Pop & Hiss

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Nate Dogg's legacy of sweet hooks for hard rappers

March 16, 2011 |  4:14 pm

With the passing of Nathaniel “Nate Dogg” Hale, L.A. rap lost not only one of its cultural godfathers, but also one of its most distinctive stylists.

Hale’s vocal hooks are embedded in the DNA of West Coast’s rap’s musicality as much as Dre’s serpentine synth leads and Snoop’s stoned menace. Hale’s voice was a kind of outsider soul, a little droll in delivery and full of big, resonant vowels that were sexy but defiantly unsmooth. He lent a certain joie de vive to even the most troublesome tunes in the Death Row catalog -- his lines alone kept “Ain’t No Fun” grounded as a wink-nudge party song when it could have been a misogynist’s how-to manual.

His exaggerated vibrato made these songs physically fun to sing, even if you’re too drunk to rap along in the late hours. His lack of a big range only helped in this respect -- no matter how deep you are into the bottle at the end of a night, you can still chime in with “Regulate.” Years after g-funk’s heyday, when pitch-correction isn’t just everywhere but an expectation of any hook-singer, the forthrightness and charisma of Hale’s tone is a sound that just won’t be repeated.

That brings up the second of his great contributions to rap -- the idea that an original hook man is as essential to any production as an MC or the guy on the boards. Rap was never chorus-averse in its history, but the choruses often came from sampled material or more of a incantatory party chant. Nate Dogg wouldn’t have stood a chance in the Motown or Stax stables, but his delivery provided a perfect translator between the smoothness of R&B and the rowdy, violent vibes of his Death Row peers. Anything messier wouldn’t have stuck as a hit; anything sweeter wouldn’t have been trusted.

And now that role is the default in Top 40 rap today. Anytime you hear a Bruno Mars or a Jeremih or a Trey Songz hitting a chorus on another MC’s hook, thank Nate Dogg. R. Kelly calls himself “the R&B thug,” but Nate Dogg was a thug’s R&B guy.

-- August Brown