‘G-Funk’: How Warren G Became the ‘Unsung Hero’ of Hip-Hop While Snoop Dogg Soared
The new documentary ‘G-Funk,’ which premiered at SXSW, finally gives influential West Coast rapper Warren G his due.
AUSTIN, Texas — The moment the first few notes of Warren G.’s masterpiece “Regulate” play, the whole room changes. The smooth sample of Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’” sets the mood, but it is that primal scream of “Regulators!” followed by the call to action, “Mount up” that truly prepares you for the sonic journey ahead.
By the time Nate Dogg’s final crooning melody comes around — “If you know like I know, you don't wanna step to this / It's the G-Funk era, funked out with a gangsta twist / If you smoke like I smoke, then you're high, like, everyday / And if your ass is a buster, 213 will regulate” — the conclusion is clear: “Regulate” is a perfect hip-hop song.
“I was just trying to be different from everybody else,” Warren G says of the track’s origins during an interview with The Daily Beast at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Lyrically, he says the song may have been “same old, same old,” but musically, “it was just way different from everybody.”
Warren G still performs the song occasionally, and every time, people go insane. “It feels great just to see how much people love what I did,” he adds of the song, which shot to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts after it was featured on the soundtrack for the 1994 film Above the Rim. The official music video has over 100 million views on YouTube and just this year the single finally went double platinum. “That’s crazy,” Warren says. “It’s like god damn, this shit just started over again.”
“Regulate” and its mastermind Warren G. were everywhere this past week at SXSW. The 46-year-old Long Beach, Calif. native was ubiquitous in his baby blue Levi Strauss sweatshirt, popping up at screenings and events all over town, including at a reunion show of sorts with Snoop Dogg on the sixth anniversary of Nate Dogg’s death.
It was those three childhood friends — Warren, Snoop and Nate — who first came up with the idea to take the sound of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and transform it into Gangsta Funk. A quarter century later, it’s a sound that both invokes the “G-Funk era” and helps explain what’s happening in the hip-hop genre today.
In the documentary, we see the original footage of Warren playing the “Regulate” beat for Nate Dogg for the first time. His eyes light up as he starts freestyling along with the instrumental track. “The shit he was saying, I was like, we need to keep that shit, we need to do that on the album,” Warren remembers thinking. “That shit was dope,” he adds, wistfully, before breaking out into one of the lines Nate sang that night, “I’m contemplating now…”
Does it feel like it’s been a long time since the song came out? “Naw, because I hear it all the time,” he says.
The “blueprint” for the documentary started with Warren G, who knew he had an untold story to tell about his life. Director Karam Gill had been shooting some footage on tour with Warren, but when the rapper found out Gill had been to film school, he says, “I was like, well shit, let’s do my documentary.”
“I grew up in LA, so I love Warren and that whole era of music,” Gill says. “But more than anything, Warren is one of the most humble — often times people don’t realize how much he’s done. It’s an underdog story.” Gill says “it’s a shame” that when people think West Coast rap, Warren G is not the first name that comes to mind. “It should be, because he’s done so much.”
Instead, casual fans are far more likely to single out Snoop Dogg, whose career took off when he split with Warren G to join Dr. Dre at the newly-formed Death Row Records. The two collaborated on Dre’s solo debut The Chronic in 1992 before Snoop released his smash-hit album Doggystyle the following year. Meanwhile, Warren went to the more established Def Jam label, but failed to find the same type of commercial success.
More than two decades later, Snoop is a worldwide brand unto himself, most recently headlining a VH1 reality/cooking show with Martha Stewart, while Warren G is still mostly considered a one-hit wonder for “Regulate.” It’s hard to imagine President Donald Trump taking the time to tweet about Warren G.
Perhaps the most devastating moment of the documentary comes when we see how the split between Snoop Dogg and Warren G. went down. Following the initial success of G-Funk, Snoop lands a major contract with Death Row records, but unbeknownst to him, Warren was left with nothing. Regretfully, Snoop says that if he would have known that Warren wasn’t getting the same deal, he may not have signed his.
So does Warren hold a grudge against Death Row founders Dr. Dre and Suge Knight for locking him out? Or even Snoop for moving on without him? “Never,” he says. “I ain’t got no grudge against nobody, Snoop, Dre, Suge, I ain’t got no grudge.”
Throughout the film, Warren is described by his peers — Ice Cube, Ice-T, Russell Simmons — as an “unsung hero” of hip-hop who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Presented with this theory, Warren struggles to stay as “humble” as his director has made him out to be. “I just want to do the work on my own to get the credit and respect. I ain’t begging for this and that and this,” he says, before pivoting to take some of the “credit” he has been denied: “But it is good to recognize and know who started and helped build G-Funk. I took G-Funk and made it a brand and a genre.”
G-Funk also has a lot to say about the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry that dominated hip-hop for most of the ’90s and led directly to the deaths of rap giants like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. All these years later, the subjects of the film view the beef as nothing more than a media invention. To prove just how far we’ve come since the ’90s, Snoop Dogg even rapped along to “Big Poppa” during one of his SXSW DJ sets.
“You had Vibe, Source, they’re putting this shit on the front page,” Warren says, explaining that “naturally” those on either side were going to get riled up. “I was all about peace,” he adds. “I’m still about peace. That don’t mean I’m a soft motherfucka — If a motherfucka fuck with me, I will take off. But I’m all about diffusing before shit gets out of hand.”
Warren says he personally reached out to each of the rappers who appear in film to ask for their participation. “Because it’s mine, this is me,” he says. “If it was anyone else, like some Hollywood shit or something, it would be like, naw.”
“I did run into a couple of encounters with a few artists, younger guys, that really didn’t understand and don’t understand, but they will understand when this thing comes out and it’s all over the world and you could have been a part of that,” Warren adds, declining to name any names. “I ain’t trippin’ though. They know who they are.”
Standing in for his generation of rappers in G-Funk is 29-year-old Wiz Khalifa, who Warren calls an honorary member of the West Coast crew, despite his Midwestern roots. “For Warren to say that I’m G-Funk is cool as hell,” Khalifa says in the film, noting that Warren, Snoop and Dre were not only a big influences on his music, but also on his lifestyle. “I definitely keep the G-Funk alive.”
In addition to Khalifa, Warren says he can see some of his style in MCs like J. Cole and Drake.
“They’re rapping but it’s kind of like a singing type of thing,” he says. As an example, he drops a bit of his verse from Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun”: “Woo! Hey, now ya know, inhale, exhale with my flow / One for the money, two for the bitches / Three to get ready, and four to hit the switches.” When he’s done, he says, “See? Look at what they’re doing now. I was doing that shit 20 years ago.”
Notably missing from the line-up of talking heads is Dr. Dre, who not long ago sold his Beats Electronics company to Apple for $3 billion, and Suge Knight, who is currently sitting in jail with pending murder charges and is generally portrayed as the biggest villain of the film.
“People are always like, Suge this, Suge that. I’m not mad at him for some of the shit that he did as far as business with this industry,” Warren says. “Because if you let the industry punk you, they will dog you out. That part was cool. The other shit, that wasn’t cool. But the business part, he wasn’t going to let anybody bully him. He made sure that shit was right. And I’m not mad at that.”
All of that being said, Warren G does not hesitate with his answer to the question of whether Knight “made a mistake” in not signing him to Death Row: “Definitely.”