In 1998, during the incarceration of Marion “Suge” Knight, Death Row Records was in a difficult transitional phase.

It had been two years since label co-founder Dr. Dre forfeited his stake in the top-selling imprint to launch the fledgling Aftermath Entertainment. Then newly signed superstar Tupac Shakur was murdered less than a year after inking a seven-figure deal with the label. Now, with Knight serving a probation violation sentencing, Kurupt, Nate Dogg, and now Snoop Dogg all escaped Death Row with their feared-but-respected manager trading his Beverly Hills offices for a jail cell.

One of the newly-signed artists of the day was a light-voiced emcee from Knight’s hometown of Compton, California. Known as YGD Top Dogg, the rapper came with a sound comparable to the Row’s homegrown superstar Snoop Dogg, and his first several released songs were aimed at Diddy, Master P and Snoop – causing immediately controversy for the brazen label.

By 2001, Top Dogg had vanished. Suge Knight was newly freed, and artists like Crooked I, Kurupt and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes took the place of YGD and his former dark-era cohorts.

Now, a decade later, and YGD Top Dogg is still recording music. Admitting that he was an “artist in development” a decade ago, the professionally-trained artist and illustrator digitally released Renegade, which has songs about parenting, love and everything but disses at Rap superstars. In a rare interview, YGD recalled his tenure at Death Row, and revealed his late ’90s run-in with Snoop, songs recorded over Dr. Dre beats, and whether or not those label chains were cross-hairs in the streets of South Central.

HipHopDX: I wanted to do a chronological interview, as not a lot of people know your history. Nowadays you have a website, but in the late 1990s, you kind of popped up out of nowhere. Tell us about your upbringing and history, leading to your decision to becoming an emcee…

YGD Top Dogg: I’m an artist first; I use my hands to draw and paint and shit. I’ve been drawing since I was a baby. I just remember, in pre-school, me drawing. I was drawing – and I still draw, as a matter of fact. One day, I was just drawing. I was talking to my [then-girlfriend], and said, “I want to rap.” I don’t know what the hell made me say it. I was in love with Death Row [Records] at the time [as a fan], that was always the label that I wanted to fuck with, if I was to work with somebody. It was the drama, the suspense, the excitement, the whole nine [yards] – the way they carried they-self. I was attracted to that. [Laughs] Plus, on top of that, it’s close to the hood [of Compton, California].

DX: You were born down South, but raised in Compton?

YGD Top Dogg: I was born in Grenada, Mississippi. I moved to Compton – I moved to L.A. when I was one. I’ve been out here all my life. I’ve got the best of both worlds: I’ve got the charm of the South and the mentality of the West.

I actually worked with Ted Turner [Studios], Hanna-Barbera Cartoons – who did The Flintstones [when I was a teenager]. So I wanted to try something else [in] art.

DX: From that, how did you get down with Death Row?

YGD Top Dogg: I was in this group called The Dynamic Duo [with] my buddy. One thing led to another, and I took it more serious than he did. I kept pushin’, kept rappin’. I finally came across this dude named Ron, who used to paint pictures and shit [of Death Row Records artists], and even cut their hair – Tupac [Shakur], Snoop [Dogg] and all these guys.

After I met him… I’m 16 years old…and Ron is sayin’, “I gotta go cut Tupac’s hair and Suge [Knight’s] hair.” [Later on], Ron kinda took my demo over to Death Row and gave it to J-Flexx. J-Flexx heard it and said, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s tight. That’s tight. Let me see what’s up with ‘Big Man.'” I never really got a response back from J-Flexx. Then my demo got into the hands of O.F.T.B. – Operation From The Bottom. Lowdown from O.F.T.B., he was always going to see Suge [in prison] like once every two weeks. He put the bug in Suge’s ear, and from there, it was on. They liked the demo – the demo was all rough-sounding and shit. The quality of the demo sounded like shit. [Laughs] They just liked how I was spittin’ on that mothafucka.

DX: If I’m not mistaken, the first material you put out with Death Row was “Going Back To Cali”…

YGD Top Dogg: Oh yeah.

DX: I have to ask you a tough question: here we are 14 years later. To many people, that record is perceived as a blatant, blatant diss to [Diddy] and Notorious B.I.G…

YGD Top Dogg: Which it was. Ain’t nothin’ to hide. It wasn’t strictly to Biggie, but it was to Puffy, Ma$e, and whoever. Whoever took it, it was like they wanted to jump in the way of a stray bullet.

DX: You were coming into this as a new artist. Years later, if I’m understanding this corrected, that song was made after the murder of Biggie Smalls…how do you look at that record now, as an older, wiser man?

YGD Top Dogg: Actually, it was in the midst [of Notorious B.I.G.’s murder]. That was a big impact. As a man, today, it was me just jumpin’ in the game, bein’ hungry, not givin’ a fuck about the next person’s feelings, family, thoughts and whatever. It was being on Death Row and doin’ what we known for – smashin’. My mentality was “just go ahead without thinkin’.”

DX: In a way, now, do you wish that song never came out?

YGD Top Dogg: I never regret what I did in life – ’cause it’s live and learn. If somebody else can’t live and learn from it, they’re not the person to be in my face. You’ve gotta be Godly, man. You’ve got to be as close to God as possible. You can’t hold a grudge. I just do what God would want me to do.

[That song] was still pretty dangerous, too. [You never know] what could’ve happened. I’m real thankful about that whole era.

DX: Even Crooked I, to this day, will say that during the late ’90s, early ’00s, being signed to and affiliated with Death Row had dangerous repercussions in the streets because of things said on record – things that he didn’t even say. You, being right there in Compton, talk to me about that. We only got to hear a handful of records on compilations and whatnot. What was your life like during that period?

YGD Top Dogg: [Laughs] It was a big movement. Everywhere you go, they know that logo. All these rappers today, they want their logo wrapped around their neck ’cause they know what it is. We started that shit, man, and everybody know that. It’s a good thing and a bad thing – it goes hand-in-hand. You take the good with the bad. You had people lovin’ you, and you had people sayin’ “Fuck Death Row.” [Laughs]

It was fun. I loved it. Sometimes it got crazy; you never knew what could occur or what situation you were in. You had to watch your back every fuckin’ minute. The most important thing was [deciding] to be seen when you wanted to be seen. Be invisible, so [you] know how to handle it. [We would be out there], and people might recognize the face, but [we would] be at all the hot-spots.

I was happy on Death Row, don’t get it wrong. But I’m way more happy today, ’cause I know the game and I know myself.

DX: You mention invisibility. You appeared in two major videos. I remember seeing you on MTV and BET. What did it mean for you to have the 2Pac “All About U” video, and then “Top Dogg Cindafella”?

YGD Top Dogg: [Laughs] Back then, if I was inside [with my friends], and the videos would come on, I’d go outside. I don’t wanna see the videos, I’m humble. If the video comes on, I’ll disappear. [Laughs] I never really let that shit go to my head.

DX: You were, if I’m not mistaken, the last Death Row artist to have his own video, of the new guys. Years later, you have Renegade out. But on the real, how close did you ever get to releasing an album at Death Row?

YGD Top Dogg: Actually, we never really got to an album. I’m so grateful and thankful for that, ’cause I’m able to [release] my own album [now]. I did a lot of singles over there at Death Row, but I never had an album that I was actually working on. I was just workin’ on songs. I was still just an artist in development. I just blessed to be on songs so big that motherfuckas still play ’em on the radio, and still remember ’em.

DX: What happened next? What progressed?

YGD Top Dogg: I was ready, but I wasn’t developed. I’d just been rappin’ for a year or two, and I was on a [very well-known] label. We made it. [Laughs] I just took that and ran with it. I just stuck to the script, man, and my name motivated me. I know it sounds weird, but “Top Dogg” was powerful in some ways.

DX: I know a lot of critics, radio deejays and fans at the time made the association with you and Snoop. There were records you made directed at him, and comments he made in the media directed at you and Suge Knight. I’m curious to know, when you signed, was it just “YGD” or were you always Top Dogg? How much of that came from label politics, and 10 years later, have you ever had the chance to speak with Snoop?

YGD Top Dogg: Actually, I had talked to Snoop [Dogg] after [The Source‘s 1998] magazine cover-story had come out, with the blue background. I called him up. I said, “What’s up, I heard you talkin’ that shit about me.” I had met him prior to that, at The Palace in [Los Angeles, for a radio concert]. Jay-Z was there, before he was [a superstar], Mack 10, Ice Cube – everybody was there. I did my song, and [Snoop Dogg and I] chopped it up right before that. He was just tryin’ to give me some game. Then I saw [the interview publish]. Now that I think about it, he probably said [the negative things] before we met. [Laughs]

After I saw what he said, I started goin’ in, on the video and all that shit, like “Fuck you too.” However, we gotta respect and pay homage to our legends. That’s my thing now. New cats in the game are disrespectin’ mothafuckas that’s paved the way for ’em. I think, I was that same nigga though. [Chuckles] I’m human, but I love talkin’ [freely].

DX: Renegade says so much. But talk to me about your album, finally coming out…

YGD Top Dogg: Everything was done hands-on by me, from the artwork to some of the beats. I wrote every song on the album. Renegade just came to me from the fans. Fans [asked for some music], so I made Top Dogg Mixtape, Volume 1. After that, I said, “Okay, let me work on this album,” ’cause I ain’t never worked on an album. I just pretty much sat there and put my life into an album – shit I’m goin’ through, the trials and tribulations of Top Dogg, man.

DX: After all these years, what’s been the happiest or proudest moment of your career?

YGD Top Dogg: When I walk in the house and hand my family some money – that I’m gettin’ paid off this shit.

DX: Earlier you mentioned O.F.T.B., who just released some lost songs with WIDE Awake/Death Row. Have you been in contact with the label’s new ownership at all? With Crooked I, Tha Realest, Spider Loc still making waves, do you have any connection to your old label-mates?

YGD Top Dogg: I talk to Tha Realest and all that; I talk to a couple cats, Crooked I. But I’m not really involved with any of their projects. I don’t know why, but I don’t beg either though. With me and Tha Realest, I know he’s doin’ his thing, but I kinda want to separate myself from that. I don’t want to be no Snoop Dogg [and] 2Pac [copycats working together]. Really, we’re cool, and we’ve got good music [in our catalogs] together and everything, but with me, I just don’t wanna go back to mothafuckas wanting to compare me again. Now I’m out of that [stigma].

[As far as unreleased stuff], I did enough music. I did enough music that mothafuckas are still askin’ for shit. I got one song called “Ho-Hoppin'” over a [Dr.] Dre beat. I got another one called “Three O’Clock High School.” I wrote it when Columbine and all that was goin’ on. The song is pretty much talkin’ about that shit. The beat is so sick; I think that’s a Dre beat too. I just found the ADAT. [Laughs] It’s been so long. [WIDE Awake/Death Row] don’t have that shit. That’s gonna be a shocker. If I do put that out, I’ll probably do the beat over and chop it up or somethin’. [“Three O’Clock High School”] was so crazy, that [interim label manager] Reggie Wright, Jr. said, “No. That’s just too much.” [Laughs] That’s how hard that song was. That song was controversy. You think “Going Back To Cali” was controversy? That shit right there was controversy. That was it right there. [Laughs]

DX: You worked with hit-makers like O.F.T.B., J-Flexx, DJ Quik, and so on. What was it like working with Dr. Dre tracks, even if he was gone?

YGD Top Dogg: It still felt like he was there. Today, mothafuckas [aren’t in the same studio, so] they email tracks. It’s the same shit. [Chuckles] The track is still made by that person. When I was on Death Row, some of that shit I took for granted. I ain’t gon’ lie.

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