By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
"When I tell people I'm Snoop Doggy Dogg's daddy, the first thing they say is I look too young to be Snoop Doggy Dogg's daddy," says Vernall Varnado, grinning as he puts down his cigarette and his bottle of beer and reaches into his back pocket. "I tell 'em, 'Go ahead and look here in my wallet, and see for yourself how old I am.'"
Varnado has pulled out his driver's license. He's waiting for you to inspect it, watching while your eyes find the place where it reads "DOB: 12-13-49," enjoying it as you realize that his next birthday will be his 50th. When you look up, Varnado breaks into a loud, choppy laugh.
"That's right," he cackles. "I don't look it."
There's hardly a fleck of gray in Varnado's hair, he doesn't need glasses, his smile is straight and white, and his muscled physique exudes a relatively healthy aura, even as he brightens the end of another cigarette and takes a few gulps from a new beer. "Hell, I walked a mail route for 25 years-the last 10 in Detroit," he asserts loudly. "That tells you a lot about me."
A stream of smoke comes out of his mouth as he speaks, and Varnado watches as his words drift toward the wide-open sliding-glass doors of his 11th-floor apartment in Marina del Rey. On a wall is a framed poster, a huge photograph of stacks of cash that's titled "My First Billion."
Opposite it is a cabinet that features a pair of scratched-up trophies-one for third place in the Jerusalem Baptist Church's 1980 gospel sing-off, the other for first place in a Venice Beach basketball league in 1979. "And I still play a pretty damn good game of basketball," Varnado says, more mildly. "These young kids'll tell you that."
Varnado falls silent, and his smile disappears. It's a rare state for a man whose natural disposition is so outgoing as to sometimes border on overbearing, whose unrestrained friendliness is capable of making people uncomfortable or even suspicious. He stares beyond the balcony, where a supposed-to-be-breathtaking Southern California panorama of metropolitan beachfront hangs as perfunctorily as soundstage scenery. He is killing time, waiting. Rapper/producer Daz Dillinger -Varnado's nephew, Snoop's cousin-is driving up from Mission Viejo, where Dillinger bought a home after Dogg Food, his album with Kurupt and Soopafly and the rest of the Dogg Pound, went platinum in 1995, back when all of them were stars with Death Row Records. "Daz just called and said he'll be here any minute," Varnado offers. "We got business to tend to."
But his tone is not expectant. Varnado has been around these show-biz kids long enough to know that "any minute" means any minute-there's no predicting what time Dillinger will actually show up. Varnado shakes his head, scoffs at nothing in particular, takes another swig and blows more smoke as he finds his way back to his story.
"The next thing that happens when people find out I'm Snoop Doggy Dogg's daddy is they want to come at me with a tape of somebody that sings, somebody that raps, somebody in their family that's talented in some kinda way. Either that or they're just wanting to get at Snoop for the same thing," he says. "I always got these people on my ass."
Varnado sighs wearily. "I keep tellin' 'em: 'Man, the music business ain't that easy. Like the NBA or the NFL, there's a thin line between the ones that make it and the ones that don't.'"
He pauses as if to consider what he has just said, what he has learned by spending the 1990s riding shotgun on his son's celebrity, by intermittently serving as father figure, party animal, got-your-back soldier and good-natured gofer to rappers trudging some of the entertainment industry's most land mined career paths. "I been to war with these motherfuckers," he suddenly hoots, his eyes wide. "I been through some shit with them."
Varnado has watched his son walk a terrifying tightrope of a success story. Snoop has traversed from Long Beach gangland, through small-time drug convictions and a murder-one acquittal, past the assassinations of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., beyond the inspirational inferno and pathetic burnout of Death Row Records, to reach his own abiding, if enigmatic, superstardom. "It's timing," Varnado observes. "That's really true. Snoop'll tell you that. It's just that one little break."
Lately, Varnado has been testing that truism personally. He's finally said yes to one of those people coming at him with one of those offers. He's ventured into the music business. He's confident that the one little break that will help him make it big is having a son named Snoop Dogg. "When I went in to sign the contract, the attorney who was doin' the deal was sitting in this big San Francisco office-outta-this-world view of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, everything-not knowing who I am," Varnado recounts. "I was talkin' to him for 35 to 40 minutes, and he kept lookin' at me until he finally said, 'You look like Snoop Doggy Dogg.' When I said, 'I'm his dad,' man, he went bananas. His eyes got big. To him, I could tell, it was a dream come true."
Varnado has grafted Snoop's well-known nickname onto his own hip-hop identity-Papa Snoop, he calls himself -and he has included it in the title of a compilation of California gangsta-rap called Papa Snoop Presentz: Westside Riderz, Vol. 1. Besides the title, the album cover heavily emphasizes the father-son connection. It is decorated with photographs of Snoop as he flashes hip-hop's West Coast "W" hand sign and Varnado-that is, Papa Snoop-as he poses old-school flashy in a tailored suit and bejeweled sunglasses. The album, packaged inside a promotional calendar and offering a drawing for a classic '63 Impala convertible, was released Dec. 1 on the Mobstyle Muzik label. In the past six weeks, it has sold more than 100,000 copies.
"I always wanted to get back into the music business, from the time I was singing gospel with my family," says Varnado, recalling his early '80s days with the Sensational Varnado Brothers, who released a couple of records and played the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. "Now, suddenly, I'm the executive producer of a new album on my own record label!"
Actually, Varnado's deal with Mobstyle Muzik, an independent label based in the San Francisco-area town of San Bruno, is for 20 percent ownership of the company and a seat on its governing board. But it's still a pretty nice arrangement, especially considering Varnado's part of the bargain. "They already had a buncha rappers from northern California; my job was to get Snoop, Daz, Kurupt and Soopafly on the album," he says, chuckling. "So I called Snoop and told him I needed a song. He gave me two songs. Daz gave me three songs. Kurupt gave me a song. Soopafly gave me one. None of 'em wanted any money. They said: 'This is our gift to you. We owe you this 'cause you been in our corner for all these years.' So just like that, I'm in the record business. That's all I had to do. And by me being Snoop's father, that was really simple."
Varnado calls his son Snoop. Not Cordazar, the name on his birth certificate. Not Calvin, the name on his school report cards-or, later, on his arrest, court and jail documents. Varnado calls his son Snoop, the name on all those multimillion-selling albums. When he says Snoop, however, it's not an abbreviation of Snoop Doggy Dogg or Snoop Dogg, the shortened version of the famous alias that the Long Beach rapper assumed in 1997, when he switched record labels from Death Row to No Limit. "It's short for Snoopy-all that 'Doggy Dogg' stuff came later," Varnado clarifies. "Comin' up, everybody called him Snoopy. That was always his nickname from the time he was a baby."
That's what Varnado has heard, anyway. He wasn't around much in those early days. "Me and Snoop's mama, we grew up together in the same small town-McComb, Mississippi-and we used to be friends and lovers, and we had a kid together," Varnado explains briskly, trying to skip across his sentimentality.
But his words come slower and his voice gets lower as his emotions catch up with him. "Aw, the way things turned out-me goin' off to Vietnam when I was 19, us meeting other people, whatever, just things-well, she ended up havin' her life, and I ended up havin' mine," Varnado says. "We'll always have love for each other, though. And for Snoop. I always tell Snoop to respect his mama, seein' as she's the one who raised him. They went through some tough times together. But it was hard for me, too, man, knowin' I got a son-I'm talkin' to him on the phone, but I couldn't be with him."
Varnado and his son don't share the same last name. Snoop grew up as Cordazar "Calvin" Broadus, using the surname of the man his mother married. "Basically," says Varnado, "I didn't even much see Snoop until he was 12 years old."
Snoop was in junior high school when Varnado began to learn a little bit about fatherhood. Mostly, this was accomplished through periodic letters and phone calls, although for a few years, Snoop spent part of the summer living with Varnado in Detroit. During the many months between those visits, however, the teenager began to get into trouble. His mother worked full-time at McDonnell-Douglas, and Snoop was often unsupervised in central Long Beach neighborhoods where gang culture imposed the rules, the rewards and the punishments.
"He was a 16-year-old kid who got caught up in this gangbanging stuff because it looked good to him," assesses Varnado. "He didn't have much money, and he was surrounded by all his other little homeboys who were selling dope and stuff and flashing money and fresh clothes. He just got caught up in the flow and followed the crowd.
"But one night, his mother called me saying she found some crack in a cabinet, and she thought Snoop was selling dope. When he came home, his mother put him on the phone, and I asked him straight out if he was selling dope. He said, 'Yeah' and started screaming at me, and I started screaming back. Finally, when we both calmed down, I just told him to be careful. I knew for a fact I couldn't fly out from Detroit. And even if I lived out here and he was doing that, there wasn't much I could really do if it was in his mind to do otherwise. There was nothing to do but put him out. And that's what his mother did-for her own safety, since she was already having to worry about drive-bys. So Snoop left home at 16. He's been on his own ever since."
Snoop stayed with various friends and worked on his rap skills while he finished high school. "We stayed in contact -I knew about him goin' in and out of jail," says Varnado, "but I really didn't start seein' him again until 1991."
By that time, Snoop had a record deal and a burgeoning career, the wildest nickname, the most infectious style and the biggest hit in hip-hop. "When 'Nuthin' but a "G" Thang' came out, man, that was like the national anthem," Varnado roars. "I was out there delivering mail in Detroit, and everyone on my route was playing it, givin' me love because everybody knew I was Snoop's dad. It made me popular in Detroit. I mean, I'm a mailman, and my son is doin' this and doin' that?"
As Snoop became more successful, Varnado began making more trips to the West Coast to see his son. "Snoop wanted me here, and I told him if he sent me a ticket, I would come," says Varnado. "I could sense that as a young kid in all this big-time drama, he might need me. That turned out to be true."
A few years later, Varnado took a leave from his job and started living in Southern California full-time. Since then, he has officially resigned from the post office.
"I think I'm a damn good father, myself, for what I gave up to come out here to support my son," he says. "Really, I gave up my whole future. And really, I'm starting all over again. But then again, it's all to the good for the simple reason that the future here is looking a whole lot brighter than at the post office. Let's just say I ain't mad." Varnado breaks into a laugh. "I ain't mad at all, man."
Snoop Dogg doesn't exactly gush when he's asked about the joys of helping his father launch a career in the recording industry. "It's just music to me, music and business, wherever I put it out," he says in a voice that, even in conversation, crackles like dry brush and flows to a faint cadence. "My pops wanted to get into the rap game, and I wanted to help him."
As tall and skinny and nonchalant as ever, but now 27 years old, Snoop is lounging around his sprawling ranch-style home in Claremont. He's just back from a promotional tour in Japan and getting ready to move on to his new digs in Baton Rouge. He relocated to Louisiana last year to be near the headquarters of his new record label, No Limit, and his new boss, Master P.
His mother lives in the Southern California house now. Snoop has stopped over for a few days, catching up with family and friends and giving his mother and father a chance to see their two young grandsons. He's also been spending some creative time with Dr. Dre, who was his producer when both men were at Death Row. "Me and Dre are working together again, and the results are going to be groundbreaking again," says Snoop, who teamed with Dre to make hardcore rap marketable to the masses on the albums The Chronic and Doggystyle. "Mostly, we're just vibing now. But we got serious work done on five songs, and we're going to split them-some on his record, some on mine."
This is the music Snoop wants to talk about. On the other hand, he's sensitive to the discussion of his father. He realizes how the situation could be perceived: absentee dad suddenly becomes the world's proudest poppa when his prodigal son suddenly becomes the world's most famous rapper; he then parlays the revived relationship from mailman to music mogul. And as he answers questions about the favor he did, it's clear his priority is to safeguard his father's reputation.
"See, this rap game is hands-on music. Once you're around it, you find you got to be a part of it-it just draws you in," Snoop calculates gently. "It doesn't surprise me. I don't resent him. He feels he's young, and he thinks he can still do it. I feel the same way about myself. We're two grown men. This is a hand-in-hand thing. It was us helping each other, not just me helping him."
As famous as he is, Snoop still considers himself musically underexposed. He has released only three solo albums in an eight-year recording career. For most of that time, he was restricted by the tight control and internal politics at Death Row Records, not to mention the murder charge that kept him electronically leashed to house arrest for two and a half years after the 1993 release of Doggystyle, his solo debut. "There was a long period of time when I couldn't be heard," Snoop explains, "and so I'm still in a mental process where I'm always tryin' to be heard. That was the process I was in when I gave him [Varnado] that record. I was trying to get it heard anywhere."
The song, "Let Me Hit Somethin'," was recorded a few years ago and probably would have stayed in storage until a Snoop boxed set is someday compiled. Lyrically, it's just another ode to smoking weed. But the song becomes one of the strongest on the album because of Snoop's hissing-fuse style, in which an almost subliminal stomach-turning tension is present no matter what the subject, and because of a whip-cracking track that repeatedly startles you into bobbing your head. And, of course, because he's the biggest star on the album.
All things considered, then, Snoop figures that giving away the song to his dad boils down to a good career move. For one thing, it shows that he no longer operates under an oppressive corporate culture. "That's the great thing about No Limit," Snoop says. "Master P knows that's my pop. I can do what I want, as long as it's not going to hurt my career."
It's a good public-relations move, too. "Like Master P says, this kind of thing can only help," says Snoop. "It shows that as big an artist as I am, I haven't forgotten where I came from. I haven't forgotten my family. I'm willing to help. It gets my music out there, and it shows me giving something back."
Tired of waiting, Varnado has picked up the telephone. He's making lots of calls, lots of plans and a big prediction. "Mark my words, Mobstyle Muzik is gonna blow up in 1999," he bellows to someone through the receiver. "I'm already workin' on Papa Snoop's Westside Riderz, Vol. 2, goin' down to Long Beach to get the less fortunate, the ones who coulda made it but haven't had the chance yet." The conversation ends, and Varnado offers a little aside: "See, that's where I have an advantage by stickin' by Snoop. I won't have to make all the mistakes he made. I won't have to go through all that crazy shit."
Varnado is grateful for the favor from his son, but he can be a little abrasive and defensive about it, too. He's heard some people say that moving to Southern California to be with his son in November 1995 was mere opportunism. "I didn't come here broke," he says testily. "I wasn't about to ride his coattails or nobody's coattails."
Actually, Varnado arrived carrying five expensive suits and five conservative silk ties-and he told his son to start wearing them to court. Snoop was on trial for murder at the time, accused of driving the getaway car after his bodyguard shot a gang member during an altercation at a Los Angeles park. "I told my boy that if he was going to be a star, he'd better start dressing like a star," Varnado explains. "No more baggy-ass pants hanging off his butt-at least in front of the judge." Snoop not only followed his father's sartorial instructions in the courtroom, but also after his acquittal, when he incorporated the dressed-up, buttoned-down look into his personal style, even posing in a suit for the cover of his next album, Tha Doggfather. When Varnado moved into Snoop's house, he kicked out many of the hangers-on in his son's entourage, people Snoop felt he couldn't evict without being branded disloyal.
"My father showed me something with all of that," Snoop acknowledges.
More recently, however, Snoop has chafed under the force of his father's strong will and raucous temperament. The connection between them has become increasingly strained-which is not to say it is unusual. Like so many fathers and sons, the interaction between Snoop and Varnado is a complicated mix of love and rivalry. It's about the mutual-and frustratingly muted-search for each other's respect and approval.
"Our personal relationship is kind of difficult," says Snoop. "We got our own opinions, and they are strong opinions. We got our own way of doing things. On top of that, the business has kinda tore us apart."
Varnado acknowledges some conflict betwen them after the trial. "I was kind of pissed-off because he made a few promises to me he didn't keep," he says. "He promised to give me a job, you know, this and that and the other. But when it didn't happen, then I knew it was time to do my own thing."
Snoop and Varnado don't see each other too often these days. They don't talk much, either.
"Snoop gave me that song, but after that, I ain't really heard from him," says Varnado. "Aw, I ain't got time to worry about Snoop. He's grown. I was there for him. Whatever he's mad at, whoever he's mad at, that's on him."
Varnado remembers the earliest days of Snoop's publicity, when his son spoke openly in interviews-and consequently, on TV and radio and in magazines and newspapers-about the difficulty of growing up without his father, about how Varnado's absence influenced many of the poor choices he made and the pain he felt.
"Yeah, I read all that," Varnado says softly. "Even though there were a few things I didn't like, he was telling the truth. I wish I could have done some things differently. But I did sit down with him and have a long conversation. I told him: 'You got to realize your mother was married to somebody else after she had you. So it was beyond my control.'
"And then we talked another time when he and his girlfriend-who's now his wife-were busted up for a while. She had my first grandson, and Snoop told her, 'Well, I'll see my son when I can.' And that's when I checked him and said: 'Now you see what I'm talking about. You and Shante were busted up for 4 to 5 months. Now what if you hadn't gotten back together and Shante woulda gone somewhere? You'd be in the same boat I was.'"
Snoop acknowledges that his childhood resentments about his father have been put aside. "It ain't difficult now," Snoop says. "Because I know now. I'm a grown man. Me having kids, being in a relationship, I know what he went through. It's understandable."
And both men seem to feel that this is just another stage in a relationship that isn't about to end.
"We're both grown men, and grown men aren't always going to get along," says Snoop. "But we're not letting it destroy us, either. For now, we're both just tending to our business. Whatever is tearin' us apart personally, the business is helpin' us get things together-at least on a financial level. It keeps us kinda far away from each other, but then again, that way, we sorta make sure we see each other when we get the chance. And I always make sure he sees his grandsons. So we can work on all that other stuff later."
Varnado has become almost mellow as he considers this issue and the others that lie ahead for father and son. He breaks into a little chuckle. "I really can't tell Snoop nothin'," he says. "Anymore, I never even try to put no pressure on him. 'Cause look at what he's taught me. Look where I'm sittin' on account of him. I'm just glad that we somehow kept this thing together. 'Cause I can see that me and Snoop, we're a lot alike."