Mellowing with age but still one cool cat
Age, religion and a name change make the former Snoop Dogg less a gangsta, more a friendly Lion, writes Simon Hattenstone
Snoop appears, as if by magic, in a puff of his own smoke. The rapper, actor, gangster and stoner extraordinaire has reinvented himself as a reggae-singing messenger of hope. Snoop Dogg is dead, long live Snoop Lion.
We meet in his management office in Los Angeles, a warehouse dedicated to all things Snoop. He slopes in, dressed in a white T-shirt, dark jeans and jacket, trainers and shades, lion medallion hanging down his chest, patchy Rasta beard - and surprisingly beautiful.
Snoop has just made a documentary, Reincarnated, that charts his path from gun-toting gangsta-rapper to the peace-and-love Rastafarian who claims to have been reincarnated (also the name of his new album). He talks about how he has changed as a man, a husband, a father of three. "When you allow evolution to happen, that's when it becomes the greatest thing it could possibly be."
Snoop Lion still has a fair bit of the Dogg in him. But then Snoop Doggy Dogg, as he was first known, was never afraid of embracing his contradictions. He emerged in 1993 with the hugely successful album Doggystyle, and set the pattern for 20 years of guns, gangsters and misogyny. His voice was rich and seductive. His raps were X-rated, yet the kids loved him. He wrote about pimping and dealing on the streets of underclass black America, yet the white middle class adored him.
Snoop is one of rap's great survivors: 20 years on, he is still successful when many of his contemporaries are dead. As a young man he was in and out of prison for drug dealing; in 1993 he was charged with accessory to murder (he was eventually cleared); a decade ago he combined his successful recording career with pimping (until it put too much stress on his marriage), and in 2006 he was barred from entering Britain after he and his entourage were involved in a mass brawl at Heathrow airport.
Yet there is something endearing about Snoop - after all, Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jnr got his nickname because he looked like Snoopy; he still bears a passing resemblance. In 2006, Rolling Stone magazine featured him on its cover under the headline "America's most lovable pimp".
The metamorphosis into Snoop Lion seems pretty radical. What brought about the change? "I wanted to make songs about the life I'm living now as a father and as a 41-year-old man, as opposed to always talking about my childhood and my upbringing."
Couldn't he have done that as a rapper? "I don't think it could have worked through rap because of my branding." Like many rappers, Snoop is a good businessman. "I branded Snoop Dogg to be what he is, and it's too late to change the brand." What is that brand? "Gangsta. West coast, from the hood. Speaking for the lost generation - the gangstas, the drug dealers. I did it 21 years, faithfully, till I couldn't do it any more."
He couldn't do it any more, he says, because it would be dishonest to do so; this hasn't been his life for a long time. "Finally I'm able to say I'm comfortable with doing what I do. And I love doing it. And I'm going to keep doing it. If I don't make another rap record for the next year … or however long it takes, it don't bother me because I'm trying to make music that feels good."
I tell Snoop some of his early videos remind me of the television series Happy Days. "That's how life was! We lived like that. We were gangsters, but we were having fun." But those days of innocence didn't last long. By the mid-90s there was civil war between the west and east coasts, and rap was becoming a blood bath. By March 1997, rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls had been killed within six months of each other.
"Drugs came into our neighbourhood," Snoop says. "And once the drugs became part of our life, guns were introduced to us, and once you introduce the guns and drugs, it becomes jealousy and protect your neighbourhood, and before you know it somebody gets shot at, and you do shooting. And it just goes on and on."
He was born in Long Beach, California, in 1971. He took his step-father's name - when he was three months old his biological father walked out on the family, though they have since been reconciled. He sang and played piano in the church choir, but gave up the piano when he finished second in a contest. "I was like, I don't want to do this no more, I don't like being second." Was he competitive as a kid? "I hate losing. Even to this day, I'm a sore loser."
By his teens, Snoop was a member of the Rollin' 20s Crips, a notorious Long Beach gang. The funny thing is, he says, people now expect him to look back on his early life with regret, and they couldn't be more wrong. "I wanted to be a gangsta my whole life. Even when I came home from church, we'd see all the gangstas and that was more appealing to me, so when I finally got a chance to live it, to do it, I rapped about it. I was like, I'm going to do it like nobody's ever done it before because my s*** is going to be 100 per cent authentic because I come from it and I am it." Being a gangster was a way of transcending poverty; then rapping about life as a gangster became a way of transcending the gangs.
Did he think he would go down when he was charged with accessory to murder? "I did. I thought I was going to go down for that. Every day of my life I thought it was my last day on the streets. When you're in court, you have no real sense of vibe and what is going to be until they read it off. You're in there trying to be on your best behaviour, they're tearing your character down, they're bringing up pictures of you with guns, and the kind of person you was when you was that person, and saying you're still that person, and you're on that witness stand and you can't even say anything."
After he was acquitted, he released his second album, Tha DoggFather, which led to accusations that he was glorying in his gangster status: the intro started with a commentary that he was now more famous for his murder charge than his music. Twenty years on, he has written No Guns Allowed, which he sings with his 13-year-old daughter Cori B. Is it strange for him to be singing an anti-gun song? No, he says, it makes perfect sense. "We keep hearing about schools getting shot up, venues being shot up, public places being shot up, and we have to address that. Who better to do it than me because I come from the gangsta lifestyle, carrying a gun every day of the week lifestyle?"
He talks about the other ways Rastafarianism has changed him. "I used to answer hate with hate. Like if you hate me, I hate you more. But now I answer hate with love." What about his attitude to women? Was there hate in the lyrics of early songs? "Yeah, because I was making music for me, speaking from my perspective, so my music represented that, until I got to the point where I wanted to show love and appreciation for the woman."
One of the many surprises about Snoop is that he has been with his wife, Shante Taylor, since they were childhood sweethearts - though, it has to be said, not exclusively. He filed for divorce in 2004, but they renewed their wedding vows in 2008 on his reality show, Snoop Dogg's Father Hood.
He also recently spoke out in support of gay marriage in America. Does he think that Frank Ocean coming out is a sign of progress in the rap world? "Frank Ocean ain't no rapper. He's a singer. It's acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don't know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine. It's like a football team. You can't be in a locker room full of tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, 'Hey, man, I like you.' You know, that's going to be tough."
Is he still a big fan of Barack Obama? His face breaks out into a huge smile. "Yeah, I love Obama. How could I not love him? [He's] got three states smoking weed legally now. And they talk about getting Texas, too. If we can get Texas, it's a wrap. That's what our president did for us."
Would he go into politics? "Probably," he says. "Probably as an old man. If I could make a difference." Think of it: Snoop President - the ultimate brand.
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