Salute the Doggfather: Snoop Dogg at 50
By Stereo Williams
It's easy to see why we're endlessly fascinated with the icon known as Snoop Dogg. For almost 30 years, he's been a fixture in our culture. Hip-Hop culture, popular culture, American culture--Snoop has been etched into our collective consciousness ever since he was that lanky kid rapping with Dr. Dre about undercover cops. His evolution over the next three decades has been endlessly intriguing, and now at 50, Snoop has a legacy that is both uniquely his and universally ours. He's the living embodiment of everyone that Hip-Hop is, everywhere that Hip-Hop can go and all that Hip-Hop can be.
Those lines on 1992s "Deep Cover," (theme song for the gritty crime drama of the same name), announced Calvin Broadus to the rap world. Initially, the world at large saw young Snoop as everything it had been taught to fear. It may seem strange now, with Snoop's laid-back cool more infamous than his early menace, but America was terrified of the man then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg.
A year after "Deep Cover," and following a scene-stealing turn on Dr. Dre's opus The Chronic, Snoop was the biggest star in Hip-Hop. He was a new kind of crossover rap star; he didn't make the safe, "clean" music that most "crossover" stars had been known for up to that point. Snoop was on that gangsta shit, but he was armed with the radio-friendly production of Dr. Dre, Daz and Death Row Records. On the strength of Snoop's appeal and infamy, Death Row would take gangsta rap to the most mainstream platforms; and Snoop smashed through any preconceived notion of what a rapper-turned-pop-icon had to look or sound like. After Snoop, you didn't have to wear genie pants to land Top 40 airplay or land major endorsements.
In those early days, Snoop's street authenticity was a major part of his mystique. Here was a man who was facing a murder charge just as his debut album was dropping; who was branded all that was wrong with rap music and popular music at large; and it all just fueled his rise. His masterful debut Doggy Style was the first time an artist's first album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Albums Chart, and by 1994, Snoop was a fixture on MTV, had been featured on the covers of Newsweek and Rolling Stone, and was starring in a short film based on his song and EP project, the pointedly-titled Murder Was The Case.
He was a talking point for moral watchdogs from day one. Critics trashed Snoop's lyrics for advocating misogyny, gang violence and homophobia. Names like Calvin Butts and C. Deloris Tucker became regulars on the nightly news, often sitting on panels and in front of hearings, explaining why rappers like this Snoop Doggy Dogg were the antithesis of progress for Black people; the embodiment of how thoroughly America had failed its inner cities; and evidence that rap music was a menace.
But Snoop's undeniable charisma and star power were the tools that turned the notoriety of his younger years into a cultural ubiquitous enjoyed by none other in Hip-Hop. By the dawn of the 2000s, Snoop Dogg was everywhere.
As Death Row had crumbled under the weight of founder Suge Knight's legal troubles, the murder of Tupac Shakur and the defection of Dr. Dre, Snoop was able to sustain his stardom. His 1996 sophomore album Tha Doggfather disappointed critically, but it didn't slow Snoop done. If anything, the album's chilly reception proved that Snoop could withstand a misstep--something that hasn't always been a given for even some of rap's most successful names. But Snoop also proved that he could change.
It's undervalued how much Snoop's 1998 signing with Master P's New Orleans-based No Limit Records helped solidify and endorse the Dirty South movement to the industry at large. Arguably the most famous rapper in the game was landing on a label that was viewed as a regional upstart just a year prior; it affirmed Master P as a mogul, No Limit as a powerhouse and proved that Snoop's star-power was bigger than Death Row. On the heels of Tha Doggfather's disappointing showing and with whispers that Snoop couldn't deliver majorly without the house that Suge built, the rapper delivered one of the strongest album runs of his career.
After Y2K, he was all-world. Snoop was starring in major movies like Bones, The Wash, Training Day and Starsky & Hutch, while also hosting TV shows like MTV's psychedelic Doggy Fizzle Televizzle. Even by the early '00s, his run of hits had become impressively formidable: from early Death Row classics like "Gin & Juice" and "What's My Name?" to No Limit-era bangers like "Woof" and "Bitch Please" and his first pairings with superproducer Pharrell on hits like "From Da Chuuuuuuch To Da Palace" and "Beautiful." There aren't a lot of artists in any genre of popular music who can boast that they have more than ten years of hits; Snoop has close to three decades.
Snoop eased into elder statesman status smoothly. Save for maybe Busta Rhymes, there hasn't been another rapper who so effortlessly fits into whatever context you place him. Booking Snoop for a rock festival? It makes sense. What about a hipster arts show? It makes sense. What about the grimiest hood venue? He makes sense there, too. He fits when he's surrounded by rappers half his age; he fits when he's deferring to the rap elders that made him like Slick Rick and Ice-T. He can sit with virtually anyone and still be Snoop. It's remarkable what he's been able to become.
Snoop is what "getting this rap shit right" looks like. From that young guy that seemed to completely embody and redefine "cool," the gangsta rap bad boy America was so afraid of; to the laid-back uncle who spouts SoCal wisdom between blunt hits and bombass verses. He's still Snoop. His discography is just one aspect of what makes Uncle Snoop all that he is. He embodies where Hip-Hop has been, where it is now, and how, when it's done right, it can transform a young creative's life. In the case of Snoop Dogg, it isn't only significant how much he's evolved. What's most interesting is how much he forced the rest of us to evolve with him.