Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle & The Death Row Records Reign (Food For Thought)

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Twenty years ago today, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Death Row Records released Doggystyle. The four-times platinum debut LP by Dr. Dre’s then-protege helped put Long Beach, California on the Hip-Hop map, it cemented the dominance and versatility of G-Funk, and despite a 1993 year with acclaimed albums by Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, and KRS-One, it relocated the mainstream Hip-Hop epicenter to Death Row’s scarlet-upholstered offices in Beverly Hills. In the canon of Rap labels, Doggystyle propelled Tha Row to the biggest dynasty of its time, and possibly all-time. Twenty calendars later, every collective seemingly hopes to replicate D.R.’s success, but, after The Chronic, it heavily relied on the second punch, which in the case of Doggystyle, was a first-round knockout.

Beginning in 1991, Dr. Dre’s frustrations with Eazy-E and Ruthless Records came to a boil. Reportedly a blend of creative and financial disputes made Ruthless’ lead producer upset at his lot at the label. Early in the year, N.W.A. released their second studio LP, Niggaz4Life. It was widely acclaimed, but made without Ice Cube, who had angrily fled the quintet a year prior.  Dre was plugging away at a new sound, with hard drums, crisp sample programming, and eerie synths and distorted vocals. You can hear Dre pivot in real-time with “Alwayz Into Somethin'” and “Real Niggaz Don’t Die.” Upon finishing that album, which debuted at #1, Ruthless and Dre began to push onward with their growing roster of Above The Law, The D.O.C., and Dre’s girlfriend and mother of his child, R&B singer Michel’le. Dissatisfied with the direction of the label, and the financial reward, Dre, D.O.C., and Michel’le started talking with a fellow Compton native who had transitioned from a Los Angeles Rams replacement player to a bodyguard for Bobby Brown. With his own growing connections, Marion “Suge” Knight promised a better life to D.O.C. and Michel’le, and creative freedom to Dre.

With plenty of controversial details withheld, Death Row Records was born.

In the first year and some change at the label, the imprint’s future relied heavily on Dre’s solo debut, The Chronic. Following the go-ahead soundtrack single “Deep Cover,” it was time to make an album. Guests ranging from The Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill and Ruthless artist Kokane contributed to the album, with sessions also including The Convicts, Rap-A-Lot Records’ first group including Big Mike. Dre also began working closely with Chubb Rock’s protege Lady Of Rage, a rugged female MC from Virginia. However, it was one artist new to the Death Row camp that was the conduit to all the others. After Dre’s half-brother Warren G slid him a demo of a “slim with a tilted brim” MC from Polytechnic High School who rapped about weed, triggers off safety, and his penchant for chasing tail, Snoop Doggy Dogg caught Dre’s attention. In the end, there would be only two songs on The Chronic that Snoop was not involved with. Moreover, the smooth-talking MC invited family and friends including RBX, Dat Nigga Daz, Kurupt, Warren, Nate Dogg, and others to Solar Records Studios. On doses of bud and Popeye’s Chicken, an undisputed classic was conceived.

Eleven months later, it was little surprise that Snoop Dogg was the first artist out of the Death Row cannon. Dre had never made a critically-panned or commercially-poor album with N.W.A., and the former World Class Wreckin’ Crew artist was immune to ill criticism—something he largely carries with him into 2013. Dre’s previous proteges had all been successes. If the Compton hit-maker gave a project his time and ear, it turned out a hit in the streets. Following a triple-platinum independent smash album in The Chronic, which had platinum and gold singles, thanks to heavily-rotated videos that matched the album’s subject matter perfectly, the eyes were on Dre.

While Snoop Dogg was the supporting star of The Chronic, the roll-out for Doggystyle did not begin until within a month of the album. Snoop toured with Dre and the rest of “The Death Row Inmates” in ’92 and early ’93. Snoop was deeply present in Dre’s media spots, with the barely-20-year-old MC appearing on magazine covers and in video interviews. In October, Snoop, who was raised on Slick Rick, Dana Dane, and Whodini, took on a vintage approach with his single “What’s My Name?”

After slow Chronic cruising jams like “Nuthin’ But A G  Thang” and “Let Me Ride,” Dre pepped it up in P-Funk style with the hard-drumming of “What’s My Name?” Not until Eminem’s “My Name Is” six years later would an MC have the kind of brand-defining anthem Snoop enjoyed in October. By the time the album dropped three weeks later, Snoopy had radio and video in his clutches.

Fans of The Chronic knew the players of Doggystyle. Voices like Daz, Kurupt, and Nate were familiar to listeners, and Snoop brought an entire cast of ensemble role-players, all making the song tighter and tighter. It was the ultimate set-up too, as those artists were all plugging away on albums to greater familiarize themselves with consumers. Songs were cleverly designed to showcase the roster of talent. RBX thrived on the horror-core cut “Serial Killa,” while Kurupt stole the show with his cold, emotionless views of intimacy on “Ain’t No Fun.” That same cut, Nate Dogg had his musical coming out with singing on a Hip-Hop track completely different from T.J. Swan or Mary J Blige. Sam Sneed made reference to a single that fans didn’t even know existed. It was all clever and calculated under a flannel, hockey jersey, and Loc exterior.

Throughout the album, Snoop brandished Death Row Records. While Chuck D may have talked about Def Jam a few times, Death Row was treated like a gang. Snoop, Dre, and company jabbed at foes and competitors with the label’s name that had managed back-to-back hits.

When the indo smoke cleared, Doggystyle outsold The Chronic by over a million copies. Snoop Dogg would enjoy an 800,000 first week, a record for a debut artist, and he was the fastest new artist to have his record go platinum. From the artwork, to the videos, to the vinyl remixes (and two tracks only included on early pressing cassettes), it was all part of a package that took the music-buying experience to new levels. Like a Martin Scorsese film, Death Row had action, but they were heavy on details that made the whole experience come to life.

Doggystyle cemented Death Row’s success. New artists took time to incubate. From April of 1992 to November of 1993, Snoop Dogg went from a no-name in a soundtrack video to Hip-Hop’s biggest star. With the express lane marketing team at Death Row, other artists wanted in. As the label inked two soundtrack deals to further develop the ensemble, Daz and Kurupt (as Tha Dogg Pound) rushed to the studio to capitalize from their Doggystyle exposure. Artists ranging from DJ Quik to Mary J. Blige, Craig Mack to Wu-Tang Clan courted Suge Knight to manage their careers and get closer to the teflon-tough label. Some signed, and some didn’t, but the results of the label were demanded across the industry.

It would not be until 1997 that Death Row slowed. By that point, Dre was gone, Suge Knight was incarcerated, 2Pac was murdered, and Snoop was looking at No Limit. While the label’s treatment of the industry, as well as its own artists and employees at times carries a heritage marred by controversy, you arguably cannot find a better five-year run in Hip-Hop. Death Row could sign old or new artists, develop them quickly and effectively, and build hype for projects. Whether it was finally Dre getting the creative control he lacked at Ruthless or Suge’s blitzkrieg business tactics—or both, to say that it worked for as long as it lasted would be a gross understatement.

Twenty years later, Snoop Dogg still is as much of a brand as any artist in Hip-Hop. Now a pacifist, Snoop’s “Serial Killa” and “Pump, Pump” days are gone. However, the character introduced to the mainstream with a rookie championship is still honored for his legacy. Doggystyle continues to move vast quantities of units in catalog sales. While Death Row, now under new ownership, lives in its glory days, labels ranging from Cash Money to Roc Nation to Top Dawg Entertainment to Maybach Music Group seem to still employ strategies implemented by Suge and Dre’s time together. Doggystyle forever proves that to last, you need to quickly best your own records, and you’re only as great as how quickly and effectively you can develop and introduce a homegrown star into the mainstream.

Related: Snoop Doggy Dogg Releases a Mix of the Soulful Samples of Doggystyle (Audio)