Over the last two decades, the demarcation lines between hip-hop and R&B have become blurred as the two genres have cross-pollinated through the use of samples, the proliferation of remixes and the ubiquity of guest appearances by vocalists and rappers on each other's records. Nate Dogg, the singer whose signature baritone gave dozens of "G-funk" and gangsta rap tracks a soulful dimension, played a pivotal role in that development.
Starting in 1994 with "Regulate", the gorgeous Transatlantic Top 5 pop smash he and Warren G based on a sample of Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)", Nate Dogg appeared on some of the biggest hits of the following decade, alongside Snoop Dogg, his childhood friend, Dr. Dre, the rapper and producer he most admired, as well as Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, Eminem, Shade Sheist, Kurupt, Ludacris, Tha Dogg Pound and Xzibit. His rich tones added a melancholy touch or acted like a Greek chorus, often lifting generic hip-hop tracks out of the ordinary and making them more palatable to mainstream radio. He was also employed to great effect on albums or remixes by artists looking for a dash of street credibility, such as Craig David, Mariah Carey and Mark Ronson.
Many R&B and rap afficionados think Nate Dogg would have become a bigger star in his own right but for the fact that he signed to Death Row Records, the West Coast company run by the notorious Suge Knight. The release of his first solo album was delayed after Knight became implicated in the feud with his East Coast rival, Puff Daddy, that claimed the lives of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and The Notorious B.I.G. the following year, and Death Row's business affairs began to unravel. "Everybody was new in the game, so we weren't really tripping on royalties," Nate Dogg later reflected. "I would say it got out of hand when Tupac passed. A lot of people started wanting to look into it. It's just the response Death Row gave his mother when she was looking for money. It all made us want to go and see about our money. They said that Tupac spent all his money up on girls, which was mighty funny."
By the time Nate Dogg issued his debut, G-Funk Classics, Vol. 1 & 2, in the summer of 1998, it had grown into a less impactful double CD, even if "Nobody Does It Better", featuring Warren G, made the US Top 20. Gangsta funk, a synth-heavy blend of hip-hop and R&B, favouring slower tempos than its antecedents in keeping with the West Coast's sunnier climes, had also peaked in popularity. Nate Dogg released two more albums under his own name, and remained the go-to guest vocalist of choice for many of his contemporaries.
Born Nathaniel Dwayne Hale in Long Beach, California in 1969, he grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where his father was a pastor, but returned to the West Coast every summer to visit his grandmother, and eventually moved back there in his teens. He first sang in church alongside his siblings. "That's where I get my voice from, I got a gospel voice," he told Vice magazine in 2004. "My family don't listen to R&B – never have, never will. My idols were Marvin [Gaye], Stevie [Wonder], Maurice White from Earth, Wind & Fire. But I was also into the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now". I remember sitting up in my room, writing melodies."
He first met Snoop Dogg in the early Eighties. "They had them little church picnics and basketball games, that's where I got to know him, a real cool dude who was always trying to out-freestyle everybody," he recalled. "I started writing raps, but I sung them instead because I was in the choir."
He dropped out of Long Beach Polytechnic High School in the mid-Eighties, and enlisted in the Marines, but went AWOL after three years. After a dishonourable discharge, he returned to California in 1990 and began dealing drugs. "Both Snoop's and my mommas kicked us out. The crime was just to get by on a day-to-day. We'd make $100, spend $75, and put the rest towards music. Once we got our record deals, all that criminal shit was out the door," he said.
Now known as Nate Dogg, he formed 213, a group named after the local area code, with Snoop, and Warren G mixing and scratching. Influenced by LL Cool J and Run DMC, they made a tape in a small studio at the back of V.I.P. Records, their local music store. "I think it was called 'Long Beach Is a Motherfucker'," he recalled of the demo that caught the ear of Dr. Dre, Warren G's stepbrother.
Though 213 would only release a group album in 2004, both Snoop and Nate Dogg signed to Death Row and contributed to The Chronic, Dr. Dre's multi-million selling 1992 album, which put G-Funk and them on the musical map. Nate Dogg became Dre's ace in the pack and provided catchy vocal hooks for Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle in 1993 and Tupac's All Eyez on Me in 1996. He also guested on R&B or crossover hits by Mos Def, Fabolous, Houston, Mobb Deep, Jermaine Dupri and Obie Trice.
"Regulate" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, as was "The Next Episode", the 2000 Top 3 single credited to Dr. Dre but featuring Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg and Kurupt as well. Nate Dogg also earned nominations in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category for his equally memorable cameos on "Area Codes" with Ludacris, in 2001, and "Shake That" with Eminem, in 2005.
In December 2007 Nate Dogg suffered a stroke that paralysed the left side of his body. He underwent physical therapy and seemed on his way to making a good recovery when he suffered another stroke in September 2008. He died from complications related to those strokes.
Nathaniel Dwayne Hale, aka Nate Dogg, singer, producer, songwriter: born Long Beach, California 19 August 1969; died Long Beach 15 March 2011.