The Wild, Wild Western Story Behind Warren G & Nate Dogg’s Classic “Regulate”

“Regulate” sits alongside the greatest hip-hop narratives of all time, but there’s more to the story than the exploits of Warren and Nate.
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The Wild, Wild Western Story Behind Warren G & Nate Dogg’s Classic “Regulate”

"Regulators. We regulate any stealin' of his property. We’re damn good too. But you can’t be any geek off the street. You gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean. Earn your keep. Regulators, mount up!"

So begins Warren G's “Regulate,” one of hip-hop’s most essential stories and a superb distillation of every core G-funk tenet: exotic synth riffs, violent confrontations, pretty women, and sing-song cadences. With its vivid lyricism, effortless cool, and classic back-and-forth dynamic, the record, which celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday this past April, stands tall alongside classic G-funk narratives such as Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Eazy E’s “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood.”

​Though the headliner’s most well-known song carries with it a feeling of righteous retaliation, the use of “regulate,” which the late Nate Dogg invokes only twice, makes passing reference to The Regulators, a legendary outlaw posse who roamed the frontier more than a century before the 213 were representing in their lowriders. While the greater record makes no references to the life and times of The Regulators, the title of the album that houses the record, Regulate...G Funk Era, further implies the ideas encapsulated by the word “regulate”: fraternity, criminality, and retribution. [Editor's Note: "Regulate" originally appeared on the soundtrack to Above the Rim, released on March 22, 1994.]

Not unlike JAY-Z’s classic mafioso arc or Nas’ Escobar-heavy posturing, we can read the album as the story of an urban outlaw through the lens of The Regulators. The title “regulator” is entrenched in American history, with the War of the Regulation—a pre-Revolution colonial uprising—predating the inception of the modern state. At the close of the eighteenth century, the word carried with it the reputation for armed rebellion and the refutation of governmental corruption. Taking up arms to “resist tyranny”? An American ideal, through and through.

Despite this, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the title of “regulator” became inextricably linked with a moment in American folklore. On “Regulate,” Warren G uses a savvy sample to channel this instance, opening the song with dialogue from Young Guns, a 1988 “brat pack” Western starring Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, and Lou Diamond Phillips.

The film details the exploits of the Lincoln County Regulators, a posse of deputized enforcers trying to avenge the death of their onetime employer, John Tunstall. Though the filmmakers take creative liberties, if you want to know how the Lincoln County War began, a worse reference likely exists. Backed with the questionable assent of the law, the 11-strong posse set out to find the deputized gang who boldly murdered their leader. Key members of the group include legendary gunslingers Doc Scurlock, Frank McNab, and Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid.

Like The Regulators of old, Warren rolls deep, and he wastes no time name-checking the 213, the area code of his hometown of Long Beach, California and the moniker for his onetime rap group. We already know you can’t be any geek off the street, but it helps to have grown up in Long Beach, as the bulk of his collaborators—Nate Dogg, The Twinz, Tha Dove Shack, Jah Skillz, and Lady Levi—hail from the LBC. 

Speaking of Nate, the crooner’s confidence with the gat serves to save Warren’s life, echoing the sentiment lifted directly from Young Guns: “You’ve gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean.” For merely entering a game of dice, they catch our hero in a nigh-fatal bind. To many in his audience, this lawlessness is foreign—dying over a pair of dice conjures images of swinging saloon doors and hip-holster quickdraws. With the patchy rule of law, and the threat of prosecution hardly a deterrent, survival comes down to the forces under your control, chief among them reputation and fear. Trip Locc says it best on “Recognize,” closing out his verse with a terse warning: “Respect is a must, checkin n----s that try to check you.”

Ruled by brute force, savvy cunning, and no small amount of luck, the world in which Regulate… G Funk Era operates is harsh and unforgiving. It’s dirty, street-based criminality, fuelled by fellowship and defined by small gains. But hands-on gunslinging doesn’t lend itself to legacy as much as it does legend. Though Billy the Kid remains emblematic of the Old West, an article from 1881 in The New York Times detailed “his worse than worthless life.” Billy died with renown, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that his reputation gave way to fame.

In channeling Escobar, Nas asserted his place at the top of the rap game. In donning a three-piece suit and assuming a style a la Capone, JAY-Z cast his meteoric rise as refined gangsterism. The Regulator, however, isn’t as much a career criminal as a desperado; a figure committed to small-time robbery and the occasional murder. They’re often opportunists, exploiting societal lawlessness—courtesy of a broken justice system—in pursuing a better life.

Warren G wasn’t the only emcee framing California’s hip-hop scene as a lawless frontier, either. On Snoop’s “For All My N*ggaz and Bitches,” from his 1993 debut Doggystyle, guest feature Kurupt spits: “I'm cappin shit up like a Western flick.” One year earlier, in his debut appearance on Dr. Dre's “Deep Cover,” Snoop refers to himself as “Snoop Eastwood.” As for Dre, we can find the same honorific on “A N*gga Witta Gun,” from 1992's The Chronic, a song that likely inspired his opening verse on 2Pac’s “California Love.”

“Now let me welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West / A state that's untouchable like Eliot Ness…” —Dr. Dre, “California Love” by 2Pac

The juxtaposition of Ness undercuts the allusion to this lawless land, the foremost prohibitionist of US folklore, but that complicated relationship mirrors the dynamic of the Regulators themselves. As the head of The Untouchables, Ness was an incorrigible adversary for Capone, and his investigations into the Chicago Outfit helped imprison the famously clean mob boss. 

A more interesting reference than a stylistic credo, Warren’s invocation of the Lincoln County Regulators fits with the West Coast’s “lawless frontier” image. In opening with a reference to one of the West’s most revered posses, Regulate… G Funk Era frames Warren’s exploits—and his Long Beach clique—with the same mythological reverence. 

Preceded by his Gold-certified single, “I Shot The Sheriff,” Warren released his sophomore album, Take A Look Over Your Shoulder, in 1999. On it, Nanci Fletcher sings, “This town is run by martial law and Warren G are the marshal!” In 2001, he released his first sequel, The Return of the Regulator, a record that featured two appearances from Nate Dogg associate Butch Cassidy, a Long Beach singer named after the famous gunslinger.

In taking the Regulators from Lincoln County to Long Beach, Warren G quietly crafted a rebellious archetype into hip-hop’s rich neo-folklore. “Regulate” channels the spirit of the legendary outlaws, folding youthful rebellion, freewheeling hedonism, life-and-death exploits, and the respect a piece affords a man into a salacious story that’s since become shorthand for a greater era. No, Warren G isn’t the most influential rapper of the G-funk era, but there’s no denying that “Regulate” endures as a defining single.

Twenty-five years on, the self-mythologizing tale of murder, camaraderie, and women is itself a legend of the West.

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