Everyone knows a few things about the long-standing hip-hop rivalry pitting West Coast vs. East Coast, but what about the West Coast vs. itself?
In the informative and somewhat hagiographic documentary G Funk, first-time director Karam Gill explores both the origins of the most essential trend in West Coast rap and how one of its foremost creators had his career temporarily sidetracked at the hands of a despotic and ruthless music executive. It’s a rags-to-riches (or is that gin-to-juice?) tale of fame, misfortune and fortune centered around producer Warren G, the late, great rapper/singer Nate Dogg and the still-going-strong Snoop Dogg — three kids from Long Beach, Calif., who, after cutting demos under the name 213, would go on to change the face of hip-hop music forever.
After the biopic hit Straight Outta Compton and the success of rap-umentary series like Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution and Vice’s Noisey, this conventionally made and highly detailed crash-course in all things G-funk (the G of course stands for “gangsta”) could land on VOD outlets looking to cash in on an ever-popular brand of rap whose influence is still very much felt to this day.
Everybody but Dr. Dre himself is on hand in G Funk to talk about how the hip-hop style that emerged out of the Los Angeles area in the late 1980s with gangsta rap sensation N.W.A, and then hit its heyday (and payday) in the early ‘90s with Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, with both albums put out by the Death Row Records label founded by Dre, Suge Knight, Dick Griffey and lyrics alchemist The D.O.C.
The latter is the only one from that group to speak on camera here, and he offers up several insights into how things worked behind the scenes, including the writing process used on some of Snoop’s biggest tracks and a rather brutal assessment of Knight’s musical abilities, stating that: “Suge wouldn’t know a hit record if you took a Parliament-Funkadelic album and slapped him in the face with it.”
Indeed, the film describes how George Clinton’s P-funk music of the 1970s is the most direct ascendant of the G-funk style, with producers like Dre and Warren G sampling tracks from that era to produce the slower, groovier style that would differentiate West Coast rap from the faster, more aggressive beats coming out of New York at the time. One interviewee explains that the two different sounds were really born out of two different lifestyles: In New York you’re always on the run or taking the subway, so the music quickens to that pace, whereas in L.A. you’re always riding (or low-riding) around, which is why the beats by Dre and G have that laid-back flair.
But while Dre (who is Warren G’s stepbrother) and Snoop Dogg quickly went platinum with their debut records, G and Nate Dogg (cousin of Snoop) were sidelined from the whole Death Row breakthrough, even if the two of them were an essential part of the team. Suffice to say that while Dre takes a bit of the blame here and Snoop tries to honestly describe how bad he felt about the whole ordeal, it’s absolutely clear that Knight — who is currently in jail for killing someone with his pick-up truck — is the real culprit.
The Death Row debacle would have been a sad end to a short-lived career had Warren G not met Def Jam Records executive Paul Stewart, who would give the rapper a rare second chance by signing him and eventually releasing the hit “Regulate” – a song that could be considered the ultimate G-funk track, and one that would deservedly put G and Nate Dogg at the top of the charts while helping to revive Russell Simmons’ then-failing Def Jam label.
Simmons is one of many music heavyweights interviewed here, with legends Ice Cube, Ice T, Too $hort and newbies like Wiz Khalifa rounding out a who’s who in hip-hop royalty. For his first feature effort, 22-year-old Gill does a decent job cramming all of the talking-head interviews, not to mention archival footage and a few cheesy (and perhaps unnecessary) dramatizations, into an efficient 87 minutes, with kudos to editors Andrew Primavera and Mark Andrew Hamer for providing a clear chronology and narrative thread. In the end, there’s little doubt that Warren G, who co-wrote and produced the film while also composing the soundtrack, is meant to be seen as the true unsung hero of G-funk, but it’s a title that seems 100 percent earned.
Production companies: G Funk Productions, Chavez Bros. Productions, Omega Point Films
Cast: Warren G, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Russell Simmons, Ice T, Wiz Khalifa, Too $hort
Director: Karam Gill
Screenwriters: Karam Gill, Warren G
Producers: Warren G, Gary Ousdahl, Robert Ruggeri, Rafael Chavez
Executive producer: Matt Carpenter
Editors: Andrew Primavera, Mark Andrew Hamer
Composer: Warren G
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Features)
Sales: Parkland Pictures