With the recent release of YouTube’s documentary "G Funk," it’s as good of a time as ever to trace the history of the West Coast sound that ruled the world throughout the 90s and set the stage for hip hop as we know it today.
“Free your mind and your ass will follow” ― George Clinton
If there's one sound that defined West Coast hip hop in the 90s, it was G-Funk. G-Funk, short for Gangsta Funk, took the hard-hitting beats of East Coast pioneers like Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Run-D.M.C., and smoothed out their edges by sampling the great soul and funk artists of the previous generation. East Coast hip hop reflected life in New York City: fast-paced, loud, chaotic, like running to catch the subway while cars honked at each other in the busy streets. West Coast G-Funk on the other hand was easy-going and laid back, like cruising into the L.A. sunset with palm trees swaying in the breeze. While Public Enemy assaulted you with dissonant siren sound effects, industrial noise and yelled-out rapping at 115 beats per minute, Dr. Dre simmered things down to 90 beats per minute and used melodic soul samples, groovy bass, and chilled out bars. The accessible yet undeniably hard sound of G-Funk helped make hip hop a worldwide phenomenon, and secured the status of innovators Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Nate Dogg as certified music legends.
The name G-Funk was an adaptation of P-Funk, the style of Psychedelic Funk developed by George Clinton and his band Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970s. Starting as a doo-wop group in the 50s, Parliament continued as a Motown soul band through the 60s, before emerging as a Jimi Hendrix-inspired psychedelic funk ensemble in the 70s. Mixing all the eras of funk into one sound, P-Funk combined the iconic bass lines of James Brown’s bassist Bootsy Collins, the wild electric guitar effects of 60s psych-rock, the uplifting vocal harmonies of gospel and doo-wop, and the electronic disco synthesizers of legendary keyboardist Bernie Worrell. The result was a far-out mix of sounds fit for an intergalactic party on Mars.
In fact, P-Funk had a whole space-themed AfroFuturist mythology – one that envisioned outer space and technology as the future for the advancement of black people. “We had put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House,” George Clinton told The Cleveland Scene, “I figured another place you wouldn't think black people would be was in outer space.” Parliament’s 1975 song “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” reimagined the black liberation spiritual “Swing Down Sweet Chariot (Stop and Let Me Ride)” as a futuristic odyssey, presenting the band’s UFO Mothership as the chariot to carry away black people to freedom. The Mothership is an actual physical spaceship prop that descended upon the P-Funk stage during concerts, and can now be viewed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The lyrics and music of “Mothership Connection” were later sampled for Dr. Dre’s G-Funk classic “Let Me Ride,” as a response to the police brutality faced by Rodney King and the resulting 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
Parliament - "The Mothership Connection"
Parliament-Funkadelic was the music Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg grew up on. It’s what their parents listened to, along with artists like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and The Isley Brothers, who all later showed up as samples on G-Funk songs. It also so happened that George Clinton was extraordinarily lenient when it came to permitting samples of his music in hip hop. While other artists were resistant to the rise of sampling and hip hop, Clinton saw it as a way for his music live on, and allowed his samples to be used at a low cost. “People tried to sue [Dr. Dre] and other artists a thousand times on my 'behalf,’” Clinton said to Huck Magazine, “not me.” The unmatched quality of P-Funk music and the lack of legal barriers preventing its use made it a sample gold mine when hip hop came on to the scene.
Warren G and Snoop Dogg were childhood friends growing up in Long Beach, California. They met Nate Dogg in high school, when they used to battle-rap in the hallways. Together they formed The 213, a supergroup that brought together the production and leadership talents of Warren, the soulful pipes of Nate, and the one-of-a-kind swagger of Snoop. At the same time, Warren’s step-brother Dr. Dre was pioneering gangsta rap with N.W.A., who rivaled Public Enemy with a West Coast take on upbeat and in-your-face hip hop. However, after a dispute between Dre and Eazy-E, N.WA. disbanded in 1991 and Dre was in need of a new rapper. Enter: Snoop Doggy Dogg. Introduced to Dr. Dre via Warren G, Snoop was exactly the kind of cool and charismatic rapper Dr. Dre needed for his emerging style of G-funk. In 1992, Dr. Dre and his bodyguard-turned-label executive Suge Knight founded Death Row records, which brought on Snoop Dogg, The D.O.C., Daz Dillinger, Tha Dogg Pound, RBX and Kurupt for writing and performing raps; Nate Dogg, Jewell, and The Lady of Rage for there for singing; and included (but never signed) Warren G on the production team.
Together, the aforementioned formed the A-List team that went on to craft Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic. The Chronic was the album that changed hip hop forever, propelling the genre to the top of the charts and securing hip hop as an inseparable part of pop music. “White people didn’t understand where N.W.A. was coming from when they said ‘Fuck the Police,’” Snoop Dogg said in the G-Funk documentary, “But when The Chronic came out, and Rodney King got his ass beat, they were like ‘Oh! That’s what you was talkin’ about!” The Chronic told the world the gritty story of growing up on the streets of Long Beach and Compton, but it did so over accessible music production that encouraged people to listen in rather than be scared away. Songs like “Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang” set the standard for the distinct sound of G-Funk: a smooth, laid back funk sample (courtesy of Leon Haywood's “I Want'a Do Something Freaky to You”); fat, deep bassline; and signature whirling synthesizers that glided between high-pitched notes. The music's mellow vibe was matched with Snoop Dogg's cool-as-ice, don’t-give-a-f*ck attitude. On the track “F*ck Wit Dre Day,” Snoop interpolates the lyrics of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” for the iconic lines “Bow wow wow yippy yo yippy yay / Doggy Dogg's in the motherf*ckin' house.”
In 1993, Snoop Dogg’s debut solo album Doggystyle was the most anticipated album of the year. Produced by Dr. Dre in a similar G-Funk style, Doggystyle elevated Snoop to superstar status. “Nobody had a sound like mine,” Snoop says in the G-Funk documentary, “It was hard, but in the pocket and mellow.” Snoop rapped about the gangster life, yet was also hilarious and lovable, making him an ‘appealing danger’ that the world couldn’t get enough of. In the classic video for “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” Snoop is in bed with a girl when her Dad comes pounding on the door, yelling “Is that dog in there??” Snoop reassured his girl, “Don’t even trip, I’ma handle this,” before literally morphing into an actual dog before her eyes. The song again samples George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” interpolating the hook “A-tom-ic Dooooog” into “Snoop Doggy, Do-owww-ohhhh-oggg!” Snoop also reinterprets the Funkadelic line “Everybody's got a little light under the sun!” from the 1975 song “Flashlight” into the hilarious “Everybody’s got to hear the sh*t on W-Balls!” at the beginning of Doggystyle's “Tha Shiznit.”
Snoop Dogg - "Tha Shiznit"
After the skyrocketing success of The Chronic and Doggystyle, Death Row was the number one hip hop label in the world, and the East Coast competitor Def Jam was struggling to keep up. At the time, Warren G was trying to make a name for himself on his own, as he was never signed to Death Row. Warren and Nate Dogg’s single “Indo Smoke” had made it on to the soundtrack to the 1993 film Poetic Justice starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, which Kendrick Lamar referenced on his 2012 song “Poetic Justice.” “Indo Smoke” opened the doors for Warren G to sign to Def Jam and release his debut album “Regulate...G Funk Era” in 1994. With the lead single “Regulate (ft. Nate Dogg),” Warren trademarked a signature sound that was indisputably West Coast G-Funk, but even smoother than what had been done before, sampling the jazz fusion song “I Keep Forgettin’” by Michael McDonald. Far from the ruthless gangster that Snoop portrayed himself as, Warren was emotional and melodic, kind of a 90s version of Drake. While not everyone around the world could understand English-language rapping, the melodies that Warren G and Nate Dogg sang were universal, drawing in a massive following from outside the U.S.
Suge Knight of Death Row was not happy with Def Jam acquiring Warren and Nate’s G-Funk hit, and with a Puff Daddy diss at the 1995 Source Awards, started a West Coast-East Coast feud that the media blew up wildly out of proportion. Central to that feud was Death Row signing New York rapper Tupac Shakur and releasing his fourth and final album All Eyez on Me in 1996. The album's intro song “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” stripped the G-Funk formula down to its bare essentials: thumping bass and drums, aggressive piano, and high-pitched synths gliding on top. “Ridah” sounded like Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” if it were made in 1996. The classic single “California Love” was produced by Dr. Dre and featured P-Funk-affiliate Roger Troutman of the Zapp Band singing through a talk box, which was basically a tube that went into your mouth on one end and into a keyboard on the other, allowing you to manipulate the pitch of your voice depending on which key is pressed on the keyboard. The talk box is often credited as the precursor to autotune, and was used by George Clinton on “Atomic Dog” in 1982. Clinton himself contributed vocals to the 2Pac track “Can’t C Me,” bringing G-Funk full-circle back to its P-Funk origins.
After the murder of Tupac and incarceration of Suge Knight, Death Row fell apart in late 1996. But by that time G-Funk had already thoroughly infused itself into the DNA of hip hop. Today, elements of G-Funk have spread throughout popular music, and it’s hard to find an artist these days that isn’t in some way influenced by the G-Funk sound. That said though, West Coast artists like Kendrick Lamar, YG, Schoolboy Q, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs, 03 Greedo, Vince Staples, Saweetie and SOBxRBE are particularly credited for carrying on the tradition of Cali-style hip hop. Kendrick’s 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, executive produced by Dr. Dre, is considered a modern-day classic, chronicling the trials and tribulations of growing up in Compton, California. Much like The Chronic did 20 years earlier, Kendrick was able to connect with people around the world who had never heard of Compton before by telling his life's stories through catchy, accessible music. “I wrote most of my first album in my mom’s kitchen,” Kendrick said to Interview Magazine, “and now I can go around the world and hear people recite those lyrics, and understand the story, even though they’re not from the same area I grew up in.”
G-Funk’s roots in P-Funk are as strong today as they ever have been. George Clinton guested on the track “Wesley’s Theory” from Kendrick’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, which quoted the classic hook “We want the funk!” from Parliament’s 1975 song “Give Up The Funk.” WhoSampled.com has pointed out the noticeable similarities between Childish Gambino's 2016 song "Redbone" and Bootsy Collins' 1976 song "I'd Rather Be With You." Bootsy Collins also appeared on Kali Uchis’ 2018 song “After The Storm (ft. Tyler the Creator),” contributing a classic funky Bootsy bassline. And the band’s still together! Parliament just released a bumping new album this year called “Medicaid Fraud Dogg.” Just as G-Funk carried on the legacy of P-Funk, it’s clear that the next generation will continue to push G-Funk far into the future.