Snoop Dogg, Empire State of Mind [Feature]
Photography by Kenneth Cappello
Snoop does not use Grecian Formula. Stretched out on a black leather couch in a cavernous Hollywood photo studio, he appears at a glance forever young, resembling nothing so much as his own lithe image frozen mid-canine-morph in the indelible video to 1993’s G-funk anthem “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” But a closer look at the 37-year-old Doggfather reveals deep furrows in his forehead and gray hairs in his eyebrows. The widow’s peak of his tightly pulled-back locks glistens with silver. It’s been 17 years since Snoop debuted on the Dr. Dre–produced theme song to the Deep Cover soundtrack, and as the title of Snoop’s 2002 album implied, he has paid the cost—physically, it seems—to be the boss.
A veteran in the game, Snoop is set to unleash his 10th album, Malice N Wonderland, this December. The release represents a comeback of sorts—not for Snoop himself, but for the once-dominant West Coast label Priority Records. Dormant for years, Priority has been recently resurrected, with Snoop serving as its appointed creative chairman. The corporate rebirth officially begins with Malice N Wonderland. “I actually approached Priority about the situation,” says Snoop, holding a blunt. “Even before I had a record deal, it was my dream to be on Priority.” Snoop inhales the Mary Jane, and his eyes grow misty as he recollects the effect of hearing Priority-backed releases like N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-E’s Eazy Duz It as a youth. “It was my dream to bring Priority back to life after I saw that it went kind of cold.”
At one time, Priority was a powerhouse, the West’s answer to East Coast juggernauts like Profile and Def Jam. Founded in 1985, Priority was the brainchild of Bryan Turner, a Canadian who first came to L.A. to work at K-Tel Records. With Priority, Turner struck instant pay dirt when the label released the California Raisins’ novelty cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It (Through the Grapevine),” which sold two million copies. Then Turner heard a demo of N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police.” When no major label in town would touch them, Turner partnered with Jerry Heller, Eazy-E and their nascent Ruthless Records. Ruthless’s seminal releases, Straight Outta Compton and Eazy Duz It, were distributed by Priority, with both labels’ logos appearing on the albums. But then, in 1989, Ice Cube left N.W.A—lured away by Turner in a case of backroom dealing, Heller has long alleged—and the proverbial Jheri-curl activator hit the fan.
Cube’s solo debut, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, was released solely by Priority. The album’s enormous success gave Turner the clout he needed to turn Priority into a major player in the rap game during its richest decade, the ’90s. Cube’s defection was soon followed by Dr. Dre’s—Dre set up shop over at the brand-new Death Row Records, where his first solo album, The Chronic, sold more than 4.6 copies, abetted by the presence of a charismatic young rapper from Long Beach named Snoop Doggy Dogg.
“I was heartbroken [when Ice Cube left N.W.A], because I loved the group as it was,” says Snoop, an astute student of his lineage. “But once Cube found himself solo with the Bomb Squad, DJ Pooh and Sir Jinx, it made me love him even more, that he’d gone out there to do for himself. Those first Priority records…took a toll on me. I felt like the label…put them in a position where the whole world knew who they were.”
By the mid-’90s, Priority was the largest independent label in the country, and between 1996 and 1998 it made over $500 million, much of that earned by Master P’s No Limit Records, which Priority distributed. Snoop first became a solo artist on the heavy-hitting label in 1998, when he signed to No Limit, after spending five years and dropping two albums on Death Row/Interscope Records. He released three albums with the tank, then left for Geffen Records, in 2004, where he lived for the next four years and dropped three more albums, before returning to Priority this year.
Sold off by Turner in 1998 for an estimated $125 million, Priority is now owned by entertainment behemoth EMI Music, the parent company of Capitol Records (home to Coldplay and a little band called The Beatles). It’s in the architectural landmark Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood that Priority will station its new boardroom. Top dog in that room will be Snoop. “I need to kick up my feet on a desk or two, shake things up a bit,” explains Snoop. “They say Frank Sinatra had an office up in there. Ol’ Blue Eyes had his day. Now it’s time for Ol’ Blue Rag to get his on.”
When a hip-hop artist becomes a corporate executive, it is an occasion both celebratory and troubling. On the one hand, such an ascension represents the undeniable force of hip-hop as commercial enterprise; on the other paw, it represents the final assimilation of a street-based art form into mainstream business. But Snoop, not unlike Jay-Z, long ago learned how to surf between these two worlds, the street and the boardroom. Snoop has steered his career through the choppy waters of a murder rap (remember a pre-trial Doggy Dogg rolling out in a wheelchair to perform “Murder Was the Case” at the 1994 MTV Music Awards?), through to more-toned-down lyrics, Hollywood movie roles, and Junior Football League coaching, all the way to last year’s universally adored smash “Sensual Seduction” and the family-friendly E! network hit reality show Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood. Talk movements all you want, Snoop Dogg is an entity unto himself. Therefore, his pairing with Priority may ultimately be—to use the parlance of these consumer-centric times—an exercise in co-branding. Think General Motors buying NBC, but on a smaller scale.
With EMI’s global muscle behind the reordered Priority, and with 2010 marking the label’s 25th anniversary, major plans are afoot to bring its old catalog back to light. Crucial albums such as Westside Connection’s Bow Down, Kam’s Neva Again and Paris’s Guerilla Funk are ripe for reissue. Reminded that, before rap, Priority’s biggest act was the California Raisins, the new creative chairman doesn’t skip a beat. “I don’t even like raisins. I like the California Raisins, though. Those little purple ones? They was slick… They get a pass because they was from the West Coast.” —Pete Relic
To read the rest of this feature story, be sure to pick up the December/January double issue of XXL on stands now!!!