Snoop Dogg and Bob Dylan Are More Similar Than You Think
It is easy to gaze upon the world with a divisive eye; to slice schisms between us and them, between this or that. It is easy only to notice the space between lyrics like “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” and “Bikinis, tankinis, martinis / No weenies / Just to get in betweeny.” It is all too easy to ignore the striking similarities between Bob Dylan and the artist formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg.
But in the formulation of their distinctive styles (which are all too often referred to as original), these two men followed an extremely similar process. Both picked a great musician of the past, borrowed from him in sound and style, and ultimately, became that man’s representative in a generation that was not his own.
In 1922, T.S. Eliot wrote an essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The final conclusion of the piece is that the personal history of the poet is irrelevant because great poets work within tradition. He argues that the actual text of the poem should be the only aspect of the work that we judge.
Before Eliot reaches this final conclusion, he explains the process by which a poet should create art. And whether or not they are aware of Eliot, two of the great poet-musicians of the last half century — Dylan and Snoop — followed this process to a tee.
Eliot wrote: “What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
Both Robert Zimmerman and Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr. surrendered their personal selves to create incredible art in the tradition of their influence.
Bob Dylan sat at the bedside of his dying hero, Woody Guthrie, the great hobo folk singer and activist, and though Guthrie passed away, Dylan kept his music and spirit alive by crafting himself as a second-coming of the train-riding prophet.
Dylan’s first album has only two original songs, “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody”, the first a satirical lament about New York City and the second an ode to the man Dylan would base himself upon.
For “Song to Woody”, Dylan borrows Guthrie’s melody from “1913 Massacre”, changing the lyrics to express his feelings for his idol.
He starts by placing himself in the Dust Bowl folk tradition: “I’m out here a thousand miles from my home / Walkin’ a road other men have gone down / I’m seein’ your world of people and things / Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.”
Dylan knows he’s working in the Guthrie tradition; what makes him special is that he wants you to know.
Snoop was not shy about exposing his influences either. His first — and finest — album, “Doggystyle,” begins with the track “G-Funk Intro”. On it, the Doggpound explain that this is “a small introduction to the G-Funk era,” placing their crew as the rebirth of the sound and style of George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars.
Dr. Dre samples Parliament-Funkadelic in all its variations (P-Funk, Parliament, Funkadelic, George Clinton solo tracks) throughout his early work. Dre uses samples from George Clinton’s groups on beats he produced for NWA, DOC and on about one-third of the songs on “The Chronic”.
But for all his love of the P-Funk sound, Dre never fully morphed into the P-Funk style. He was always the thug rocking khakis with a cuff and a crease; he never became the ‘70s pimp like George Clinton and, later, Snoop.
No song on Doggystyle is so heavily influenced as the debut single “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”
On the track, Dre employs samples from the Funkadelic song “(Not Just) Knee Deep” and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” but the true genius comes in Snoop’s use of George Clinton lyrics.
“Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” ends with a reworking of the opening lines from “Atomic Dog” and uses the unmistakable “Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yay” as its chorus.
To borrow musically and lyrically from Clinton in a song called “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?) cannot be coincidental. The track must be read as an assertive introduction — just as “Song to Woody” established Dylan as the second-coming of the hobo activist in 1962, “Who Am I? (What’s My Name)” is Snoop’s declaration that he is the Atomic Dog of the 1990s.
His assertion was not missed by the P-Funkers themselves; Bootsy Collins recently spoke to SOHH.com and explained, “It makes you feel really good when someone can take a look at your work and add something too it.”
That is why Snoop is so special — he’s fresh and interesting while being conscious of his unoriginality. In the same interview, Bootsy explained, “Snoop is really a special case because he was letting people know where his [musical influences] came from. Ever since I’ve met him, I’ve really admired that about him.”
Just like Snoop, Dylan’s magic stemmed from the fact that he could play another man’s song and make it fully his own. In a genre like folk, consumed by tradition and traditionals, it is difficult to assert one’s individuality. Yet, Dylan managed it by unabashedly exposing his unoriginality.
In this area, folk and hip hop — especially the sample heavy 1990s hip hop — are extremely similar. Both genres rest upon the reality that every chord has been played and every lyric has been sung. Thus the task becomes finding a way to make something that was once another’s new and relevant.
When Dylan’s first album was released in 1962, people had heard “Man of Constant Sorrow” played every which way, but as Stacey Williams asserted in the album’s booklet, it was “probably never sung quite in this fashion before.”
That was Dylan’s gift and also Snoop’s gift — they worked within a tradition, creating intriguing and innovative new art.
Yet, perhaps Snoop and Dylan’s greatest achievement was the way their music was able to affect the art created before them. As Eliot wrote in his essay, “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.”
When Bob Dylan, the new Guthrie, wrote protest songs that became the soundtrack of the anti-war movement, it was easy to historicize the message.
Guthrie had used his music to fight fascism and argue for workers’ rights and, in many ways, his songs, along with the photographs of Dorothea Lange and the novels of John Steinbeck, have become our nation’s chronicle of the Dust Bowl era.
Dylan used his protest songs similarly, portraying the have-nots who were being cast aside by the big, bad forces in charge. Understanding Dylan’s music in terms of Guthrie’s demonstrates that the times really aren’t a’changin as much as we like to believe.
And in many ways, Clinton’s response to the overt political music of the late-1960s is similar to Snoop’s response to overtly political hip hop in the late-1980s.
Clinton did not argue for specific change; instead he sang his call to arms, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” His revolution was musical — creating an intergalactic funk fantasy that could affect by changing a listener’s perspective in ways that protest songs never could.
Similarly, Snoop and Digital Underground, who also borrowed heavily from P-Funk, were instrumental in casting aside political rap in favor of intergalactic funky hip hop. Dre began the move toward the G-Funk style with The Chronic, but still could not fully divorce himself from the political messages of his earlier work with NWA.
With Doggystyle, and even more in his later work, Snoop fully leaves politics out of his rap.
On his debut album, Snoop paints a violent, pimping world filled with unattached coitus and 1978 Coupe DeVilles. But the record does not focus on why this is wrong or how to escape the life; instead it is about the beats — Doggystyle is firstly a party album just like any P-Funk production. If you tune into WBALLS or WEFUNK on your FM dial, you are going to dance whether or not you agree with the political message.
Yet, putting politics aside, one of the best aspects of Dylan and Snoop’s openness about working within a tradition is the way they helped resurrect the music of their idols.
Woody Guthrie was blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and therefore had recessed into relative anonymity until the 1960s folk revival brought him back to prominence. Dylan — by covering many songs and even crafting a folktale of his own life based on Guthrie’s biography — helped to bring Guthrie to the mainstream. Thus, Dylan’s art modified Guthrie’s; bringing it to a generation that needed reminding about the lessons of Dust Bowl America.
Similarly, P-Funk had shrunk from 1970s prominence to obscurity in the mid-1980s. But first De La Soul, then Digital Underground and, finally and most significantly, Snoop and Dre sampled Parliament-Funkadelic songs, which led to a P-Funk resurrection.
The Parliament-Funkadelic, many of whose albums had fallen out of print in the ‘80s, continue to make music and tour today. Lines like “Think! It ain’t illegal yet!” continue to be relevant, but without a second-coming of the Atomic Dog, the P-Funk sound may have been lost forever.
We have become obsessed with originality in our society, but Dylan and Snoop are perfect examples of the artistic power of performers who openly work within a tradition.
As Eliot explains in his essay, “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
Both Snoop and Dylan are at their greatest when their ancestors — George Clinton and Woody Guthrie — are asserting their immortality loudly and clearly.
Great art is man’s only means to overcome death; so long as folk and funk are played, Guthrie, Clinton, Dylan and Snoop can never die.
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