Photo by Anthony Mandler/
Capitol RecordsIt is a beautiful thing Snoop Dogg's done, organizing a benefit concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and bringing together artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ice Cube to raise money so that poor kids might be able to play youth football . . . in the Snoop Youth Football League, which is the basis of an autobiographical movie pitch, called Coach Snoop, that Snoop Dogg recently sold to 20th Century Fox for $1 million.
"It's hard for a parent to get their kids involved in football when [it costs] so much money, especially when it [costs] no money to get in a gang," reasoned Snoop in an interview with MTV News. He should know, being the father of three young children—and still a gang member himself. "We're just trying to give the kids something to reach toward and look forward to."
Like we said, beautiful . . . and not just because the concert and the youth football league and the movie and the alternative-to-gangs rationale is such a crazy conglomeration of good works and self-serving side effects and mixed messages, but because it's all so obvious, and yet nobody—not Snoop, not the public—brings it up. Somehow, everybody's happy. And that's a beautiful thing.
That's the strange power of Snoop Dogg, in one sense a part of the great migration of hip-hop stars into mainstream show business—and its cross-marketing perks—yet in another sense completely apart from the rest of them . . . in fact, from just about everybody else. Somehow, Snoop has progressed through a string of tragicomic circumstances by making choices so bizarrely good-natured, self-indulgent and presumably sincere that acts of apparent career suicide have continually transformed into master strokes of celebrity marketing.
Snoop Dogg is everywhere—movies, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet—but most significantly, Snoop is in commercials. There is no better measure of cultural influence than who advertisers pay to pitch their products, and Snoop has become the hip-hop generation's "Man in the Gray Flannel (Sweat)Suit."
In fact, the ascending profile of Snoop's long career can be best tracked pretty much by checking out the kind of products he's been fronting—and where—from the early days when he endorsed St. Ides malt liquor to last spring when Pony International footwear expanded its Snoop-influenced Doggy Biscuitz brand, which Snoop plugged during an appearance on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The way people used to trust Michael Jordan to pick out their shoes, sports drinks and underpants, they now turn to Snoop to choose their Internet service, their satellite radio station and their cell phone—which is why he's become the living, breathing embodiment of heavyweight corporate logos like XM Satellite Radio, Nokia and America Online.
Most interesting, however, is what Snoop Dogg is not—the cutest, cuddliest rapper this side of the guy we used to call the Fresh Prince. No, that would probably be Ice Cube, the once-snarling ghetto poet of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, who earlier this year applied the finishing touch to his complete smarmification by starring in the baby-sitting road comedy Are We There Yet? By now, a silly TV sitcom—let's say, an MC snatched straight outta Compton and dropped into his rich uncle's Newport Coast mansion—would be a step up for the erstwhile Nigga With Attitude. Of course, that's where the guy we now call Will Smith came in, slinging jingles like "Parents Just Don't Understand" before graduating into one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men, right up there with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington—so high he portrayed Muhammad-freaking-Ali. Snoop Dogg isn't any of those guys.
* * *
Twelve years into his career, Snoop Dogg is still making gangsta-rap records. His latest, R&G (Rhythm&Gangsta): The Masterpiece, was released last November and was unrepentantly packed with the sex and violence and shady alliances that made him famous—and let's not forget, quite frightening—on the first.
I'm a gangsta, but y'all knew that
Da Big Bo$$ Dogg, yeah I had to do that
I keep a blue flag hanging out my backside
But only on the left side, yeah that's the Crip side
That's a verse from "Drop It Like It's Hot"—Snoop's first No. 1 single—in which he not only raps about his still-alive-and-Crippin' connection with gang life but models it too. The video features a prominent closeup of his skinny butt swimming in his baggy pants, and the focus is on the Crip-blue bandanna rolled into a tight tail and hanging from his left back pocket. Even after all these years, Snoop's unapologetic stance on the unpopular side of one of society's most polarizing issues is shocking.
Yet nearly as startling is the newest Chrysler commercial, in which Snoop trades in his ghetto duds for a pastel argyle sweater vest and portrays himself as the golfing buddy of Lee Iacocca—at one point referring to one of America's most lionized superexecs as "I-ka-zizzle."
"You know, I'm not too sure what you just said," Iacocca admits.
"Fo shizzle," Snoop replies.
The bit winds down with Snoop spinning his own version of Iacocca's trademark line, "If you can find a better car, buy it."
"If the ride is more fly," says Snoop, "then you must buy."
"That's what I hear," surrenders Iacocca.
It's a funny commercial, probably Snoop's best since the America Online spot that paired him with Borscht Belt comic Jerry Stiller, who was ranting on and on until Snoop showed up out of nowhere to interrupt by dry-drawling, "Now wait just a minizzle!"
But this stuff isn't just funny-ha-ha. It's funny-whaaat? In an era hypersensitive to political correctness and so heavy with moralizing that it's spilled into censorship, nobody else gets away with what Snoop Dogg does.
Ford just dumped Eminem over the lyrics of his new song. The company had planned to showcase the new Ford Fusion in an Eminem video but backed out over lyrics in which the rapper complimented the rear anatomy of female stars like Jessica Simpson, Gwen Stefani and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
When Kobe Bryant was accused—but never even tried, let alone convicted—of rape by a then-19-year-old hotel worker in 2003, he lost not only his squeaky-clean image but also millions of dollars in endorsements from companies ranging from McDonald's and Coca-Cola to a strange little Italian bread spread called Nutella. Only in July did Nike (which had just signed Bryant to a contract when the rape charges hit) dare to mention him in an ad again. Bryant was even ridiculed by the rapper Nas in a song called "These Are Our Heroes."
You can't do better than that?
The hotel clerk
who adjusts the bathroom mat?
Now you lose your sponsorships
That you thought had your back
When Janet Jackson had a "wardrobe malfunction"—a semi-second, single-boob shot, courtesy of Justin Timberlake, during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show—the consequences went past her public appeal and marketability, all the way to the roots of the fight between constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and a growing governmental hunger for censorship.
First, an investigation of the halftime show was ordered by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; then Congress announced it would examine so-called indecent shows on satellite and cable TV. Within a week NBC edited an episode of E.R. to remove a scene that included a glimpse of an elderly patient's breast—in a show about breast cancer—and MTV began rotating controversial videos into late-night time slots. Speaking of Late Night, when Jackson made her first network appearance after the Super Bowl, David Letterman naturally asked her about the incident. In exasperation, she replied, "Jesus!" The word was bleeped by censors.
Where was Snoop Dogg during all of this? He was on TV, too—starring in a series of commercials for Nokia phones throughout the 2004 Sugar Bowl broadcast. Despite his checkered resume/rap sheet, it all went off without a whimper. Turns out that Snoop also had a run-in with a rape charge—but he was the one who pressed charges. Snoop filed a lawsuit in Superior Court last Dec. 10 alleging that a woman and her attorneys tried to extort $5 million from him by threatening to go to the NationalEnquirer with an invented sexual assault charge. The case was just settled out of court, quietly, but not silently: Snoop made a point of emphasizing that he was tired of paying for something he didn't do.
How does he do it? Well, the knee-jerk explanation is the accusation that he is simply selling out. At best, however, that seems only half true. Snoop is most definitely selling. But selling out? It seems like a mistake to automatically equate the success of Snoop's career choices with betrayal of himself or his art.
* * *
Think back through Snoop's life story, which has been told to death on Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story and their popumentary equivalents: his mother kicked him out of the house at 16 when she discovered him selling crack while she was at work, and he'd done time for that felony before he turned 20. He was tried and acquitted of first-degree murder while he was a rising star. He surrendered the master recordings to his greatest hits as part of his escape from Death Row Records. He's the poster child for pot smoking, has raised fighting dogs and a few years ago won several adult-film-industry awards for Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle, in which actors have sex in his home while he narrates, then picked up a camcorder and hooked up with the "Girls Gone Wild" franchise. Last year he suddenly filed for divorce from his loyal childhood-sweetheart wife (and the mother of his three children)—not even telling her personally, just moving out and dropping the news through his attorney—before just as inexplicably begging his way back to her. All the while that blue flag's been hanging out his backside, but only on the left side, yeah the Crip side.
Now ask yourself: Does this read like a map that anybody could have thought led to mainstream superstardom? But that's what's happened. Snoop is how the masses have come to access hardcore hip-hop—kind of like what Elvis did for rock & roll, Bowie for glam androgyny, the Sex Pistols for punk, and Madonna for every titillating fad of the '80s and '90s.
Somehow, in the midst of these polarizing times, Snoop Dogg has discovered a weird middle ground and has laid claim to it by inhabiting a role that he was born to play: America's Favorite Incorrigible Gangsta—a man with authentic danger in his pedigree who is enough of a comedian to play it to ironic effect and enough of a chameleon that its significance changes according to his audience. There's always the sly sense that Snoop is getting over on somebody, but it's never quite clear who—the mainstream on which he confers street cred from a safe distance or the undercurrent from which he rose.
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After all this time and all that chaos, wondering whether Snoop Dogg has kept it real is kind of a minor point. More important is how he keeps getting all those endorsement deals. What's most surprising isn't that he's still representin' for the Crips, but that this hasn't disqualified him from representing some of the world's most prominent business logos.
For the record—which is to say, on his records—Snoop never leaves a doubt. Get a load of how he assures the homies that, for all his fame and riches and crossover appeal, he remains true to the Long Beach neighborhoods around Pacific Coast Highway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard:
Im a Bad Boy, wit a lotta hos
Drive my own cars, and wear my own clothes
I hang out tough, Im a real Bo$$
Big Snoop Dogg, yeah hes so sharp
On the TV screen and in the magazines
If you play me close, youre on a red beam
Oh you gotta gun so you wanna pop back?
AK-47 now nigga, stop that!
SNOOP DOGG AT THE GREEK THEATRE, 2700 N. VERMONT, LOS ANGELES, (323) 665-1927. THURS., AUG. 25, 7:30 P.M. $35-$70.