The Anniversary

Doggystyle Turns 20

Snapshot one: It’s winter, late 1994 or maybe early 1995, and I’m at my first punk show. The Loft is a freezing-cold abandoned-rowhouse squat in West Baltimore, with maybe three lightbulbs in the whole place, graffiti on all the walls, broken glass on the floor that could’ve been there for years for all I know. But there’s a stage, a platform a few inches off the floor. An older kid from my high school is playing bass in one of the bands playing tonight, all of whom have names that I’ve since forgotten, and a few of my friends are here. And everyone here feels like my friend, even though I don’t know most of them. I get onstage at one point, try to fall forward, end up back on my feet. People up front say, via hand-signal, that no, I actually have to jump, that they’ll catch me. I do, and they do, surfing me all the way to the back of the room, and I feel like I’m walking on air. Oh, and somewhere in there, the shittiest of the bands that night plays their shittiest song: A deliberately awful cover of “Gin & Juice.” It’s even worse that it’s supposed to be: Voice cracking, lyrics mangled, maybe an acoustic guitar? But its mere presence proves something: In the couple of years after Snoop Doggy Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle landed, there was no corner of teenage culture you could visit, no enclave, that Snoop hadn’t reached. And if the only way certain kids could interact with the man was by doing the worst-possible rendition of his biggest song, that’s what they were going to do. Didn’t matter. Even in the Loft, we knew the inherent value of rolling down the street, smoking indo, sipping on gin and juice, laaaaid back, with our mind on our money and our money on our mind.

Snapshot two: It’s March 2006, and Spike Lee’s Inside Man has just opened. I’m at an East Village movie theater with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and the movie’s sold out. There’s nothing like a Spike Lee movie (even an innocuous bank-robbery one) to turn a New York movie theater into a scene from an actual Spike Lee movie, and there’s a tense and possibly racially fraught showdown slowly unfolding a few seats away. Near us, there’s a young black couple on a date. And behind them there are two white guys who keep kicking the back of their chairs. The rows are too close together, so maybe that’s the problem, but once the black couple ask the white dudes to stop kicking their chairs, the white dudes do the opposite, actively throwing knees into the seats and then guffawing about it. Finally, the black dude stands up, slaps the more dickish of the two white dudes in the side of the head, and issues an ultimatum: “We could handle this like some gentlemen, or we could get into some gangsta shit.” This is the most badass thing I have ever heard one human being tell another human being. It’s also, word-for-word, right down to the inflection, what Snoop tells a romantic rival on the skit before the Doggystyle deep cut “Pump Pump.” The guy is outsourcing his badass threats. I recognize the quotation right away, other people recognize it, and for all I know, the guy who got slapped recognizes it. Doesn’t matter. It has its intended effect. The white guy wants to handle it like some gentlemen. He does not want to get into some gangsta shit. And, as I learned that night, gentlemen handle things like this: They sit quietly and tensely and then sprint for the exit the second the movie ends. There’s no evidence that the Snoop-quoter had any inclination to get into some gangsta shit; he could be a lawyer, or a Best Buy manager, or a high school math teacher. But in that moment, he channels a Snoop Doggy Dogg skit from a 13-year-old album and instantly becomes the coldest motherfucker in the movie theater. Doggystyle, then, is like Pulp Fiction, or the Seinfeld jerk store episode, or Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” speech: An eminently quotable ’90s cultural artifact, a thing that, if the stars align right, might just give you the perfect thing to say in a certain situation. It’s part of the air.

There’s nothing much special about those two stories, and if you’re about the same age as me, you probably have your own variations. Doggystyle was immediately A Thing upon its release. You didn’t necessarily have to own the album to know all the songs; you just had to go to high-school parties sometimes, or to walk down high-school hallways and hear the shit that kids yelled at each other (“and ya even licked my baaaaalls” was a particularly popular one at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland). In the 20 years since its November 23, 1993 release, there have been plenty of huge and impactful and culturally resonant rap debut albums, albums whose importance was pretty obvious right away: Illmatic, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Ready To Die, The Slim Shady LP, Get Rich Or Die Trying, Thank Me Later. But I cant remember any of them becoming part of the language right away the way Doggystyle was. Thanks to “Deep Cover” and The Chronic, Snoop was a star before he released an album. But with Doggystyle, he immediately became a transcendent figure, someone whose name your mom knew.

Parental panic was a big part of that. In 1993, Snoop sneered from the cover of Newsweek, its text asking “When is rap 2 violent?” Snoop was facing a murder charge at the time — he was driving a car when his bodyguard killed someone, in a case that soon turned out to be self-defense, with the dead man a dangerous stalker. But even if Snoop wasn’t an actual murderer, concerned-parent types could find plenty in his lyrics to fret about. He got famous, after all, for icily intoning about killing an undercover cop, and on The Chronic, he’d walked a line between laconic cool and steely menace.

But the secret to Doggystyle, the reason it resonated the way it did, was that it revealed Snoop to be an absolute goofball. He and Dr. Dre envisioned the entire album as a long broadcast on a fictional radio station called WBALLZ. (It always irritated me that this couldn’t be an actual radio station’s call letters; I though they should’ve called it WASS or WFUK or something.) The album’s biggest song started with an extended sound-effect of someone pissing. Snoop sing-songed every line into a hook and played word-games and switches into an airy tenor singing voice whenever he felt like it. He morphed into an actual dog in his videos. He showed a little kid’s sense of hero worship, singing with the Dramatics and making Harold Melvin jokes and spending an entire song paraphrasing Slick Rick. And when he did rap about busting heads, he was clearly play-acting, having fun with it. He wasn’t a dangerous or unstable presence. He was a cool guy. He was the coolest guy. Nobody in 1993 sounded cooler than him. That cool has, of course, slowly disappeared over the course of a long and messy career that’s gone through more phases than anyone could hope to name (the No Limit era! The all-too-brief Neptunes phase! The Starsky & Hutch Huggy Bear role! All those TV commercials! Snoop Lion!). His goofball side is a matter of public record now, and it’s hard to imagine anyone finding him dangerous. But if you put on Doggystyle the cool suddenly comes rushing back.

Musically, there are things happening, too. Dre had scored an out-of-nowhere monster hit with The Chronic, and Doggystyle was his chance to show the world that he could put together an absolute preconceived blockbuster piece of work, Terminator 2 in musical form. Because of the changing nature of sampling law, producers couldn’t patch together old tracks anymore, and that worked just fine for Dre. He brought in studio musicians and replayed old P-Funk tracks, layering things up until it sounded huge and undeniable. The drums sound huge, the organs blare, and the entire thing had a sense of vision and urgency to it. With “Murder Was The Case,” he made a total showstopper, piling the track with wailing gospel choirs and church bells and demonic voices and that trademark G-funk organ-whine. It sounded incredible, and it still does. (That same cinematic sensibility also turned “Murder Was The Case” into maybe my favorite VMA performance ever; see below.)

The album’s supporting cast, too, is pretty stunning. There are stars in there: Nate Dogg, crooning nasty put-downs sweetly, or Warren G, airily delivering one of the most purely melodic rap verses I’d ever heard. Kurupt, in particular, comes off like a beast; the Philadelphia-raised rapper brings East Coast precision and names Rakim his hero but totally internalizes the staggered cadences of West Coast rap. Others aren’t stars but could’ve been. I still maintain that the Lady Of Rage’s opening verse on “G Funk Intro” is the hardest thing on the entire album. Meanwhile, the ogre-voiced RBX growls cartoon-gore nonsense (“not pick-a-nick baskets — pick-a-nick caaaaaaskets”) like a missing link between the Geto Boys and DMX. He could’ve been, and maybe should’ve been, enormous.

If Dre created a universe with The Chronic, then Doggystle was a trip deeper into that universe. It expanded and complicated the world, found comedy in the violence and then violence in the comedy, brought in pure amber-hued nostalgia, and gave us, in Snoop, a true leading man to guide us through it. It’s a complete rap vision, and 20 years later, we’ve almost never heard its equal. So readers: What random nasty quote of the album was most popular in your high-school hallway? Which song was your favorite? Which guest rapper? Which “Doggy Dogg World” video cameo? And speaking of that, check out some videos below.

Tags: Snoop Dogg