There has never been a singer who made profanity sound as good as Nathanial Dwayne Hale, better known to the world as Nate Dogg, did. The hip-hop hook man, who died of undisclosed causes March 15 at the age of 41, had an uncanny gift for making vulgarity sound smooth and threats pleasing to the ear.
In sharp contrast to the R-rated content of the music that made him famous, Nate Dogg, the son of a pastor, began his singing career in the church. He dropped out of school at age 16 to join the Marine Corps, and in 1991 he formed the group 213 (the name references his Long Beach, Calif., area code) with a young Snoop Dogg and Warren G. Warren played the young group's demo tape for his half brother Dr. Dre at a party, and so began their professional careers as musicians.
As the singing voice of G-funk, the gang-culture-inflected hip-hop subgenre pioneered by Dr. Dre, Warren G and the rest of the Dogg Pound, Nate Dogg was the vocalist who added R&B flavor to their mix of hard-core beats and rhymes. Just as aggressive and raw as his crew, Nate did with singing what they did with rap. Take what might be his best-known verse, on Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)," for example: "When I met you last night baby … I had respect for ya lady/but now I take it all back."
On paper (or on your screen), his words read as base, misogynistic and downright ignorant — and yes, they basically are — but when Nate Dogg sang these words with his signature baritone drone, so many forgave him for his crass sentiment because it just sounded so dope.
Need proof? Go to any nightclub or party where young, educated and upwardly mobile black people are gathered and watch their reaction when a song featuring Nate comes on. Even the most bourgie young women will sing along to the words with reckless abandon because of course, he wasn't talking about them.
That's the thing about good music: It will often transcend logic or our everyday social mores and allow us to let go. You don't need to be a misogynist or self-hating woman to love "Ain't No Fun," just as you didn't need to be a gangsta to appreciate Warren G and Nate Dogg's '94 megahit "Regulate." On the song, Warren G plays the role of the victim about to get jacked until his lady-killing compatriot Nate Dogg intervenes, guns blazing, and saves the day. "I laid all them busters down/I let my gat explode//Now I'm switching my mind back into freak mode," Nate sang.
Although he never saw the solo success of his counterpart Snoop, his featured appearances on hit songs for the Dogg Pound and former Death Row associates such as Dr. Dre and Snoop — as well as artists like Ludacris, 50 Cent, Fabolous, Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch — made him the indisputable king of the hip-hop hook. Rap music will never sound the same.
Timmhotep Aku is freelance journalist and culture critic living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is totally into bourgie women who sing along to offensive rap lyrics. Follow him on Twitter.