The memory of my first Hip Hop music purchase is crystal clear. I asked my Mom for it and she went and got it on cassette the next day, despite its bright black and white “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker only then rising to popularity. To this day I don’t know whether it was greater part ignorance to the incredibly graphic images contained within or the desire to let her son explore the new music genre that was emerging in Gangsta Rap, but one thing is clear: had my Mom not gone out and bought me The Chronic my life would be sincerely different. I’m sure much to the horror of my teacher Mr. Sperry, I brought “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” in on assignment to share our favorite song with my seventh grade music class. How bold for a quiet little white kid, eh? Or did my own ignorance to the adult themes play a role in this ambitious act? Mind you, seventh grade was my first year out of Boston Public schools and into the small, nerdy and largely Caucasian One True School. And there I was, alongside my future JP Lime partner, Space, bobbing to the sounds of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg in front of 25 other 13-year-olds. This is a long-winded way of talking about one of the most instantly recognizable figures in Hip Hop, whose impact is immeasurable not just because of its size but because of its singular uniqueness. His style and identity are no gimmick but they are certainly trend-setting, for with every “izzle dizzle” and new nickname he gives himself (“Nemo Hoes aka Finding Nemo”) the one known as Snoop Dogg is every bit himself, someone universally liked and respected, somewhat stunning given his gang affiliations and role in the East Coast West Coast feud of the 90’s (see the 1995 Source Awards). He is constantly in a process of re-invention and discovery, always in search of a new venue or enterprise to expand the Snoop brand, with varying levels of success but always with a hustler’s ambition that is not to be deterred. This past Monday, October 20th, marked the 43rd birthday of the man we’ve watched grow up with Hip Hop, from “Deep Cover” to Doggfather to Reincarnated as Snoop Lion, so roll ‘em if you got ‘em as we salute our Uncle Snoopy, the one and only Snoop Dogg.
As I said, Snoop’s work with Dr. Dre stands out sharply among the fog of my adolescent memories, one of the first few musical choices I made for myself, the beginning of my own Hip Hop history, and I can’t really pinpoint a source or inspiration other than Jam’n 94.5. I didn’t choose Hip Hop, it chose me and it did so in 1993. I remember photos of Dre and Snoop from the Source decorating my wall, and I can remember being confused by Dre’s White Sox hat but wanting one just the same. I knew every word of every Snoop verse on The Chronic, including all kinds of references and slang I wouldn’t understand for a decade, and I have a picturesque memory of my 13-year-old self playing “Stranded on Death Row” on my Walkman as I entered 7th grade home room. Mind you, I have a moderate degree of difficulty remembering the events of yesterday (we are in October, right?) but somehow Snoop was formative enough to deserve a permanent place in my psyche. Hell, just for the fun of it, you guys want to pause for a second a watch a video? Cool, me too.
Snoop has found a way to traverse an industry in which it’s nearly impossible to maintain longevity, producing 12 studio albums with four different labels, with varying levels of critical acclaim. The Death Row days were grand but burst like a stock bubble with Tupac and Biggie’s deaths and as the label was falling down around Suge Knight’s incarcerated ankles, it is there that we see the evolution of Snoop truly begin. Some of his greatest work takes place before this point, but with 1998’s Da Game is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, his third solo album and his first for Master P’s No Limit Records, we see the emcee growing into a new skin. The Dirty South never seemed like it was to be Snoop’s permanent home and his first NL album is pretty universally panned, mostly with claims that P was unnaturally forcing Snoop into a No Limit shaped box with production almost entirely from Beats by the Pound and with a roster guest appearance on nearly every track. But Tha Dogg himself didn’t see this as an issue:
“Master P signed me, so he had the right to dictate and direct me on the first album, because he was bringing me out as a No Limit soldier,” said Snoop Dogg (born Calvin Broadus), who left Death Row — the Los Angeles label he helped make famous — in March 1998. “To let me have creative control from the beginning wouldn’t have been the smartest thing to do.”
Adapt or die, says Snoop, and by joining the NL Tank he found a viable way to stay afloat. Imagine if Snoop had left off after Tha Doggfather, before he dropped the “Doggy”, before he jumped from the sinking ship – would he have maintained enough relevance through the end of the 90’s to re-emerge for Snoop Phase 3 with Pharrell? It’s hard to say but by the time he got to his second and third NL albums he had re-gained much of his West Coast funk and teamed back up with Dre for tracks like “Bitch Please” and “Just Dippin’” on No Limit, Top Dogg and “Set It Off” on Tha Last Meal. And while the rising Aftermath label may have seemed to some at the time like a natural home for Tha Dogg, that would not come to be, instead using his No Limit success, and perhaps some enterprising advice from Master P, to begin expanding the brand that was Snoop Dogg.
It’s in the intro for “Snoop Dogg (What’s My Name Part 2)” on Tha Last Meal that we hear one of the earliest examples of his now famous use of “-izzle speak”. The addition of –iz syllables to his words had been around since “Tha Shiznit” on The Chronic but some heavy usage through the early 2000’s has made it synonymous with the rapper. The name of his sketch comedy show was Doggy Fizzle Televizzle and by the time we got around to Chingy’s 2003 hit “Holidae In” “izzle” was so closely associated with the rapper that Ludacris references it with the line “Fo Sizzle dizzle, I’m on a track with the big Snoop Dizzle”. So where does Uncle Snoopy’s trend-setting “izzle speak” come from? This NY Times article from 2004 lays out the etymology, crediting (as does Snoop himself) E-40 and the Northern Cali rap scene with the words initial origin. It was a natural adoption that seemed to go along with the pimp image Snoop had constructed for himself and the smooth style to his flow that hadn’t changed since his inception. It’s a somewhat simple flow that never reaches for a rhyme or seeks to over-complicate a verse. “Smooth” is exactly the right word, somewhat under-spoken, rarely fast and laced with the pimp, Crip and weed vernacular that paint his Rap portrait. He’s like the Tom Petty of Hip Hop – he doesn’t change his style much but continues to put out good albums that don’t disappoint his true fans and gives them what they expect.
By the time he signed a deal with Priority Records independent of No Limit for 2002’s Paid Da Cost to Be Da Bo$$, Snoop had established himself as an endurer in Hip Hop. He had also adopted weed as a strong piece of the Snoop Dogg identity. An herb advocate throughout his career (note the weed necklace in the early picture above and the fact that gin ‘n juice goes well with some “indo[or]” while “rolling down the street”), Snoop truly began to embrace his role as a figure and spokesperson for the drug at a time when the conversation around weed was becoming louder and more public and marijuana’s overall use seemed to become more ubiquitous. In recent years he’s found an appropriate cohort for the greenery in Wiz Khalifa, with 2012’s Mac and Devin Go to High School being the culmination and he’s been active in the legalization movement, notably in Colorado and now in Alaska.
Paid da Cost… also began the second-most important producer relationship of his career, joining forces with Pharrell Williams, then part of the Neptunes, for the Grammy-nominated “Beautiful”. This song along with “Drop It Like It’s Hot” from the following year’s R&G (Rhythm and Gangsta), showed that Snoop was still a hit-maker and set up the Geffen/Star Trak deal that would last into Snoop Phase 4. The Brazilian-shot video for “Beautiful” etched it into our memories and showcased a Snoop at the height of his guest appearance game as he showed up on and elevated Chingy’s “Holidae In” and 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P. (remix)” among others. It’s during this phase that the once young kid in braids aged into a Hip Hop icon right in front of our eyes. He had made it through a strongly transitional period and come out the other side. Still a youngin’ on 1996’s Tha Doggfather, seven years later he was one of the genre’s long-lasting stars, a veteran that both his peers and the younger generation of emcees revered.
Nowadays Snoop can be found as the host of his own podcast GGN, with a style (and scent) truly all its own. Starting as more a fake news program, the show now sees him as interview host as only Snoop can do it, hitting each guest with real, thoughtful questions with his signature smoothness amidst a fog of blunt smoke. Some of my recent favorites are his interview with Seth Rogen where the Pineapple Express star shows him how to roll the famous cross joint from the movie and Charlo Greene’s appearance mentioned in my earlier article. And while GGN may be Snoop’s most successful show, it certainly isn’t his first foray in front of the camera. He’s tried his hand at a variety show more than once, with Doggy Fizzle Televizzle in 2002-3 and Dogg After Dark in 2009, both for MTV. His reality series Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood was more successful than either of those, opening up a personal side that the public hadn’t yet seen. Wife and kids rounded out the weed-smoking gangsta’s image and his youth football league, a particular point of pride for the artist and father, was prominently displayed. He most often appears as himself, making cameos on the hit shows Weeds, the L Word, Crank Yankers, and even One Life to Live, while his roles in Half Baked, Training Day, Starsky and Hutch (who else would have been a more natural Huggy Bear?) and of course Bones are unforgettable. He’s appeared in two video games, endorsed lines of blunt wraps, and even got in the ring at 2008’s Wrestlemania XXIV.
There are few Hip Hop heads that can deny Snoop’s place among Rap’s Pantheon and even fewer that can deny being genuine fans. It might be difficult for some to pinpoint when exactly he gained the status of an icon and there aren’t many who would place him in the conversation for Top-5 emcee. Doggystyle and The Chronic aside, one of which is not even his album, his body of work could be described as unremarkable. Respectable yes, but it’s not his numbers that make him great. Snoop Phase 4 begins with his last record for Geffen, Ego Trippin’, and while his four releases in this period haven’t been his best work (although Reincarnated makes for an interesting listen), there is a freedom in being who he is and a knowledge that no individual album will ever sink his career. To me, a lifelong fan, he’s beginning to look old, but you know what? He is getting old and more importantly he seems to be enjoying it, growing into the Uncle Snoop role like it was always supposed to be. One of the greatest things that Snoop reminds us is that music and Hip Hop are entertainment and we can and should be enjoying ourselves, while still being one of the hardest m’fuckers on the block.
A true Guardian of the Game, a reminder that Hip Hop is never dead, a model of continuing to re-define oneself in an industry of homogeneity, a career musician in an industry that has few, and a hero to stoners everywhere because to get anywhere in this world you must first take care of head, Snoop is more than just fun and irreverent, he’s important. And more than twenty years after I first heard him I’m still an ardent fan, both of his music and his example that the only person who can define who you are is you.