When Warren G rolls into the Red Bull Studios, he’s carrying a 12-pack of beer and a massive handful of sour straw candies. There’s nothing particularly notable about his outfit – in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, he could stroll Santa Monica Boulevard incognito – but he smells like strong weed and has the aura of someone established. He’s one of the most influential figures in hip-hop history and he hasn’t forgotten it, even if others have. He’s a guy who looks forward even as he remains tethered - by critical acclaim really - to his past.
“I created a genre,” the rapper says. “I helped a certain sound of music turn into a genre. I helped make it big. Everybody right now is still trying to do that sound.”
G’s first album, "Regulate… G Funk Era," hit in 1994. It went triple platinum and was lauded for its breakout single “Regulate,” which featured a searing hook and the rapper’s longtime collaborator and friend Nate Dogg spitting this gem: “The rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble.” It’s a song that continues to be cited as one of the biggest hip-hop numbers from that era. For G, that album represents a milestone for both him and his art form. The fact that Def Jam is reissuing an expanded version of the album this month to celebrate its 20th anniversary is a tribute to its importance.
“It’s cool because it gives another generation a chance to know who Warren G is and was,” he reflects. “See what I contributed to hip-hop and let’s them know that I’m a part of the West Coast history of hip-hop.” But G isn’t on some sort of a prolonged victory lap. He’s a careful critic of his past work (“Some of them, I’m like, ‘Damn, I was rapping like that?’”) and an elder statesman to up-and-coming emcees.
Lately, the rapper has been working with Wiz Khalifa and YG, whose acclaimed debut "My Krazy Life" dropped earlier this year. He’s mentoring a young rapper named Mike Slice, who has accompanied him to the studio (and who he refers to as “that Justin Bieber-looking kid”). G offers parental-type advice to these guys and serves as a sort of self-nominated financial consultant. “A lot of these dudes just be broke,” he says. “They ain’t getting nothing because they ain’t keeping their business right.”
That's a product of both the culture of hip-hop and its current trends, which center on indulgence and rolling to the club. G isn’t opposed to partying, but he’s also aware that substance creates longevity. “Nothing’s really wrong with having fun at the club, but then again that shit’s going to get old,” he says. “When it gets old what are you going to talk about or do? They have to figure it out. That’s when you see one artist banging and banging it on top and then the next year you don’t see them anymore.” It wasn't like that for G. He didn't break through as a rapper. Rapping has always been there.
G grew up in Long Beach alongside the late Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. No one ever taught him how to rap – he just picked it up over time. It was one of those skills you had to have if you were going to hang around. The crew would roll around in the car and get into rap battles. Slowly, rapping evolved from being a way to pass time in McDonalds’ parking lots into a career path and then into a way to get rich.
“Snoop used to win,” G reflects. “Everyone used to win. We’d just go back and forth you know and free-style, no written stuff. The real deal free-styling. A lot of these cats [now] say that they’re free-styling but, they’re doing a verse with their homeboy standing right there. That isn’t free-styling, that’s doing a verse.”
G’s got some of that origin story on tape. The rapper’s been working on a documentary about his life and career for the past three years. It’s just another way to underscore his own contributions, which include helping launch Snoop’s career and working on Dre’s seminal album "The Chronic" (he’s the one who shouted “deez nuts” on track six). But overall, G is looking forward. He recently collaborated with Destructo on a track with Ty Dolla $ign and will unveil a new EP early next year, most of which he’s recorded here in the Red Bull Studios. An unheard track with Nate Dogg and Bun B may make its way onto the EP, although the rapper isn’t fully sure its narrative theme yet.
For him, the songs have to connect and they have to relay something of significance. “That’s the thing about West Coast hip-hop – we tell a story,” G says. “It’s not just saying that we’re trapping all the time or stuck on this or that. It’s more than one thing.”
As he sits in the studio in front of the mixing board, spinning slowly back and forth in a rolling office chair, it's easy to forget that, in certain corners of this sprawling city, this guy is and remains a god. He’s soft-spoken (or maybe just stoned) and adds “mm-hmm” after each careful thought. Mike Slice is waiting patiently in the other room for G to finish his interview and get to work. G shoves another handful of sour straws into his mouth.
“I’ve wanted to say ‘Forget the industry’ because of how messed up it is,” he says. “But I'm Warren G so they want me. I can’t let my people down. So I’m going to keep dropping music.”
Photos by Courtesy Red Bull