March 18, 2011

Doc Zeus and Doc Dre attended the same medical school.

Celebrity deaths in the Age Of Twitter can often make placing an artist’s legacy in the proper context difficult. The rush to lionize a public figure in the wake of their passing often leads to otherwise marginal personalities in the annals of pop culture to become glorified as far more essential than they were. Hashtag culture and the desire to not be left out of the conversation can turn DJ AM into DJ Premier in the sprawl of the internet feedback cycle. Yet somehow with the passing of Nate Dogg and the gobs of posthumous adulation being electronically transmitted into the ether, it feels as if his legacy is still being given the short end of the historical stick.

“Noted” hip hop historian, Bill Simmons, once famously referred to Nate Dogg as the “Robert Horry of Hip Hop.” All due respect to Big Shot Rob but that analogy seems to woefully undervalue Nate Dogg’s place within the scope of hip hop history. It’s true that solo success largely eluded Nate throughout his career but his position within the pantheon is far greater than a role player (even if he’s the greatest role player of all-time.) I like to think of Nate as a hip hop Manu Ginobilli, a low key but unique and innovative talent who isn’t quite good enough to be the star of the show but can carry you for large stretches of the time and make a good song/team great simply by sheer force of charisma. Nate’s soulful voice is one of the most innovative and charismatic in hip hop history.

Part of the problem is that nobody can quite quantify what Nate Dogg does without inadvertently diminishing his status as a hip hop luminary. Hailing him as the “King of Hooks” or “the Greatest Hip Hop Singer Of All-Time,” barely does justice to his impact as an artist or the depth of his catalogue. These titles only seem to lessen his role as something of a novelty or a sideshow within the scope of rap. While he certainly “sang,” his attitude, delivery and cadence are far more corresponding to that of a gangster rapper than to the unyielding, sanitized rap & bullshit automatons that followed in his wake. Verse often bled into chorus (and vice versa) when Nate would get on a track and start singing. It would create a smooth, seamless style that was endlessly addictive. It speaks to the rareness of that quality that no other artist has been able to successfully duplicate Nate’s brand of gangster crooning over the years. Quite simply, nobody does it better.

A Nate Dogg laced hook was something of an event on your standard single. It could transform a cheesy, play-it-safe love song like “21 Questions” into something approaching soulful poignancy and it could provide an already great posse-cut with the extra funk to turn it into an absolute eternal classic. His catalogue of timeless singles, deep solo cuts and forgotten gems could easily fill a multiple-disc anthology box set with it’s sheer scope. His voice appeared on more iconic songs than just about anyone during a near 15-year period from his emergence as the secret weapon on Dr. Dre’s G-Funk classic, “Deez Nuuts” to his stroke-induced hiatus in 2007. None of his material shines brighter than the work, he did with golden-era Death Row and it’s extended family of West Coast luminaries. It is without a doubt that a good portion of the iconic G-Funk sound can be attributed to Nate’s presence on classic records like Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)”, 2Pac’s “All About U” and Dogg Pound’s “Big Pimpin’.” No Nate Dogg song is quite as iconic as his mammoth collaboration with childhood friend, Warren G, “Regulate.” A song that’s undeniable smoothness spawned a million pubescent rap fans across the globe including yours truly. As a youth, “Regulate” was a song that was deeply embedded within the teenage canon of great rap music. I spent many a summer afternoon rewinding a dubbed cassette tape until I had the lyrics firmly seared into the cortex of my brain. To this day, every time I hear the first few lines of “Young Guns” dialogue, I instantly transport to the salad days.

In the end, Nate Dogg like so many of the titans of hip hop culture has been ripped from the world far younger than he should have been. Tragedy and hip hop seem almost synonymous when young men keep losing their lives at this fatal rate within the community. In Nate’s case, complications from multiple strokes over the last few years paralyzed his body and robbed him of the gift that made him the most influential singer in hip hop. We need to find a way to honor his gift in the way that bestows the proper context to what he’s achieved. After all, his voice is the silky baritone that launched a thousand singing careers and helped bridge the gap between hip hop and the pop charts for good. That can never be faded.

So, yeah. Robert Horry seems to be selling him a bit short.