Long before Wiz Khalifa began representing that “Black And Yellow” to the nation, a fellow Pittsburghian could be seen sporting Pirates gear in the video for one of the most memorable singles released by the storied Death Row Records label, “U Better Recognize.”
Fast forward 15 years later and Sam Sneed is about to be recognized by a post-Khalifa generation thanks to the long-awaited release of Street Scholars (due January 25th courtesy of WIDEawake Entertainment). The previously vaulted Death Row debut from the man who first put Pittsburgh on the Rap map will include 10 new tracks in addition to the handful of songs that were ready for release before Sam was reportedly attacked by Tupac and Suge Knight’s underlings during a setup masquerading as a business meeting.
During a recent discussion with HipHopDX from his homebase in Atlanta, (where Sam relocated from Pittsburgh to in 1998 after “Following a woman,” as he jovially put it to DX. “You know they’ll have you all over the world.”), the musical mind behind much of Dr. Dre’s mid-‘90s creations (“Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” “Natural Born Killaz” and more) spoke for the first time in several years about his encounter with the darker side of Tupac. Sam also revealed the surprising supporting role he played in the construction of Doggystyle, the often overlooked role Pittsburgh producers played in the sound of southern California Hip Hop as a whole in the 1990s, and maybe most notably, the man who demanded recognition on his debut single explained how he was ironically forgot about by Dre.
HipHopDX: The first time I ever heard Sam Sneed’s name was as a kid in 1992 while watching the video for K-Solo’s “I Can’t Hold It Back.” How did a guy from Pittsburgh end up working with K-Solo from Long Island, New York?
Sam Sneed: I brought [K-Solo] to my hometown [for a show]. At the time, my cousin had a club and we was promoting shows. And K-Solo was somebody that I had interest in, so we brought him to Pittsburgh. [Also] at the time, I had a group that I put together called Rougher Than Most. And I was trying to be the businessman [for the group but] didn’t know nothing… So anyway, when I brought Solo to town I was trying to get him to pay attention to my artists, and hopefully he’d like somebody and they’d get a situation. But, when I played my music he was like, “Yo, who’s doing the tracks?” And I said, “Me and my partner.” And he was like, “Yo man, you can come to New York and work on my album.” I ain’t believe him, but like two weeks after he left he called me up and he said, “You wanna come out here?” I said, “Oh, you serious?” [Then] I said, “Yeah!” So I went out there and I started working with him.
DX: [You said on “U Better Recognize”], “Was on the DL with the Squad but Solo couldn’t hold it back.” How were you on the DL? Like, were you doing other stuff within the Hit Squad?
Sam Sneed: [What I was referring to was] they really didn’t know that I had that side in me, as far as the [emcee] ability.
DX: Did you and Solo bounce to Death Row together after the Hit Squad split?
Sam Sneed: Nah, I actually went over to Death Row [on my own]. I was always pursuing [Dr.] Dre. So when we were on that [Hit Squad] tour [in 1992], anybody that I thought that may know Dre I was asking how to get to him. And what’s so crazy is that I ran into a chick on tour [in California] and she told me that – we was going to McDonald’s, and I said, “I’m really out here trying to run into Dr. Dre.” And she said, “Dr. Dre?! I baby sit for Dr. Dre.” I said, “You lying.” She said, “Nah, I’m serious.” And she wrote his phone number down. At the time I didn’t call it because I ain’t wanna just call his home. But then there was another guy that I had met out there that used to do bodyguard work for N.W.A. So when I got back from the tour my grandmother was telling me that some guy from California called [for me]. I was thinking it was Dre. So I said, “Shit, well he called me, I’ma call him.” [Laughs] And that’s how that connection happened.
DX: How much of Doggystyle did you produce?
Sam Sneed: I just really brought skits to the table. I really didn’t produce anything. Like, the intro to Snoop [Doggy Dogg]’s album, that was my idea. And then the one [skit before “Pump Pump”] where I said “Fuck you bitch, I’m Sam Sneed.” That was just something [where] we was just freestyling in the studio. And then I gave Dre the records to “[Gz] Up, Hoz Down.” Yeah, I gave him a record… I was just throwing little ideas [at him], but Dre and a couple other producers really worked that album out.
DX: What all projects did you start working on after that, during those mid-‘90s years at Death Row?
Sam Sneed: Well…me and Dre used to just go record shopping [at first, around] when it was time to do Snoop’s album. And [then] around the time when we was doing the Murder Was The Case soundtrack I came across a couple of little samples… I had brought, partially, “Natural Born Killaz” to him. It was like partially done. So when he heard it he was like, “Yo, what you gon’ do wit’ that, Sam?” I’m like, “You know me Dre, it’s like whatever you trying to do.” I was actually on that record [originally]. It was me and Dre, and Ice Cube was on the hook. [But] then somebody at the label was like, “Dre and Ice Cube need to just be [together] rappin’ on it.” So they gave me the boot. [Laughs] I was a little salty about that. But I understood, it was a political move.
DX: I’m a little confused, ‘cause I thought originally the song was you and J-Flexx, a different song called “The Heist”?
Sam Sneed: Well, it was like, J-Flexx was writing for Dre [and he referenced both versions of the song for him]. And I already had a verse [recorded to the final version of the track], ‘cause like…Dre took me to meet with Oliver Stone and we sat down and watched the screening to the movie, [Natural Born Killers]… So when you hear [the song], it’s basically what we seen in the movie. [After] we recorded it [the label] changed it. They was like, they want Ice Cube to rap on it. So [shortly after that] Dre was like, “Man, you need to finish that one record [you working on].” I only had one verse to “Recognize” [done]. He said, “You need to finish that record.” I’m thinking he’s just pacifying me. [But] I did finish it, and it end up blowing up.
DX: So “U Better Recognize” was added to the Murder Was The Case soundtrack to sorta compensate you for being taken off of “Natural Born Killaz”?
Sam Sneed: I don’t really think so. I think Dre really did feel that record. At first it was [just one] verse, and the drum track wasn’t all that strong. But I went and touched it up, and then wrote the verses, and Dre was like, “Yo, man, that works!”
DX: So after the Murder Was The Case soundtrack you started right away working on your debut LP?
Sam Sneed: What had happened [was], Dre came to me and was like, “Yo, they ain’t really checkin’ for all the other records [from the soundtrack].” Like, “Natual Born Killaz,” “What Would U Do” from Tha Dogg Pound. These is his words verbatim: he said, “Yo, man, you gotta do an album. Everybody’s checkin’ for your song.” And I’m like, “Yo, man, I can’t carry no whole album by myself.” It was like, every now and then I’d write some stuff. I mean, I could write it, but it would take me some time to write a whole album. So what I did, I just said, “Okay, I know a couple people from New York [and] I’ma bring them out.” And that’s how we ended up writing Street Scholars. It was all my ideas, but they helped a lot with that. [It was] a brother from Queens named Drauma. I think they call him Stocks McGuire now. [And there was] a brother from Brooklyn named Sharief. And [then] J-Flexx. That was my team.
DX: You knew these cats from when you were working with Solo?
Sam Sneed: Well actually, Dre met J-Flexx. J-Flexx and his partner drove out to California and ran into Dre on the highway. How crazy is that? It ain’t nothing incidental, coincidental.
DX: So [Street Scholars] was gonna be like your Chronic, basically?
Sam Sneed: Well, yeah, pretty much. Yeah, I would say so. [But] I just don’t think with the budget that I had – I ain’t get to do what I really, really wanted to do.
DX: They didn’t bring in Snoop [Dogg] and [the rest of the Death Row camp]?
Sam Sneed: No, not at all. I’m not upset about it. Whatever’s given to you, you just do what you gotta do [with it]. But I’m talking about as far as like – you know how Dre gets a million dollars to do a record or something like that. So you can experiment with live instruments and…[make] that real quality music.
DX: Now, am I mistaken that somebody was in the cut helping you on the production side, that Mel-Man was already in the mix?
Sam Sneed: No, Mel-Man was somebody we planned to bring out [from Pittsburgh]. Bud’dha was a guy that I brought out from Pittsburgh. He ended up doing the Bow Down album [for Westside Connection]. [And] I had my own keyboard player at the time. He was from Pittsburgh. His name was [Stu-B-Doo].
DX: So did you [eventually] introduce Mel-Man to Dr. Dre?
Sam Sneed: Nah, Bud’dha did that.
DX: You have any clue where Mel-Man is these days, just out of curiosity?
Sam Sneed: I don’t know. I think he may still be out in California. I’m not sure though.
DX: So, the obvious question, why didn’t Street Scholars drop in [1995/1996] when it was originally supposed to?
Sam Sneed: Well, that’s when Suge [Knight] and Dre was having their little issues, and it just got stupid after that. So if Dre wasn’t gonna be [at Death Row] – I mean, everybody went there because of Dre. So it didn’t even really make sense to be there if Dre wasn’t there. That was my whole purpose [in] going to California.
DX: Now, you know what question that brings us to in the timeline of things, and I know you have to hate answering this shit, especially after 15 years, but as someone who’s always personally thought Tupac to be more misunderstood than maniacal, can you clear up once and forever what really happened that led you to leave Death Row, and what role if any ‘Pac played in that?
Sam Sneed: Well, it was basically [Suge and Tupac] was feeling some kind of way like – I don’t know, I think really, to be honest, it was Dre, man. It was Dre’s situation, how everything really unfolded with him [leaving Death Row that created issues for me]. Anybody who was a part of him, they basically had a problem with. They tried to use little excuses [to create issues with me] like me charging Snoop for a track, and all this other stupid stuff that we really never sat down [and discussed]. People was just doing business as business went on. It wasn’t like anything was organized. It wasn’t communicated like, “This is how everybody gets paid.” It wasn’t like I’m over there trying to [cheat them]. It wasn’t even like that, but they just tried to make it like that. Then they did that at a meeting for everybody to see. It was like, “If you ain’t a part of this, then we gon’ do this and do that.” Talking all crazy.
DX: I remember Nick Broomfield, the documentary filmmaker who made the movie Biggie & Tupac, he had this [poignant] line in the movie when he was talking about the incident in Las Vegas [at the MGM Grand Casino]. He said Tupac was “keen to impress [Suge Knight and his homeboys].” And, I was just curious if that’s what he was doing in that meeting?
Sam Sneed: [Short pause] Maybe. [Says dismissively] I don’t know… It was so strange, ‘cause when I first met him it was like, “Sam Sneed! Sam Sneed!” [He was] like real excited about meeting me. And me and Dre went to his interview with Bill Bellamy [from MTV and] he was like, “C’mon Sam Sneed, get in the picture, I’ll blow you up!” And all that went to the [side during] that crazy meeting that went down. I’m like, “What the hell is going on?” Somebody ain’t communicating. Dre telling me everything is cool, and then I go to this meeting [and] everything ain’t cool.
DX: So after all that craziness, why didn’t you then just go with Dre to Aftermath?
Sam Sneed: That’s the thing, Dre wasn’t really like – it ain’t like he really had my back at the time… It just wasn’t comfortable out there [in California] anymore. I really didn’t know where my career was at, [and] I’m like, “Well Dre, what are you gonna do?” And he wasn’t like really telling me nothing. After I had left, when I had came back out there a couple years later, he was like, “Why you leave?” I’m like, “What the hell you mean why I leave?” He was protecting his interests. And he started Aftermath with all my people: all my producers, all my artists. So you would think that he would [be] like, “Yo, let’s check with Sam, keep Sam still working with us.” It wasn’t like that. So I had to get up outta there. That’s when I went [back] to Pittsburgh. I said, “I’m outta here.” I had talked to a friend of mine from my hometown and he was like, “Man, you need to get outta there.” ‘Cause it just didn’t – it wasn’t comfortable.
Stay tuned to HipHopDX for the eye-popping conclusion to our conversation with Sam Sneed, in which he reveals how he beat a life-threatening brain tumor (with the notable support of an east coaster who also found himself eventually working with Dr. Dre), how he landed huge production placements for Jay-Z and G-Unit after leaving Death Row, and maybe most surprisingly, how he was denied Detox work after being given the green light by Dre to help construct his comeback.