The rebirth of Snoop Dogg

It is said he has become a Rastafarian, and changed his name from Dogg to Lion. A new documentary will reveal the transformation of a rap superstar.

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The Independent Culture

Snoop Dogg is a man in transition. Now in his forties and married with three children, he believes it's time to challenge himself musically and yearns for the respectability his 20-plus years in the business should by rights have afforded him. Or, as he puts it, "I know that Obama wants me to come to the White House, but what the f**k can I perform?"

And so, to Jamaica, where it is reported that Snoop Dogg became "Snoop Lion", converted to Rastafari and recorded Reincarnated, an album of reggae-tinged tracks, which eschews "guns 'n' bitches" in favour of "peace 'n' love". Is this a spiritual reawakening? An elaborate marketing stunt? Or just your everyday, risible midlife crisis – albeit "Doggy-style"?

Thank VICE Films, and specifically Andy Capper, VICE's Global Editor-turned-documentary-maker, for the opportunity to find out for yourself. Last year, Capper and his team followed Snoop around Jamaica for a month as he found creative inspiration with Bunny Wailer, smoked weed, collaborated with some schoolkids, smoked some more weed, recorded an album and then smoked weed again. The film was made, says Capper, at Snoop's own instigation. "It turned out that Snoop is a big fan of our stuff. He'd seen documentaries I'd made before like The VICE Guide to Liberia and Swansea Love Story. He'd seen Heavy Metal in Baghdad. So his team approached us, like, would we like to film this?" For his own part, Capper was keen, but cautious. "I said if you're gonna compare yourself to Bob Marley, which sounds a little bit rich, we're gonna have to go deep and show people what you actually mean by that."

Compare Snoop's proactive approach to branding with that of Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of last year's best music documentary, the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man. In that study of humility, director Malik Bendjelloul spends the first half of the film believing the singer-songwriter is dead, such is Rodriguez's reluctance to participate in the fame game or, for that matter, perform with his face to the audience. It's hard to imagine similar reticence from the man Rolling Stone magazine crowned "America's Most Lovable Pimp".

For Snoop and his fans, the various reality TV ventures, the series of ridiculous hairdos and – most of all – the pronouncements on his own greatness are as much a part of his charm as his music. In that regard he is no different from most other rappers of his generation. If the canonic "elements" of hip-hop number four, then self-promotion must be the unofficial fifth.

It's no surprise then that hip-hop, born in the era of the Hollywood blockbuster, has so fully embraced the promotional potential of cinema. Tupac Shakur acted in seven feature films before his early death in 1996, and has been the subject of several documentaries since. There are the legions of rapper-turned actors, of which Ice Cube and Ice T are among the most successful; and while some are no doubt answering a thespian calling – Mos Def certainly didn't accept a role low-budget paedophilia drama The Woodsman in a bid to sell records – many of these films have unashamedly commercial goals.

This is particularly true of gangsta rap artists, for whom "hustle" is often both the message and the medium. Eminem's 8 Mile (2002) cemented his Detroit-based credibility and in doing so helped sell more than four million copies of "Lose Yourself", the most successful single of Eminem's career to date. Similarly, the motto "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" summed up 50 Cent's ethos so effectively, he used it twice: in 2003, as the title of his album and in 2005, as the title of his semi-autobiographical film debut.

Dan Charnas, former exec at Def American Recordings and author of The Big Payback: the History of the Business of Hip-Hop, says there's no reason why hip-hop cinema shouldn't be both marketing and art. "I think it's a false distinction, especially in hip-hop. The notion that art is some clean, pristine thing, but the means that allow people to enjoy it are somehow dirty, is very academic, very bourgeois.

"What artist who writes an oeuvre about his own struggles wouldn't want those struggles depicted on the silver screen? What's so contradictory about making money from your art and your story?"

The gangster flick – with its rise-and-fall narrative – has long been the go-to genre for these hip-hop hagiographies, and for obvious reasons, but Reincarnated takes a different tack. The scene where Snoop and his entourage stumble around a Jamaican hillside, in search of – you guessed it – some marijuana to smoke, has more in common with Cheech and Chong's stoner comedies than mid-period Scorsese.

The departure is a deliberate one, and it's all in keeping with Snoop's new career direction, says Capper, "Someone said, 'You're rebranding the superstar.' I'm like, 'OK, I guess we are.' My main message was to make people believe that what he's doing is not just a gimmick. If it's an image change, every great artist has an image change now and again, and it's one of those."

Proponents of journalistic objectivity might find this collusion between subject and film-maker troubling – aren't documentary-makers supposed to maintain a detached perspective? In fact, VICE's gonzo-take on the documentary has already been cut down to size by The New York Times media columnist and newspaper veteran, David Carr. In a much-shared clip from the 2011 documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Carr gets riled after listening to VICE co-founder Shane Smith trumpet the virtues of VICE's unconventional reporting style in Liberia. "Before you ever went there, we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide," Carr points out to a red-faced Smith. "Just because you put on a safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do."

Yet however righteous the indignation of journalism's old guard, the VICE model is emerging triumphant. By wading into topics usually reserved for "serious" journalism, it has transformed from an independent Canadian style mag into a multimedia empire. Now even Carr's daughter, Erin Lee Carr, works at VICE as an associate producer. If Reincarnated is to be the inaugural film in a new hip-hop-bio-doc-meets-marketing-exercise subgenre (a doggumentary?) Snoop and VICE are the ideal collaborators.

Capper has no qualms about Snoop's participation as a collaborator rather than a subject. It was, he says, essential to the success of the film ("You couldn't get the access without the collaboration"), but also in keeping with a hip-hop founding principle that predates even the conspicuous commerce of gangsta rap. "I think Chuck D coined the phrase, 'Hip-hop is the black CNN', and Snoop really bought into that. He'd seen our documentaries and wanted to be like a VICE journalist, which is weird because usually you've just got Shane [Smith] there, but now you've got Snoop."

Reincarnated is released tomorrow

That's a rap: Hip-hop biopics

Notorious (2009)

Not to be confused with the 1946 Hitchcock film, Notorious chronicles the life and violent death of rapper Biggie Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G) in gangster-flick style. Acting unknown Jamal Woolard is great in the lead, but Nick Broomfield's 2002 doc, Biggie & Tupac, tells the story better.

8 Mile (2002)

Eninem's alter-ego, Rabbit triumphs against the odds in urban America. And with Curtis Hanson of LA Confidential in the director's chair, the real Eminem triumphed too; this one pleased film critics as much as fans.

Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2005)

Coming three years after Eminem's far superior 8 Mile, this similar film suffered by comparison. There's no getting around the fact that 50 Cent has little acting talent, and why Jim Sheridan of In the Name of the Father was signed up to direct is one of cinema's enduring mysteries.

Hustle & Flow (2005)

Djay, the hero of Hustle & Flow, is fictional, which might explain why this hip-hop story contains a lot of the character insights the other films miss. Terrence Howard plays Djay, but real-life rapper (and half-decent actor) Ludacris has a supporting role.