TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

In 1989, The D.O.C. woke up hip-hop with ‘No One Can Do It Better’ This album and his later work set the stage for careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others

It’s become one of those albums that “real heads” use to test your knowledge, the kind of classic release that garners almost universal acclaim that’s only amplified by the fact that so many still sleep on its greatness.

No One Can Do It Better, the West Coast landmark that cemented Ruthless Records as hip-hop’s first West Coast powerhouse label, was released in the summer of 1989. “Boyz n the Hood” was the spark, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton announced Ruthless to the mainstream and Eazy Duz It proved it was no fluke. But No One Can Do It Better showed that the machine was truly rolling, a hit album from the label’s secret weapon — a young rhymer out of Texas who had little in common with the Comptonites he’d found himself writing for.

Tracy Curry becomes The D.O.C.

Tracy Curry was born in Houston, but after moving to Dallas, a teenage Curry joined the Fila Fresh Crew in 1986 with Fresh K and Dr. Rock. The group made the jump to Compton, California, a year later, where an affiliation with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru connected them to fledgling producer Dr. Dre. He was on the cusp of forming a group with local hustler Eazy-E and a creative collective that included young rhymers Ice Cube and MC Ren, along with Dr. Dre’s friends DJ Yella and Arabian Prince. After 1987’s indie compilation N.W.A. and The Posse launched the group and Ruthless Records signed a distribution deal with Priority Records, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & Co. set to work on N.W.A’s proper debut album. Young Tray Curry, aka The D.O.C. (a nod to N.W.A’s acronym-themed moniker), rose to the fore as a writer for the creative core of Ruthless Records, penning rhymes for the project and Eazy-E’s debut solo album, Eazy Duz It.

Dr. Dre’s eye for talent would lead to superstardom for Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, and The D.O.C. is a major part of that lineage. He was the 18-year-old phenom penning Dr. Dre’s verses and providing N.W.A with much of its voice. He was largely Ice Cube’s verbal foil, as the two writers gave Dr. Dre and Eazy-E much of their musical personas.

But in the summer of 1989, The D.O.C. finally got the spotlight, and he was more than ready. “It’s Funky Enough,” … Better’s most indelible single, announced Curry as the next big thing from Ruthless. Over a sample of Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor,” The D.O.C. kicks a fierce patois-inspired performance, the kind of instant classic single that makes a career. He showcased his lyricism on standout “The D.O.C. and The Doctor,” and Marvin Gaye-sampling “The Formula” was smooth enough for radio. But “It’s Funky Enough” was the anthem.

“They used to call me ‘One Take Willie,’ ” The D.O.C. recalled to HipHopDX in 2011. “We started that. Kurupt is the only other m—–f—- to do that. … I had begged Dre to make that beat. It took me about three f—–‘ months of begging him to make that beat before he finally made it. And those lyrics were actually meant for another song, but I didn’t have no words for that beat yet. So when I went in, I was just gonna lay something so he could finish adding the instrumental s— into the track. And when the beat came on, it just sounded Jamaican. So that’s the character that came out. And I just spit that s—.”

Now 30 years later, No One Can Do It Better sounds like the bridge between famed producer Dr. Dre’s Straight Outta Compton sound — a more groove-driven spin on Bomb Squad-ish sonic textures — and the slow-rolling G-Funk he would make famous in the early 1990s. As such, it remains one of the more important releases in Dr. Dre’s history, in West Coast music and in hip-hop overall. The D.O.C. had strong East Coast influences, from Rakim to The Fresh Prince, and his emphasis on skill made him arguably Ruthless’ most accomplished rhymer — even more so than early Ice Cube.

A life-changing auto accident

But fans know what happened next: After leaving a party in November 1989, an inebriated D.O.C. veered off Ventura Highway and crashed into a divider. His body was flung from the vehicle and into a tree. He suffered severe facial lacerations and throat damage that cost him his vocal cords. The rapper would survive, but nothing was the same after his throat surgery — his famous voice was gone. At 21, one of the hottest rappers in the game had to face the prospect that his career was over. And his friend Dr. Dre told him to let it go.

“He said, ‘They think you’re the king right now. You should go out like that,’ ” The D.O.C. told Sway In The Morning in 2017. “I just couldn’t accept that, you know? It just wasn’t in my DNA. I couldn’t do it.”

After the accident, The D.O.C. would remain a fixture in Dr. Dre’s orbit and seminal in the shaping of ’90s hip-hop. His ghostwriting would feature prominently on N.W.A’s controversial N—-z4Life in 1991, and The D.O.C. wrote Dr. Dre’s first solo single, the soundtrack single “Deep Cover,” which introduced the world to a 19-year-old kid from Long Beach, California, named Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Along with the new star, The D.O.C. co-wrote the classic “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” released in fall 1992 as the monster first single from Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated solo debut. It was The D.O.C. who encouraged Dr. Dre to break away from Eazy-E and Ruthless Records, and it was The D.O.C. who introduced Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, who would launch the infamous Death Row Records in 1992.

The D.O.C.’s career would founder — 1996’s Helter Skelter and 2003’s Deuce went largely unnoticed — but his legacy as a ghostwriter put him at the heart of West Coast hip-hop’s most classic period. He would work with Dr. Dre again on his comeback hit 2001 in 1999, which means The D.O.C. was in the booth for virtually every classic Dr. Dre recorded for the better part of 13 years. He is inextricable from Dr. Dre’s legacy. But everything that he lost, an acrimonious split from Death Row and his admittedly complicated relationship with Dr. Dre has made for dark moments.

From left to right, top row: Members of N.W.A Dr. Dre, Laylaw from Above The Law, The D.O.C., and in the front row: Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella pose for a photo before their performance during the Straight Outta Compton tour at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1989.

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“It’s been a real struggle,” he told Kyle Kramer in a 2015 VICE interview. “And I’m sure that I tried to commit suicide a whole bunch of times. Lots of drugs and alcohol, and not being able to do the one thing that you really love doing. It was a real struggle. But through all of it, I never turned my back on anybody. I never said anything ill of anybody. I love and have respect and admiration for everybody in my past.”

The linchpins of West Coast hip-hop are well-documented. Dr. Dre is the master producer. Ice Cube is the angry superstar. 2Pac is the mythologized martyr. And Snoop is the icon. But we should always remember the glue for so many legacies was a guy who came from Texas. A guy who in the summer of 1989 seemed like he was going to rule the world. He dared to name his debut No One Can Do It Better, and for a few months, he was absolutely right.

Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ turns 33 this July 4. The changes it made are still reverberating through the music industry. With ‘Old Town Road’ topping the charts, an author reflects on how old rockers and young rappers came together to make an earlier hit

Right now, Lil Nas X rules the top of the Billboard charts with his trap/country hit “Old Town Road.” There was some initial disagreement over what genre the song belonged to, and then he released a remix stamped with the country imprimatur of a Billy Ray Cyrus feature. The remix has paid off for both artists, with Cyrus enjoying a warm reception at the recent BET Awards, where he performed live with Lil Nas X. Their unexpected collaboration, along with the hit that resulted, is reminiscent of an earlier pairing that disrupted the music industry and American culture: Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” which debuted on July 4, 1986.

I spoke to Geoff Edgers about his book Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever. Just like everything else in America, music is infused with racial politics. It shows up in who gets credit and compensation for their art, how the work is considered and awarded by professional organizations, whose music gets played on which radio station, even how individual songs are categorized by genre. The entire notion of “crossing over” describes music that breaks down the boundaries of our still-segregated ears. Edgers’ book examines how one of the most famous rock/hip-hop mashups got made, the repercussions of its commercial success, and what it told us about race and music in America.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

You have this mashup of two groups that are opposite in a lot of ways. One is older white rockers, and the other black kids who are cultural upstarts. I started thinking of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, where again, there’s an aging white artist who’s lending some of his own juice to legitimize the younger one.

It’s a good comparison in some ways. It’s complicated because of how screwy the Billboard charts are and the fact that that song was huge without the Billboard charts putting it on country.

There is something to be said for the fact that Aerosmith for Run-DMC, they were a tool to get on the radio. That was about it. I mean, the song itself was not something they [Run-DMC] loved then or love now, particularly. But it did do exactly that. They simply wouldn’t have gotten on the radio or on MTV without those two scraggly white guys.

You could write a whole book just on artists who’ve had songs blow up that they actually didn’t care for very much.

So much of what does well isn’t our best. And so much of what is our best doesn’t necessarily do well. The reality is ‘Walk This Way’ is a good song, the Run-DMC version is good, but it’s not the best Run-DMC song even on Raising Hell. But it is the most important song on Raising Hell. And it’s got to be the most important song in their catalog.

But that creates a problem for you as a group because you want to be known by your best, and you also don’t want to share the spotlight. So both Aerosmith and Run-DMC, I don’t think, have ever been totally at peace with that version of that song.

Given that we live in the age of the evaporating attention span, were you worried about writing a book about one song?

I’ve had people criticize the book for the long title that they feel is hyperbole. And people will tweet like, ‘This whole book about one song?’ But it’s not really a book about one song; it’s about a lot of different things. Part of it is about rewriting history the way it should be, and not the way the winners wrote it. I don’t have anything against Rick Rubin, but I do think Larry Smith has been forgotten when the guy was basically the Phil Spector of hip-hop. I also think that getting Sha-Rock and Grandmaster Caz and Run-DMC the proper credit they deserve, it’s not out there. The false story that’s been out there is that this famous rock band, Aerosmith, helped a bunch of fledgling rappers build a career. And that just couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, if I did that book over, it would be longer. It would be more about that song. I feel like maybe I’ve gotten to think that MTV and radio was more racist than I did when I was putting the book together. And I might have explored that more. But I just felt like I wanted to tell the facts — like, all the reporting — and get that out.

Your book provides a different understanding of ‘Walk This Way.’ You say that the stakes were superlow for Run-DMC. They weren’t walking into a recording session thinking, ‘This is going to put us on some sort of rocket ship.’ They’re annoyed.

It’s a weird split between, on one hand, these guys don’t even know if this song’s going to come out. The producers don’t even know. But then, on the other side, Spin magazine is in the studio that one day, and TV news is there, so somebody knew something was going down that could be important. You know, Run and Darryl rapped terribly that day. I watched that footage that I was able to get from Viacom that hadn’t been released. They weren’t taking it seriously. They weren’t doing a good job. And they had to come later and lay down their vocals again because they didn’t do it right.

You mentioned thinking that your reporting led you to conclude that MTV and radio were a lot more racist than you had originally thought. What the folks from MTV are saying or not saying feels very common. ‘Well, you know, it’s about format.’ No one is being overtly racist, but no one’s thinking about who is excluded by decisions to focus on pop and ignore rap.

I got a little tangled up in the Michael Jackson myth, the story that MTV wouldn’t play Michael Jackson, which I think my reporting shows is not true. But what I didn’t think about enough, or what I’ve come to think about as I put the book together, I decided that it’s true that MTV played African American artists. And it’s true that they would define what African American artists they could play based on the ‘rock’ format or ‘pop’ format. They’d play Lionel Richie. Or Tina Turner. Or Michael Jackson. And their defense was, ‘We’re not racist, we’re not breaking the format.’

Well, the fact is, breaking the format, playing hip-hop, would have been the idea of playing, essentially, an art form built out of African American communities. So if you say you’re going to cut that off completely, that, to me, is getting you into that racist territory.

I guess they weren’t playing, like, Barbra Streisand or Anne Murray because they didn’t fit the format. I’m not sure there were oppressed 55-year-old white singers in Canada who felt like they hadn’t been given a chance, you know? Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t like, ‘God, they’re persecuting me for being Canadian.’ But, I mean, you could make an argument, seriously, that what The Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC, what they were doing was really important, and the idea that it was cut off from a huge segment of popular culture was criminal.

Run-DMC at the Fresh Fest tour.

Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Why did it take so long to get Run to talk to you?

I could get Darryl [McDaniels] on the phone right now. I assume that [Run] didn’t see the benefit. I assume he also finds it tiring to talk about what he thinks is going to be the same thing over and over again. And it just took forever. I’d talked to all the famous people in the book multiple times by the time I got to him.

What I will say is that he was extremely generous, and I think he was surprised when I brought him this footage he hadn’t seen of the session and let him narrate it. Once he saw that, he was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing stuff,’ and he wanted a copy of it.

What’s your favorite song on Raising Hell?

Probably ‘It’s Tricky.’ Maybe ‘My Adidas,’ you know, maybe. I was 15 when that album came out — that’s when you make your connection to real music. As much as I like something that will come out now and I’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ I mean I’m an old man. I can’t feel the visceral connection to anything the way I did from 1982 to 1989, I just can’t.

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

2Pac’s birthday, GOATs and how we get hip-hop wrong Tupac’s place in hip-hop history was never about being the best rapper. It was always about his artistry.

June 16 would have been Tupac Shakur’s 48th birthday, and the iconic rapper’s legacy is still one of music’s most lauded — and one of its most contested.

Recently, author/commentator Marc Lamont Hill stirred a semi-hornets nest by declaring 2Pac “the most overrated rapper in the universe” on BET’s Black Coffee. “2Pac is overrated” sits alongside “the Beatles are overrated” as one of those “unpopular opinions” that have actually been quite pervasive for quite a long time. And, almost every time this conversation plays out, it reveals more about how we appraise greatness than it says about the uber-popular artist being slammed. 2Pac’s mythologized status makes him an easy target, and Hill’s co-hosts’ cries of outrage and disgust let him know they did not agree with his take.

“I know you love what Pac stands for!” Hill acknowledges to the others. “But actually rapping?!”

Tupac, seen here onstage at the Palladium in New York on July 23, 1993, is one of hip-hop’s most revered artists.

Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

That’s almost always where the “2Pac is overrated” opinion starts. To be sure, 2Pac has never been the kind of lyricist that Jay-Z, Rakim, Biggie, Andre 3000, Big Daddy Kane, Kendrick Lamar, Black Thought, Big Pun and lots of other upper-echelon rhymers are. His early rhymes are almost alarmingly stiff and basic, and his later flow, while much more nimble and fluid, relies more on his melodicism than verbal agility. But 2Pac’s place in hip-hop history was never about him being the best at rapping, it was always about his artistry. And at some point in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

“Greatest of all time” (“GOAT”) conversations can be both fun and tiresome, the kind of barbershop debate that can go on for hours but has become the de facto way for too many actual platforms to appraise greatness. Disseminators are supposed to be a bit more thoughtful about these things, but even the most celebrated of rap commentators can sometimes have a reductive lens when it comes to canonizing the genre as a genre. To be certain, hip-hop has never been just a genre, but the ways in which we’ve underserved it as a genre specifically speak to how oversimplified our view of it has remained. And it’s apparent in how we see “greatest rapper” conversations.

At some point, in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.

In the 1980s and ’90s, rap groups were among the biggest acts in hip-hop, so any “greatest hip-hop artists” lists would have included Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, etc. But because we’ve oversimplified the conversation as “greatest rappers,” it’s led to further muddying. “Greatest rapper” suggests a ranking/appraising of individuals. Can you extract individual members even if they’ve never released a solo album? That’s fine if you’re focused on rhyming ability — you can tell if someone can rap regardless of whether they’re solo or in a group. But if you’re appraising legacy/discography, you can’t give the entirety of that legacy to someone who was just one facet of what was a collective.

When discussing the “GOAT,” so many people don’t seem to consider that “greatest rapper” is an insufficient and cloudy distinction. Is that the artist you feel was greatest at rapping or is it the artist you feel has the greatest artistic legacy in hip-hop? Because greatness in hip-hop, like every genre, isn’t limited to a specific skill set. There are lots of people who can rap better than Gucci Mane, but Gucci Mane’s artistic legacy (quality of discography, the impact of that discography and scope of creative influence) is fairly untenable. If 2Pac was never rated so highly because people thought he was a supreme lyricist, that shouldn’t be grounds for calling him “overrated.” He was never “rated” so highly because of that in the first place.

The constant conversation around 2Pac as lyricist also seems to suggest that Pac is the only legendary figure in hip-hop who isn’t a top-tier rhymer. Artists like Too $hort and the late Pimp C are widely respected, but it’s not necessarily because they spit Black Thought-level bars. DMC has one of the most iconic hip-hop voices ever, but it’s apparent that Run was always much more dexterous on the microphone. The entirety of No Limit’s late-’90s roster (excluding Mystikal, Fiend and Mia X) was stacked with rappers of questionable ability. Chuck D is no slouch on the mic, but is he what you think of when you think of the most skilled lyricists? If we recognize that these legends’ skill as rhymers isn’t what totally defines their respective legacies, it’s hard for me to understand why 2Pac doesn’t get such allowances.

Appraising hip-hop greatness should not be about ranking who can rap the best; if you want to have that conversation, a “greatest MCs/lyricists” list works just fine. But just as there’s a difference between “greatest rhythm and blues singers” and “greatest R&B artists” (see also “greatest rock guitarists” and “greatest rock artists”), there is a difference between “greatest MCs” and “greatest hip-hop artists.” Critiquing the artists focuses more on their body of work and impact, less on specified skill proficiency. We should embrace that mindset more in hip-hop.

In the late 1990s, The Source published a “100 Greatest Albums” list that recognized the classic albums from the previous 20 years of hip-hop history. It was a great issue, with one of the all-time great covers: a pic of a brazen LL Cool J holding five mics. I remember picking up that issue eagerly and feeling like hip-hop had achieved a certain place; it was now a mature genre, old enough to go back through its history with a long lens and start canonizing that history. But as media moved from print to the web and as our attention spans got shorter, such lists started to change. I saw less “100 Greatest” and more “Top 5” and “Top 10.” I saw less that emphasized history and lineage and more that focused on “hottest rapper in the game” and “richest rappers.”

2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential.

There was definitely canonization of the artistic merits of artists and music, but it seemed to take a back seat to easy rankings designed to spark debate or just to stroke our fetish for vicariously basking in the luxuries of celebrities. That condensed canonization led to a dumbing down of our conversations around this genre as a genre. As a result, nuances like “great rapper or great hip-hop artist” fell by the wayside as we rushed to name an easy “G.O.A.T.” without ever distinguishing between technical prowess and creative legacy.

As an artist, 2Pac is one of hip-hop’s most revered, as Hill himself acknowledged. His artistic legacy deserves that reverence: 2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential. His brief career yielded a three-album run that still stands alongside the best in hip-hop (Me Against the World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati) and one “group” effort that should be mentioned way more (1994’s Thug Life: Volume 1).

He’s also been overly sanitized for the sake of easy martyrdom and hypermythologized to the point of caricature. But in this age of “I said what I said” hyperbole and overstatement, it’s easy to hurl gigantic rocks at our most popular figures. Is 2Pac overrated? Yes, but not uniquely so. And, as these things often do, the backlash against his legacy is leading to him becoming underrated by those eager to dismiss him as a mediocre artist just because he couldn’t rap as well as some others. If that’s not what your legacy is in the first place, then it sounds like building a straw man, offering an arbitrary dismissal. Hip-hop warrants more nuance than that.

The 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time Our ranking, inspired by all the great rap acts on the road this summer, is 100% correct

Look around and it might feel like we’re in a golden age of rap tours.

Rhyme greats De La Soul recently finished a European tour billed The Gods of Rap with the legendary Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. And the summer concert season is set to feature even more high-profile hip-hop shows.

West Coast giant Snoop Dogg is headlining the Masters of Ceremony tour with such heavyweights as 50 Cent, DMX, Ludacris and The Lox. Lil Wayne is doing a string of solo gigs and will launch a 38-city tour with pop punk heroes blink-182 starting June 27. Stoner rap fave Wiz Khalifa will headline a 29-city trek on July 9. The reunited Wu-Tang Clan continue their well-received 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Celebration Tour, and Cardi B will be barnstorming through the beginning of August.

With all this rap talent on the road, The Undefeated decided to take a crack at ranking the 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time.

Our list was compiled using several rules: First and foremost, the headliners for every tour must be from the hip-hop/rap genre. That means huge record-breaking, co-headlining live runs such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II Tour were not included, given Queen Bey’s rhythm and blues/pop leanings. We also took into account the cultural and historical impact of each tour. Several artists, ranging from Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa to MC Hammer and Nicki Minaj, were included because they broke new ground, beyond how much their tours grossed. For years, hip-hop has battled the perception that it doesn’t translate well to live performance. This list challenges such myopic ideas.

With only 20 spots, some of rap’s most storied live gigs had to be left off the list. Many were casualties of overlap, such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys’ memorable 1987 Together Forever Tour and the Sizzling Summer Tour ’90, which featured Public Enemy, Heavy D & the Boyz, Kid ’n Play, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah. The 12-date Lyricist Lounge Tour, a 1998 showcase that featured Big Punisher, The Roots, De La Soul, Black Star, Common, Black Moon’s Buckshot and Fat Joe, also just missed the cut.

You may notice that Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are missing from the list. But this was no momentary lapse of sanity. ’Pac’s and Biggie’s brief runs took place when rap shows were beginning to become a rarity, leaving most of their memorable stage moments to one-off shows. Dirty South royalty Outkast’s strongest live outing, when Big Boi and Andre 3000 reunited in 2014, was not included because it was less of a tour and more of a savvy festival run.

There are other honorable mentions: Def Jam Survival of the Illest Tour (1998), which featured DMX, the Def Squad, Foxy Brown, Onyx and Cormega; the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour (2000); Anger Management 3 Tour with Eminem and 50 Cent (2005); J. Cole’s Dollar & A Dream Tour (2013); and Drake’s Aubrey & The Three Migos LIVE! tour (2018).

With that said, on with the show!

20. Pinkprint Tour (2015)

Nicki Minaj, featuring Meek Mill, Rae Sremmurd, Tinashe and Dej Loaf

The most lucrative hip-hop trek headlined by a woman also served as the coronation of Nicki Minaj as hip-hop’s newest queen. What made The Pinkprint Tour such a gloriously over-the-top affair was its seamless balance of dramatic Broadway-like theater, silly high jinks and a flex of artistic ferocity. One moment Minaj was in a black lace dress covering her eyes while mourning the loss of a turbulent union during “The Crying Game.” The next, she was backing up her memorable appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster” as the most wig-snatching guest verse of that decade. And the Barbz went wild.

Gross: $22 million from 38 shows

Kendrick Lamar performs during the Festival d’ete de Quebec on Friday, July 7, 2017, in Quebec City, Canada.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP

19. The Damn. Tour (2017-18)

Kendrick Lamar, featuring Travis Scott, DRAM and YG

When you have dropped two of the most critically lauded albums of your era in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), there’s already an embarrassment of riches to pull from for any live setting. But Kendrick Lamar understood that to live up to his bold “greatest rapper alive” proclamation he also needed populist anthems to turn on the masses. The Damn. album and world tour presented just that, as he led his followers each night in an elevating rap-along. It kicked off with a martial arts film, a cheeky nod to Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny alter ego, before launching into the chest-beating “DNA.”

Gross: More than $62.7 million from 62 shows

Drake and Future performing on stage during The Summer Sixteen Tour at AmericanAirlines Arena on Aug. 30, 2016 in Miami.

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18. Summer Sixteen Tour (2016)

Drake and Future

This mammoth, co-headlining tour was a no-brainer: Drake, the hit-making heartthrob, Canada’s clap-back native son and part-time goofy Toronto Raptors superfan. And Future, the self-anointed Atlanta Trap King, gleeful nihilist and producer, whose slapping, codeine-addled bars made him a controversial figure on and off record. The magic of this yin/yang pairing shined brightest when they teamed up to perform such tracks as “Jumpman” and “Big Rings” off their industry-shaking 2015 mixtape What a Time to Be Alive. When the smoke settled, Drake and Future walked away with the highest-earning hip-hop tour of all time.

Gross: $84.3 million from 54 shows

From left to right, Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton, DJ Spinderella and Cheryl ‘Salt’ James perform on stage.

17. Salt-N-Pepa Tour (1988)

Featuring Keith Sweat, Heavy D & the Boyz, EU, Johnny Kemp, Full Force, Kid ’n Play and Rob Base

It may seem preposterous in this outspoken, girl-power age of Cardi B, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Kash Doll, Young M.A, Tierra Whack and City Girls, but back in the early ’80s, the thought of a “female” rhyme group anchoring a massive tour seemed out of reach. That was before the 1986 debut of Salt-N-Pepa, the pioneering group who’s racked up a plethora of groundbreaking moments and sold more than 15 million albums. The first female rap act to go platinum (Hot, Cool & Vicious) and score a Top 20 hit on the Billboard 200 (“Push It”), Salt-N-Pepa led a diverse, arena-hopping showcase that gave the middle finger to any misogynistic notions. And Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella continue to be road warriors. They’re currently on New Kids on the Block’s arena-packing Mixtape Tour.

Encore: Opening-act standouts Heavy D & the Boyz would co-headline their own tour the following year off the platinum success of their 1989 masterpiece Big Tyme.

16. Glow in the Dark Tour (2008)

Kanye West, featuring Rihanna, N.E.R.D, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and Santigold

Yes, Kanye West has had more ambitious showings (2013-14’s button-pushing Yeezus Tour) and more aesthetically adventurous gigs (the 2016 Saint Pablo Tour featured a floating stage, which hovered above the audience). But never has the Chicago-born visionary sounded so hungry, focused and optimistic than he did on his first big solo excursion, the Glow in the Dark Tour.

Before the Kardashian reality-show level freak-outs and MAGA hat obsessing, West was just a kid who wanted to share his spacey sci-fi dreamscape with the public, complete with a talking computerized spaceship named Jane. Even the rotating opening acts — topped off by the coolest pop star on the planet, Rihanna — were ridiculously talented.

Gross: $30.8 million from 49 shows

15. I Am Music Tour (2008-09)

Lil Wayne, featuring T-Pain and Keyshia Cole

Between 2002 and 2007, Young Money general Lil Wayne was hip-hop’s hardest-working force of nature, releasing an astounding 16 mixtapes. Then Weezy broke from the pack with the massively successful I Am Music Tour. The bulk of Lil Wayne’s 90-minute set was propelled by his career-defining 2008 album Tha Carter III, which by the show’s second leg had already sold 2 million copies. By the time T-Pain joined the New Orleans spitter for a playful battle of the featured acts, Lil Wayne’s takeover was complete.

Gross: $42 million from 78 shows

MC Hammer, performing on stage in 1990, had a large entourage for his Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour.

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14. Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour (1990-91)

MC Hammer, featuring En Vogue and Vanilla Ice

With 15 background dancers, 12 singers, seven musicians, two DJs, eight security men, three valets and a private Boeing 727 plane, MC Hammer’s world tour was eye-popping. Rap fans had never seen anything of the magnitude of the Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em stadium gigs, which recalled Parliament-Funkadelic’s army-size traveling heyday in the 1970s.

Each night the Oakland, California, dancing machine, born Stanley Burrell, left pools of sweat onstage as if he was the second coming of James Brown. If the sight of more than 30 folks onstage doing the Running Man, with MC Hammer breaking into his signature typewriter dance during “U Can’t Touch This,” didn’t make you get up, you should have checked your pulse.

Gross: $26.3 million from 138 shows

13. Things Fall Apart! Tour (1999)

The Roots

Each gig was a revelation. This was no surprise given that Philadelphia hip-hop collective The Roots, formed by longtime friends drummer Questlove and lead lyricist Black Thought, had a reputation for being unpredictable. Still, it’s ironic that a group known for being the ultimate road warriors — they were known for touring 45 weeks a year before becoming the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014 — is represented on this list by one of their shortest tours.

But the brilliant Things Fall Apart club and hall sprint, which took place throughout March 1999, proved to be an epic blitz fueled by the band’s most commercially lauded material to date, Questlove’s steady percussive heart and the inhuman breath control of Black Thought.

Encore: Neo soul diva Jill Scott, who co-wrote The Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me,” gave fans an early taste of her artistry as she joined the band onstage for some serious vocal workouts.

12. House of Blues’ Smokin’ Grooves Tour (1996)

The Fugees, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Ziggy Marley and Spearhead

While gangsta rap was topping the charts, the hip-hop industry faced a bleak situation on the touring front. Concert promoters were scared to book “urban” acts in large venues. Enter the House of Blues’ Kevin Morrow and Cara Lewis, the booking agent who achieved mythic status when she received a shout-out on Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 anthem “Paid in Full.” The pair envisioned a Lollapalooza-like tour heavy on hip-hop and good vibes. The first ’96 incarnation came out of the gate with Haitian-American rap trio The Fugees, multiplatinum weed ambassadors Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.

Encore: The series, which has also featured Outkast, The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Gang Starr, The Pharcyde, Foxy Brown and Public Enemy, is credited with opening the door for a return to more straight-ahead hip-hop tours led by Jay-Z, DMX and Dr. Dre.

Kanye West (left) and Jay-Z (right) perform in concert during the Watch The Throne Tour, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, in East Rutherford, N.J.

AP Photo

11. Watch the Throne Tour (2011-12)

Jay-Z and Kanye West

In better times, Jay-Z and Kanye West exhibited lofty friendship goals we could all aspire to, with their bromance popping on the platinum album Watch the Throne. Before their much-publicized fallout, Jay-Z and West took their act on the road for the mother of all double-bill spectacles.

Two of hip-hop’s greatest traded classics such as the ominous “Where I’m From” (Jay-Z) and soaring “Jesus Walks” (West) from separate stages on opposite sides of the venue. Those lucky enough to catch the tour can still recall the dream tag team launching into their encore of “N—as in Paris” amid roars from thousands of revelers.

Gross: $75.6 million from 63 shows

10. The Miseducation Tour (1999)

Lauryn Hill, featuring Outkast

In 1998, Lauryn Hill wasn’t just the best woman emcee or the best emcee alive and kicking. The former standout Fugees member was briefly the voice of her generation as she rode the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy success of her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By February 1999, it was time to take the show on the road. Hill and her 10-piece band went beyond the hype, especially when they tore through a blistering take of the heartbreaking “Ex-Factor.”

Encore: Outkast (Atlantans Andre 3000 and Big Boi) rocked the house backed by some conspicuous props, including two front grilles of a Cadillac and a throwback Ford truck, kicked off their own headlining Stanklove theater tour in early 2001.

9. No Way Out Tour (1997-98)

Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, 112, The Lox, Usher, Kid Capri, Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z

The Los Angeles Times headline spoke volumes: “Combs to Headline Rare Rap Tour.” Combs, of course, is Sean “Diddy” Combs, the music, fashion, television and liquor mogul who Forbes estimates now has a net worth of $820 million. But back then, the hustler formerly known as Puff Daddy was struggling to keep his Bad Boy Records afloat after the March 9, 1997, murder of Brooklyn, New York, rhyme king The Notorious B.I.G.

But out of unspeakable tragedy rose Combs’ chart-dominating No Way Out album and an emotional all-star tour. Despite suggestions that large-scale rap shows were too much of a financial gamble, Puffy rallied the Bad Boy troops and a few close friends and proved the naysayers wrong. The No Way Out Tour was both a cathartic exercise and a joyous celebration of life. “It’s All About the Benjamins” shook the foundation of every building as Combs, The Lox and a show-stealing Lil’ Kim made monetary excess look regal. And the heartfelt Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You,” which was performed live at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, had audiences in tears.

Gross: $16 million

Rap stars, from left, Redman, foreground, DMX, Method Man and Jay-Z join host DJ Clue, background left, in a photo session on Jan. 26, 1999, in New York, after announcing their 40-city Hard Knock Life Tour beginning Feb. 27, in Charlotte, N.C.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

8. Hard Knock Life Tour (1999)

Jay-Z, featuring DMX, Redman and Method Man

Jay-Z stands now as hip-hop’s most bankable live draw. In 2017, the newly minted billionaire’s 4:44 Live Nation production pulled in $44.7 million, becoming America’s all-time highest-grossing solo rap jaunt. It’s a long way from the days of Jay-Z lumbering through performances in a bulletproof vest when he was last off the bench on Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour.

Surely the seeds of Jay-Z’s evolution as a concert staple were first planted on his Hard Knock Life Tour, which was documented in the 2000 film Backstage. This was a confident, full-throated Shawn Carter, and he would need every ounce of charisma, with Ruff Ryders lead dog DMX enrapturing fans as if he were a Baptist preacher at a tent revival and the duo of Redman and Method Man rapping and swinging over crowds from ropes attached to moving cranes. What a gig.

Gross: $18 million

Flavor Flav (left) and Chuck D (right) of the rap group Public Enemy perform onstage in New York in August 1988.

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7. Bring the Noise Tour (1988)

Public Enemy and Ice-T, featuring Eazy-E & N.W.A. and EPMD

There has always been a controlled chaos to a Public Enemy live show. Lead orator Chuck D jolted the crowd with a ferocity over the intricate, combustible production of the Bomb Squad while clock-rocking Flavor Flav, the prototypical hype man, jumped and zigzagged across the stage.

DJ Terminator X cut records like a cyborg and never smiled. And Professor Griff and the S1Ws exuded an intimidating, paramilitary presence. Armed with their 1988 watershed black nationalist work, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album many music historians consider to be the pinnacle hip-hop statement, Public Enemy spearheaded arguably the most exciting rap tour ever conceived.

Encore: Along for the wild ride was the godfather of West Coast rap, Ice-T, who was putting on the rest of the country to Los Angeles’ violent Crips and Bloods gang wars with the too-real “Colors.” N.W.A. was just about to set the world on fire with their opus Straight Outta Compton. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella unleashed a profanity-laced declaration of street knowledge that was instantly slapped with parental advisory stickers. And Erick and Parrish were making dollars with their rough and raw EPMD joint Strictly Business.

6. Nitro World Tour (1989-90)

LL Cool J, featuring Public Enemy, Eazy E & N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane, Too $hort, EPMD, Slick Rick, De La Soul and Special Ed

In early ’85, LL Cool J was a 16-year-old rhyme fanatic living in his grandparents’ Queens, New York, home. Three years later, the kid who became Def Jam Records’ signature artist with his iconic B-boy manifesto Radio was the most successful solo emcee on the planet with more than 4 million albums sold and counting. LL Cool J was also headlining some of the hottest events of rap’s golden era. And he was at his cockiest love-me-or-hate-me peak during the Nitro Tour.

But not even LL Cool J was ready for the monster that was N.W.A. The self-proclaimed World’s Most Dangerous Group completely hijacked the spotlight when N.W.A. was warned by officials not to perform their controversial track “F— the Police” at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. A minute into the song, cops stormed the stage and shut down Eazy-E and crew’s volatile set, a wild scene that was later re-created in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Encore: A few months before the Detroit gig, N.W.A. was booed during a Run-DMC show at New York’s Apollo Theater. “We all had watched Showtime at the Apollo, so we all knew if it went bad what was gonna happen,” Ice Cube explained on the Complex story series What Had Happened Was … “We hit the stage, and as soon as they saw the Jheri curls, all you heard was ‘Boo!’ I mean, before we even got a line out, they was booin’. I guess they just wasn’t feeling the Jheri curls.”

Rappers Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Nolan of Kid ‘n Play perform onstage during “The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever” on Jan. 3, 1992 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

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5. The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever (1991-92)

Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Geto Boys, Kid ’n Play, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School and Oaktown’s 3.5.7.

Props to the promoter who put together this awesome collection of hip-hop firepower for a tour that at least aimed to live up to its tagline. What stands out the most was the early acknowledgment of rap’s reach beyond the East and West coasts. The significance of including Houston’s Geto Boys, for instance, cannot be overstated.

Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill carried the flag for Southern hip-hop, winning over skeptical concertgoers with their raw dissection of ’hood paranoia, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which had become a favorite on Yo! MTV Raps. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince proved they could still rock the house with PG-rated material. (It helped that Will Smith had just begun the first season of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Queen Latifah busted through the testosterone with the empowering “Ladies First.” And Naughty by Nature frequently knocked out the most crowd-pleasing set of the night with their promiscuous anthem “O.P.P.”

Encore: The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever made its Jan. 3, 1992, stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden less than a week after nine people were fatally crushed at a hip-hop charity basketball game at City College of New York. Before Public Enemy’s powerful message of black self-determination, Heavy D, an organizer of the doomed event, made a plea for unity. Fans were certainly listening. The gig was a resounding, peaceful triumph.

LL Cool J performs at the Genesis Center in Gary, Indiana in December 1987.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

4. Def Jam Tour (1987)

LL Cool J, Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, and Public Enemy

From 1986 to 1992, New York’s Def Jam Records was the premier hip-hop label. Its roster of artists, which included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, EPMD and Slick Rick, was unparalleled in range and cultural dominance. So when it came time for partners Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to spread the Def Jam gospel on its first international tour, the imprint’s biggest star, LL Cool J, was chosen to lead the way. And he didn’t disappoint.

James Todd Smith strutted out of a giant neon boombox sporting a Kangol hat, dookie rope gold chain and Adidas jacket. Of course, that jacket would soon be thrown to the floor as a shirtless Ladies Love Cool James tore through his ’85 single “Rock the Bells” as if it were the last song he would get to perform.

For many overseas, their first taste of American rap also included DJ Eric B. & Rakim, who were killing the streets with their 1987 masterpiece Paid In Full. Almost overnight in Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands, hip-hop became the new religion.

Encore: This was the first proper world tour for Public Enemy, who had just dropped their 12-inch single “Rebel Without a Pause.” Although they were the opening act, Chuck D and his posse stole the show, establishing their standing as global behemoths. The now-legendary show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon can be heard throughout It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

The Up In Smoke Tour in 2000 was a dream team bill, headed by producer Dr. Dre and featuring Eminem, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and more.

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

3. Up In Smoke (2000)

Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Eminem, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Nate Dogg, and Xzibit

As over-the-top, profane spectacles go, the Up In Smoke Tour has few rivals. Detroit’s Eminem stormed the stage wearing a red jumpsuit with “County Jail” stitched on the back. Ice Cube, before being joined by his Westside Connection cohorts, Mack 10 and WC, emerged from a cryogenic chamber. Hennessy-sipping and weed-toking Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rode out in a hydraulically juiced lowrider. There was a 15-foot talking skull!

The multimillion-dollar stage design put the concert industry on notice that not only could rap shows attain the lavish production values of the best rock shows, they could surpass them. It was also an emphatic statement that the largely West Coast rap dignitaries knew how to throw a party. And there still isn’t another hip-hop song that matches the first 20 seconds of Dre’s “Next Episode” in concert.

Gross: $22.2 million from 44 shows

2. Raising Hell Tour (1986)

Run-DMC, featuring LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Whodini

There’s a reason Run-DMC is hailed as the greatest live hip-hop act of its era. They understood that less is always more. Because of their stripped-down beats and rhymes, the group amplified the genius of every aspect of their concert presentation up to 11. Jam Master Jay’s scratching was more thunderous than the other DJs on the 1s and 2s. Run’s pay-me stage presence commanded respect. And D had the throat-grabbing voice of God. They wore Godfather hats, black jeans and shoelace-less Adidas sneakers. The Hollis, Queens, crew was the personification of cool.

LL Cool J was just 18 during the Raising Hell Tour, but he was coming after Run-DMC’s crown every night. The hotel-wrecking Beastie Boys co-piloted rap’s bum-rush into Middle America, scaring parents wherever they landed. And Whodini brilliantly straddled the line between electro funkateers and around-the-way dudes representing BK to the fullest.

As “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s genre-shifting Aerosmith collaboration, exploded on the pop charts, vaulting the Raising Hell album to 3 million copies sold (the first hip-hop album to go triple platinum), ticket sales followed. The 45-city tour affirmed hip-hop’s cultural takeover.

Encore: The image of Joseph Simmons commanding 20,000-plus fans to hold up their sneakers during a performance of “My Adidas” at a New York show is still a surreal sight.

1. Fresh Fest (1984)

Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, Newcleus & the Dynamic Breakers, New York City Breakers, Turbo and Ozone

Ricky Walker had an idea: The concert promoter wanted to put together the first national rap music and break-dancing tour. In 1984, hip-hop had moved on from its underground beginnings in the Bronx. Run-DMC had just dropped their self-titled debut, and their “Rock Box” became the first rap video to received play on MTV. Breakin’, the first break dancing movie to hit the big screen, pulled in nearly $40 million at the box office on a minuscule $1.2 million budget. Walker saw the future.

He called New York impresario Simmons to tap some of his Rush Productions talent, which included heartthrob Brooklyn trio Whodini, rap’s first solo superstar Kurtis Blow, the comedic Fat Boys and, of course, the hottest hip-hop act in the country, Run-DMC. But when it came time to promote the first show, billed as the Swatch Watch NYC Fresh Fest Festival, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Walker was laughed out of the room by a radio ad man.

Rap was still viewed by many record industry power brokers as a passing fad. In a 1985 interview with Billboard magazine, Walker recalled the salesperson pleading with him. “You’re a friend of mine,” he said. “Can’t I talk you out of doing this show?”

Walker’s instincts, however, proved to be dead-on. Fresh Fest moved 7,500 tickets in four hours. The tour, which also featured some of the best street dancers on the planet, such as Breakin’ stars Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo, as well as the synth funk-rap group Newcleus, not only did brisk business at mid-level venues but also sold out 20,000-seat arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia. Like the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll shows of the ’50s conceived by Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed, the Fresh Fest proved that rap could be a serious and profitable art form. The rest is hip-hop history.

Gross: $3.5 million

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

Is the Death Row music from ‘Above the Rim’ the last great hip-hop soundtrack? Even bigger than the film — and from Warren G to The Lady of Rage to Tupac — this West Coast project still rules 25 years later

It’s early 1994. Robin Allen, the bruising emcee first introduced to millions as The Lady of Rage on Dr. Dre’s 1992 opus The Chronic, had been asked by Dre if she had anything in her arsenal for a new joint he was working on.

Rage was the second rapper signed to Death Row Records, which during the height of its ’90s run grossed an estimated $100 million per year. After the multiplatinum success of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s stunning 1993 Doggystyle, The Lady of Rage had next. And unbeknownst to her, the mashing, funk-injected “Afro Puffs” was set to be included on the soundtrack for a basketball drama called Above the Rim.

Because after the self-proclaimed “lyrical murderer” had knocked out her bars at the famed Can-Am Recording Studio in sleepy Tarzana, California, Rage wasn’t impressed with the playback. In fact, she hated the song.

“I didn’t think ‘Afro Puffs’ should be my first solo track because I didn’t believe it was lyrical enough,” Allen says more than two decades later. “I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.”


This was the high-flying age of black cinema, first reignited in the mid-’80s by future Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee with his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It. What followed was an “urban film” explosion exemplified by the surprise success of New Jack City (1991). The Wesley Snipes/Ice-T drug drama was a hit with audiences, pulling in nearly $50 million at the box office. And when record label executives saw its eclectic soundtrack — featuring the likes of Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up”), Guy (“New Jack City”), 2 Live Crew (“In the Dust”) and the aforementioned Ice-T (“New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)”) — reach double platinum status, executives scrambled to repeat its success.

“I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.” —The Lady of Rage

Having a chart-topping soundtrack soon became as important as scoring a box-office hit. Musical accompaniments to Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Juice (1992) went gold. The soundtrack for the Eddie Murphy romantic comedy Boomerang (1992) hit triple platinum. There was also the gold soundtrack to Poetic Justice (1993) and the platinum one for Menace II Society (1993). The soundtrack for multimillion-selling, Babyface-produced Waiting to Exhale (1995) remains a classic, as does the platinum one for The Nutty Professor (1996), the double platinum one for Soul Food (1997) and the platinum Bulworth (1998).

So, despite her protests, The Lady of Rage became a vital part of the success of one of that era’s most celebrated soundtracks. “I even begged Suge to take me off Above the Rim,” Allen recalls. “One day I was riding in the car with my manager at the time and I said, ‘I’m sure glad Suge dropped ‘Afro Puffs’ from the soundtrack.’ And she’s like, ‘Girl, Suge didn’t take that song off the album.’ I lost it. I had no idea how big the Above the Rim soundtrack would become. But Suge knew.”

Of course, Suge is Marion “Suge” Knight, the infamous co-founder and CEO of Death Row who today sits inside a California state prison cell. He was sentenced last October to 28 years for voluntary manslaughter. In recent years, the 53-year-old’s fearsome reputation has taken a hit. But back in ’94, Knight was fast becoming the most intimidating man in the music industry: a rap boogeyman known for imposing violent will on friends and foes alike. Few people said no to Suge Knight.

Yet, the former Compton, California, football standout was also an ambitious businessman who negotiated the ownership of his label’s master recordings as part of its partnership with Interscope, a rarity in the music business. Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines. The bet paid off.

“The album was more successful than the movie.” — Brian Alexander Morgan

Released 25 years ago on March 22, 1994, the Above the Rim soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies and topped the R&B Albums chart for 10 consecutive weeks. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the pop album chart, raising the profile of Death Row as a major industry player.

It’s true that the cultural impact of the black star-powered movie soundtrack started way before the ’90s. There’s Isaac Hayes’ monumental Shaft (1971), Curtis Mayfield’s riveting Superfly (1972) and the Aretha Franklin/Mayfield gem Sparkle (1976). Prince’s Oscar-winning, bar-raising Purple Rain and Whitney Houston’s 18-times platinum global smash The Bodyguard are revered icons of the form. But Above the Rim flipped the proverbial script. “The album was more successful than the movie,” Brian Alexander Morgan says with a laugh. He’s the principal songwriter and one of the producers of SWV’s infectious “Anything” remix featuring Staten Island, New York, hip-hop heroes the Wu-Tang Clan, one of several great songs on the Above the Rim soundtrack.

On the set of Above the Rim in Harlem, Tupac Shakur was a larger-than-life presence.

Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

And it’s true. While Above the Rim today stands as a cult classic, the film — written by Barry Michael Cooper and starring Duane Martin, Leon, Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans — stalled out in theaters at little over $16 million. But the Above the Rim soundtrack succeeded in part because of its very oddness: a hard-core West Coast rap label handling the music for a movie set in Harlem USA. But somehow it all worked.

The Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs” song, the one she fought Knight over, became the biggest hit of the underrated emcee’s career during the summer of ’94, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. And the rhyme empress was joined by her seemingly unstoppable Death Row label mates.

Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz Dillinger and ’hood-certified crooner Nate Dogg showed out on the ride-out track “Big Pimpin’.” No-nonsense songstress Jewell — who had previously contributed soulful vocals to Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” and Snoop’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” — was featured on two standout tracks, including the sensual Aaron Hall duet “Gonna Give It to Ya.”

Washington, D.C.’s Majic 102.3 Radio One host and former BET personality Madelyne Woods joined Death Row in the winter of ’94 as a production coordinator for the Above the Rim soundtrack — at times doubling as an executive assistant for Knight. She still marvels at the vocal prowess of Jewell Caples.

“There was nothing fake about Jewell,” says Woods, forever immortalized by A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife on their 1993 “Electric Relaxation” (“But hon, you got the goods, like Madelyne Woods …”). “She made it very clear what she thought about you. And the talent that woman had … Jewell could blow the doors off of anybody in the industry today with her rich tone and delivery. That’s what was so amazing about Death Row. The stable was so deep with talent.”

Suge Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines.

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Deep is an understatement. Daz’s in-the-zone Dogg Pound partner Kurupt delivers the most potent verse on the sinister “Dogg Pound 4 Life”: “Before I even step m—–f—–s hit the deck / I gets wreck with a tech so cash in like checks, fool.” Even now Kurupt’s face beams when he speaks of those wild but productive Above the Rim studio sessions.

“The key to ‘Dogg Pound 4 Life’ is that was the reality for us,” says Kurupt, who is revered as one of the most devastating West Coast lyricists to pick up a mic. “We were really Dogg Pound for life: me, Daz, Snoop and Nate Dogg. I wanted to prove that … I was the greatest. And I really believed that, because we had the best team. That’s what you hear on Above the Rim. We had Rage, who would come to the studio before anybody because she wanted to be the first one on the mic. We had Snoop, who was a monster. We had Dr. Dre, who was a genius. And we had Suge making s— happen.”

And of course there was the larger-than-life presence of the enigmatic Tupac Shakur, the brilliant, scene-stealing star of Above the Rim who was quickly becoming known as much for his Thug Life-propelled street anthems as he was for his high-profile run-ins with the law. When you hear the heartfelt ode to the dead homies “Pour Out a Little Liquor” and his bonus soundtrack cuts — “Loyal to the Game,” featuring Treach and Riddler, and the haunting “Pain” — you are listening to an uncompromising artist just a few verses away from becoming a pop culture antihero.

But at its heart, the story of Above the Rim is one of brazen musical curveballs. And the biggest one of them all was Warren G and Nate Dogg’s million-plus-selling “Regulate,” that era’s most unlikely pop triumph.

Everything about “Regulate” is blissfully absurd. From the blue-eyed soul easy-listening sample of Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” to its fairy-tale opening: “It was a clear black night, a clear white moon.” That segues into a harrowing back-and-forth tale between Warren G and Nate Dogg about surviving a violent carjacking.

“Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.” — Madelyne Woods

But “Regulate” almost missed the cut. Although Warren G — who came up in Long Beach, California, with Snoop and Nate as a member of the group 213 — made solid contributions to both The Chronic and Doggystyle, he was still a man without a country, so to speak. Warren G was looking for a record deal, but Knight was slow to recognize.

Meanwhile, Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records, which was in a slump, desperately wanted in on the West Coast rap takeover. Chris Lighty signed Warren G to his Violator Records, which was distributed by Def Jam, and the rest is history. “Regulate” was chosen as Above the Rim’s first official single and was unleashed on the public in the summer of ’94. The monster track zoomed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles, a massive anchor for the soundtrack and an MTV staple.

But it wasn’t just Warren G’s come-up that had the industry buzzing. Death Row, the imprint known for behind-the-scenes beatdowns and the hardest gangsta rap around, had proved it could compile a savvy soundtrack dominated by the sounds of rhythm and blues. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the perfectionist Dr. Dre, today a near-billionaire music mogul and revered hip-hop visionary, had carte blanche over all selected tracks on Above the Rim.

“The sound had to be just right for Dre,” says veteran video game, music and film sound mixer Phil Brewster, a former assistant recording engineer at Death Row. “He’d come in the studio, listen to a mix and go, ‘Oh, no. F— that.’ And he would take all the faders and bring them down and start EQ-ing even when the track wasn’t playing. Within 10 to 15 minutes, Dr. Dre had the best mix. It was incredible to see.”

But the throwback attitude of such Above the Rim cuts as “Old Time’s Sake,” “Part Time Lover, “Hoochies Need Love Too, and Al B. Sure’s “I’m Still In Love With You” carry the DNA of Suge Knight. “This was a fantasy album for Suge,” says Woods. “If you were in the car with him, during the whole ride there would be nothing but old soul and R&B like Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke and New Birth played. Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.”

Decades later, the towering shadow of Above the Rim still hovers over all modern soundtracks (such as Kendrick Lamar’s vital 2018 Oscar-nominated project for Black Panther) that have the audacity to risk it all. For Kurupt, who in recent years has moved into the commercial cannabis business, Above the Rim will always be in heavy rotation.

“You can find a lot of greatness and genius on the streets,” he says. “Death Row was giving outlets to people who had no other way in life, but they had talent, and Above the Rim was another outlet for us. Suge and Dre wanted us to make a soundtrack that was equivalent to a classic album. That’s why we are still talking about it all these years later.”

On the 25th anniversary of  Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’ — a look back at his life and times  A hip-hop prodigy, in a pop culture maelstrom — on trial for murder

Big Boy is a connector. “You need to speak to Dogg?” That’s what the Los Angeles-based syndicated radio personality asks when the topic of 1993’s Doggystyle comes up. “I mean I can help you … I’m with him right now.”

Before you even get a chance to respond, he’s already calling Snoop, born Calvin Broadus Jr., to the phone. “Aight bet,” Snoop Dogg says in the background. “Gimme a second!” It’s the week before Snoop’s long deserved victory lap around the City of Angels. This conversation was a week before the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor — Snoop got his star — that featured a massive crowd of fans, family and friends such as Dr. Dre. Pharrell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jimmy Kimmel and more. A week before a weeklong celebration for the quarter-century anniversary of his first album that solidified Death Row as cultural tour de force.

“I want to thank me for believing in me,” he’ll say at his Walk of Fame ceremony. “I want to thank me for trying to do more right than wrong. I want to thank me for just being me at all times. Snoop Dogg, you a bad m—–f—–.” A unique kind of humility, indeed, but from a man who paid the cost to be his own boss — a well-deserved moment of indulgence.

Snoop carries himself like a man well aware of his resume, but he’s not vain about it. There are the 16 solo albums, five collaborative albums, four soundtracks, and singles that span five presidential administrations. There are the 53 million albums sold worldwide. Thanks to Tupac Shakur, who persuaded Snoop to pursue it, Snoop’s acting career includes more than 50 roles in movies and television.

“We can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person.”

As for his entrepreneurship career in the marijuana industry — appropriate doesn’t even begin to describe that venture. Snoop Dogg, for all intents and purposes, is the greatest success story in rap history. In a manner similar to Jay-Z, he is the American dream. Snoop survived rap’s bloodiest era, and now, approaching 50, he’s a living legend. A living legend who nearly lost it all before it truly began.

Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope), is Snoop Dogg’s debut album — it turns 25 years old Friday. After a jaw-dropping appearance on the title single of the 1992 soundtrack to Deep Cover, Snoop’s avant-garde first album functions as a coming-of-age project that landed between the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson trial. Snoop’s first album also coincided with murder trial in which he was a defendant.

Broadus, at the age of 24, was acquitted in February 1996 (along with bodyguard McKinley “Malik” Lee), of first- and second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of a gang member Philip Woldemariam at a Los Angeles-area park. As the jury was deadlocked on remaining voluntary manslaughter charges, a mistrial was declared. MTV broadcast the reading of the verdict, after which Snoop Dogg rolled off in a Rolls-Royce with a driver. Snoop and Lee had maintained that the victim had been perceived as a mortal threat. The case nearly derailed one of the most unique and impactful careers in American music history.


At this point, Snoop Dogg, 47, has been famous longer than he hasn’t. The pop culture personality has done everything from smoke herb on White House grounds (according to Snoop), to becoming besties with Martha Stewart. Their Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party was described in 2017 as “the cultural exchange America needs.” Over two seasons guests included Seth Rogen, RuPaul, Rick Ross, and Kelis, and more. And as the meme goes: One Of These Is a Convicted Felon. With each year, Snoop’s guardianship of hip-hop becomes more and more massive. And in a genre that has lost its brightest stars for heartbreaking and sometimes violent reasons, Snoop’s presence is a gift. And he’s quite cognizant of how differently his life could’ve gone.

Snoop’s standout feature on Anderson .Paak’s new “Anywhere” features Snoop reminiscing on the days before fame. I didn’t have a dollar, but a n—a had a dream / Whippin’ over the stove and a n—a gotta eat / Threw my raps in the garbage, f— being an emcee, he raps. Thank the Lord for Nate Dogg and thank God for Warren G / Funny how time flies when you’re high as me.

“I think about … the fun that I had. The age … I was at,” he says now. He was 22 when Doggystyle hit the streets. “Just being innocent, and honest. Not really hoping for success. I wasn’t even wishing for success.” He pauses. Almost as if the past 30 years of his life are playing in fast-forward. “I was just hoping to be on.”

In the fall and winter of 1993, Janet Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. President Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his first year in office. Police began investigating Michael Jackson for child abuse. Allen Iverson was sentenced to five years in prison. Tupac Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta in October, and sexual assault a month later. Whitney Houston was on The Bodyguard World Tour. Jurassic Park was king of the box office while Menace II Society was film royalty of the ‘hood. Michael Jordan’s retirement coincided with the onset of the Shaq and Penny era in Orlando, Florida.

For Jemele Hill, then a freshman at Michigan State University, hip-hop was not only blowing up the Billboard charts but was the foundation of local party scenes. The impending arrival of Snoop Dogg’s debut was the axis around which hip-hop revolved. He was featured on the 1993 cover of VIBE’s first official issue, the look a culmination of a two-year meteoric rise. Snoop’s 1991 appearance on “Deep Cover” from the soundtrack of the same name, was a fire starter. His appearance a year later on Dr. Dre’s genre-shifting The Chronic caused some to dub Doggystyle, in the moment, “the most anticipated rap album of all time.”

“For months, that was the album — when everybody got together, in the dorm room or kicking it in somebody’s crib — that we were listening to. [It’s a reminder of] the lightness that hip-hop could bring into your life.”

The album sold more than 800,000 copies in its first week, making it, at the time, the fastest-selling rap debut. Black kids loved him. White kids wanted to be him. A heavy dose of Dr. Dre’s production and Snoop’s syrupy smooth flow proved, once again, to be an undeniable supernova — even as rap sheets ran concurrent with rap hits. This was gangsta rap, but with a new vibe. Snoop, long affiliated with the Crips, talked that street talk. He was authentic, yet relatable.

“ ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.” — Snoop Dogg

Los Angeles in particular, devoured the album. Compton, Inglewood, Watts, and of course Long Beach — where ’64 Impalas bounced, where people gathered, Snoop was the soundtrack. “The anticipation in L.A. ran high and it was real,” says Big Boy. “Everywhere you went, there was something coming out of somebody’s speakers from [that album]. When we just saw ‘What’s My Name’ and Dogg on top of the VIP in Long Beach — that was our moment.”

He brought listeners live and direct to his home ‘hoods of Long Beach that gave him the ammunition for songs like “Tha Shiznit” and “Serial Killa.” “What Snoop provides the rap world in that cadence, delivery and flow seems to have had a very lasting influence,” says University of Virginia professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson. “But because no one has been able to duplicate it, he still occupies that same space [to this day].” Chart-topping singles such as “Gin & Juice” and “What’s My Name” and the video were MTV darlings.

Twenty-five years later, Doggystyle, to Snoop, remains defined by two records, “Lodi Dodi,” a homage to Slick Rick, and “Doggy Dogg World” featuring his favorite 1970s group, The Dramatics.

The blaxploitation era and the superheroes it birthed are a part of Snoop’s DNA. “To be able to have a session with The Dramatics,” he says, still in awe a quarter century later, “and then to be able to incorporate them into the movement [Death Row] was on — that, to me, is a look that says, OK. The visual for ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.”

The video included features from Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, and Rudy Ray Moore, Fred Berry, and Ron O’Neal. Snoop’s close friend and longtime collaborator Ricky Harris, who died in 2016, was also in the video. “This,” Snoop boasted last year, “was like my Harlem Nights.

As for “Lodi Dodi”? Snoop idolizes Slick Rick. It’s an homage, and is quick to point out that the song is first example of a rapper remaking a song and not being labeled a “biter.” “[Rick] was somebody I really, really looked up to. It’s like Kobe [Bryant] and [Michael] Jordan,” he says. “When you’re able to play against him, and he gives you a few pointers, and you end up becoming just as good as him.”


Doggystyle ended a historic year in music with 1.2 million copies sold in its first two weeks on the shelves. By December, he was outselling the rest of the top five albums in the country combined.

“Ain’t nobody bigger than me but Michael Jackson,” Snoop said shortly after the album’s release. But criticism of gangsta rap, was prevalent, even before Snoop’s debut, rightfully centered on its depiction of women. And Doggystyle was features more than 60 references to “b—–s” and the cover drew the ire of critics nationwide. By the fall and winter of 1993, Snoop was accused of the “beastializing [of] women.”

“It’s sickening to see that any African-American, male or female, would hold the human dignity of African-American women in the form that is presented [in the album cover],” said C. Delores Tucker, a frequent opponent of hip-hop. “We are now looking to the distributors, financiers and producers of [Doggystyle] …We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.”

Rap, Snoop in particular found, an ally in U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. “While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop,” she said in 1994. “It’s part of the culture. These songs merely mimic and exaggerate what the artists have learned about who we are [as a society]. And while it is unacceptable to refer to any person in derogatory terms, I believe rappers are being used as scapegoats here.”

“We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.” — C. Delores Tucker

As critics sought to paint him as the new king of misogyny, Snoop went on the defense. “It’s not personal at all,” he lamented in ’93. “When women come up to me and they see me on the street and say, ‘How you doin’, Snoop Dogg? How you doin’, baby?’ I don’t say, ‘Hey, b—-. How you doing?’ I don’t come at them like that.”

Doggystyle is the linchpin for issues that still rage on. Misogyny is very real. For Hill, it’s a complex issue. “Most women have always had a love-hate relationship with hip-hop,” says Hill, who says that Dr. Dre’s 1992 “B—-es Ain’t S—” is among her favorite songs. “We’re not ignorant to what some of these lyrics have meant.” It’s a case by case basis for Hill, who remembers the very real discussions about Doggystyle that were happening while women and men were partying to it every day. “I don’t take it personally, though there is a part of me that does wish they could be better in this area. But I’ve also heard many [rappers] explain that they rap this because they are talking about personal experiences.”

Yet even more than the moral critique about the album, it was Snoop’s real life that drove the conversation. The first-degree murder charge was the case that they gave him. Woldemariam, a reputed gang member had reportedly threatened Snoop before at a video shoot and had also been in an argument with Snoop and Lee earlier on the day of the shooting. Gang ties were reported to be at the center of the dispute. With a warrant out for his arrest, Snoop still joined George Clinton and Dr. Dre in presenting the best R&B video award at the 1993 MTV VMAs.

Snoop Dogg/Calvin Broadus reacts to not-guilty verdict in Los Angeles Superior Court on Feb. 21, 1993. Judge Paul Flynn declared a mistrial on his involuntary manslaughter charges after the jury was found deadlocked, but the jury did clear the rapper of an accessory after-the-fact conspiracy charge. Broadus was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder charges.

MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

He turned himself in shortly after. The case slowed Snoop’s victory lap, while it concurrently create mass hysteria for its release. Gangbanging was a way life in Southern California. Snoop was a child of this reality. Newsweek’s contentious cover, which featured Snoop tattooed with the question “When is rap 2 violent?” may have well been part of the project’s official rollout.

As Snoop’s celebrity transformed him from Dr. Dre’s understudy to bona fide megastar, he faced life in prison. Death Row Records was living up to its name. Those closest to Snoop even saw how the situation took its toll on him. “During that time, everybody was down with everything that was going on,” Warren G says via phone. “But we just stayed down with him. Ride or die.”

With rap’s crown came repeated attacks. “It’s truly a sad statement about our society that an alleged murderer can end up serving as a role model for our kids,” said Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist for the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Christian media watchdog group Focus on the Family.

Snoop was stressed. “Black people are sayin’, ‘F— it, you’ve got this much power. You could be tryin’ to say: ‘Don’t do drugs, and, hey, stop this,’ ” Snoop said in 1994. “But Martin Luther King tried that s—. It didn’t work.”

And as the trial came to an end, the prosecution tired of the defense painting the victim Woldemariam as a crazed gangbanger who was the aggressor in his own slaying. The defense claimed the prosecution used Snoop’s celebrity as its motivation more than his actual involvement. Details emerged supporting Snoop’s self-defense claim when one of victim’s friends admitted to hiding Woldemariam’s gun after the shooting. Even after he was acquitted, drama still followed him. He and newly signed Death Row labelmate Shakur’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” once again turned drama into unimaginable success. But by March 1996, Dr. Dre had left the label. Six months later Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas. And Knight, in less than a year, was back in prison on a probation violation for his role in a fight the night Shakur was shot.

“While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop.” — Maxine Waters

What little room Snoop had to truly celebrate Doggystyle was depleted. Staying alive was more important for Snoop, who purchased a bulletproof van following the murder of Biggie Smalls. “The way that we can mythologize him — we can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person,” says Carson. “I can’t imagine that [part of his life] being anything other than a nightmare for him. It’s something … heavy to sort through.”

With Doggystyle in the rearview mirror, Death Row’s very public and tragic downfall and his own career at a professional crossroads, Snoop’s next moves set in motion a new arc. “He was a totally changed person,” says Warren G. “It was a reality check that this stuff can be taken away at any given moment, so you gotta get yourself together … That’s when he started to grow and morph into … a man. He realized none of this stuff is worth [losing] your family [over].”

“That’s the American dream …Well, ain’t it?” — “Bathtub

There is no career like Snoop Dogg’s. American gangster to American icon, if you’re looking for a tagline. He’s been a Rastafarian, a pimp, the quarterback of his own stage play and chart-topping gospel artist. He’s Grandpa Snoop and Uncle Snoop to an entire generation who grew up on Uncle Phil. “There’s nothing everyman about the way he lived his life and the way he came up,” Hill says with a laugh, “but yet he is the dude in rap you wanna go get a beer with. But I guess in his case … get high with.”

It’s true. It’s not a stretch to say that Snoop has played a tangential role in America’s slow, but gradual acceptance of marijuana. On TV, he’s everything from dedicated youth football coach to LeBron James’ big homie. He’s persuaded an entire country to “Smile” on Lil Duval’s huge hit while directing his political aggression toward President Donald Trump via song and, in a patented Snoop way, “grassroots activism.”

Even “gangsta s—” evolves. Making music for Long Beach. Making music that reflected the lifestyles, good and bad, that he grew up in. Monday’s Hollywood Walk of Fame immortalized him in a long overdue ceremony. But for Snoop, a tour de force who has seemingly accomplished — and survived — everything, hip-hop has to offer, it’s not about what he missed. It’s about the celebration he never truly got to enjoy in his early 20s. Until now. “I was too busy trying to enjoy my life and trying to make sure I was going to be free [to enjoy Doggstyle],” Snoop says. You can almost hear the grin spread across his face. “So maybe I’ll enjoy it this year on its 25th.”