(This article originally appeared in the October 1993 issue of SPIN.)
The recording of one of the most anticipated albums in hip-hop history was inching along leisurely. Hours of time were booked at Enterprise Recording in Burbank. But nobody seemed to care that the meter was running. In Greek, "leisure" means "to learn," and if that's the case, everybody working on Doggstyle, Snoop Doggy Dogg's solo debut, is gonna be a genius by the end of the month. Dr. Dre, mastermind producer behind million-selling albums for N.W.A, the D.O.C., Michel'le, and himself, sat under a lawn umbrella in the parking lot, chowing down on a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Yo, Orville!" he shouted, smiling affectionately (I hoped). "Orville," as in Orville Redenbacher, the dorky popcorn czar, was my nickname for the week, either because I wear glasses, or because my head is shaped like a piece of popcorn, I still don't know which.
And Snoop? Well, he reappeared a second ago, peered around the lot, and ducked into a gold Lexus, where he blasted the A/C to stave off the arid, scorching heat. He's shooting the breeze with Lil Half Dead, a stoic childhood confidant from the east side of Long Beach, a short drive south of Compton. I tap on the window and ask if I should come back later. "Naw, man," Snoop says softly, as if he'd really been wanting to speak with me, but had just gotten sidetracked for a day and a half. "Have a seat." Half Dead obligingly piles out of the car. And for the next hour and a half, I'm totally engrossed. Unfailingly patient, passionate, and astute, Snoop talked as if there was nothing he'd rather be doing (like recording "one of the most anticipated albums in..."), his voice a more deliberate version of the aggressively laid-back "manic in black, Mr. Snoop Eastwood," heard on Dre's double platinum album The Chronic.
And that voice: playfully impudent, edging toward existential natty dread, but always pulling chains, disarming your expectations. His most exhilarating lyrical tag — "Bow wow wow yippee-yo yippee-yay / Doggy Dogg's in the motherfuckin' hee-ooouse!" — is, of course, memorable for how he says it (Dre: "If he's rappin' about bakin' a motherfuckin' cake, and it's workin', then I’ll change my name to Dolly Madison, know what I'm sayin'?"). And then, there's the Snoop drawl, the deepest ever in hip-hop, sticking the deferred-dream migration of black families from South to West (and now, quite often, back South) right up in your face. He insinuates a complexity that's, at times, maddening.
Recently, a writer pitched a piece on Snoop to a mainstream consumer mag by saying, enthusiastically: "He’s cool — he looks like a homeless guy." I guess that rootless, gangsta mythology shit is always an easy sell (As Dre knows well). But the day we talked, Snoop wore a fashionably baggy, plaid sweater-shirt, nylon sweat pants, pricey black leather boots, and matching gold earring and pinky ring of happy-sad theater maks. Though his hair was plaited haphazardly, he carried himself more carefully than anyone else at the studio, like an artist, daresay. Lanky at six feet four, he fleshed out the casual charisma implied when he flickered by, a figure lurking in the background of videos for "Deep Cover," "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," and "Dre Day."
"I wanted to be a mystery," he explains. "Like, 'Why doesn't he look at the camera?' Then when I finally do, it'll be, 'All right, he's rockin' now.' It won't be Dr. Dre, and you don't see my name on the TV. It'll be my name, my TV, then I'll give you all of me."
But what exactly is all of Snoop? Why is this savvy, artistic kid looked upon as possibly the purest product of gangsta rap culture — and, as a result, the latest poster child for the "real" experience of the young, black male in "AmeriKKKa," to quote the last such icon, Ice Cube, another Dre protégé? Is it because he felt he had to choose gang life to survive? Is it because he fell prey to gang life, despite having other options? Is it because he intentionally immersed himself in the gang scenario so he could become a real hip-hop spokesman for his homies on the street?
Like Ice Cube, Snoop exploits the language and imagery of gangsta rap, no matter how hurtful or irresponsible, to communicate with black kids. He sincerely yearns to be a benefactor of his neighborhood. But like most pop stars, he's not sure how.
The time it took for Donny Hathaway to ask that question, and for Dr. Dre to sample it, is the story of Snoop Doggy Dogg's life. Born Cordavar Varnado in 1972m unleashed on the public as Dre's alter ego in 1992, he took the caution seriously as a kid, but fell into the "ghetto" trap anyway — running with a Crips gang in Long Beach, and going to jail three times for selling drugs. Now, even though he looks back on his "hustlin'" days as if they were a given initiation — "It's there, every day you wake up to it; either you run away from it, or you run to it" — he's an adult challenging kids not to make the same mistakes. The irony's not lost on him. But is asking the same questions good enough anymore?
"Shit, it's hard man," says Snoop, shaking his head, as if he's been trying to figure an answer for all of his 21 years. "The song ["Lil' Ghetto Boy"] goes deeper than that, if you let it. I'll put it like this: I've lived the life those kids are livin' — shootin' people up, gang-bangin', slangin' dope, I already did all that shit, and the outcome is either death or jail. I went to jail, but you might not be blessed to get that chance so peep my shit and learn from me. That's the positive side of being a 'gangsta' in life. That's taking control of your life."
Although his parents never married, and his dad never lived at home, Snoop (short for "Snoopy," because he "had a lot of hair on his head as a baby and looked like a little dog," according to his dad) profited from a supportive extended family, including a host of aunts, cousins, and friends. A talented child, he played piano and was active in his local church, Golgotha Trinity Baptist, where he taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, and acted in plays. He was also a skilled basketball player who received recruiting letters from top college programs (North Carolina, UNLV, Syracuse).
"Snoop was always extraordinary," says his dad, Vernell Varnado, 44, a postal carrier in Detroit who had a short-lived gospel career in the early '80s with his four brothers (the Varnado Bros. Recorded two 45s on a small label in their native Mississippi). "I thought he was a genius. Even when he was like six or seven, if music came on, he'd jump up and dance and perform all the hand movements." Of Snoop's hoop abilities, Vernell juices up the paternal hyperbole: "He's outta hand with all that old shit. I was all right, but it wasn't to where I wanted to stop rapping. I wasn't going to be the bomb in basketball."
Vernell, not a hip-hop fan, thinks "Lil' Ghetto Boy" is his son's finest song. And it is Snoop at his best, chatting up the kids like a big brother. It's also where Snoop feels he earns his trash-talk and gangsta pose — the baiting of "bitches" and "punk-ass niggas," the dyke jokes. Waking up in a jail cell, arrested for murder, Snoop raps, his voice gulping air, "Dear God, I wonder can you save me?" The moral is blunt: "Since I did the crime, I gots to do my time." His time. Nobody else's. Almost like it was destined.
Of his time in jail, Snoop says, "I learned a lot, but then again, that's not the place to be learnin' it. It wasn't no substitute for college."
Adds his father: "I never went to jail, but I went to Vietnam, drafted when I was 18, so I knew a lot of what he went through. I definitely think it made him grow up and be a stronger person."
Vernell and Snoop talk frequently, and in fact, dad will make a cameo on DoggyStyle. "I just wanna conversate with him on the album, because a lot of young, black teenagers don't know their fathers," says Snoop. Unlike Treach of Naughty by Nature, he's no "never my dad, motherfuck the fag" ghetto bastard. Yet tensions remain, and the two often have different memories of events. For instance, Snoop talks plainly of growing up in "the ghetto," while Vernell describes the neighborhood as a decent lower-middle-class area plagued by crack in the early '80s.
The most revealing disagreement is over how much time father and son actually spend together. "I picked Snoop up sometimes on the weekends," says Vernell. "It was only about 15 miles from where I lived in L.A. So it was nothing for me to jump in the car, you know. We went to the park, all the usual father-son stuff." Snoop: "When he lived in the area [Vernell moved back to Mississippi in '83, then to Detroit in '85], I didn't even see him once a month. I'd see him like six or seven times a year. Me and my father are real cool. It wasn't like he ran out on us. But basically my mama raised me. My mam did raise me."
When I asked if, like many sons, he blamed his mom for his dad not being around, Snoop bristled. "Why? My mama raised me up good as a motherfucker. Just because he wasn’t there, that wasn't her motherfuckin' problem. She did what she had to do. She had three kids [an older son, Jerry, and a younger son, Bling, both by different fathers], tryin' to work a job, tryin' to bring home the bacon and feed her kids, and keep the finer things in the house — furniture, cable, this, that. What's a house without cable?" I laugh, but Snoop adds, seriously, "Really, though. And we loved her for it. We didn't have much, but what we had we appreciated."
Snoop's mom, Beverly Tate, 40, grew up in McComb, Mississippi, the same hometown as Vernell, where they were childhood friends. Married and divorced twice, Beverley worked an assortment of jobs over the years, was active in the church, and protective of Snoop. When, as a young teenager, he started looking out for local drug dealers, and eventually selling drugs, their relationship strained. When he became openly involved with the Crips, it disintegrated.
"I mean, there are things your mother can tell you that your father should tell you," says Snoop. "We used to misinterpret each other. Then when she found out what I was doing, that made her even more angry, and we grew apart, until I became a man and decided to talk to my mama with respect."
At 16, Snoop moved out of the house, living with friends and relatives — his aunt Mary, his cousin Diandra, and later on, the D.O.C. And Dre, whose brother Warren G. Was Snoop's buddy and DJ. He graduated from Long Beach Poly High with above-average grades ("My mission was to be the greatest rapper of all time, and you can't be that without an education"). But he was arrested two months after commencement.
"I'll tell it to you like this. I grew up gettin' $10 on Christmas, and my homies are gettin' Colecovision and proper clothes and my mama's strugglin' to buy us some Toughskins. I could get it, but I could only get a little of it. The position I put myself in, as somebody cool, it wouldn't have been right for me to be all half-dressed. People say, 'Yeah, that nigga's always baggin' on somebody, but his clothes are fucked up."
"Nobody was forcin' me, but it's hard as fuck out there. There was no money, man, nigga had to sell dope to get paid. In nice neighborhoods, there's always summer jobs for kids, but in the ghetto it ain't like that and it ain't right. We're not promised no jobs or no college degrees. We get paid the best way we can, and if y'all feel it's wrong, that's the way y'all feel. The way y'all gettin' paid might seem wrong to us, so motherfuckin' what? Y'all ain't stoppin'."
A swirly, horror-flick organ pattern loops again and again, five and a half minutes at a time, like a Phantom of the Opera cutup. And in the middle of the huge studio, bobbing heads in unison, are three hunched-over bodies huddling like touch-football players drawing up pass patterns in the dirt. Snoop is scribbling on notebook paper, weaving his hands through the air like a funky conductor, staring into the wide-open eyes of his cousin and roommate, Daz, who suggests inflections and mouths back phrases. Between them, a remarkably hard-rock little kid (whom I find out later is Malik from Illegal, the Atlanta tiny-tot gangsta group), crouches and kibitzes. Soon, when Snoop's convinced that Daz is convinced, he enthuses: "Write that shit down. Write it." Daz, wearing a "Blind Crippled & Crazy" T-shirt, gold pot leaf on a necklace, Bermuda shorts saggin' around his thighs, and old-man bedroom slippers with tube socks, kicks back and laughs.
But when Dre, the all-business grump-by-necessity, pushes through the door, the laughter stops. "Let's do this shit," he barks, and Snoop, bemused, moves to the recording booth, grabs the headphones, puffs on a joint offered by Malik, and snaps: "Turn off those motherfuckin' lights." He disappears into darkness. Dre punches up the Phantom cut-up, and Snoop raps, almost delicately: "As I look up at the sky / My mind starts trippin' / A tear drops my eye / Pumpin' on my chest and I'm screamin' / How long will I live. . .Will I be the 'G' that I was?" The lights are up, and we can see Snoop, hands stuffed in pants' pockets, giving a wink to Dre. "I see demons. . .I can't die now / My Boo-Boo 'bout to have my baby." For the first time since I've been hanging out, nobody's cracking wise.
After a brief break, Dre flips on an Isley Brothers sample and Snoop, back in the control room, reflexively starts freestyling: "What it means to be black / What it means to be this / What it means to be that / What does it take to make a hit? / What is a hit?” He stops abruptly, steps back and says, in a faux-dignified voice: "Splendid, splendid, voilà, violà."
Meanwhile, Daz is in the booth, trying to conjure up the voice of Lucifer. Dre clicks on a harmonizer, making the words sound appropriately "evil."
Daz: [Slurred and distorted] Bring your life-style to me and I'll make it better.
Snoop: But how long will I live?
Daz: [Even more slurred] Eternal life and forever.
Snoop: But will I be the "G" I once was?
Daz: Remember who changed you miiind....
A jumpy studio hanger-on puffs a joint and exclaims: "That sounds like The Omen and shit. These niggas is out! They across the street!"
Daz, way too stoned, is bumbling through the rest of his lines, and Snoop starts giggling: "Is that the devil or the flu, nigga!" Dre: "Sounds like you took a shit, nigga!" Finally, everyone breaks into laughter. Dre rolls his eyes. Daz: "Lemme see that lighter, cuz." Dre: "Make that laugh more devious, nigga." Daz: "What, you expect me to laugh my way through life?" Snoop: "Nigga, you been fired!" Daz (growling through the harmonizer): "He's got a bubble on his ear and I rebuke him!"
After the session, Daz is splayed out on the sofa in the hospitality room, chewing on a piece of celery, watching Hard Copy, and pulling out another joint. He and Snoop share "The Dogg Pound," a modest, earth-toned, '60s-style, not-quite-beach apartment in Culver City, a neighborhood near Venice peopled by Cuban and black families and twentysomethings. It's an apartment like the ones in Dragnet, where you always expect Sgt. Joe Friday to drive up and give the tenants a just-say-no lecture. The sort of place where Snoop's gold Lexus looks slightly conspicuous, but probably not as conspicuous as it would on the east side of Long Beach.
Daz animates Snoop’s flaky, wild-ass side. "We grew up together, but we travel in different realms, so basically, we just can't be fucked with," he says, blowing pot smoke in my face and grinning.
"You smoke chronic?" he asks, offering. "We're all just family tight. Everybody is trusted. If one makes a judgment, we've gotta follow it, if he's right or wrong. That's what we call close."
The Hughes brothers' film, Menace II Society, espouses a point of view shared by most gangsta rappers — that not only is life a bitch, it's a bitch that will two-time your sorry ass no matter which devil you pay off. "Shit, why me again?" is the mantra. Anger is simply another obligation. Sadness or regret, forget it. The "moral" is that morality won't help you survive; in fact, it may set you up. So far Snoop has bought into this ethos. But the wacked out nihilism represented by "O-Dog," Menace's remorseless antihero, makes him squirm. Snoop respects the past and the uniquely African-American burden to pull up your own.
"I get respect out there, but my streets are still tore up, my brothers are still killing each other," says Snoop, back in the Lexus, pumpin' the A/C. "I'm smilin' about the success I'm havin', but there's still killin' going on out there, and I'm not happy."
In fact, Snoop declined to drive though the east side with me, citing recent gang violence. But his "people" still live there, and he's in the area virtually every day.
"I don't go back to my neighborhood for self-respect or to be flossin'. I go back because there's something that won't let me stop going. . . I wish all my real homies would quit actin' like they ain't with it. . . All they gotta do is step to the Dogg Pound and get with this real thing. There's plenty of room for everybody to get paid." Snoop's hero as a young rapper was Ricky "Slick Rick" Walters, the gifted, yarn-spinning eccentric. His influence is obvious when Snoop slips into a feminine voice, gets silly on the mike, or fiddles around with language — dropping "iz" into the middle of words, an old carny-talk trick used by jazzmen as a scat device and by pop singers as an attention-getter (see Frankie Smith's 1980 novelty hit, "Double Dutch Bus"). But Rick also felt the inevitable responsibility to the community.
"He gave illustrations of life," says Snoop, his voice quiet and precise. "He even gave a message to the real little kids ['Hey Young World'], and they loved him for it. You could feel the characters in the story, he played all the roles, you could feel the whole story, he played all the roles, you could feel the whole story." Snoop presses PLAY on the car's CD player and out booms the intro to Rick's "Children's Story," from 1988's The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. "See, I got him right here, I never keep him away from me. That's all his voices right there... that's acting, that's visual, you can see it."
Of course, Slick Rick is now serving a three-and-a-half-to-ten-year sentence in an upstate New York prison for shooting at his cousin. It's a thin line to tread, from the offbeat storyteller to the gangsta-ghetto activist. Which role is more real? It could induce schizophrenia in the most well-adjusted.
On his new album, Snoop confronts the dilemma with a song called, simply, "Who Am I?"
"It makes you answer that question," he says. "I'm asking, over and over, 'What’s my motherfuckin' name?' and they're gonna tell me who I am. Watch, you'll see. I'm gonna see how I've rubbed off on 'em. What they think of me."
This bold attempt to spark a remark from the audience, to get the issue of identity out in the street, shoots to the heart of hip-hop's power. It's a music that begs the question every single day: "Who am I?" It's there, in the rhymes, in the trucks rattling with resituated funk, in the memory of hip-hop forefather Muhammad Ali pummeling Floyd Patterson until the older boxer acknowledged the younger man's Muslim name.
And Snoop's still asking, waiting for an answer, waiting for his audience to acknowledge him. Waiting, ultimately, for them to help him feel real.