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Snoop Dogg And The Myth Of The Black Outlaw

How ‘Deep Cover’ illuminates the limits of gangsta rap 25 years later

Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.

As sophomoric as it seems now, it’s hard to overstate the ubiquitousness of “-izzle” in the popular culture of the 2000s. For a while there, “-izzle” was America's go-to black-linguistic-enhancement tool — the zz sound just made shit flow. It let white people say “nizzle,” which was juuust far enough from saying “nigga” that the term was almost immediately sucked into white culture. It was bound to happen. The add-on made it feel like you were rapping, like, all the time. Perhaps most importantly, “-izzle” made its patron saint, Snoop Dogg, newly iconic for his indelible contributions to the game of chill-yet-swaggering linguistics.

The catchy little syllable was a crucial step in the decade-long evolution of Snoop Doggy Dogg, the volatile '90s gangsta with an unrepentant flow, into the smooth-talking multimedia personality we know today. Yet seen from above, the arc of Snoop's career hinges on his ability not just to turn a phrase, but to flip street-specific interiorities involving neighborhood decay, police violence, and even socially constructed self-hate into a form of black comedy that is often gory, hilarious, and self-deprecating — and always, from the very start, his own. A quarter-century after the L.A. riots brought many of these stories to national headlines, Snoop's origins are worth revisiting.

As a teen affiliated with the Rollin 20s Crips, Snoop formed a group called 213 with his cousin, Nate Dogg, and their homie Warren G. The trio started making songs, and music soon drew Snoop's attention away from the streets. In 1991, a year after the trio’s formation, his freestyle over the instrumental from En Vogue’s "Hold On" caught the ear of Dr. Dre, who had recently left N.W.A. The following year, the rapper appeared alongside Dre on the title track of the soundtrack for the 1992 film Deep Cover. The song broke the top 50 on Billboard's hip-hop chart and created a national audience for Snoop’s cool, distinctive voice and playful rhyme schemes.

Those vocals filled a notable void at the intersection of gangsta and suave, becoming an embodied form of Dre's G-funk production aesthetic. Snoop didn’t give a fuck at a time when giving a fuck was in style — cats like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Beastie Boys gained much of their popularity by giving all the fucks, very loudly. Snoop did this not out of any pretension, but out of his natural predisposition. His unhurried tone, coupled with his precise descriptions of neighborhood violence both felt and imagined, made his radioactive perspective feel livable to a wide pop audience.

This happened against the backdrop of gangsta rap's commercial ascendance in the early 1990s, which stands as one of the most culturally combustible moments in recent history. Before the riots, which began just 20 days after the April 1992 release of "Deep Cover," a spring fog of unemployment and overworked, resource-strapped welfare programs led to what reporters called a “historic social emergency.” L.A. saw the first publicly recognizable use of domestic militarized police forces against Americans at the same time that the national war on drugs compelled artists and producers to reckon with the troubled relationship between black life and the nation-state.

All the while, black and brown exhaustion from those imbalanced, racially classed policies meant the race-class cold war was about to get very heated. Films, music, and television shows set in American hoods and project complexes drove companies like Interscope to target black markets in the early 1990s. Gangsta rap, especially, coming from the streets of South Central Los Angeles, Compton and Long Beach, was remarkable in its ability to unveil the very real multidirectional violences affecting black and brown people both actively and passively, in ways that allowed white listeners to engage with the violence of hood life from a safe distance.

Deep Cover, directed by Bill Duke, tells the story of Officer Russell Stevens Jr. (played by Laurence Fishburne), a black undercover cop from the Midwest who’s recruited by a racist drug-enforcement agent to infiltrate a Los Angeles crime organization. Officer Stevens, himself the son of a criminal, realizes that being a drug dealer isn’t that difficult — but maintaining his own sense of morality is quite a different story. He revels in the life of a dealer and wants to be a boss, after he flips off his own racist employer. In some ways, the film acts as a study in the ways that people rationalize their own acts of survival. What happens when the cost of survival places one’s moral code in the crosshairs? Stevens oscillates between feeling enriched by material prosperity and the shame of losing his grasp on his identity, not only as a cop but as an upstanding, respectable black man who is staunchly against drug use and crime.

Snoop’s character in "Deep Cover," the song, is subject to no such self-doubt. He never wavers from the distrust of the police expressed in the opening skit, in which he questions whether his go-to dealer is a cop because he’s never passed the extremely '90s test of taking a hit of the crack pipe to prove his trustworthiness. The song, also known as “187” after the number repeated in its chorus — the code for murder on emergency radio signals — introduces Snoop as a certified outlaw. In the "Deep Cover" video, by contrast, Snoop and Dre both play undercover cops who are still cast as outsiders within the force. The casting disparity between song and video reflects the flexibility of the outlaw role — one can live on either side of the law, or both sides, and hold the same assumptions about the police as enforcers. Subtle as it may be, the narrative twists are early signs of Snoop’s delineated early persona as a black, lawless subject who aims to trick the cop out of his sheep’s wool.

In the film, the incredibly white and believably racist DEA agent Gerald Carver (played by Charles Martin Smith) recruits Officer Stevens to go undercover as a cocksure drug dealer after Stevens's psychological profile renders him the most criminally predisposed cop Carver has interviewed. According to the DEA agent, Stevens's qualities — he “resents authority, has a rigid moral code with no underlying system of values, and an underdeveloped sense of self” — and his blackness make him the perfect candidate. As the film progresses, Carver’s stereotypical rationale, however unsettling, is proved accurate. Stevens slowly drowns under the weight of public responsibility and his own drug- and sex-fueled hedonism. The film languishes in Stevens's descent. We watch his relationship with a woman he adores fall by the wayside and see him murder in cold blood; ultimately, greed subsumes the self-righteousness he’d worn so proudly in the film’s earlier scenes. The audience gets a sense that before meeting Carver, Stevens might’ve been a problem cop but a decent man: an outsider in a fraternity-like atmosphere, an outlaw with a badge. Once Stevens is placed in an extreme situation — when his proximity to white criminal institutions, dirty money, and death draw terrifyingly close — those standoffish tendencies we once respected come back to haunt him.

The defining themes of the gangsta-rap narrative as seen in Deep Cover and its title song — the gun fights and gang warfare, the upstanding respectability and disgusting misogyny, the revolutionary black nationalism and bitter patriarchy — are attractive in their supposed freedom, but destructively nihilistic in their outlook on the world. Snoop exhibits the tension. He’s “on a mission with the boys in blue,” with a special feeling that “tonight’s the night … [for] killin', feelin’ no remorse.” As Snoop spells out, this is an act of self-defense against the slow violence of police collusion and deceit. Snoop is fed up with “crooked-ass cops that be gettin’ niggas a gang of time / And now they wanna make a deal with me,” and has decided to take it upon himself to “blast a nigga” for breaking the accepted value system of the streets. (In the video, Snoop and Dre, sick of dealing with anti-black police methods in their own force, meet the same conclusion: “If we stick 'em, then we stuck 'em, so fuck 'em!”) Such is the allure of the black outlaw and its antecedents: the pimp, the biker, and the tagger. If black and brown people are already living under the constant threat of extrajudicial violence from the hands of the law, well, what’s the use of adhering to the law?

The role of the outlaw in black mythmaking is both problematic — in the way it imagines unmitigated violence against authority — and representative of the linguistic and practical ingenuity of black life in America. The outlaw in African mythologies can trace a root back to the Yoruba trickster god, Eshu-Elegbara (also known as Legba), one of the orishas of the West African diaspora, who acts as an intermediary between the human and spirit realms. Though his duty as an interdimensional messenger is ostensibly quite serious, Legba often embodies elements of cunning, confusion, humor, pan-sexuality, and lawlessness, effectively jumbling communications between the two worlds. Legba inspires spiritual chaos through the use of his human faculties — his silver tongue and quick footwork, his psychological appreciation for the human condition and desire to test its wits, etc. — and those qualities make him a formidable deity.

As the European and African experiences grew more intertwined in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, new myths and moral systems began to subsume the slaves' more cosmological take on spirituality. In a Christian world where good and evil are plainly bifurcated and no longer sit on a spectrum, there is little to no space for beings that complicate those labels by existing in both the spiritual and physical realms. In the Judeo-Christian cosmology, while there are degrees of good — Jesus, for instance, after resurrection has a more perfect body — there is hardly such thing as more or less evil. Evil has no spectrum, so there is little room for understanding supposedly immoral choices in the name of survival. Of course, this Judeo-Christian view is underscored by the clear racial dynamics of the country at the time — any gnostic belief held by the African enslaved carried no water in comparison to the mighty heavenly divination of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary. There is no place for tricks in a world where right and wrong are as simple as sin or righteousness.

These questions have gotten no simpler in 21st-century America, especially as popular West Coast artists like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and Anderson .Paak reckon with the outlaw persona in their own music — interpreting it as a spiritual, legal, or romantic matter, respectively. Twenty-five years after "Deep Cover," its portrayal of the black mythological outlaw in hood-American cosmology is still unwinding.

Read More: Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.