Justin St. Germain



For a few weeks last fall, twenty-one years after "Regulate" made him famous, Warren G was the talk of Corvallis, the college town in rural Oregon where I live. Word spread that he was playing a concert here, on the night before Veterans Day, no school or work in the morning. Posters appeared on every flat surface in town; the phrase "mount up" returned to local parlance; the show promptly sold out. The rains hadn't started, so Corvallians had not yet huddled in their dens for winter. People got babysitters, put on their good shirts. This was an event.
     Nobody had thought of Warren G in decades, much less listened to his music; not one person I asked could name a song other than "Regulate." But this is Corvallis, a town whose motto is "Enhancing Community Livability," a town where a thousand people show up annually for an adult spelling bee, a town whose folk often mention how far it is from Portland with a rueful sort of pride. Home of Oregon State University, my benevolent employer, a school with an inferiority complex common to those saddled with State or a direction, made worse by its mascot, the Beavers, for obvious reasons. Nearby Eugene, home of the University of Oregon, is bigger and richer and more famous—birthplace of Nike, backdrop of Animal House, and home of the Duck football behemoth, which dominates our beloved Beavers in a rivalry known blithely as the Civil War. Every band that comes to Oregon—every person, really—drives directly from Eugene to Portland on I-5, in one direction or the other, to or from California, and never even notices the exit sign we share with Lebanon, on which Lebanon comes first. I'd moved here a few months earlier for a job teaching creative writing, and liked the town on balance, but Warren G playing Corvallis reminded me of a cliché about endings: it was both surprising and inevitable.
      Of course I was going. I bought tickets without discussing it with my significant other, a poetess who loves bad music the same way I do, not ironically enough. We got a babysitter, put on our good shirts, and went downtown to the Whiteside, a theater that had been undergoing renovations, apparently forever. We arrived an hour and a half late, hoping to miss an excessive number of regional opening acts; my curiosity about rappers from rural Oregon was outstripped only by my dread. Throngs of townies and students milled outside the theater, shrouded in smoke, bemused by how ironic to be. On closer inspection, the crowd seemed old—until I did the math on Warren, who must be in his mid-forties—and, collectively, high as a kite. Recreational marijuana had just become legal in Oregon; a local dispensary was offering a discount to anyone with a ticket to this show. A group of sorority girls stood by the entrance, wearing matching trucker hats that read: Regulators! Mount up.


"Regulate" was released in 1994, on both Warren's debut album and the soundtrack to Above the Rim, a Tupac vehicle about basketball in Harlem. It was the peak of the MTV era, when songs were still defined by their videos. The music video for "Regulate" comprises of clips from the movie and scenes of Warren G and Nate Dogg lip-syncing in urban settings. Warren got pulled over on his way to the set and taken to jail [1], so they had to film most of it without him [2]. The resulting video is disjointed and strange, but unwittingly appropriate to the song, which is weirder than it gets credit for: a hybrid of West Coast gangster rap and R&B, one of the only hit singles without a vocal hook, just alternating verses half-rapped, half-sung over keyboards and bass guitar, two young black men from Compton sampling the dude from the Doobie Brothers [3].
     "Regulate" made it to No. 2 on the Billboard charts, behind the diaphanous boy band All 4 One, ahead of Ace of Base and the immortal Lisa Loeb ballad "Stay." It was the lead single for both the Above the Rim soundtrack and Warren's album Regulate … the G Funk Era, both of which went platinum, and so did the single. Thanks to the success of "Regulate," Above the Rim won best soundtrack at the 1995 Source Awards, where it begat a moment of hip hop infamy: in the acceptance speech, Suge Knight called out Puff Daddy, fueling the intercoastal rap war that killed Tupac and Biggie.
     Warren produced "Regulate," sampling a batshit smooth jazz song by Bob James [4], as well as his stepbrother Dr. Dre [5], dialogue from the cult [6] ‘80s Western Young Guns, and, once again, the dude from the Doobie Brothers. He threw in some ad-libs off the soundboard of a Yamaha synthesizer—low strings, an organ lick, a Moog sweep—and a few verses he co-wrote with Nate in one sitting.
     Judging by the lyrics, they were high at the time. The first half of the song is full of opaque motivations. Why does Warren join a dice game with strangers? Is it that easy to convince a carful of women to accompany two strangers to the Eastside Motel? The dramatic climax is a deus ex machina: Nate just happens to be driving by that particular corner at that exact moment? In the last verse, the Regulators basically give up, and resort to narrating sounds in real time ("chords … strings") and offering obscure apogthems about rhythm, which is somehow both the bass and life itself. It's like an autistic ars poetica for G-funk.
     But, somehow, it works. The beat is so good it doesn't need much help. Warren is a better producer than rapper; he's laid beats for everyone from Tupac to Young Jeezy to Shaquille O'Neal. "Regulate" is his masterpiece. He assembled its parts into something transcendent, a career-making hit, a hip hop classic, a generational anthem. The creation story of the song is a David Shields dream: a young producer sets up a studio in his apartment, full of new technology he bought at Guitar Center, dubs a VHS of Young Guns with no regard for rights, listens to an old soft rock record, and transforms it all into the apotheosis of a new genre. The kind of song that, twenty years later, the residents of a small college town in Oregon still know by heart.


Inside the theater, patrons grew restless, pounding tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a sponsor of the show: a huge inflatable can of PBR hung unnervingly above the stage, lest we forget our corporate benefactors. The house lights were on, and I could see the people around me too clearly. In front of me, a married lady who lives down the street ground her ass against a bearded stranger; a guy my grandpa's age sat a few rows back, gamely nodding his head; the girls in hats selfied a section to my left.
     It must be said: everyone was white. Not literally—I'll forego the tokenizing—but the degree of whiteness was startling, even to a white person, even in Oregon. Corvallis prides itself on being progressive, unlike the surrounding rural areas; still, only one percent of the population is black. Which is maybe not germane to this essay, but did make me wonder how this crowd must look to Warren G, a middle-aged black man from Long Beach, pioneer of a form of music that seems inherently black. Most forms of hip-hop have been infiltrated by white artists—a white drill rapper recently went viral [7]—but, in the twenty-odd years G-funk has existed, all its notable artists have been black. Because of that, white people love it, and feel compelled to pretend that love is ironic; ask the nearest white person about "Regulate" and see what happens. Was Warren back there watching as the white opener stepped offstage, the white DJ spun reggae, and the white hype man took pictures of the white crowd with his phone? None of us was here sincerely; we can't just have a good time, we have to do it sarcastically. I already disliked us for our snide nostalgia, this white entitlement, wanting Warren to hurry up and play the song we paid to hear. How must he feel?
     I glanced toward the stage door, flanked by two tragic groupies, and only then did I realize that Warren was already onstage, in a long black shirt and baggy jeans, as if he had teleported directly from 1993. He stood there for a soundless moment before the DJ gave a sheepish grin and spun "This DJ." The house erupted. A few bars into the song, Warren's mic cut out. He smirked, stared down the sound man, took a blunt somebody passed. The silence lasted a few minutes, just long enough to seem like a reproach.
     The sound came back and so did Warren. He did a few old songs nobody knew, a new one nobody knew. He skipped verses, switched songs midstream, seemed to be warming up or half-assing or maybe just really high. Like most live hip hop, his music suffered live because it's collaborative. He told us to hold up a finger for Nate Dogg while the DJ played "Xxplosive," a minor Dre hit that features one of Nate's best guest spots, which is saying something. Nate did verses for everyone from Tupac to Ludacris, on hit after hit—a career that eclipsed Warren's after "Regulate," helped define an era of hip hop, and was still going strong in 2007, when he had a stroke and lost his voice. Then he had another. While Nate recovered, Warren wrote an on-the-nose tribute song, "This is Dedicated to You," the lyrics to which reveal how much his friend's silence shook him: he wonders if the music will ever be the same without Nate's voice, whether he can go on without his fellow Regulator. He was right to wonder. Nate died in 2011, of yet another stroke, and watching Warren G solo in 2015 felt less like watching the early scene from Young Guns sampled in "Regulate," and more like the late part of Young Guns II, when the gang's all dead and Billy's on the run with Christian Slater.
     The baleful cello bounce of "In da Club" played incongruently. Another trademark Dre beat, it seemed like a joke until the crowd began to cheer, and Warren played along, wandering through a few bars, asking the crowd mockingly if they liked it. Fifteen minutes into the show, and already he was killing time.


"Regulate" was ubiquitous in the summer of 1994, even in Bumfuck, Arizona, where I was turning thirteen: its bassline bumped from cars cruising Allen Street, and the CD case perched empty on the dresser in my best friend Charlie's room, where the song played on repeat through the huge speakers his dad left when he moved to Mexico. We'd just made the transition from tapes, thanks to Columbia House and BMG, music services with a counterintuitive business model that sent free CDs to anyone without asking for money or proof of their existence. Charlie and I used fake names—Mike Hunt, Amanda Kissenhug, Hugh Jasoles—and got stacks of shiny, scratch-prone discs, followed by letters full of toothless threats. In retrospect, the CD clubs foreboded the end of music as we knew it, which would come five years later, with the advent of Napster. But in the summer of 1994, the internet hadn't arrived in our houses, and we didn't have computers, and the nearest place to buy music, the Hastings in Sierra Vista, was twenty miles away, and it didn't sell CDs with explicit lyrics labels to kids under eighteen, and we couldn't drive, and we didn't have any money. Until Columbia House, owning a new rap album in our town was like having a motorcycle. (The cool kid in our class, Chach Perez, owned a yellow Yamaha and the "Funky Cold Medina" tape in third grade.) But now we could all have a copy of Above the Rim in our backpacks, or playing in our generic Discmans—even the kids with religious parents, although they had the clean version. Now we were up on shit. Now we said things like we were up on shit.
     Charlie had the real versions, parental advisories and all; he'd checked that box on the mail-in cards, because his mom didn't care if she heard a bunch of fucks. Charlie went a little overboard with the music clubs. He had hundreds of CDs, some still in the film, stuff he didn't even like. He was the only thirteen-year-old I knew who had the Forrest Gump soundtrack, a double-disc serving of dad rock [8]. Man, remember soundtracks? What happened to them? Ninety-four was the year of the soundtrack: Above the Rim, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Reality Bites, The Crow, that unholy Sting/Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart song from Robin Hood. Charlie owned all of them.
     No half measures with Charlie Mercer; it was one of the things I loved about him. We were inseparable for a good five years, best friends, both fatherless and angry, always trying to provoke someone, torturing Mr. Davenport and getting suspended from school, different only in our methods. I was sneaky, devious, always ready to blame somebody else; Charlie was balls and brass tacks, an honest criminal. We were the smartest kids in our class, fought for the best scores on Iowa tests, went to the next grade up for English, were given math textbooks and told to go at our own pace, which passed for a gifted program in rural Arizona. I was smarter, but Charlie worked harder, and had a maniacal sense of focus that was only partly the result of the drugs he took for his condition: ADD, ADHD, hell if I know, we just called him hyper. I got a higher score on the entrance exam for high school math; Charlie read an electrical manual and rewired his apartment.
     The girls in class called him Chuckie, after the demonic doll in the horror movies, and the shoe fit—blond bowl cut, crazy blue eyes, a temper to behold. I showed up the first day of second grade, the collateral damage of my mother's Army transfer. Even though I'd come from a city in North Carolina nicknamed "Fayettenam," Arizona seemed nuts: a gravel playground, no black kids, classmates calling me names in Spanish. Charlie sat beside me that first day at lunch, and I didn't have the foresight to wonder why nobody wanted to sit with him, either. Years elapsed and I learned some things: never throw anything at Charlie, never steal from him, never say anything bad about his mother, and mind your tone before lunch, when he went to the nurse to take his pill. Break any of those rules and you were in deep shit. Charlie wasn't much with his hands—not like Chach, the schoolyard champ—but he was strong as a mule and just as stubborn; you might win, but you'd regret it. People knew: Charlie Mercer didn't give a fuck. It was another thing I loved about him.
     At thirteen, even more than other ages, life seems to boys like it's for us; "Regulate" was our song. Two friends, bored and unsupervised, mothers busy with men and Scotch, respectively, our dads a distant longing, obsessing over girls, dodging bullies, daydreaming of escape, wishing we could fly, contemplating. We loved Young Guns, rented it Friday nights from the Chevron, back when it still rented movies, back when it was still a Chevron. It's a movie about reject kids robbing and stealing in a quest for revenge, us but with a reason. All we wanted was to be Regulators. And here came Warren G and Nate Dogg, sampling our favorite movie, singing our desires: girls, cars, freedom, righteous violence, and a homey to share it with.


As the last handclap of "In da Club" faded, the hype man skittered onstage like a circus dwarf and commanded us to wish Warren a happy birthday. Bewildered, we sang. Warren seemed ineffably sad throughout his set—I wasn't the only one who saw it—but never more than at that moment, pushing back his prim eyeglasses and staring out at all the white people singing him our wishes. It was the perfect time to fade into "Do You See?" a minor hit off his first album, a darkly autobiographic commentary on being a young black man in America—one of a thousand ‘90s rap songs to sample Gil Scott-Heron—in which the young G Child is already tired of losing friends to prison and the streets.
     I wondered what would happen if he didn't play "Regulate." He didn't owe us the song. A bunch of drunk dickheads on our phones, spilling PBR on the floor, wondering what our kids were doing. Nirvana hated "Smells Like Teen Spirit" so much it was the stuff of legend: they'd play the intro to taunt crowds at concerts before switching to another song. Dave Chappelle and the Rick James bit, fratboys shouting at him on the street, made him so mad he split to South Africa. Warren must feel some of that. He's done five albums and an EP since "Regulate," but all anybody wants to hear is his big hit, a song about young black men in Long Beach, living a life we don't understand, which he wrote with his dead best friend. I didn't want him to sing it anymore. Fuck us.
     The cut came with no warning, that Moog warble, the whistle spiraling up. Charlie Bowdre gave his call to arms. Warren choked the mic and shouted: Regulators! The moment he must once have lived for, necks snapping, the whole crowd growling back: Mount Up! His first four bars: noir scene-setting, an assertion of capitalist desire; the synechdochic misogyny of the second line, its non sequitur about "phones" [9]; the haunting specification that he's by himself, and therefore vulnerable.
     As Nate's first line approached—they switched off for four-bar sections, the opposite of a battle rap—a palpable unease spread through the crowd. Who would sing for Nate? Warren was onstage with a few white kids and a middle-aged bodyguard who had his t-shirt tucked into his jeans; who else? Warren made it through the first line--Just hit the east side of the LBC—but his heart wasn't in it. Standing on a stage in rural Oregon, singing a duet solo, lines he didn't even write; bad enough to be reminded that the version of himself who wrote the song was gone, now he had to imitate his dead friend? And that voice: even if you didn't know him, who feels comfortable covering the Godfather of G-funk? Have you ever seen two people sing "Regulate" at karaoke, how nobody wants to be Nate? Faced with the self-referential vortex of Nate's second bar—would Warren say he was on a mission to find himself?—he held the mic out to the crowd instead, and let us finish for him: the car full of girls, no need to tweak, all you skirts know what's up with 213.


For two thirteen-year-old boys pissed off about our prospects—middling athletes, invisible to girls—"Regulate" was a fantasy of our future maleness, a song about driving, kicking ass, and getting pussy. We knew we'd never be Dre and Snoop, Billy the Kid, even Chach Perez. We just wanted to be part of the click, like Nate Dogg and Warren G, have our five minutes of fame.
     So we cruised around town on bikes and tried to prove ourselves. In our early years we built forts, lit fires, built forts and lit them on fire, played Ding Dong Ditch and Bloody Mary and Rochambeau. Later, we went down abandoned mines, broke into buildings, drank his mother's Scotch, smoked whatever we could get. We fought over Dre vs. Eazy, Young Guns vs. Young Guns II, and who Teresa Escapule belonged to, even though she hardly spoke to us. Like Warren and Nate, I don't think we ever considered the meaning of the word, what we were supposed to be regulating. I'll skip the dictionary—this isn't a goddamned lyric essay—but suffice to say, "Regulate" uses the term loosely. What's the object of the verb? Bustas? Skirts? Charlie Bowdre says they regulate the stealing of property—is the whole song about the attempted theft of Warren's Rolex?
     We didn't know. We just knew we had to regulate something. And so we wound up hiding in the bushes one day after school, with the pellet gun Charlie got for Christmas, waiting for someone to walk by so we could shoot them. Did we pick a group of passing skirts as targets because of the song? Probably not—not entirely, and not consciously. We had lots of reasons; we were young, poor, white males in rural America, born with and bound to a rage that transcends reason; if you knew like we knew, you didn't want to step to this. The details aren't important—I've written about it elsewhere [10]—but Charlie shot some girls we went to school with, and we learned that pellet guns are legally considered firearms when we both caught felonies, and Charlie got probation and I got off, and that was more or less the end of our friendship. His mom died that year and he moved to Tucson. My mom died six years later and I moved to Tucson.
     I hadn't see Charlie for nearly twenty years when my book came out, a memoir that mentions the pellet gun incident. I did my first author event at a Barnes & Noble in Tucson. A bunch of people from my hometown turned out; even Teresa Escapule was there. Afterward, a woman handed me a book to sign and said she was Charlie's sister. She said he was dead.
     I told her I was sorry, and somewhat melodramatically said that we were once like brothers. She hugged me awkwardly and we realized there was nothing else to say. Long ago, I'd heard a rumor that Charlie had died in a car wreck, but I hadn't believed it; it sounded too much like smalltown lore, the emigrant son gets his punishment.
     Later, I found a brief news article online. Charlie was twenty-one, his license suspended from a previous DUI, driving drunk at five a.m., more than double the speed limit on a dangerous road. He lost control, left the pavement, hit a boulder, rolled his truck, was pronounced dead at the scene. An unnamed man riding shotgun survived with minor injuries. My first thought was jealous: who was that motherfucker, and why didn't he save him?


A few months before he came to Corvallis, Warren G released Regulate…G Funk Era, Pt. II, a five-song EP, the sequel to his debut album [11]. Every song except the intro features unreleased Nate Dogg vocals, and two are duets, the Regulators reunited. Both of them suck—it's the same posthumous barrel-scraping that so often happens, releasing work the artist chose not to—but the last track, the aptly titled "Dead Wrong," might be the worst song Warren's ever done. The portentous tale of a liaison gone awry, it begins with the couplet "Once upon a time not long ago / I had to go and put the smash down on this ho," and gets worse. It makes you wonder how the same principals could make both it and "Regulate."
     Except they didn't both make the new stuff. Warren did. And, friends or not, you wonder about the ethics of using Nate's voice. What for? To make money, which Warren clearly must need, if he's playing Corvallis on his birthday? To honor his friend's memory, as he might say? Is he that desperate to recapture whatever creative lightning struck twenty-two years ago, in his living room, sitting with his friend, writing four bars and switching? Can you blame him? They made a classic song in one night. You might think that's sardonic, that this whole enterprise is, devoting so much space and attention to a song you probably remember as corny, ephemeral, an answer to a trivia question. Listen again.
     Warren hasn't approached that level since. It makes you wonder why he keeps trying. Nobody in the theater that night wanted to hear his new record, Nate Dogg lyrics or not. We were there to hear "Regulate." And none of us thought to consider whether it was a reasonable thing to ask. Standing there in a dank-ass theater full of white faces, beneath the graven image of Pabst Blue Ribbon, watching Warren's rendition of "Regulate" devolve into a halfhearted holler-back, it was hard not to think of our predicaments. None of us could be Nate Dogg, so we were all Nate Dogg. Warren can never do "Regulate" live again, and he can never not do it. Half his life ahead of him, and he'll always be defined by a song he did with a dead guy forever ago.
     I thought about Charlie, my first best friend, a relationship that can't be replicated. Riding around our town, perpetrating. Listening to music in a way I can't anymore, "Regulate" on repeat in his bedroom, rapping every word. Letting it suggest other lives we might aspire to. Other lives he didn't live to see, and nothing like the one I have. There he stood, Warren G in the flesh, an avatar of what meant so much to us.
     It wasn't only me. The whole theater was singing, dancing, remembering whoever they used to listen with, what they used to do. It was why we were there, to be reminded, and he gave us that: a mass collective memory, prompted by one man doing half of his one hit. The mic held out, beseeching us to perform. In twenty minutes we'd all be making fun of this, but within the song our nostalgia was debilitating. The last time I saw Charlie, we were sitting on a carpeted floor, passing a bowl, fourteen. He was visiting from Tucson, wearing the first pair of Jncos I had ever seen, talking about his new school. A different person, my friend already gone. It returned in one terrifying vision, telescoping from the past, and disappeared as the last loop of the sample faded. I wondered if I was contact high. Warren thanked us and walked offstage. The hype man paced in circles, soliciting applause, but Warren wasn't coming out for an encore. Why should he? To do "Regulate" again?
     A few weeks later, the song played in my ear, streaming down from some satellite, chosen by an algorithm, based on an app's impression of me, my phone prompting me to like or dislike it by tapping on the screen. A thirtysomething professor in Oregon, walking my dog in a misting rain, listening to a tale of jack moves in Long Beach, thinking the phrase "jack moves"—the slang so dated, wrong even in my head. The song reminded me of Charlie; by then I'd begun to write this essay, reinforcing the association between the song and him, which until the concert had disappeared into the depths of memory. I'll never be able to hear "Regulate" again without thinking of Charlie, without remembering that he's dead. What do I do with my dead friend now? Tell you to hold up a finger for him? Hold out the mic and hope someone else remembers his part?




[1] For a comprehensive oral history of "Regulate," see Mosi Reeves' excellent 2014 piece in Rolling Stone.

[2] The opening shots of old-school gangsters are vestiges of an ad hoc storyline the director abandoned when his star showed up.

[3] A scenario so unlikely, the web comedy series Yacht Rock devoted an entire episode to how it might have happened. To summarize: Warren and Nate hit Michael McDonald with their car, then stuff him in the trunk and take him to Dr. Dre, who convinces him to let them use the sample, which in turn wins an old bet McDonald had with Kenny Loggins about whether the original song was too smooth to make No. 2 on the charts.

[4] The same sample that appeared on De La Soul's "Keepin' the Faith" three years earlier.

[5] It's actually a Parliament sample, but Dre used it in "Let Me Ride."

[6] A cult of which I am the high priest and lone member.

[7] Slim Jesus, who seems like a parody based on his music videos, but may not be aware of it.

[8] Which features another Michael McDonald joint, The Doobie Brothers' "It Keeps You Runnin.'"

[9] Warren says he's trying to get some "phones," not "funk," as many online transcripts claim. The lyric is clearer in the original version, the rough draft recorded in Warren's apartment: [link]

[10] I'm not reproducing the relevant section here because my publisher owns the rights, and I don't understand how that works.

[11] His 2001 full-length The Return of the Regulator was apparently not part of a trilogy.




Last fall I started a new job, and I had to give a reading from my book, which had been out for two years at that point and finished for about four. I was thinking about what it meant to be defined as an artist by something you'd done a long time ago. Then Warren G came to town, and at the concert I realized he's pretty much the embodiment of that idea.