Who Let the Dogg In?

It’s a typical Monday in our nation’s squishy center: midnight on NBC. American-flag pin gleaming on his lapel, Jay Leno announces his next guest. “Please welcome Snoop Dogg, ladies and gentlemen!”

And out he strides, in a black Oakland Raiders jacket, white Raiders ball cap, doorag, baggy jeans and Chuck Taylors, a prodigious chunk of platinum hanging round his neck. His unhurried pimp roll suggests the meta-ghetto superstar is briefly wandering away from some equally compelling business backstage. He greets America with a peace sign, gives a hip-hop bear hug to Leno, throws a three-part soul-brother handclasp on fellow guest Dana Carvey and takes his place on the couch, becoming a serenely imposing presence.

His hooded eyes further obscured by a low-riding skewed brim, the 31-year-old rap star smiles a distant, knowing smile and quietly fields softballs from Leno: his favorite food, his movie roles, his high school sports career. When Leno says Snoop seems skinny for football, he answers, “It ain’t a matter of the size of the body; it’s the size of the heart,” earning applause. Snoop discusses his part as a positive role model on the ESPN series “Playmakers” and says that playing street fop Huggy Bear in the new Starsky & Hutchremake was “fun.”

Then Leno pulls out the latest prop for Snoop talk-show visits, Vital Toys’ twelve-inch Snoop Dogg action figure—or, as Snoop calls him, Lil’ Junior—at which point things turn quietly and resolutely to the surreal. After a little clowning (“Y’all made him look real shriveled up! His pants don’t look like that in real life!”), Snoop gets inspired. He takes the doll and repositions him next to Leno’s coffee mug. “Let him just post up right here,” he says, leaving his mini-me in a pimp’s pose of laid-back superiority. “Let him check out all the fine ladies in the house.” The camera zooms in on an arresting image: Lil’ Junior’s face—tiny braids, exquisite goatee, furrowed brow, mandarin mien. It’s perfect: The mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a denim gangsta jumpsuit that is the postmodern Snoop Dogg.

Just a decade ago, Snoop Doggy Dogg invented the bullet-ridden niche currently occupied by It-gangsta 50 Cent. Protégé of Dr. Dre and breakout star of Dre’s The Chronic—the big bang of MTV gangsta rap—Snoop symbolized a new kind of ghetto anti-glamour. Skinny and shifty-eyed, with something of the halfway house about him, he was also the most thrilling new vocal presence in years, with hard-swinging phrasing, an eerie nasal twang and a sure command of the darkest, toughest patois in American life, L.A.-gang talk. He even minted a new standard of rap simulacrum, releasing “Murder Was the Case” with a murder case pending. It was on Doggystyle, which sold 803,000 copies the week it came out and was the first debut album ever to enter Billboard at no. 1. He was 21 years old.

But it’s a diff̸erent Snoop now. As it says on the Web site for his action figure, “Snoop Dogg is the rapper that crosses all borders, transcends all labels and is loved by everyone from the kids on the scene to the grandmas.” If a Wal-Mart slot next to our flight-suited president doesn’t mean you’ve arrived, what does?

Snoop is probably most visible these days as an actor, comedian and gadabout, granting Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and other Caucasian wiseacres walk-ons as a sleepy-eyed comedic accomplice, sending up his image of ’hood rat and adding flava to network TV. He has his own MTV show, Doggy Fizzle Televizzle,which introduced a cuddly sounding bit of street slang to watercooler talk, Letterman’s Top Ten list, and the mouth of Bob Newhart—who, in Legally Blonde 2, says, yes, “Fo shizzle, my nizzle.” He stars in commercials for corporations no less bland and family-friendly than Nokia and America Online. He even teamed up with Kermit the Frog for A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie,at least before that scrooge Bill O’Reilly raised a stink and got him edited out. Off̸ering fans a chance to have Snoop perform at their wedding or Bar Mitzvah, the official Snoop Dogg Web site poses a provocative and confounding epistemological question: “What could be more special than a surprise from Bigg Snoop Dogg?”

Indeed, what could? The current Snoop seems to be aiming for that sweet spot between Ozzy Osbourne and Bernie Mac, where performers prosper as former bad boys with hearts of gold. Once the voice of gangsta rap, he is now something like a blue comedian and something like a cartoon, and something much more creepily unclassifiable. His shocking statement that he’d quit marijuana—which isn’t quite the Pope swearing off Communion, but close— was the last straw. I had to find out how real the transformation actually was.

So I headed west, to the land of dreammaking and drive-bys, to search for the nerve center of Snooperations, to find the hidden brain controlling the mysterious rotations of our vast Doggy Dogg world.

If you drive an hour or so from L.A. to Diamond Bar, locate the right street and find the one home in this ranch-house wilderness that has two silently terrifying black men sitting before it in poured-plastic chairs, odds are you have found the Church. This place—where Snoop records and handles business—is like much of Snoop’s life, a ghetto parody of American suburbia. During one of my interminable chats with the guards while waiting for an audience with His Royal Hizzle, a doughy pink neighbor in a shirt and tie appeared on the side, carrying back two plastic trash cans. “Hi!” he chirped Ned Flanders–ishly. “Looks like we got two of yours by mistake!”

The bodyguards nodded and smiled to him behind their black shades and kept puffing Camel straights. Parked next to the homeys is a silver limited-edition Snoop DeVille Caddy whose license plate reads STR8PIMPIN. The front door of the Church is covered with that L.A.-ghetto fixture, the iron security grille, although the grille is ajar when I drop by, possibly to give access to whatever orange pet left its hairs all over the Oakland Raiders welcome mat.

Inside, the downstairs of this gutted house has been remade into a rec room and meeting place—widescreen TVs, home entertainment centers, plush sectionals—with decor leaning toward Early Hardcore: framed mob-film stills, gold records and photos of the star and his famous friends. There is also a wall where sixteen closed-circuit surveillance screens show views from around the house. Near them are a photo of Snoop with his mom, a boxed videotape set of Crimes of the Twentieth Century, and, over by the staircase, next to the cat’s scratching post, a famous photo of Snoop and his friend Tupac Shakur. They’re at a party, both wearing the upscale neo-Capone style that marked mid-’90s haute-gangsta couture: Snoop in a bowler hat and black-and-white pin-striped suit, Tupac in a three-piece suit, silk ascot and two-ounce gold medallion. Snoop is throwing up a Crip hand sign; Tupac, a bejeweled W-shaped “Westside.”

Tupac ended the year of that photo, 1996, by ensuring that his own stratospheric sales would run well into the next century. The downside to his strategy was dying in a hail of bullets at 25. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, Snoop had to find an exit strategy from the rap Titanic that was Death Row Records, whose CEO, Suge Knight, had so ably shepherded Tupac through his public feud with Biggie Smalls and a fateful tour of Vegas in a non-bulletproof BMW 750. Snoop jumped to Master P’s Barnum-style rapstravaganza, was partially eclipsed by Biggie (until he was killed), DMX and other souls willing to step into the crosshairs of early-century hardcore rap, where risking death is practically a requirement of the genre. An OG at 26, Snoop realized that other horizons beckoned, that he had more to off̸er America than felicitously phrased murder threats. He began to diversify.

Where, oh where has that Doggy Dogg gone, I wonder as I pace the Church. (Where, oh where can he be?) A homeboy or assistant walks by every so often as muff̸led music booms from upstairs. On the landing, there’s a heartwarming sight: a basketful of kittens nursing at their serene one-eyed tabby mom, Lefty, whose name is inscribed on a little gold collar. And right above them is an enlarged, handsomely framed magazine cover trumpeting “The Porn Hip-Hop Konnection.” This issue of Adult Video Newsfeatures a photo of the man who describes himself on his latest record as “part Snoop Hefner, with a little bit of Doggy Flynt.” While Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are now, respectively, a visionary musician-impresario and a film producer, Snoop is a bona fide pornographer.

In the kitchen, near snapshots of his sons’ football games and a shot of Snoop receiving the coveted Stoner of the Year award from High Times,there’s a photo of Snoop with the man he calls his spiritual adviser, the archbishop Don “Magic” Juan. A reformed pimp, Juan is now a rather secular-seeming minister and hip-hop mascot with his own record, Green Is for the Money, Gold Is for the Honeys, Vol. 1,in the works. While everyone from Jay-Z to Nelly to OutKast to 50 Cent claims pimpdom these days—the last with a Snoop-starring song, “P.I.M.P.”— only Snoop has so pointedly branded his modern image with that of the secondoldest profession. This past summer, he was even sued for soliciting, enticing and pressuring two women (one underage) to disrobe and expose their breasts for use in the Doggystyle version of Girls Gone Wild.
Downstairs, Snoop has a framed 1938 mug shot of Frank Sinatra, someone he considers a kindred spirit. The photo is from just before Frank’s bobby-soxer period, before he lost it all and began his slow, humiliating climb back to the top, where he lived out his days in a fragile ecosystem of sycophants and yes-men. I think of that world when I finally reach the Church’s secondfloor inner sanctum. The xeroxed notice on the door — no consumption of alcohol or smoking at any time at church — seems to be a touch of that old Snoop Dogg irony by the time I enter, cough and cop a secondhand buzz from the dense weed smoke. And there, in the hazy dim light, I discern the chairman of the board, hunched forward on the floor, arms hugging his body, in a black football jersey, gray velour sweatpants and black Chuck Taylors, surrounded by screens, beats, smoke and eight shouting homeys.

“Ho!” yells one, pointing at the screen.

“That action was cold, Cuz!”

“Look at that nigga run!”

They’re yelling at a football game playing on the lower TV screen while the upper screen shows a VH-1 Temptations biopic. A limited-edition fuck suge knight T-shirt hangs from a beam. The air is festive and uproarious, a gangsta Super Bowl party. Although they’re not watching the Super Bowl or even a Big Ten matchup but the Huntington Beach Dolphins versus the Rowland Heights Raiders, for whom Snoop’s son plays. Meaning that the homeboys are riveted by a taped football game between 9-year-olds.

“Number 7,” sing-songs one guy in a doorag. “Bona fide to the end.”

“Yeah,” says Snoop, breaking open a blunt over a low table and gathering pungent cannabis to fill it. “You see a nigga on the ground still trying to pull the ball away? Last nigga off̸ the ground, he can’t even get my nigga the ball.”

After a while, Snoop sits down on a couch next to me and begins flipping through a book of plays, each sheet of laminated paper with a label like swing right red, punt formation and quick kick and bearing X and O diagrams. Snoop, who’s one of the coaches, says the Raiders tend to do well with the Reverse Counter Trap.

Sensing an opening, I ask him about coaching, figuring it must be mostly about the running game when the players are 9.

“Oh, you pass,” he says softly, looking down at a diagram. “That’s how you catch ’em off-guard, is when you pass to ’em. Spanky [his older son] can pass, and we got a couple of receivers that can get it off, make it happen.” Snoop’s two-way pager rings, chiming the theme from The Godfather.

Curious about his strategy for repositioning the Snoop brand, I ask him what guides his choice of movies. Is he trying to be more of a role model?

“Naah,” he says, studying a play. “I’m just trying to be respectful to whatever’s out.”

I tell him he was great in Training Day and Baby Boy and ask if he’s interested in more street roles like that.

“Yeah,” he says, shifting on the bench, “I’d like to be associated with more parts like that.”

Okay!

As the Temptations perform “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” Snoop, who was in his church choir as a kid, sings along sweetly with one of the harmonies. While he does this, the engineer cranks up a rough mix of a track called “Music Is My Life,” from his upcoming 213 album, to a deafening level. Multitasking as ever, Snoop is auditioning mixes and dropping in overdubs as he preps for tonight’s practice.

“Man, you got all the styles!” exults one guy in a bandanna when the track ends. “You got a club one, the tropical one, the rolling-and-shit low number, somethin’ for the bitches.”

“All of that shit is represented well, Cuz,” Snoop says, nodding. “Somethin’ for the bitches; somethin’ for the fat bitches.”

Soon it’s time to switch from videotaped football to Xbox football, and all of them call their teams. “I’m the Raiders and the Vikings.” “No, the Raiders and the Buccaneers!” “Take the New York Giants,” Snoop advises a friend. “Take Miami.” “I played Miami last time, nigga.”

Snoop moves over to a beanbag chair by the TV to helm the Buccaneers. I climb over to a bench near him and keep asking questions.

What attracted him to the Diamond Bar area?

“Just heard about it,” Snoop says, eyes on the screen. “And I’m so glad I did. ’Cause I get so much peace.”

I wonder aloud how the coaching game is like the rap game.

“They’re both—Get it! Get it! Get it!” he shouts to an on-screen receiver. He regroups. “They’re both real competitive.”

I ask about his plans for Televizzle’s next season.

“I just figure it out when the time comes. It’s all about football right now.”

Finally I blurt, “How’s the porn empire going?”

Snoop chuckles, off̸ering that infuriating bit of hip-hop tautology: “Everything is everything. Whenever the time needs me, I always get in there and make it happen.”

Casting about for a more congenial topic, I ask what strain of fragrant, doubtless gourmet weed he’s smoking. Snoop just smiles. Finally, he says, “Man, it’s hard to do a muthafuckin’ interview and fuckin’ play — gotdamn.”

I try to modulate my voice into a more Howard Cosell–ish tone. Um, how involved is Snoop in designing the clothes for his line?

“I just tell them the styles I want it in, and they just decide which one they want to— FUCK!” The Falcons score a touchdown against Snoop’s Buccaneers. I say I’ll leave him alone for a minute so he can get back up.

“I wish you had said that ten minutes ago, goddammit. Fuck!”

A little later, we’re into another headnodding, ear-splitting track, and Snoop decides to lay down an intro. He sets aside a still burning blunt and lurches over to the corner where, next to an Alizé cooler stocked with a few cans of pineapple juice, a closet serves as a microphone booth. Snoop disappears inside, and as the beats start banging, his voice uncoils from the speakers. And I remember what made him so intriguing in the first place.

“Haaayyyyl yeah,” he begins. It’s a fluid, four-syllable obbligato whose pitch rises like a sparrow’s arc up through the word hell,then drops down decisively on the yeah. “It’s the muthafuckin’ Two-One-Three/Blastin’ off̸ on yo’ muthafuckin’ ass…” The beat starts again, and he does another take. “Haaayyyyl yeah,”he begins, this time setting the yeah on the opening downbeat. Then he lays out an intricately nuanced little verbal scherzo in a burble of rhythm: “It’s the muthafuckin’ Two-One-Three / Blastin’ off ̸ on your ass / Something funky fantabulous / Can ya dig it, mah bobble?”All of it deep in the pocket, tickling every sixteenth note—exuding a style and charisma few humans could rival.

A little later, Snoop climbs into his Porsche 911 with gleaming customized rims and speeds off to football practice. The site, a borrowed high school playing field, is a vision of suburban tranquillity, a positively Spielbergian idyll. The setting sun casts an orange glow on the tan hills along the valley. A distant church spire glimmers a crepuscular rose. The bodyguards’ jackets shine Crip blue against the grass; a sprinkler chatters like a distant Tech-9.

Coach Snoop stands silent among 9-year-olds and grown-ups, arms folded over a playbook on his chest, whistle dangling from a red cord around his neck, a mushroom-shaped Oakland Raiders hat obscuring his braids and famously Doberman-like visage. He steps in periodically to assist a blocking demonstration or toss a ball back to the head coach, but he’s far from center stage, coaching mostly off̸ense, he says, “though I’ll help a nigga out with defense, too.”

On the field, prepubescent voices cry “Break!” as the kids burst from the huddle. One is Snoop’s slim and rather pretty son Cordezar—Spanky—who wears braids and is, unsurprisingly, quarterback. He joins the others at the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap, when a dark SUV slows on a road abutting the field. Local folks sometimes rubberneck or come by seeking autographs. Then again, five months ago almost a dozen un-starstruck bullets were fired at Snoop’s car from a passing sedan, grazing a bodyguard in one of the five vehicles that were trailing him.

But that’s the cost of being the boss. Snoop’s transgressive allure isn’t about anything as quaintly metal as Satan, like Ozzy’s is; it’s about undeniably real things like guns, race and sexploitation, which are all fun and games until someone loses a lung. Although no one can blame a G for changing up his style, Snoop wouldn’t be Snoop if he didn’t remain so sleepily unconcerned and half-assed about the whole eff̸ort, which amounts to a certain savoir faire. If he turned himself into an Ebonic Ray Romano, he’d eventually have nothing left to sell. His quintessence, the sine qua non of Snoopness, depends upon us being a bit discomfited by Snoop and Snoop not really giving a shit—which is an understandable attitude if your day’s to-do list starts with “Don’t get killed.”

He looks up quickly from a group of kids he’s instructing. He eyes the car as it slides by, picking up the gaze of several bodyguards as well. The center snaps the ball, the kids rush. Halfway past, the car accelerates and shoots off̸ down the road. Spanky runs toward the end zone. Snoop gets his head back in the game.

2004