Snoop Dogg's Pivot

What does a gangster rapper turned reggae artist have in common with the founders of YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr? He's borrowing a move from the Silicon Valley startup playbook--he's pivoting. Meet Snoop Lion.

Passing the torch: Rohan Marley (son of Bob) shares a smoke with Snoop

Snoop Dogg might be one of the few people on the planet for whom a Marley-obsessed dreadlock phase qualifies as maturity.

But maturity, wisdom, and a track on a new album declaring "no guns allowed" are entirely new, grown-up sentiments from the living legend of gangsta rap, a man who once celebrated the idea of a "1-8-7 on an undercover cop"--then beat a real-life first-degree murder rap.

He's converted to Rastafari. "I felt like I've always been Rastafari," Snoop says. "I just didn't have my third eye open. It's wide open right now."

The music I made as Snoop Dogg was who I was. I was young. I was fly. I was pretty. I was flamboyant. You know, I was the greatest of all time.

This all came to fruition earlier this year when Snoop traveled to Jamaica, where he says he found his calling with help from members of the Niyabinghi sect (or "mansion") of Rastafari, plus some actual Marleys, and dub and dancehall DJ (and half of duo Major Lazer) Diplo, who produced Reincarnated, Snoop's first ever reggae album.

"The music we wrote together is some of the best I've been a part of," Diplo says. It's the first full album from the producer who's worked on tracks for Beyonce, Usher, M.I.A and others. "I've always worked on a song here and a song there, but to work on an entire record, it's very rare these days," Diplo says.

The full-length comes out later this year on Vice Records, along with a photo book by Willie T. The first single is out on iTunes (Vice gave away 1,962 green vinyl singles, too), and it samples the irresistible hook from reggae pioneer Ken Boothe's mid-'60s single "Artibella."

There's also a documentary about Snoop's Jamaican rebirth, directed by Heavy Metal In Baghdad co-director and Vice cofounder Suroosh Alvi. It's showing in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Alvi says he initially went to Jamaica as an excuse to escape New York in winter. "I didn't know what we were signing up for.... I realized after three or four days, we're making a feature length documentary here. It was not what I expected at all. It was a new set of challenges for us to try and show what Snoop's doing."

He's pivoting.

And the album, film, and book are the beginning of a new era for the Doggfather, who now wants to be known by Rasta moniker, Snoop Lion, a name given to him by a Niyabinghi elder he met in Jamaica. "He asked me my name," Snoop says, "and I told him 'Snoop Dogg.' And he said, 'No more. You are Berhane. You are the light. You are the lion.'"

Consider the plight of an aging pioneer in the golden age of gangsta rap. It's not so different than that of a dotcom era startup entrepreneur like Marc Andreessen, who went from cofounding seminal web browser Netscape to funding the next generation of tech entrepreneurs via his Silicon Valley venture capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz. Or Elon Musk, who made his millions as cofounder of PayPal and now builds Tesla electric cars and spaceships. Snoop's 40. He has a couple of options. He could become a permanently faded parody of his younger weed-smoking self. Or he could change strategy without changing his vision. He could acknowledge his hardcore, street life-focused past while embracing a more universal aspect of his personality. He's found that in his reggae music pivot, he says.

"I think it's going to be more of who I am," Snoop tells Fast Company. "And the music I made as Snoop Dogg was who I was. I was young. I was fly. I was pretty. I was flamboyant. You know, I was the greatest of all time. That's what it called for me to be. But now I'm a grown man with a family, with kids, with wisdom, with guidance, with understanding. So it's only right to pass this on."

Plus he's potentially opening up a world of new fans.

"I'm an entertainer. I know how to make my thing fit. Once you know how to make it fit, you can cook in anybody's kitchen," Snoop says, adding that "I've always wanted to perform for kids, my grandmother, and people around the world who really love me but can't really accept the music that I made.... Now, as a 40-year-old man in the music industry--and you know the artists now call me 'Uncle Snoop'--I've got to give them something now. I can't just keep taking them to a dead-end street and dropping them off.... I gotta teach 'em how to fish and teach 'em how to plant and teach 'em how to walk, because that's what you do when you become wise. So I'm a wise man in the music industry."

Diplo and Snoop

Still, it all sounds pretty unreal: Seminal golden age of gangsta rapper known for smoking his weight in weed goes to Jamaica; hangs at the Niyabinghi center; befriends Marleys; finds Jah. It's fantastic at best and at worst, it's red meat for critics who might consider this all to be a gag akin to the last time Snoop sang on a record: the '70s pimpcore parody "Sensual Seduction." But that was intended as retro camp. Reincarnation, Snoop assures, is 100% real.

"It's not that I want to become Snoop Dogg on a reggae album," he says. "I want to bury Snoop Dogg ... and become Snoop Lion."

In terms of how it's received, Snoop's new Jamaica awakening is less like Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines, more like George Harrison in India. "I had no planning on going to Jamaica and making a reggae record, nothing," Snoop says. "It's just, the spirit called me." As did the spirit of Bob Marley, with whom Snoop says he sought to connect.

"The Marleys blessed me," Snoop says. Rohan Marley, Bob's son, is sitting nearby, and he nods in approval. Then the two smile and recite in unison, "Jah! Rastafari!"

Follow Tyler Gray (@tgraydar) on Twitter.

[Top and bottom images courtesy of Vice; Rotator Images: Flickr users Arno Meintjes and Garyt70]

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