Nate Dogg: Can’t Be Faded

Nate Dogg (Nathaniel Hale), hip-hop’s distinguished crooner and hook man, passed away on 15 March 2011. He had suffered strokes in 2007 and 2008, portending things to come. Yet, he has a legacy that will continue. Iconic hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg, along with many other friends and peers, has paid tribute to Nate Dogg, but perhaps one of the best and most enduring shout-outs to him occurred in song.

In 2003, Westside Connection (Ice Cube, WC, and Mack 10) released the provocatively titled Terrorist Threats. On it, the group placed the song “Gangsta Nation”, a bouncy slice of West coast bravado produced by Fredwreck and featuring Nate Dogg’s distinctive and on point vocal work. “You know the side, trick, better get up on it,” Ice Cube rhymes. “‘Cause it must be a ‘single’, with Nate Dogg singin’ on it.” Kind remarks from fans and colleagues are so important to the catharsis following someone’s passing, but it’s just as important that people express their admiration in life, as the members of Westside Connection did here. Nate Dogg’s contributions, and the workmanlike way in which he executed them, frequently garnered praise and commendations from his associates.

That’s not surprising when we consider his body of work and his overall impact. By identifying and relying on his vocal strengths, Nate Dogg succeeded in carving a vital niche in hip-hop for his talents and the talents of other performers who followed. Not only was Nate Dogg’s voice a pivotal component in successful recordings from ’90s titan Death Row Records, but he also played an unmistakable role in shaping the sound and tone of West Coast rap music as a whole, and “G Funk” in particular. The vocal flourishes he added to many songs often made the songs what they were, offering elements that distinguished them from other songs on the airwaves at the time.

Specifically, I was always impressed by Nate Dogg’s precision in delivering hooks, his expert and attentive role as a collaborator, and of course the sound of his singing voice. In the first place, the hook of a song tends to get dismissed by listeners as an afterthought, something to be tacked on once the “real work” is done. With hip-hop, the lyrical verses are densely packed, and then further enriched by such devices as imagery, slang, simile, and alliteration. A rapper can have so much to say, in quantity as well as content, that the hook gets short shrift by comparison.

The reality is that the hook can be crucial to a song’s success. It’s the part that gets stuck in the listener’s mind, the part you hum when you’re at work or taking a walk, the part you try to sing when you want to remind someone how the song sounded. A terrible hook can devastate an otherwise solid endeavor; a great one can raise the stakes. Imagine Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” without Alicia Keys rocking the chorus. And it’s not enough for the hook to be “good”, it also needs to be delivered in just the right way to be compelling.

Nate Dogg found a way to navigate this terrain, helping to turn songs into anthems by integrating his sound into the song’s vibe. What’s so cool is the way he generally retained a similar tone from song to song, yet he managed to give each song the touch it needed. In this way, he would give his personal stamp to a record without completely adapting to it or taking it over.

Undoubtedly, this is the mark of a skilled collaborator. This skill, which is a valued trait of any trusted team member, is important in the assembly of most songs, and it signifies something more in hip-hop. As a culture and a genre, competition creates the standard, as artists vie for attention over one another. At one point, it seemed this necessary competitive drive was balanced by a communal spirit, wherein artists represented their posses and regional connections. Lately, though, the individual side of the game has been most prevalent. The ability to collaborate, then, helps to maintain the balance, to tether hip-hop to its origins.

Nate Dogg’s collaborations subtly spoke to this, lending his voice to projects as a team player. His most well-known song, The Above the Rim film soundtrack’s “Regulate”, presented him to a mass market in this fashion, working in partnership with Warren G. Built around a thumping loop of Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin'”, “Regulate” is essentially a duet between Warren G, who raps his lines, and Nate Dogg, who sings his. The subject matter embodies the type of street tale native to the “gangsta” category, albeit with a defensive twist. In the song’s narrative, Warren G is about to join a neighborhood dice game when he is robbed at gunpoint by men with “gats” (“I’m gettin jacked, I’m breakin myself”). Nate Dogg, who’s been looking for Warren, assesses the situation and comes to his friend’s aid (“I gotta come up real quick before they start to clown”).

Being a team player enabled Nate Dogg to join Snoop Dogg and Warren G as a member of their “213” collective. Named after the area code in Long Beach, California — a signifier of geographic affiliation, as earlier discussed — the group capitalized on the uniqueness of its members in crafting 213’s The Hard Way (2004). That release covered such familiar themes as living the fast life of the streets and dealing with fast women (“Groupie Luv”), all wrapped in a confection of slick rhythms and wiggling bass lines. The synergy of the trio stands out most: Snoop’s limber lyricism and Warren G’s laidback flow, tied together by Nate Dogg’s smooth crooning.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, Nate Dogg’s place in hip-hop history emanates from the very sound of his singing. His conversational singing, along with its robust delivery, helped to bridge rap and R&B at a time when audiences were split between the two. His deep and rich approach to vocals kept him in a consistent range that worked quite well for the types of songs he made. “Gangsta Rap”, which is lyrically graphic with a lean toward ethical ambivalence, demands hardcore, larger-than-life personalities. Personal weaknesses are sometimes brought to the fore, but there’s no room to be “soft”. Nate Dogg’s exuded the stress of walking this tight rope, as his consistent tone would lighten at the end, and shimmer, hinting at the vulnerability resting beneath the tough exterior.

In 50 Cent’s “21 Questions”, the rapper searches for answers regarding his mate’s fidelity, looking to satisfy his fears and insecurities. 50 Cent doesn’t emote much of that fear with inflections or theatrics; he lets the lyrics do that. His tone remains hardened, almost stoic, impenetrable, and Nate Dogg’s accompaniment fits this mode to the letter. Emimen’s “Till I Collapse” walks a similar line between the revealing nature of the lyrics versus the heft of the delivery, with Nate Dogg’s hook emphasizing the point. In “Area Codes”, Ludacris enlisted Nate Dogg’s talents to accentuate the player side of his persona.

However, the song that sticks with me the most when it comes to Nate Dogg is an oldie from Tupac Shakur’s side-project, Thug Life. The song, “How Long Will They Mourn Me?”, features Tupac, Big Syke, Rated R, and Macadoshis lamenting death and its prospects, paying elegiac respects to those who’ve passed away. Nate Dogg appears during the hook, while the song title is delivered as a chant, singing, “I wish it would’ve been another / How long will they mourn my brother?” The song itself barely manages to bottle its defiance — against the narrow minded folks in society who stereotype the younger generation, against the unspoken expiration date on remembering the deceased, against trying circumstances; hell, against death itself. What always struck me was how these young men were rapping this song as if they were much older, like old men remembering their fallen comrades and resigning themselves to making the best of their final days.

Death invites an outpouring of sorrow, but, the song asks, how long will it last? Nate Dogg passed away at the age of 41, young by most standards. But the impact of his work will be felt as subtly, smoothly, and sincerely as he crafted it.