. “Whatchu feel about the songs you heard. I’m falling off? I’m falling off?”
Though he was cleared of murder charges last year, Snoop’s public image didn’t go unscathed. “It fucked me up,” he admits, “ ‘cause a lot of people were scared to meet me and do things with me. I think that’s probably why I never been in the movies. I think a lot of movie people were scared of the reputation, like, ‘We want Snoop in the movie, but fuck that! We don’t wanna deal with him or his people.’ “
Since Death Row paid his legal fees, Snoop has to be a cheerleader for the label. He’s aware of Death Row’s image as strong-arm thugs. But he wants people to know he’s not like that. “Since I was blessed with the opportunity to bear my case, I just thought of doing the right things and surrounding myself with the right people. So my rhymes start becoming more positive, not to always focus on the bad times but hoping that it can get better – but in a cool way. It’s not soft. It’s still G about it, but I got game now, I got education, I wanna live not. I got a little son, and I wanna see him grow up, and I gives a fuck what anybody say.”
But sometimes Snoop gets caught in the contradictions. He’ll cover Slick Rick’s “La-Di-Da-Di” and, on Tha Doggfather, Biz Markie’s “Tha Vapors.” But then he’ll appear on The Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York” – and stomp through Manhattan in the video like some gangsta Godzilla. “That record didn’t dis no individuals, boroughs, peoples, or labels,” he’s quick to say. He just wanted to pay tribute to Flash’s original. He credits the song to Kurupt, who wrote a rhyme inspired by “battling you MCs outside of a Manhattan nightclub.”
“If we was dissin’, we woulda said ‘Fuck New York, fuck your neighborhood, fuck you.’ “ But beef was brewing just the same. When Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound arrived in New York to film a video for the song, shots were fired at their trailer. “If I was gonna disrespect,” Snoop rushes to add, “I wouldn’t’ve even came to New York and risked my life.”
Snoop admits that when he first came to the label, he was “hardheaded” and arrogant. “We were the newest label on the block, and I felt my job on this team was to be the initiator. Kind of like how Tupac was for us before he passed away. That’s how I was – you couldn’t say nothing bad about Death Row around me.”
“Now, I’m still Death Rowed—out, but I’m more into business things,” he says. Still, there’s a certain attitude shared by all the Death Row family: “Whenever Death Row artists come out, everybody else gotta bow down. That’s the standard we set, and it’s up to you to uphold it.”
Despite all the brave talk, Snoop is clearly devastated. Tupac’s death has shaken him to the core. “We were like brothers,” he says. “We lived in the same house and abided by the same rules.” Literally— Knight had them both installed in condominiums in L.A.’s posh Westwood neighborhood, right across the street from one of his own cribs. “Me and ‘Pac had the same values. Bu he went about his this way, and I went about mine that way. But we were all for the same goal, and that’s the betterment of Death Row Records, of us as individuals, and as black leaders of the day.”
“I ask myself all the time,” Snoop says, “I’m like, Damn, why did he have to go? or, why couldn’t he have just got shot and lived through it? But you can’t question God. I mean, I’m hurting so bad and every time I’m confronted with that, it make me wanna cry.” With Tupac dead and Dr. Dre departed, Snoop admits that he’s under pressure. “They took one good soldier from us, and he’ll never be replaced. No matter how many good people we got on Death Row, ain’t nobody gonna ever be able to outdo ‘Pac. One of my homeboys got too off the earth. Now it’s up to me to continue the legacy he put forward.
That will be easier said than done. Snoop’s now the front man for an organization that’s under fire from the press, the feds (who are reportedly investigating Suge’s gang ties), and the streets. Still, he’s confident enough to try something truly radical – the rapper who once said he’d “never hesitate to put a nigga on his back” is trying to come off positive, hoping to be around long after his opponents and imitators sputter out.
“I talked to Suge,” says Snoop. “Let’s clean up this bad image. Let’s make it easy on ourselves. Let’s do the right thing. ‘Cause we all righteous brothers.” He sighs heavily. “We all wanna do the right thing. We don’t like being put in that situation where we have to overreact.”
Chin in chest, Snoop looks trapped; he speaks slowly, voce tinged with regret and self-pit. “Everybody knows a nigga could get crazy and do what he gotta do. But who wants to be living that life where we gotta be looking over our shoulders? We makin’ money. We s’posed to be up here enjoying the shit and giving back to the community, going places and not worrying about shit. That’s what I’m trying to put back in the game.”