Within the structure of a classic G-funk track, a musical form as precise as a Mozart string quintet, after the opening skit, the establishment of the minimal beat, the rapper's expository verse and the drowsy one-fingered counterpoint, it is at least even money that the 1:10 mark sees the glorious entrance of Nate Dogg: a thin, edgy baritone tending towards melisma, establishing the drowsy, vicious emotional tone of the song, hammering down the hook that accompanies you into your dreams. The rapper could be Snoop Dogg, Tupac or Dr. Dre, Eminem or Xzibit, Kurupt or Ludacris; the subject could be – actually, it always is – crime, guns and girls, but Nate Dogg is always there: pencil-thin mustache, sleepy eyes, and lips as cruel as any romance-novel villain.
To anybody who spent time around the L.A. rap scene in the 1990s, Nate Dogg was just . . . there, a fixture in studios he seemingly had no business in, around the edges of advertising shoots for sneakers or hockey jerseys, hunched over a yellow pad whenever Dre came up with the vestiges of a beat.
There were people who said at the time that Nate was an insanely gifted producer, that stacks of his tapes inhabited some of hip-hop's most fabled sanctums. As a young man in Long Beach, he had been part of the group 213 with Snoop Dogg and Warren G, and in another era his world-weariness and ability to put over a lyric might put him into the category of a Frank Sinatra or a Ronald Isley, but he made his mark as a hook master rather than as a solo artist, a singer whose gift was to make the unspeakably vulgar not just thinkable but appealing, a studio man rather than a star.
But what a studio man.
It has become easy to forget about Nate Dogg – identifying the dozens of songs he enhanced is the rap enthusiast's equivalent of a jazzbo's listing Kid Ory solos on Louis Armstrong sides – but his crooning was as vital to the early '90s as Biggie's lisp or Cobain's howl, a sound affixed to America's pop consciousness like a natty prison tattoo. I knew he had suffered a couple of debilitating strokes over the last few years, and had chatted with him a dozen or so times when I covered hip-hop in the 1990s, but I wasn't quite expecting to be quite so affected by the news of his passing last week at the age of 41 – more than I had been by Tupac's death, actually. The voice that had floated above G-funk beats like a tendril of fresh cigarette smoke, had also floated through our lives.
For more of Christopher Victorio's photos from Nate Dogg's memorial service, go here.
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