Snoop Lion: Old Dogg, new tricks from the world's most recognisable gangsta rapper

Endless self-reinvention has sustained one of the longest careers in rap. But has he adopted one persona too many?

What's my mutherf***in' name?" drawled Snoop Doggy Dogg in the debut single
from his debut album Doggystyle in 1993. The question is as pertinent as ever.
Having previously truncated his moniker to Snoop Dogg, the world's most
recognisable gangsta rapper upgraded to Snoop Lion to reflect his surprising
conversion to the ideology of Rastafarianism. But he kept the Snoop bit, derived
from his childhood resemblance to the dog Snoopy in the cartoon strip
Peanuts.

Snoop Doggy Dogg. Scooby Dooby Doo. There has always been an element of caricature to his profile, even when he was associated with the notorious Death Row records. The covers to his early releases were illustrated by canine cartoon images drawn by the artist Joe Cool. This childishness, together with the smoothness of Snoop's verbal delivery, helped to soften the aggression of his thuggish lyrics and created a global superstar.

This week he releases his first reggae album, Reincarnated, to reflect his Rasta transformation. "I was at the forefront of the most violent time in hip-hop. I was young. I was fly. I was pretty. I was flamboyant. I was the greatest of all time," he says, evoking the bravura of America's greatest ever sportsman and another religious convert. "But I'm reckless at times and that's what forced me to find a new path and I chose to be peaceful." The words are taken from a new documentary – mostly filmed in Jamaica and also called Reincarnated. Made by the youth publisher Vice, it was launched at the Toronto Film Festival. Snoop's conversion is having a multimedia launch.

At the age of 41, this married father of three children is apparently ready to leave his mack daddy days behind and embrace a new philosophy. So is this Snoop's coming of age? Can we take him seriously? For Rastafarianism is a serious practice, rooted in Bible study, meditation and a strict diet. "Smoking weed and loving Bob Marley and reggae music is not what defines the Rastafari indigenous culture," Snoop was recently warned by the Ethio-Africa Diaspora Union Millennium Council in an angry letter apparently prompted by the former pimp's loose language in recent interviews promoting his new record.

More damagingly for someone who is trying to begin a fresh career as a reggae artist, Bunny Wailer – the genre's greatest living icon and a practising Rasta – has denounced the American as an imposter, accusing him of "outright fraudulent use of Rastafari community's personalities and symbolism".

The morals of hip-hop are often confused, but "keeping it real" is a requisite trait. "I've always been me. I've never faked the funk," Snoop protested recently. He evolved into Snoop Lion following a visit to a temple of the Rastafarian Nyahbinghi Order in Jamaica.

Snoop's given name was hardly lacking in resonance. Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jnr grew up in Long Beach, California, in a neighbourhood infested with the Crip gangsters whom he would later reference in his music. "With so much drama in the LBC, it's kinda hard being Snoop D-O-double G," as he recalled in one of his most infectious rhymes in the hit "Gin and Juice". He coveted the gangster lifestyle and joined the Rollin' 20s Crips in his teens, though he also formed a group, 213, with friends Nate Dogg and Warren G, with whom he would later define a genre of rap – G-Funk.

The architect of that movement was the Los Angeles producer and rapper Dr Dre, who introduced Snoop to the world in 1992 when he voiced the theme tune to the film Deep Cover, a coast-to-coast hit tune. The murder of a police officer was his theme: "And it's 1-8-7 on an undercover cop …"

The first words you would use to describe his vocal style are laid-back. There is tonal warmth that somehow conjures California sunshine. For new listeners it was something different to the tension in the music of New York rappers. Like a malt whisky or high-grade marijuana (a better analogy for an inveterate weed smoker like Snoop), it was strong content but deliciously smooth.

Dre's funk-fused beats were integral to this effect. After the pair's phenomenally successful collaborations on Dre's The Chronic and Snoop's Doggystyle, LA became the new epicentre of hip-hop and gangsta rap's two biggest icons were international celebrities.

Snoop is not renowned as a wordsmith, though lyric writing is a key attribute in a rapper. The quality of his output between his debut album and Reincarnated is variable. He has struggled to convince some fans that he can work independently of Dre. (His work on the 2001 Dre anthem "Still D.R.E." was another career highlight.) But he is admired and liked by his peers where jealousies can have deadly consequences. "You might not realise how extensive and hot Snoop's body of work is until you go to a concert and start hearing all of those hits back to back," said the rapper Kool Moe Dee of Snoop's live performances.

In what is often a short-lived trade, Snoop has enjoyed remarkable longevity. He has achieved this through the sheer force of his persona. Twenty years after he rose to prominence, Snoop could walk into almost any large gathering on the planet and electrify the room. He is tall and – despite his constant toking – his eyes sparkle with a sense of fun. He is possessed of effortless charisma. People love him.

Maintaining this popularity has been a precarious process. In 1996, he found himself in the dock charged with being an accessory to first-degree murder. He was cleared but has said since that he was expecting to be convicted. The episode was damaging to his brand – perhaps he wasn't an A-list party guest after all. "A lot of people were scared to meet me," he admitted. The idea that he never entirely gave up his criminal connections has no doubt helped to sell records but it is a thin line to tread. "To pimp a bitch is a craft," he recently told a writer from The Guardian, defending an activity he pursued even after becoming wealthy. "You couldn't pimp a bitch if I put you in a room with a hundred hos." When the film version of Starsky & Hutch was made in 2004, Snoop was the obvious choice to play Huggy Bear, America's favourite TV pimp. But despite numerous film cameos he does not have the serious acting talents of rappers such as Ice Cube and Mos Def.

He has tried to soften before. After the rap feud which claimed his friend Tupac Shakur in 1996, a shocked Snoop said, "Who wants to be living that life where we gotta be looking over our shoulders?" But Andy Capper, who directed the film Reincarnated, says his subject "has a genuine desire to make new music that has a positive message, removed from the gangbanging lyrics that made him famous".

If Snoop is tired of rap, then reggae might seem a natural progression in maintaining his musical vitality, especially given that it has always celebrated eccentricity and the creative qualities of cannabis. But fans might not appreciate that Snoop's new album is named for the preposterous – if not heretical – notion that he is Bob Marley reborn. "We were searching for true reggae music," he says of his latest endeavours.

In truth, despite the production skills of Diplo, Reincarnated is a cod reggae album that even features a guest appearance from Miley Cyrus. Rap has its origins in reggae but rather than try to adopt his obvious skills to toasting, the Californian chooses to sing – in a naff Jamaican accent. There is none of the thunder of Jamaican Rastafarian artists, and one promotional single, "La, La, La", would not be out of place as entertainment at a seven-year-old's birthday party. But then neither would that lovable ex-gangster Snoop, no matter what animal he turned up as.

A Life In Brief

Born: Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jnr, 20 October 1971, Long Beach, California, US.

Family: Second of three sons of Beverly, a head chef, and Vernall Varnado, a Vietnam veteran and postman. He is married to childhood sweetheart Shante Taylor, with whom he has three children.

Education: Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Shortly after graduating, he was in and out of prison for the next three years.

Career: Discovered by Dr Dre and signed to Death Row in 1992. After rapping on Dre’s debut album The Chronic, his 1993 debut Doggystyle was an immediate hit. He had his first No 1 single with “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in 2004. Renamed Snoop Lion in 2012 after becoming a Rastafarian and releasing reggae-influenced album Reincarnated. Appeared in 15 films, including Starsky and Hutch.

He says: “I used to answer hate with hate. Like if you hate me, I hate you more. Now I answer love with love”.

They say: “One of the smoothest, funkiest flow-ers in the game.” Kool Moe Dee, MC

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game