Snoop Doggy Dogg's new album, Tha Doggfather, was meant to herald a new phase for gangsta rap's biggest star, but not under such sad circumstances. The murder of Tupac Shakur, a peer, a friend, and the only other artist close to Snoop's stature at the leading rap music label, Death Row Records, had to be devastating for him. Then soon after Shakur's death the president of Death Row, Suge Knight, was imprisoned for allegedly violating his probation for an assault conviction. The loss of his chief partners seems to leave Snoop Doggy Dogg with the weight of Death Row's future on his shoulders. In addition, the gangsta rap backlash of late has put him on the defensive as the best-known spokesman for the genre.
What exactly is at stake with the release of Snoop's new album? Nothing less than the belief that his work over the last four years has meant something, and that the future of the music matters as well.
Snoop Dogg's own story has contributed a great deal to the public attacks on gangsta rap. His first album debuted in the shadow of an indictment for his involvement in a gang-related killing. Even though he was acquitted, the media spectacle surrounding the event no doubt confirmed the public's worst suspicions about the artists making gangsta rap.
Well-publicized attacks by the likes of former Reagan administration official William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker, leader of the National Political Congress of Black Women were enough to prompt media giant Time Warner to drop Death Row's parent label, Interscope. And by the time of Shakur's death, even Death Row cofounder Dr. Dre had backed away from gangsta rap. He formed his own label, Aftermath, released the gangsta-dismissing single "Been There Done That," and produced a showcase CD of various artists that clearly signaled a break with the genre.
But for Snoop, turning his back on gangsta would be betrayal. To abandon gangsta rap would be to abandon those who are fighting to make it in a world where they are seen as suspects by police and as prey by everyone else. In the insightful 1995 documentary The Show, Snoop explains his connection to the form: "I'm gang-related. I can't avoid it. I got homies that gang bang. I got uncles that bang.... Even if I don't gang bang, my mama live in a gang-related neighborhood. So when I go through that 'hood, I'm gonna say, 'What's happenin' cuz?!' And I'm treated as a gang member. So I'm gang-related."
Snoop knows what it takes to speak to his community, and in doing so he has coincidentally found himself speaking to much of America during a time when joblessness and powerlessness have spread from the inner city to the corporate mainstream, where many thousands of people now grapple with uncertainty about the future. Gangsta rap repeatedly tops the music charts because it speaks to them, to their hopes for survival -- if not within the system, then as outlaws skirting its flanks. In his short but brilliant career, Snoop has sought to forge a sense of commonality out of the embattled isolation such an environment creates.
You could hear that isolation in the first single he made with Dr. Dre, after the renowned member and producer of the original gangsta crew, N.W.A., pulled him out of the Long Beach crew 213. This single, the title cut from the soundtrack for Deep Cover, captured the horror of that film's tale of an undercover cop who discovers that his employers are just another gang -- and worse than all the rest.
"Deep Cover," whose success partially financed the founding of Death Row Records, sported a new sound. Dr. Dre's production had always featured seductive, bass-driven grooves, but a counterpoint of high, distinct, keyboard whistles and chimes added a sense of 3:00 a.m. solitude to the mix. From Dr. Dre's solo debut, The Chronic, to Snoop's own debut, Doggystyle, the grooves grew more supple (borrowing liberally from two decades of George Clinton and taking on the name G-funk), and the lonesome keyboard lines grew more melodic. But the foundation remained the same. Snoop's graceful raps gave that sound an almost whimsical voice, and made it at once dangerous and poignant.
Perhaps better than any of his contemporaries in any genre, Dre fashioned a music for our times: From a world that promises only darkness emerged the soul, shining, undefeated. To understand that triumph is to understand what makes gangsta rap so contentious. Though it constantly talks of war, at the heart of the music is the love of comrades in arms.
Even the history of gangsta rap's most successful label is a tale of compassionate struggle. Death Row's first release, The Chronic, took gangsta rap to the widest audience ever, denouncing police brutality and calling for peace among gangs. Snoop Dogg himself has long been associated with various efforts to end gang violence. Even the ugliest stains on Death Row's reputation -- Suge Knight's strong-arm tactics to free Dre from Ruthless Records and his alleged extortion of money to found his company -- are seen by the label's artists as necessary evils in an evil industry. And despite gangsta rap's references to violence, its lyrics also seek alternatives to injustice. Explains Snoop: "We tryin' to figure out how can we change [violence] by expressing it."
The singles that made Snoop Doggy Dogg and gangsta rap household terms confirm his assertion. The hit single "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" is a celebration of the unity of Blood-dominated Compton and Crip-dominated Long Beach. On the label's second hit, "Dre Day," Snoop showed that unity to be a force greater than that of any individual. His astonishing verbal performance on his first solo single, "What's My Name," is essentially an affirmation of "Dre Day." Snoop's release this past Christmas of a cover of James Brown's "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto" was less an exercise in irony and more a logical extension of his music's continuing calls for peace and justice.
Tha Doggfather maintains that vision, and the deceptively simple cut "2001" pinpoints it with this line: "All I wanna do is make the whole crowd bounce, y'all." It is a metaphor for Snoop's loyalty to Death Row's history, his labelmates, the West Coast rap aesthetic, and gangsta rap itself.
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On another cut, "Doggyland," Snoop talks about a world where "niggas don't kill one another ... because a brother is a brother." His is a world without HIV, a place where women generally and mothers in particular are "righteous," where neglect has been replaced with compassion, and where family values replace sexist intolerance.
Recent talk of Snoop producing records for Beck and for Fort Lauderdale's gothic horror show Marilyn Manson is interesting on at least two levels. First, Long Beach's most outspoken patriot seems to be reaching out to the alternative -- largely white -- hip-hop audience that follows Beck, while at the same time embracing the alternative rockers and metalheads drawn to Manson. Even more provocative is the suggestion of a similarity between these artists. All exude the air of working-class loners who, through music, have found a path to community. Together their audiences represent a net wide enough to pull in all of the socially disenfranchised.
That is definitely Snoop's goal. Despite the misogyny, the homophobia, and the violence woven into the fabric of gangsta, he seeks to portray the world accurately. The picture may be ugly, but it is within those ugly pictures that most of us live our lives, too often terribly alone and helpless. Snoop's music is about a sense of power and unity, and a world where no one need feel threatened any more. That's why Snoop Doggy Dogg won't turn his back on G-funk, at least not until there's a better way to make the whole crowd bounce.
Snoop Doggy Dogg performs Sunday, February 2, at the Theater, 3339 N Federal Hwy, Fort Lauderdale, 954-565-1117. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $26.