2019 American Music Awards

Warren G & Director Karam Gill Dissect Their New Star-Studded Documentary 'G-Funk'

Courtesy Photo
Warren G in G Funk.

From the streets of Long Beach to stages worldwide, the new film, which premiered at SXSW this weekend, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the rise of a genre.

The first scene of G-Funk, the new documentary written and directed by Karam Gill about the seminal early 1990s West Coast hip-hop scene, which premiered Saturday at SXSW, opens appropriately at the beginning: with Parliament-Funkadelic's iconic track "Flash Light" and the familiar voice of Snoop Dogg. "One thing about magic," he says, "When you're making magic, the ingredients sometimes don't come with instructions. You just gotta know how to put that sh-- together."

G-Funk, for the uninitiated, was a style of hip-hop that emerged out of Los Angeles in the early 1990s, using classic funk samples chopped up over hard-hitting drums as a vehicle for the West Coast's rising gangsta rap scene and which would become one of the most successful sub-genres hip-hop has ever seen. And it emerged, like all enduring musical movements, almost completely organically.

"Parliament-Funkadelic and all the other groups that contributed to psychedelic funk, it was a lifestyle for us," Warren G, the rapper/producer whose 1994 G-Funk classic "Regulate" featuring Nate Dogg became an international sensation, told Billboard last week in a phone interview. "We couldn't go nowhere without it: at picnics, at our homes, on the bus going to football games, everywhere we went. It was just around me my whole life."

In the film G-Funk, Warren G -- who also produced the movie -- serves as the central character, with his career arc forming the narrative of the documentary as it tackles the subgenre's role in bringing hip-hop from, according to the film, a $600 million industry in 1990 to a $10 billion industry today. And while the likes of Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and Dr. Dre's The Chronic are widely considered the standards of the style these days, G-Funk makes the case for Warren's central role; or, as The D.O.C. put it in the film, "Without Snoop, there is no Chronic. Without Warren, there is no Snoop."

G-Funk chronicles Warren and Snoop's early days in the hip-hop trio 213 alongside fellow frequent collaborator Nate Dogg, their contributions to The Chronic and Snoop's subsequent ascension into superstardom with Doggystyle, and the ensuing rise of Suge Knight and Death Row Records, which took Snoop, Nate and Dre under its wing. Left behind without a deal, Warren found his way to Def Jam, the traditionally East Coast label run by Russell Simmons that was (and remains) a key company in hip-hop's legacy, where he released "Regulate" and took off as a solo artist in his own right.

Along the way, the film captures revealingly honest interviews from Warren, Snoop, The D.O.C., Simmons, Ice Cube, Kurupt, Daz Dillinger, Ice-T, Too $hort, George Clinton, Deion Sanders, Wiz Khalifa and DJ Premier, among others; the interviews are so comprehensive that the only glaring omission among those still around today is Dr. Dre, who is represented through archival footage and interviews from the time. And while the scope of the documentary eventually grows to include the legacy and effect of the subgenre as a whole, its biggest achievement is the unflinching tale it tells of the behind-the-scenes drama, euphoria and relationships that took West Coast G-Funk to stages and stereos around the globe.

"This documentary is probably so important because G-Funk is three dudes: singer, rapper and producer," The D.O.C. says toward the end of the film, referring to Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg and Warren G, respectively. "And from that friendship spawned the careers of a whole bunch of people, and made a whole bunch of money for a bunch of people. And there'll never be three dudes like these guys ever again in music. As it should be."

Ahead of the documentary's premiere at SXSW this past weekend, Billboard spoke with Warren G and director Karam Gill about G-Funk, success, regrets and the enduring legacy of the movement as a whole.

Interview begins below.

Why did you decide to make this documentary?

Warren G: We wanted to tell the hip-hop culture and the world about what G-Funk did for hip-hop on the West Coast and music worldwide. Just wanted to tell the story of a genre that's not a genre; it's not legally documented as a genre, but it is a genre in everybody else's eyes.

Karam Gill: When I was 19 or 20, I was still in college and I met Warren backstage at a show. At the time, we were just shooting photos and just hanging out, Warren I connected back stage, one thing led to another and I ended up touring with him. When we were on tour, he would always talk about all these incredible things about his life, all these little anecdotes about things that he went through, and after a while we got together and I was like, "Look, man, there's an incredible story here that's never been told and the world has no idea how instrumental you are in hip-hop." Eventually we started developing and now we're here. Through the writing, pre-production and editing I'd say we've been working on it for a little over a few years.

The documentary opens up with Parliament's "Flash Light." Warren, obviously funk music was a big part of your career, but how big was it for you growing up?

WG: It That's all anybody used to play in the neighborhood and at the neighborhood parties. That's why it stuck with me so much; Parliament-Funkadelic and all the other groups that contributed to psychedelic funk, it was a lifestyle for us. We couldn't go nowhere without it: at picnics, at our homes, on the bus going to football games, everywhere we went. It was just around me my whole life. And just to be able to pay homage to the funk, we added that into the documentary because we had to make this documentary as best we could and incorporate all the elements of what made me who I am and the things I was going to before I was Warren G, to becoming Warren G, to now being a voice in hip-hop. Parliament-Funkadelic, Roger Troutman, Cameo, the Isleys, everybody, it was all funk to me, and I wanted to try and create something, a different sound, but still call it funk and have those elements in it. So that's what we did.

One thing that struck me was how relatively quickly it seemed, at least in the documentary, that you guys went from rapping around the neighborhood to becoming legitimate superstars. Did it feel that quick at the time?

WG: We paid our dues; some of the stuff we talk about, some of the stuff we don't, but we went through a whole lot, man. From the street part all the way up to getting into the club that Rodger Clayton provided us to give us our platform to get our buzz up. It wasn't just overnight, we paid a lot of dues for years. We didn't have no other way to go but up, because we was at the bottom already. It was either that or be dead or in jail.

There are so many great interviews in this documentary. Which stand out for you?

WG: Man, everybody was on point, but for Russell Simmons to say that if it wasn't for G-Funk he wouldn't have had the money to support acts like Jay Z and Foxy Brown and Redman and Method Man and even LL Cool J; he said G-Funk saved Def Jam.

KG: Warren, he said you saved Def Jam.

WG: That's what he said, and that was very important for people to know. Because if you look at it, it wasn't just Def Jam, it was Violator, it was Interscope, it was Universal, all those companies, I contributed to making all of them successful. And a lot of people didn't know that, you know? But they gonna know from this documentary.

KG: Snoop told it how it was and he didn't hold back anything and gave a really firsthand account. He was probably the closest person to Warren in the documentary through this whole film. And I just felt like Snoop is he's always perceived as this kind of character where he's always dressed up in these kind of crazy clothes and looking so wild, and this is probably the first time you ever see him on camera where, you know, we interviewed him at 9 a.m. at his house. He had just got finished playing basketball. And he looks like a wise, Yoda-type figure that was just telling it how it was. He just kind of woke up and did the interview. It humanized him.

Snoop also spoke about the deal he signed with Death Row and how it wound up leaving Warren behind; it seemed like he had some regrets about how it went down.

WG: I mean, anybody who was put in that situation would feel the same way, but we wasn't feeling like that. Like he said in the interview, "If you make it, we make it." He made it, so we made it, you know? So it all panned out, it was all pretty much like a blessing in disguise. And we're still friends to this day. Most guys probably would have been enemies or mad at each other, but it wasn't like that. And I never gave up on our relationship, period, him or Dre or D.O.C. or anybody that was connected with [Death Row], even though I went through what I went through on that journey in the early years of my career.

What were some of the challenges in pulling this documentary together?

WG: Getting everybody to do their interviews. [Laughs] I called everybody personally and told them this was mine, this is me, this is not some Hollywood [people] trying to use me or use my story. And they all said, "As long as it's your sh-t, what do I need to do?"

I didn't go to one interview because I didn't want to be there [and have] them say what they say just because I'm there, something nice or something. I'd see it later once it got edited. And the stories all matched up. We all got interviewed in different places and at different times and nobody knew what the questions were gonna be for themselves or anyone else, and all the stories all matched up. That's how you know that this is all 100 percent authentic; nothing is watered down, this is all real. And it's also an important tool to teach the new generation about what it took and the things that we went through in hip-hop. And it's giving you the story of us being around Death Row back then, and coming up off the end of N.W.A.

KG: I think remaining authentic and organic [was a challenge]. The toughest part was just structuring the interviews in a way where you got exactly what you need from each character in exactly which sections that you needed them in the documentary, without it feeling forced. We never wanted to have a narrator saying, "This happened, then that happened." This is a true story that's so known in the industry that we wanted it to just flow seamlessly. And I think that was difficult in writing the questions and preparing the story flow to make sure that it made sense and was coherent throughout and there wasn't any major story gaps that needed to be filled in with something like a narrator.

WG: You pretty much getting a movie that's what G-Funk did for the West Coast and hip-hop culture, and it was all in the same era [as N.W.A] at the same time. The end of one era and the beginning of a new era, which changed the game for Dre. It opened up new doors for Eminem to be signed, for 50 Cent to be signed, even the new cats, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar. All those guys are off the family tree of what we created. Any time an artist come up under Dre or Snoop or me or Ice Cube, any of the guys from that era, that's all from a tree that was planted from N.W.A, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre and Ren and Yella and D.O.C. I'm a branch off that tree, and I got limbs that created a whole 'nother branch, too. Now everybody who came up off this tree is a superstar and an icon. 

So that's what it did, that's what it was, and still ain't nothing changed. We're still creating dope music. The soundtrack to this documentary is gonna be incredible, it's gonna be all the people who I always wanted to work with in music, you know? Without other people cock-blocking the situation. Now I can work with Snoop without having to get him cleared or anything, 'cause we grown now, we independent. I can hit up Dre and we can work together, we can create. So the album is gonna be sick, along with the documentary. It's all gonna match up.

Did anybody surprise you with what they said?

WG: That question brings me back to Russell. Him being from the East Coast and having a West Coast guy pretty much to save the whole company, for him to lay it down like that and not be one of those guys that was like, "Nah, that motherf---ker didn't save us, we did that." For him to be honest about that whole thing -- 'cause he got rich, honest to God, because of it [Laughs] -- it just let me know he's a real guy, he's got a good heart and he didn't try to sugarcoat anything.

At the end of the documentary, The D.O.C. says that G-Funk is three guys: Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G. What did it mean for you to hear him say that?

WG: It meant a lot, man. Because you had all these guys with different styles, but all the styles was dope and different and incredible. It changed the game for music, and that's something that will never be done again. We created a genre, just by doing G-Funk. And I was turned on to G-Funk by Above the Law, so I don't want to take anything away from them because they took me in as a pup. But what I did was take it worldwide and make it international and make it into something. Before, it was just gangsta funk. But I turned it into something with my music. I branded it. It's incredible, man, just to be a person who was involved in something that will never happen again.

Why do both of you think that G-Funk still resonates the way it does?

KG: I think G-Funk commercialized hip-hop. Especially with Warren, Snoop and Dre and all the stuff that they did, white America for the first time started buying hip-hop albums. And they had done it before with the Beastie Boys, but it was never to the level of... Doggystyle debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts. What they did with that sound, with the melody and whatnot, if you look at guys like Drake, they're singing on all their songs and rapping. YG, all of his songs have funk bass lines. And like Russell said, most of these artists don't even realize it. I just think all those elements are still popular and I think hip-hop has been commercialized because it crossed over to white America and the pop charts. It became pop.

WG: It was good music. It was successful music. And every artist that you're hearing out there right now, they got a piece of it. You didn't have rappers tryna sing with melody while they're rapping; that's G-Funk, that's me, that's Warren G. There was guys before me that was doing that, but these guys today, they get that singing melody along with their rapping from us. Like when you listen to Snoop, when he's rapping, you're gonna hear a little melody, you'll hear something in there that differentiates him from the next artist.

Now a lot of the artists have that in their music, and they've got heavy bass lines and heavy drums with a sweet melody up under that -- that's G-Funk. Chords, strings, melody, G-Funk: where rhythm is life and life is rhythm. That's gonna bring them all the way to the top; if they stay in that life, they're gonna be successful.


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