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Trying to Get His Bite Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s late on a blistering Thursday afternoon in Sherman Oaks, but rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg sits in the cool of a darkened recording studio, his melancholy brown eyes pointed downward. He’s not sad or angry--just pensive.

As one of the most visceral lyricists in hip-hop, Snoop specializes in imaginative, agile ways of communicating a variety of feelings--from rage to sexual braggadocio to hopes for a better tomorrow. But now, he says, it’s hard to find the words to express his feeling of having spent more than two years contemplating the possibility of spending considerable time behind bars.

Snoop, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, was accused of being an accessory in the 1993 shooting death of a young man in a Palms area park and subsequently charged with murder and manslaughter. He and bodyguard McKinley Lee, who said the shooting was in self-defense, were acquitted of the first- and second-degree murder charges by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury Feb. 20, and the separate voluntary manslaughter complaint was dropped after the jury deadlocked. The family of the victim, Philip Woldemariam, has named Broadus, among others, in a wrongful-death suit that goes before a Santa Monica Superior Court judge Aug. 20. The amount of the claim will be decided by the jury. Unlike the criminal case, in a civil suit only a preponderance of evidence is necessary to convict.

“The civil case will be a whole different arena,” says Anaheim-based attorney Daniel O’ Sullivan, who, with Edi M.O. Faal, represents the Woldemariam family. “The family is dedicated to pursuing justice and vindicating the wrongful death of their son.”

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Snoop says he believes, despite the pain and stress involved on his side as well, that there have been some positive impacts from the case. “The trial helped me develop as a man,” Snoop says softly. “It taught me to respect life and understand that I now have a [2-year-old] son who needs me to provide direction.

“Am I gonna do the things that will lead me right back to the courtroom, or am I gonna do the things that will make me a bigger artist and a better person? I’ve been down the other route. I didn’t like that much at all.”

While admitting that the trial has curbed the more rabid aspects of his personality, Snoop acknowledges that there’s still plenty of canine in him.

His next album, “The Doggfather,” which is expected to be released in November, offers more social commentary and overtly anti-violence statements than his debut album, 1993’s “Doggystyle,” which has sold nearly 5 million copies. But the new album will also contain some of the misogynistic and graphic themes that made him part of the controversial world of gangsta rap.

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“I can’t say I done changed with that matter. . . . I’m an artist first, not a gangster who raps,” Snoop says, raising his voice as he defends his music. “The gangster [expletive] is just in me. You can take me out of the ‘hood, but you can’t take the ‘hood out of me. Aspects of that are going to come out. . . .

“It’s unfair that they accuse me of glorifying violence in my music. . . . Jackie Chan has been killing people for 20 years in his movies, and everybody laughs and claps about it. The minute Snoop [writes about] some violence, there’s suddenly a problem--like I invented everything that’s happening out here.”

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Surprisingly, given Snoop’s retiring nature, he even wants to head a campaign to combat the sometimes ugly rivalry between East Coast and West Coast rappers.

He and Death Row Records (which has recently changed its name to New and Untouchable Death Row Records) are even going to launch a promotional campaign for the new album proclaiming Snoop a candidate for president--president of rap.

“People look at me like I can make things happen and move things in the right manner,” he says without a glimmer of humor. “I feel that I can bring this East versus West Coast rivalry to a halt. We need to get some unity among these rappers and get organized so we can reap the benefits of this culture, because rap is our future. Let’s control this music and make money, cause that’s how this thing needs to be built.”

Ever since Snoop Doggy Dogg emerged from the streets of East Long Beach and entered the rap world in the early ‘90s, the elusive artist has been the center of much celebration and controversy.

The product of a single-parent home, Snoop remembers that his father’s absence made it a lot tougher for his mother to help him resist the temptations of street life.

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“Somebody that helped you do your homework in the sixth or seventh grade might now be in a rival gang trying to kill you because you’re from another street,” he says, regretfully, as he retraces his steps. “It was rough coming up around my way.”

A scant few months after he graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, he was sentenced to six months in jail for selling crack. The time behind bars and the encouragement of other inmates helped him decide that he needed to make a change.

“Inmates used to wake me up in the morning, just to hear the freestyle rap I’d write from their stories,” he recalls. “One of the older cats was always telling me, ‘Man, everybody in here like’s what you’re doing. Get your ass out and do the right thing--make music.’ ”

Soon after his release, Snoop and his best friend, Warren Griffin III (rapper-producer Warren G), submitted a demo tape of their group 213 to Griffin’s older half-brother, then-N.W.A. producer Andre Young (Dr. Dre). Dre was so impressed, he asked Snoop if he wanted to make records with him. They went into the studio and recorded a title-track rap duet for the “Deep Cover” soundtrack, which launched Death Row Records. The reaction was so strong that Dre used Snoop again prominently on his 1992 solo album, “The Chronic"--a work that changed the face of gangsta rap by embodying the music with enough melody to attract the ear of mainstream radio programmers.

The collaborations made Dre and Marion “Suge” Knight’s new label, Death Row--distributed by Interscope Records--the most successful rap label in history. “Let Me Ride,” a single from the album, won a Grammy for best rap solo performance.

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Snoop, a shy presence who had trouble paying his rent, suddenly found himself on the cover of Rolling Stone and appearing on major TV music award shows. But the success didn’t come without controversy.

On Aug, 25, 1993, 20-year-old Philip Woldemariam--according to testimony, a member of a neighborhood gang--got into an argument with one of Snoop’s friends, Shawn Abrams, outside Snoop’s apartment building in Palms. The confrontation led to Snoop, Abrams and bodyguard Lee encountering Woldemariam in a local park. Woldemariam approached their Jeep, pulling a gun from the waistband of his sweatpants, according to testimony. Shots were fired and Lee responded in self-defense, he maintained, shooting Woldemariam twice.

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A few months later, Snoop’s debut album entered the national pop charts at No. 1, selling 803,000 copies--the third-highest first-week sales of any album since SoundScan began monitoring record sales in 1991.

Although his appearances on the earlier Dre album made the Snoop collection a highly anticipated work in rap, industry observers and critics suggested that the sales were boosted by the notoriety of the shooting. There was even a song on the album, coincidentally, titled “Murder Was the Case.”

“I don’t care what people said. . . . The trial hurt me,” Snoop says, offended by the assertion that he profited from the tragedy. “I had to deal with the pressure of someone’s death and being held responsible for it. That’s nothing to brag about. I have a son, and I know if he came up missing like that, how hurt I would be.”

Down the hall in the Sherman Oaks studio complex, Snoop’s homeboys--a loose collective of Long Beach pals--are lounging in a foyer, trying to out-slug one another with a video baseball game.

Snoop wanders out at one point to join the camaraderie, but he doesn’t linger. He’s soon back in the recording room, listening to the grooves--trying to make sure the record will live up to the enormous expectations--and, some say, skepticism--surrounding it.

The reason for some questioning Snoop’s ability to come back with another blockbuster is that he’s having to make the record without Dr. Dre, the producer who some say was the vital creative force behind the success of Death Row Records. Earlier this year, Dre sold his interest in Death Row to Knight and has started his own label with Interscope Records.

“To be honest, I was nervous when I heard [about Dre’s departure],” Snoop says, “but then I talked to Suge and he expressed to me that he thought I was a hell of an artist and that people loved me for me. . . . People are gonna love me whether or not I’m with Dre. I have to do what I have to do.”

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Saying that he has no hard feelings toward Dre, Snoop has assembled an album that doesn’t stray too far from the hit sound of the debut--bass-heavy beats engineered to pump car stereos, as well as smooth melodies for the dance floor. The album is being produced by Snoop, Daz (a member of Tha Dogg Pound), DJ Pooh (who’s worked with Ice Cube and LL Cool J) and others.

Among the tracks are “Head Doctor,” a funky ode to sex backed by a loop from Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend"; “Too Black,” a biting commentary about African American leaders being silenced for being too outspoken; and “You Doin’ Too Much,” a playful tune about the drawbacks of fame. The overall feel of these tracks is smooth and slow-flowing, much like Snoop’s conversational rapping technique.

“This album is more me,” he says, proudly. “On most of the cuts on this album, I’m speaking out against shooting. Most songs, like ‘Up Jump the Boogie,’ speak against people who make other people shoot guns because they’re too cowardly to settle their own scores.”

The album also comes with an image change, with Snoop trading in the khaki pants, jeans and sneakers for suits by Polo, Hugo Boss and Versace. At first, it was an urging from both Snoop’s lawyer and his father during the trial, for a more mature look, but now it’s something the rapper does all the time.

“I noticed that when I started wearing suits that people began to look at me differently,” he says. “I didn’t even have to speak and people would look past the songs on my albums.”

Snoop has moved into a 5,000-square-foot home in the hills of Claremont, where he lives with the mother of his son and their kennel of 20 pit bulls. He’s also formed his own record label, Doggystyle Records, a subsidiary of Death Row Records, and signed the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson as one of his first artists.

That’s a long way from the small, one-story tract house in East Long Beach. But Snoop sees himself as the same person he always was.

“The money and cars are nice, but they don’t move me,” he says. “It’s always been the music. Just having the freedom to do my thing, being able to barbecue some chicken wings and chill with my baby and my baby’s mama, is the best thing in the world.’


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