“The '90’s” have become a catchall refrain for millennials, newscasters and everyone in between to refer to a decade, but also, a feeling and an era of time in this country. No matter how far we get away from this particular fixture in time, it seems those ten years still hold enormous sway over how we understand politics, culture and music. Perhaps nothing proves this theory more than the influence of gangsta rap and G-funk, the stylistic sonic signature most often associated with West Coast rap’s mainstream uprising in the '90’s. In G-Funk, first-time feature-length director Karam Gill explores this phenomenon by centering on Warren G and one of the most influential songs of the period, “Regulate.”
Using familiar historical footage and interviews with Warren G, Kurupt, Snoop Dogg, Too Short, Ice Cube, The D.O.C and others, Gill presents an informal but by-the-books documentary. It’s a stylistic note that says as much about Gill’s first steps into feature-length projects as it does about his ability to create a film that still enjoys the colloquial, comfortable and DIY feel of his previous work in corporate and branded content. This dynamic between the two allows G-Funk’s storytelling to cross over into “uncles telling you a long story at the BBQ” territory, and, for the most part, it works. Each subject speaks at length and with no filter, detailing how Los Angeles’ violently oppressed and depressed '80s landscape gave them little outlet but music and gang activity.
This last bit threads the needle, as—almost by a matter of circumstance—several of the leading voices of the West Coast’s sound—and more importantly, Death Row Record’s—were either related or close friends. Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg and Warren G, with help from Dr. Dre and Warren’s production skills, quickly transmuted the funk hits of Parliament Funkadelic and others into smooth, threatening hits like “Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang,” “Let Me Ride” and “Gin and Juice.”
However, what’s most interesting about this early period is the fluctuation in fortune; Snoop became an instant star while signed to Death Row, with Nate in tow. Meanwhile, Warren G stayed in the shadows due to a lack of development. Despite this, Warren soon hit gold when he played a demo tape for a Def Jam producer, landing “Regulate” on the Above the Rim movie soundtrack.
While his friendships with Nate and Snoop were never strained, there is a surge of antagonism between Warren and Death Row. When we asked him in particular about this period, he told Shadow & Act that, “Working with Suge Knight wasn’t a bad situation in the beginning since we were all family.” But “once money got involved, people went different directions.” The documentary details this, as the ensuing tensions soon set the stage for the height of the East Coast vs. West Coast beef. And, well, the rest is history.
The undoubted influence of G-funk, and “Regulate,” shaped the course of music, and these men were at the heart of it. Nate Dogg, in particular, represented the nexus of a lot of the genre’s early vibes. He could exude cool, calm and menace all on the same track, providing the proverbial bass line for and with whomever he was working. Sadly, Nate passed in 2011, leaving a vacuum in history and many hearts, not least of all Warren G’s. We asked him about this loss and if there was anything he wished Nate had lived to see. Warren said, “Nate’s passing affected me a lot, especially when I’m in studio producing because I know the records I’m working on, he would know exactly what to do with them. I wish he was alive to be a part of this documentary and see our kids grow up playing college sports together. Having him around to be a part of the tour would have been a dream! ” He also explained further that Nate was, as we think everyone knows, a virtuoso of infectious melodies: “A lot of artists today, you have to explain to them how to create and make a song. Nate just had it!”
Despite this, G-funk is far from dead, and the documentary ends with an important reminder about this. As does Warren, who credits explicitly Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, YG and Ty Dolla $ign as being direct descendants of the pioneering sound and style. Additionally, Warren himself is still working on music, from self-made tunes to new artists like Saviii 3rd and Mike Slice.
This is encouraging on many levels, and the documentary itself is a testament to this. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we chronicle and discuss black cultural icons and products, from the good to the bad. And when it comes to something as influential as G-funk and the people behind it, G-Funk does just that.
G-Funk premieres on YouTube Premium July 11.