Regulate...G Funk Era

Warren G – Regulate…G Funk Era

On this day 20 years ago, Dr.Dre’s stepbrother released his G-Funk masterpiece.

Bachelor parties hosted by Dr. Dre shouldn’t run out of music. But in late 1991, the gilded stethoscope was slipping. In a Los Angeles hotel suite, the chronic sacks were fluffy, the Tanqueray was ready to sip, and the strippers poised to strip. But only the stash of cassette tapes was bare.

Had Warren G been absent that night, the khakis of the G-Funk space-time continuum would’ve forever ceased to crease. Stop for a moment and conceive an alternative history in which Dre never rolls in his ’64 with Snoop Dogg—a “what if” scenario as universe-skewing as Archduke Franz Ferdinand eluding assassination, or the Portland Trail Blazers selecting Michael Jordan. Nate Dogg might have been robbed of the opportunity to mentor the gangsta-rap generation on daily weed smoking and polyamorous love. It’s a world minus that one little fight that made the Fresh Prince’s mom ship him to his auntie and uncle in Bel Air. Remove the nail, and our cultural scaffolding collapses.

At most bachelor parties, the best-case scenario is that no one contracts scabies. At this one, the G-Funk Era began.

Life became rhythm when the night’s ad-hoc DJ[1] asked Dre’s stepbrother Warren Griffin III, aka G’d Up, if he had any music. Tossing a friend the car keys, Warren told him to dig the 213 demo tape out the car—quick. 213 was Warren G, Calvin “Snoop Doggy Dog” Broadus, and Nathaniel “Nate Dogg” Hale, lifelong friends from Pop Warner football and the streets of eastside Long Beach.

It’s hard to imagine hearing Snoop’s aftershave sneer and Nate’s bloodshot gospel for the first time. Maybe it was like being at the Atlanta soda fountain when the ex-morphine addict who invented Coca-Cola rolled up to offer the initial fix—complete with the tonic’s namesake secret ingredient. It was refreshing and addictive, and people began dancing.

Lumbering in from the next room, Dr. Dre asked: “What is this shit? It’s banging.”

“I’d been scared to play our music, because Dre had already shot me down a few times,” Warren G remembers, calling from his Orange County home. “He was like, ‘Y’all need to get your shit together before you do what I do.’”

Over the previous three years, Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren infiltrated cornhusker America with Compton gangsta rap. N.W.A.’s influence was so pervasive that even people in Brooklyn (occasionally) rocked Raiders caps. But as the ’90s began, the first wave was crashing. Dre was amidst an acrimonious split from Ruthless Records. Within months, he’d officially launch Death Row with bodyguard-turned-prince of darkness Suge Knight, who extricated him from his previous contract through lead-pipe diplomacy.

In the weeks preceding the bachelor party, Dre covertly auditioned rappers for what eventually became The Chronic. After hearing 213, the producer told Warren to come to Hollywood’s Solar Studios—and to bring his friends. “Hearing that Dre loved it was one of the happiest moments of our lives,” Warren G says. “He was my brother, the guy who I looked up to and learned from as a kid. All I wanted was to work with him.”

But Warren G and Snoop Dogg were barely speaking that month. Underground mixtapes and local shows had only yielded minor notoriety. Ducked penitentiary chances and bullets outnumbered record deals. Nate Dogg survived a stint in the Marines. Warren G toiled at McDonald’s, El Pollo Loco, and, eventually, a fire lookout gig at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Snoop shrugged off a short bid in County.

“We’d stopped selling drugs and tried to make a go at music,” Warren G says. “But it wasn’t working. We had to go back to the streets to survive.”

Until that zodiac-blessed bachelor party, sharks circling Snoop told him to go solo. But collaborating with Dre was 213’s collective dream, so much so that Snoop remained skeptical even after Warren broke the news—only believing it after Dre personally invited him to the studio in a three-way phone call.

The chemistry was apparent from their first song. “Gangstas Life” found Dre reconstructing a beat that Warren G had originally flipped from En Vogue’s “Hold On”. Snoop snapped like a pit bull and Dre extended a permanent invitation. The project lacked a name until a weed dealer materialized in the studio one day, offering the latest horticultural advancement: Hydrochronic.

The fuel was mostly imported from Long Beach. Snoop brought his cousins, Daz and RBX. Kurupt was raised in Philly and Hawthorne, but linked with 213 after battling Snoop out front of The Roxy nightclub in West Hollywood—impressed, Warren G swapped information with Ricardo Brown and produced his demo.

“We knew that if we could make Dre more successful, then we’d make it ourselves,” Warren G says. “There was a lot of drink, a lot of smoke, beautiful women, chicken breasts from Popeyes. Anything that came to our minds, we wrote about. We poured our hearts out.”

For The Chronic, Warren G’s chief assignment was excavating samples. He mined Leon Haywood’s “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You” from a Carson record bin, which supplied the strut to “Nuthin but a G Thang”. The non-Funkadelic plutonium mostly came from As the Record Turns, a collectibles emporium on Hollywood Boulevard—including the Donny Hathaway loop of “Lil Ghetto Boy” that Warren G originally intended to gift to Mista Grimm. The G Child was also immortalized as the caller in the skit that kickstarts “Deeez Nuuuts”.

“I’d sample on the MPC the way that [Dre] taught me to; then he’d re-do them, add drums, live musicians, and take it over the top,” Warren G says. “I’d never try to take anything away from what he did. He’s an incredible producer.”

It’s obvious that Dre was the director and the Long Beach kids (and the Lady of Rage) were the players. But while the would-be auteur went solo on the cover, The Chronic was a communal triumph. Upon release in December of 1992, it became the first gangsta rap album to earn ubiquitous rotation on MTV. The lyrics stoked the sulfurous anger of ash-smothered post-riot L.A.; the Remy Martin-and-soda pop production kept the party going till six in the morning—smoldering embers turned into Technicolor barbeques.

But Warren G reaped none of the harvest. Death Row refused to give him a deal and no royalties were forthcoming. His brother had become rap’s Asclepius. His best friend and former partner, the Snoopy to his Woodstock[2], was the industry’s brightest star. And back on the Eastside of the LBC, Warren G was 22 years old, flat broke, and crashing on the floor of his sister’s pad, essentially homeless.

If you’re reading this, there’s a 99.8 percent chance that you weren’t a Southern California adolescent during the summer of 1993. Should you fall into that auspicious demographic, the percentage is even higher that “Indo Smoke” sold you on the merits of fat chronic sacks to put in your jar.

That track earned Warren G a deal with Def Jam/Rush Associated Labels. Executives claimed to be unaware of his familial ties with Dre; all they knew was that Warren was responsible for the fragrant weed cloud keeping the Poetic Justice soundtrack afloat. On screen, 2Pac mugged as a mailman with a pierced septum named Lucky. In cassette decks throughout the 213, Warren G introduced the world to the G Child, a helium-voiced prankster who got the funk online as you pressed rewind. Mista Grimm earned top billing on the cassingle, but “Indo Smoke” is essentially the first real Nate Dogg and Warren G duet. In just four minutes, they undid all the damage caused by ’90s “I didn’t inhale” fabrications. In the video, Mista Grimm hit strains so strong that he levitated.

With a marijuantra of “whatever you do, young brother, you best not choke,” Nate Dogg staked his first claim as the most formative hip-hop singer. Had he embarked on a non-secular path, the bowler-hatted Bodhisattva might’ve wound up one the great missionaries of history. Save for Too $hort, it’s difficult to think of anyone who could make people lovingly sing such profane things. To a 7th grader growing up in the G-Funk era, the imbalance was obvious: Nate Dogg telling you to smoke weed everyday.

“Indo Smoke” peaked at #56 on the Billboard Hot 100, but looped constantly on Power 106, 92.3, and “The Box”. It transformed Warren G from a prospective inmate idling around Death Row into a rising prospect. 2Pac became a fan. Searching for his own contribution to the Poetic Justice soundtrack, Warren furnished the future rap martyr with“Definition of a Thug Nigga”. That same session at Echo Sounds in Atwater Village also induced “How Long Will They Mourn Me?”[3]

But nothing anticipated “Regulate”. It ran the summer of ’94 with the sort of blockbuster rampage usually reserved for radioactive lizards. The multi-platinum ode from the Above the Rim soundtrack eventually reached #2 on the singles charts. It’s so tattooed into our collective memory that you can pick out any line (“It was a clear black night,” “If I had wings I would fly,” “Nate Dogg is about to make some bodies turn cold”) and the next rhyme is already in your head.

“Regulate” has an elegant simplicity, inasmuch as that’s possible for a song with a plot point hinging on a spontaneous orgy at the Eastside Motel. Warren stitched a loop of Michael McDonald white-linen soul with some whistling from an old jazz record by Bob “Nautilus” James. The cherry on top was the “regulators” speech from Young Guns. The rules were clear: No geeks off the streets, and only people who could earn their keep need apply. You didn’t need to understand the laws to know that they were ones to live by.

In essence, “Regulate” is Nate Dogg and Warren G’s version of “Nuthin But a G Thang”. The narrative revolves around a sliver of Eastside Long Beach: from the neighborhood hub at 21st Street and Lewis to the hourly motels on PCH. You’d have to scrap the entire conceit if you wrote it today, though—Nate Dogg and Warren G wouldn’t need to swerve solo in search of one another, they could just text. But in Motorola pager days, serendipity was possible through Nate catching his best friend in a dice game gone awry, using his marine skills to terminate every attacker, and play seductive Good Samaritan to some curvy girls with a broken car. He said it himself: It went real swell.

By its June 7, 1994, release date, Regulate…G-Funk Era ranked among the year’s most anticipated albums. Most teens didn’t even realize it wasn’t an official Death Row release. I always considered it the last in the Holy G-Funk Trinity, a smooth Sunday cruise to the hydraulic drive-by of The Chronic and Doggystyle. If Dre and Snoop were mythical Gin and Juiced Robin Hoods, Warren was the laid-back younger brother in the sweatshirt—the rap version of Mitch from Dazed and Confused, less intimidating and eager to pass the blunt.

Warren G’s debut received two Grammy nominations, was certified triple platinum, and finished as the year’s fourth most popular rap album—behind Doggystyle, Salt-N-Pepa’sVery Necessary, and the Above the Rim soundtrack (which inevitably sold a million strictly off “Regulate”). During a period where Def Jam and its sister company Rush Associated Labels faced bankruptcy, Warren G’s sales kept the company solvent.

This spring has been flooded by commemorations of Illmatic at 20But for all its genius, that album’s immediate impact was largely confined to hard-core, East Coast-centric hip-hop heads. But when you turned on MTV that summer, you saw Warren G in rotation, alongside Weezer, Green Day, and Beck. In the seminal hip-hop doc The Show, Dr. Dre is asked about his brother’s ascent. He seems proud but slightly taken aback—clearly concerned with how the tables had turned.

“I wanted Snoop and Dre on the album, but Death Row wouldn’t let anyone from the label be on it,” Warren G says now. The bitterness is long vanished, but a lingering vapor of what could have been remains. Warren won’t say it outright, but it’s evident that a Suge Knight fiat was behind their absence. The club-wielding dictator was reportedly so incensed by Def Jam’s infringement upon his domain that he tried to ban Nate Dogg from the “Regulate” video.

“Snoop sang the original hook on ‘This D.J.’ but had to be taken off,” Warren says. “Someone quoted me saying that I built Death Row. I didn’t build it, but I definitely brought all my people there.”

There’s an innate nostalgia to the classic G-Funk records. The authors are all inner-city kids whiplashed by growing up too fast. Self-medication is the recipe for fun and the remedy for stress. So when the ’64 Chevy’s stop rolling, there are meditative moments. Dre had his “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”. Between WBallz interludes, Doggystyle had a skit where Snoop told his teachers about his plans to “grow up to be a motherfucking hustler.” ButRegulate…The G Funk Era was the most wistful of the trio. If summer is the most sentimental season, it’s fitting that it’s when Warren G snatched the sun.

“Do You See” finds Warren lamenting aging and reminiscing about when 213 was a group. He worries about his mom, who wonders if he’s a Crip. He considers a return to slanging dope. His other Top 10 single, “This D.J.”, saw the road-not-taken within a bus to Cal-State Long Beach versus chilling with the Voltron Crew. There’s no “Murder was this Case”, which mirrored Snoop’s real-life murder trial. Instead, Warren offered a slightly neurotic rags-to-riches story, with the occasional Gil Scott-Heron blues oration inserted for gravitas.

After studying Dre during The Chronic and Doggystyle sessions, the younger brother terraformed the funk to his own ends. He conscripted live keyboardists, percussionists, and even a horn player, but mostly leaned on quiet storm and funk samples from the early ’80s: Mtume, One Way, Midnight Star, Cameo, the immaculate coif of Michael McDonald.

The love extended beyond populism. Spin lavished him with a three-page spread, rare for a rapper at the time. In a 3 ½  mic review, The Source highlighted Regulate…G Funk Era’s “musical mosaics that’ll go perfectly with the summer season’s drop-top convertibles and barbeques.” The chief gripe was that the lyricism didn’t match the production—a valid complaint, but one that negates none of its charm. Summer records aren’t supposed to be philosophy; they’re supposed to be fun. And Warren G captured the feeling of chilling at Kings Park or in the Shack, locations specific to Long Beach, but universally accessible to anyone who misses the teen luxury of squandering days without consequence.

Twenty summers have elapsed. Dr. Dre boasts about becoming hip-hop’s first billionaire. Snoop Doggy Dogg dropped the Doggy, and then became a Lion and a Zilla. Nate Dogg is no more. But Warren G remains the same Warren G, popping up for spot dates, the occasional beat placement, and recording every day in his Orange County studio.

There are tentative plans to drop an EP in August. It might be called This is That Summer Music, or maybe Regulate…The G-Funk Era, 2014. But if you live in L.A., no specific date needs to be attached. On any given hour, you can flip on K-Day and listen to Warren G’s legacy. Not just “Regulate”, “Indo Smoke”, or “This D.J.”, but deeper cuts like the Twinz’s “Round & Round”, “I Want It All”, “Game Don’t Wait”, or “So Fly”—the latter from The Hard Way, the 2004 album that finally reunited 213.

Recriminations are easy for rappers in their forties. Unless you’re Jay Z or Eminem, the industry’s shoals are particularly jagged. Nor does Warren G harbor any love for his first recording contract. He’s well-off, but not quite set-for-life, and he’s aware of how many millions he’s directly and indirectly made others. But none of those things bother him. He’s more concerned with his rightful spot in history—the crucial ligament that allowed G-Funk to jump off.

“People try to erase history,” he says. “All I want is for everyone to know what I’ve done.”

[1] The stereo controller wasn’t just some random party-goer, it was L.A. Jay, an unsung hidden hand of ’90s L.A. hip-hop and R&B. The keyboardist, producer, and session man was collaborating with Dre at the time, but achieved a Forrest Gump-like ubiquity. During that era, he worked with Masta Ace, the Pharcyde, Brian Austin Green, Tony! Toni! Tone!, and Vanessa Williams. We need a memoir.

[2] Actual short-lived nicknames. Other early Warren G alter egos included the Professor and G’D Up. Snoop Doggy Dogg was initially Snoop Rock and, briefly, Snoop Rock Ski.

[3] There’s a separate article waiting to be written about his experience with 2Pac in the studio. It involves Warren G showing up with a .45 on his hip, wary that he was being set-up. But once he realized the session was legit, he played Pac some beats, smoked some blunts, and told him about being broke, hungry, semi-homeless, and desperately trying to make it in a cold industry. 2Pac soaked all of it in, then went into the booth and translated it into “Definition of a Thug Nigga”.

It went over so well that they decided to make another song. But before round two began, 2Pac invited eight girls to the studio, rolled some more blunts, and proceeded to embody your greatest expectations of a 2Pac recording session. A studio phone interrupted the reverie with the information that Pac’s friend Kato was murdered in Detroit over a set of Dayton Rims. The devastated rapper immediately scribbled the lyrics to “How Long Will You Mourn Me”. Warren G cued up a beat and called up Nate Dogg to croon the hook. And that’s how one of the rap’s greatest requiems came to be.