Murder Was the Case: How Snoop Dogg Went From Accused Murderer to America’s Darling
In 2018, rap may be embraced as the most popular music genre in America, but just a quarter-century ago, it was considered public enemy number one.
Many mainstream political pundits were frightened by the possibility of a world in which rap artists influenced the youth of America. During that period, the war on what was perceived as "gangster rap," as well as the artists who made it, was in full effect. One of the poster-children for this crusade against the so-called genre was Snoop Dogg.
At the time, Snoop was in the beginning stages of what would eventually be one of the most successful careers in hip-hop history. Regarded as an American darling and national treasure that hobnobs with the likes of Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg has managed to straddle the line that often divides street credibility and success and longevity— a balancing act that once nearly cost the Long Beach, California native his freedom.
In 1993, west coast hip-hop reigned supreme. Sure, the east coast would begin to show signs of life with fresh blood like Onyx and the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as veterans like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul releasing pivotal bodies of work, but the juggernaut that was Death Row Records and west coast acts 2Pac, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Compton's Most Wanted, Spice-1 and others had taken over the airwaves and Billboard charts.
However, the name that would loom large above the rest during that calendar year would be Snoop's, who had emerged as the most heralded prospect in rap history at that point in time. A flawless debut alongside Dr. Dre on the 1992 soundtrack cut "Deep Cover," as well as key contributions on Dr. Dre's Death Row debut, The Chronic, which would go down as the biggest rap album of 1992, would cement the loc'd out gang-banger into a household name and a certified star, landing him on the cover of Rolling Stone before he even released a solo single.
With his face and melodic flow becoming an omnipresence on TV and radio, by the summer of 1993, Snoop Dogg was riding high and appeared untouchable and destined for greatness. But a confrontation in his hometown that turned deadly threatened to alter the course of his life forever and turn his rags-to-riches story into a dream deferred.
On August 25,1993, Snoop Dogg and a group that included then-bodyguard McKinley Lee and friend Sean Abrams would find themselves engaged in a heated verbal spat with a group of gang members outside of the rapper's Los Angeles apartment. Later, as witnesses would tell police, Snoop was at the wheel of a late-model Jeep Cherokee in which Lee and Abrams were occupants, when the trio decided to ride by Woodbine Park, on the corner of Palms Boulevard and Motor Avenue. There, they encountered the same group of gang members, which included 20 year-old Phillip Woldemariam.
An immigrant from Ethiopia and known gang member, Woldemariam had recently been released from prison for firing a gun in a schoolyard and had allegedly assaulted and threatened Snoop Dogg during previous encounters, according to the rapper's lawyer, David Kenner. According to Snoop and his companions, Woldemariam approached Snoop's jeep in a threatening manner while pulling a gun from his waistband, prompting McKinley Lee to fire several gunshots from the right front seat, striking Woldemariam in his back and buttocks.
After a week of eluding police, Snoop Dogg finally turned himself in on September 2, 1993 after taking the stage at the MTV Awards to announce the winner in the rhythm-and-blues category of the televised MTV Awards. He was later released on bail the following afternoon. News of Snoop Dogg's arrest spread like wildfire within the music community, but it was overshadowed by the pending release of his debut album, Doggystyle, which - according to critics like Jon Shecter of The Source - was the most anticipated rap album of all-time.
In fact, many critics and industry insiders argued that the murder charge and the negative press around it would only strengthen Snoop's street credibility and the buzz around his album, causing pundits and politicians to ramp up their efforts in painting rap music and culture as vile.
It may be hard to quantify the impact the controversy had on the album's success, but when Doggystyle was finally unleashed on November 23, 1993, less than three months after Snoop turned himself in on murder charges, the album debuted atop the Billboard 200. It sold f806,858 copies in its first week, the highest for a debut album of all-time, regardless of genre. Boasting Top-10 singles "Who Am I? (What's My Name?)" and "Doggy Dogg World," Doggystyle would go on to move more than four million units by the end of 1994, making it the highest-selling rap album of the year.
One song in particular from the album, "Murder Was the Case," was especially chilling, as it appeared to be art imitating life, having been released on the heels of Snoop Dogg's murder charge. Thee track was turned into a short-film and released in October 1994. Directed by Dr. Dre and Fab 5 Freddy, Murder Was the Case was an 18-minute film depicting Snoop Dogg's death at the hand of gang bangers - giving the alternative to what could've happened during his showdown with Phillip Woldemariam - and his resurrection.
The film and its accompanying soundtrack, which debuted atop the Billboard charts and was certified double-platinum, continued Snoop and Death Row's stronghold on the rap world. But it was the Doggfather's performance at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards that made the biggest statement.
Flanked by a choir and a stage set-up that resembled a funeral, Snoop Dogg made a grand entrance via wheel-chair to deliver what is one of the more historic and memorable performances in MTV Video Music Awards history. However, it was the proclamation "I'm innocent" in reference to the charges levied against him at the end of his set that would ring the loudest and become a timeless soundbite.
In 1995, Snoop scored another win as his group, Tha Dogg Pound, would unleash their single "New York, New York," from their platinum-selling debut, Dogg Food. It was the first independent rap album to debut atop the Billboard 200.
However, the year ended with the opening of Snoop's murder trial in relation to the death of Phillip Woldemariam on October 23, 1995. Snoop Dogg and McKinley Lee were represented by Johnnie Cochran, who famously helped get former NFL player O.J. Simpson a not-guilty plea in his own murder trial earlier that year.
During the trial, the prosecution, who disputed Snoop and Lee's claims of self defense and alleged that Phillip Woldemariam was murdered in cold blood, called 24 witnesses to the stand to testify against the defense. However, a number of those testimonies would ultimately work out in the defense's favor, as conflicting statements created an air of doubt and put the credibility of the witnesses against Snoop in question.
On the other hand, the defense only called one witness during the entire trial, after which the defense would rest. It was a shrewd move that played in Snoop and Lee's favor. Another wrinkle that would swing the momentum of the case was lead prosecutor Ed Neeson's admission that police had mistakenly destroyed material evidence in the case, which would result in the entire prosecution team being held in contempt of court for a variety of procedural infractions and fined $600.
Throughout Snoop Dogg's murder trial, various members from the music industry, including then-Death Row artists 2Pac and MC Hammer, had voiced their support for Snoop Dogg publicly. Shakur, who had recently been released from prison on bond himself, proclaimed "Today Is "We love Snoop Day," in reference to hip-hop's looming presence over the proceedings.
MC Hammer, one of Snoop's close friends, would also lend words of encouragement, stating "Friends should always come and support one another. And I'm here to show my love and support for Snoop because obviously, when you listen to the case— they have no case. He's innocent... It's just like, they're putting him through all this... But it's indicative of the way a lot of things are going on in this country right now."
With deliberations complete and Snoop and McKinley's fates in the hands of the jurors, Snoop Dogg would cope with the uncertainty by relying on faith and belief in a higher power.
"I'm just taking it day by day, you know what I'm saying," Snoop shared weeks ahead of the verdict. "We're just trying to stay strong, stay spiritual, just keep keep praying. I'm not looking forward to.... just takin' it day by day. The impression is simple as this, I need my baby with me, and he need me with him."
After months of testimony and deliberation, on February 21, 1996, Snoop Dogg and McKinley were found not-guilty on first- and second-degree murder charges in the death of Phillip Woldermariam. However, the jury was deadlocked on the charge of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a sentence of three-to-11 years in prison. However, the state decided not to try Snoop Dogg or McKinley again, leaving them free to continue on with their lives.
Following the result of his murder trial, as well as the death of Tupac Shakur later that year, and the implosion of Death Row Records, Snoop Dogg released his sophomore album, Tha Doggfather, in November 1996. It was his last album with the label before aligning himself with Master P's No Limit Records, where he released three additional solo albums.
Finally earning his emancipation and stepping out on his own as a boss, Snoop Dogg quickly stepped into the role of rap ambassador, becoming a marketer's dream. He racked up a number of endorsements and parlayed his charm and affable personality into charming those beyond the borders of hip-hop. He holds 17 Grammy nominations, has starred in numerous films, and has ventured into television with shows on VH1 (Snoop & Martha's Potluck Dinner Party) and TBS (Snoop Dogg Presents The Joker's Wild) as well as a docu-series on Netflix (Coach Snoop), highlighting his youth football league.
Becoming one of the few rappers that are universally beloved across multiple demographics and age-groups, Snoop Dogg went from being America's Worst Nightmare to one of its most cherished and charismatic personalities. And, unlike O.J. Simpson and others, he's been able to avoid the label of murderer while retaining his street cred and rep as one of the more bankable stars in hip-hop.