After his flirtation with Rastafaria, Snoop Dogg is back in his biggest ever collaboration with Pharrell. He talks to Luke Bainbridge about convincing Stevie Wonder and Kendrick Lamar on to his record, prize swedes and why he could never be a politician. It’s pretty unusual to smell someone’s presence before you see them, before you’re even in the same room. But with Snoop Dogg you’d almost feel cheated if you didn’t.
Sure enough, before I even enter the London studio where I’m meeting him, the pungent aroma of weed is in the air. When he unfolds himself from the chair, his 6ft 4in height is accentuated by how skinny he is. He looks trim and remarkably good for 43, the only telltale signs that the Dogg is no longer the renegade wee pup being the odd thread of grey worming its way into his tight braids. Even they are hard to spot unless you’re up close.
A study in the American Journal of Medicine last year suggested that regular pot smokers are skinnier than the average person because they have a healthier metabolism and reaction to sugars. The pipe-cleaner physique of Snoop Dogg would not cause you to question that premise. “Isn’t he called Snoop Lion now?” a couple of people ask me when I tell them I’m going to meet him. Practised in the art of reinvention, Dogg became a Rastafari in 2013, declaring that Snoop Dogg was dead and was now reborn as Snoop Lion.
Although his fanbase was intrigued, not many Rastafari in Jamaica seemed to herald him as the new messiah. The fact that he arrived in Jamaica with a Vice camera team in tow may not have helped. Today Snoop Lion is dead, and he’s back to a dog’s life with Bush, the first Snoop Dogg album since 2011’s Doggumentary. It is the first produced entirely by Pharrell Williams and arguably his best for years. “Snoop Lion was necessary – there was a reason for that,” he says, almost deadpan. “It was trying times in the world. I wanted to speak to something different, a more positive side of me.
I wanted to stand up to the gun violence and I wanted to do things that represented the spirit of Rastafari, and that’s what Snoop Lion was about. Taking a different approach to my life and my music. But Snoop Dogg was always there, you know. He just wasn’t able to expose himself through that music in that name, because Snoop Dogg is more about what we’re on right now. Party, having a good time, feeling good… enjoying life.”
Such is the alternative world of his own making that Snoop operates in, that asking a 43-year-old man if it’s refreshing to be a dog again, after a few years being a lion, doesn’t seem ridiculous. “Definitely,” he says. “It’s like a breath of fresh air. But Snoop Lion helped me grow into a new Snoop Dogg. So I feel good and feel different about the music that I’m making and the direction that I took.” Snoop Lion was just the latest of the cartoon personas which over time have turned him into a figure that almost seems more loved than his music, and that has helped soften the criticisms of his more misogynist lyrics.
Unlike many of his peers who base their image on keeping it “real”, Snoop embraces his contradictions. On the one hand he’s a pimp (or was, he once told Rolling Stone: “That shit was my natural calling and once I got involved with it, it became fun”), but on the other he’s a family man, married to his childhood sweetheart with three children. Nowadays he’s less the godfather of hip-hop, more a favourite uncle. Born Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr in Long Beach, California in 1971, he was called Snoop by his parents when he was a teen because of the way his looped braids hung down like Snoopy’s Ears.
It’s 23 years since he was first released from the Dogg pound by Dr. Dre, with his all-conquering debut album Doggy Style, which sold more than 800,000 copies in its first week alone. Would you have been surprised, I ask him, if someone told you 23 years ago that you would still be at the top nearly quarter of a century on? “Not 23 years ago, because 23 years ago I thought I was the dopest motherfucker in the world,” he smiles. “So I probably would have believed that. I was so cocky and confident.”
When he first came to the UK in 1994, he was on trial for murder after being involved in an incident in which his bodyguard had shot a man from a moving car Snoop was driving, but he and his bodyguard were ultimately acquitted. The Daily Star, not a publication hitherto renown for its hip-hop coverage, dedicated its whole front page to Snoop’s arrival, with the headline: “Kick this evil bastard out!” Snoop will reference this later, when I ask him about his relationship with Princes William and Harry.
He is in an amenable mood, joking and breaking into song on more than one occasion, and makes a joke about his long-standing friendship with the royals, who make for pretty incongruous homeboys. “When they tried to kick me out of England, the Queen made a comment that her grandbabies loved Snoop Doggy Dogg, and he had done no wrong in the UK, so she gave me permission to be here. Those grandbabies grew up to be Prince William and Harry, so I had influence on them, and they had influence on their grandmother, which enabled me to get into this beautiful country. They love my music, and it is what it is. There’s a mutual love and respect.”
In the intervening two decades, he’s sold more than 30m records with his inimitable smooth, almost drawled delivery and melodic rhymes, and more than 13 studio albums plus various collaborations and mixtapes. He’s also appeared in numerous films, both as himself and other times as characters such as Huggy Bear in the 2004 remake of Starsky & Hutch. With Snoop Lion he wanted to make a record about the life he was living now, as a father and husband, rather than a record that reflected his upbringing. So what was the starting premise with Bush?
“The Bush approach is more about the party. Point blank. It has no age limit and no time variant – it’s just about the party. The party don’t ever die. There is always a party, whether it’s a birthday party or a house-warming party or a party in a club, and we wanted to represent the party, and represent sexy, and we wanted to represent soul and funk and elements that inspired us as kids, me and Pharrell. We wanted to tap into an era of music that felt like a throwback but also brand new.” Pharrell had previously produced some of the Snoop’s greatest and more inventive hits, not least 2004’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, his first US No 1, based on a stripped-back, sparse production using the sound of a spray can as a rhythm track.
“When I first heard it,” says John Cale of the Velvet Underground, “it knocked me over. It’s extremely inventive, unbelievable. I couldn’t work out the genealogy of it. I was gobsmacked when I heard it.” Pharrell producing a whole Snoop album wasn’t necessarily the plan at the start, but when they began to record, they decided they had to see it out together. “As we started flowing, it only made sense,” says Snoop. “I wouldn’t want another producer to come and put something in the kitchen if I hadn’t been grocery shopping with them, if you understand what I’m saying.
He [Pharrell] should be able to cook the whole meal if he came grocery shopping with me at the start.” He is full of praise for how Pharrell differs from the more sycophantic producers he’s worked with, who were afraid to challenge him. “When I work with Pharrell he allows me to be me, but also gives me great direction on which is the best me. He loves to critique me, and he loves to take criticism,” he says. “It makes it challenging in the studio – and I like to be challenged. I don’t like everybody to agree with everything that I’m doing. When we worked on ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’, when I did my second verse, he was like:
‘That ain’t dope enough – you need to go back in.’ And I came back with another verse that helped it become one of my biggest records, you know what I’m saying?” Pharrell has joked before that he felt intimidated during that recording, as Snoop had such a heavy entourage with him in the studio, but the atmosphere was very different this time. “This time it was just me,” says Snoop. “When we were working on ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ I was on some gangsta shit. I was rollin’ with 100 motherfuckers and I was just on my shit, and that’s why it sounded like it sounded.
As a producer that’s what he projects – he projects the energy that is in the studio. So if you listen to what we got now it’s a different energy, because of the atmosphere and the spirit that I brought. I brought the fun-lovin’ party spirit.” Pharrell demonstrates on Bush that it’s also possible to teach an old Dogg new tricks: Snoop raps on about a third of the album and sings on the rest. “It’s a different sound, a different style – it’s probably only 30% rap and 70% singing, which is unheard of for a Snoop record,” Snoop says.
“That was strategically thought out by Pharrell. He wanted me to sing, he wanted me to go in that direction. He wasn’t giving me rap beats, you know what I’m saying. As a producer I can give you beats that will make you rap, or I can give you beats that will make you sing, or songs that are made for singing. The songs that I do rap on, half the time P would say: ‘We should get this rapper on this,’ and I’d go: ‘All right, I’ll do it.’” There is also an all-star cast of guests, including Stevie Wonder, Bootsy Collins, Gwen Stefani, Charlie Wilson and Kendrick Lamar.
Stevie Wonder guests on one of the stand-out tracks – “California Roll”. “Listening to the song after I laid my vocals, and after Pharrell’s vocals was laid, I was saying: ‘Man, P, we need to get someone else on this thing. We need to get Stevie Wonder…” explains Snoop. “P was like: ‘Can you get him?’ I said: ‘Sure. Hold on.’ I called him up. Two hours later Stevie Wonder pulled up outside the studio.”
The same day? “The same day.”
The way Snoop tells it, there was a similar story with the other guests. “Bootsy Collins: I got his number, gave it to Pharrell, and P called him up and made it happen. Same with Charlie Wilson and Gwen Stefani. This is what we do. When we ask for favours, we’re so loved and appreciated that it’s hard to say no to Snoop and Pharrell. You can say no to Snoop, you know what I’m saying, then when we got Pharrell, you can’t say no to both of them.”
He seems to have a pretty strong work ethic considering his prodigious output over the years, which some might not think tallies with being a heavy weed smoker. “Hmmm…” he smiles. “But the weed doesn’t take away; it’s an attribute, an accolade. It’s like Popeye. You know Popeye the Sailor Man? He’d squeeze that can and pop that spinach and go into work mode. That’s what this is,” he nods at his spliff, chuckling, then breaks into song. “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man, I live in a garbage can!”
He knows most of the words, much to the amusement of everyone in earshot. He then breaks into an X–rated version which I’ve never heard before, and which maybe shouldn’t be repeated here. One of the more bizarre playful incidents he’s had in the UK was when he was here touring the last Snoop Dogg album and posted a YouTube video praising a retired Welsh farmer called Ian Neale who had just broken the world record for the largest swede. In the video Snoop declares: “Man, I want to tell you something!
When I do my show in Cardiff, I want you to come backstage and see me because I do vegetation myself and I want to know your secret. So, Ian Neale, come see you boy, Snoop Dogg. Ya dig?!” The ageing Welsh gardener initially declined Snoop’s invitation, telling the South Wales Argus that he was “more of a country and western man”. But he later changed his mind, went to the gig and spent 10 minutes with Snoop discussing horticultural tips. He laughs when I mention it.
“Ha ha, that dude had grown a big-ass tomato or something!”
A swede. But how did you even hear about him?
“I got a research team that loves shit like that,” he says. “He can grow that sort of vegetation – I want to see if he can grow the biggest motherfucking weed plant in the world. Jack and the beanstalk, this motherfucker. I want one that is growing up to space.” We get on to the subject of the current situation in America, with Obama’s reign in the White House due to end later this year. Snoop supported Obama in his first presidential campaign in 2008 – and was invited to the White House, where, as The Beatles once did at Buckingham Palace, he later made it known that he smoked a spliff in the toilets – but he makes it clear he was supporting Obama and no one else.
“I don’t represent the Democratic party, I don’t represent the Republican party, I represent the motherfucking gangsta party!” he clarifies, raising his voice slightly. “I just supported Obama because I liked what he was about. Not that he was a black man; I just liked what he was about; going up in the office and clearing up that George Bush’s mess. That’s why I voted for Obama.”
What does he think of his presidency?
“He helped legalise marijuana in [Washington] DC…” he smiles. “That was fucking awesome!”
Do you think America has changed under Obama?
“For the sake of war, I’ll say no. The war that was happening when Bush was in office was a war that was overseas. Now it’s a war in America. With the cops. When the cops kill a black man or a black teen, the natural progression is to call the National Guard. They are coming in with all this high-powered military shit that they are not using because there is no war overseas. So it’s: create a war in America with these urban communities and get our money back. But I don’t think he [Obama] had any control over that. He can’t really speak how he wants to speak.
He can’t get up there and be like: ‘Yeah, I’m a black man, I feel y’all. Before I was Obama the President, I got put on by the police; they fuck with me, too. I’ve been harassed, I get it.’ He got to get up there and say: ‘Hey y’all. Don’t start no riot.’ That ain’t really what he want to say. “One time is accident. Two times we can forgive you. But this shit is happening every motherfucking day, man, and nobody’s get taken to trial. Remember Rodney King? If they didn’t have cameras on that shit, that wouldn’t have got a second trial.
They got found not guilty first time. In LA, where I come from, when you do us like that we’re fucking y’all up big time. Period. But that’s just my perspective on what happened in Los Angeles.”
Would Snoop ever consider running as a politician himself?
“I don’t know if I could. I don’t know if a politician can have the views I hold. I have different views that don’t have no colour connected to it, they’re just about people. I don’t feel like some politicians have a heart… I always speak with my heart, so I don’t think I could be a politician.”
I want to know, of all the personas that people know him for – Snoop Dogg, The Doggfather, the rapper, the pimp, the player, the father, the presenter – which of those is closest to who he is when he goes home at night and closes his front door? “Hmmm…” he smiles. “Probably an old man. I watch the same shit on TV. I like listening to old skool music. I like to relax. I like to just chill. I’m just like an old man, in a rocking chair, enjoying the shit that I like to enjoy.”
With your pipe and slippers?
Snoop chuckles. “Exactly…”