In the first half of Sam Sneed’s revealing conversation with HipHopDX, the Hit Squad hitmaker-turned-Death Row inmate spoke openly about his contributions to Dr. Dre’s track-record during the mid-‘90s. The mind behind “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” “Natural Born Killaz,” and Sam’s own smash single, “U Better Recognize,” also spoke candidly about the abandonment he felt following an assault-spurred split from Death Row and Dre’s subsequent launching of Aftermath Entertainment sans Sam.
Now in the conclusion to his discussion with DX, the first Pittsburgh native to emerge on the national Hip Hop scene shares his thoughts on his hometown’s current ambassador to the nation, Wiz Khalifa, (and if a Sam Sneed produced remix of “Black And Yellow” might soon surface). The Atlanta transplant also discusses the battle he fought against a brain tumor shortly after his late-‘90s relocation to the ATL, and how he battled back from near-death to reclaim his career and craft standout selections for Jay-Z and G-Unit. And now just a few weeks removed from the January 25th release of Sam’s long-vaulted Death Row debut, Street Scholars, the most well-known of Dr. Dre’s multitude of “co-producers” over the years reveals how he reunited with the good doctor only to once again be shunned by the man he once considered a friend.
HipHopDX: How long after you moved to Atlanta did you learn that you had a brain tumor?
Sam Sneed: It was ’99. [There] was two days where I was having these real extreme migraine headaches that was just unbearable. I couldn’t even sleep… So the second day I went to the doctor’s [and] they did an x-ray on me and they said that they noticed a large mass inside my head. I talked to my aunt – she had flew out to Atlanta ‘cause she’s a nurse, so she understand the language. From what they were telling me, I was real close to having a seizure. So anyway, to make a long story short, they kept me in the hospital for two days and stabilized me, and then I flew back to Pittsburgh to be with my family and to get with a doctor. That led up to me getting radiation, seven weeks of radiation, after they found out – ‘cause they gave me a biopsy – it was a astrocytoma, grade 3; 4 being the worst… The doctor sat down and told me what I would have to go through. So we started the radiation, of course I lost my hair. The radiation was supposed to shrink the tumor, but before a tumor actually shrinks it has to swell. And they said most patients can’t even get through that process. In my case, the tumor didn’t do anything. So we went on to chemo. The first two days of chemo I was real drowsy [and] tired a lot. But [by] the third or fourth day I wasn’t all that tired, and I was still doing beats, still trying to stay positive. I ain’t allow no one to be around me being sad and all that. ‘Cause I truly believed that I wasn’t going nowhere. So [then] it was this specific day where I was having headaches real bad and my aunt told me to take some extra Medrol pills… And the toxicity of the Medrol pills made me real, real sick. So I was throwing up constantly, all the way to the hospital… That’s [when] I decided I’ma go ahead and get [the risky surgery to remove the tumor]… Dr. Sulker, he was a older guy, but he was really good, man. He was definitely a blessing. His decision making was just phenomenal, because in the middle of the surgery he came out to my family and was like, “I wanna try something different…[and] go in to his head from a different angle.” And had he not went that direction, my motor skills, my speech, my peripheral vision, all of that would have been effected. We wouldn’t even [be having] this conversation right now. But being that he went that direction, the tumor was sitting right there [and] he just scooped the whole thing out.
It was a couple brothers that was influential support-wise in that whole situation, and Dre was one of ‘em…Busta Rhymes, and a lot of people from overseas. I felt the love and the blessings and the positive energy.
DX: How did Busta [come into the picture]?
Sam Sneed: Well me and Busta, we pretty cool. And that’s all through the Hit Squad [connection].
DX: Are there some Busta Rhymes tracks produced by Sam Sneed floating around out there somewhere?
Sam Sneed: Nah, we tried many times, but he never really heard anything that he was [feeling]. Those was the times of my experimental days. Back then, [in the early ‘90s], I was really just trying to find a sound.
We skipped a lot [in the timeline]. When I left the whole Death Row situation, the first thing I did was for Capone-N-Noreaga, the [12” “Sam Sneed Version” of] “Closer” [which was included on some pressings of The War Report]. And then the next thing was Jay-Z…
DX: Did you do [“Anything”] while you were battling this brain tumor?
Sam Sneed: Actually, that happened right before. And the crazy thing is, right [before I learned I had the brain tumor] I was like, “Man, I’m getting bored. I need a challenge.” You gotta be careful what you ask for, right?
DX: I personally love “Anything,” but you know at the time there were folks that thought with the show tune sample it was just a bite of “Hard Knock Life.” Were you trying to emulate “Hard Knock Life” when you made the beat?
Sam Sneed: Not really. At the time a lot people was doing the TV [show theme song sampling] stuff. So it was just a creation. I never even looked at it like that.
DX: Your next really big production credit after “Anything” was G-Unit’s infamous “I Smell Pussy.” Was that a track intended for Dr. Dre originally?
Sam Sneed: Nah, not at all.
DX: So how did it get to 50 [Cent]; was that facilitated through Dre?
Sam Sneed: At the time there was a brother from Queens that I was dealing with and he kinda knew those guys. So he was the one that was influential in that situation. [And then] that led up to “Curious,” which I did for Tony Yayo.
DX: So did Dre give you a call at that point like, “I heard you’re doing some stuff”?
Sam Sneed: That’s the whole thing, it’s like, why he never called me? I used to live with this guy. We was like the best of friends, hung out all the time. We never fell out, any of that. And I always wondered like, “Well why don’t he never [reach back]?” He reached back for Kurupt. He reached back for [those other guys that were on Death Row], but he never reached back for me. I was always curious about that.
In 2007 I went out [to Los Angeles] just to hang out and see what I could get my hands into. And, my partna, he took me past where Dre worked out at. So we popped up on Dre, and he was like, “Ohhhh!” Like, all surprised. “Yo, you out here?!” I’m like, “Yeah, man.” So he invited me to his house…and right when I was about to leave his house I’m asking, “Well, what is the whole Detox about? What’s the concept?” ‘Cause I’m seeing he’s all cut-up now. He’s working out. So I’m asking him [about that], ‘cause I’m trying to get some ideas [about detoxing as a concept] so I can bring some ideas to the table for his project… He seemed like he really didn’t know. He was [like], “[Detox], it’s just a name I came up with.” And [now looking back] I’m like, if you detoxing you don’t be smoking weed no more, right?
DX: Yeah, you don’t smoke “Kush” no more.
Sam Sneed: Yeah! That’s what I’m saying. I’m trying to understand that. But, I’ve seen stranger things. So when I was in the studio [with Dr. Dre in ‘07] I had some nice little sample pieces and I was playing ‘em, and he was like, “Damn, Sam got some nice pieces!” He kept saying that. [And] there was this one particular day…where I played this one track, and he was about to leave the studio [but] he [stayed] and just sat there for like a half-an-hour. And people started coming around, then he was like, “See, this is how you know it’s a hit.” So the next day he was talking about how he was gonna [put me to work]: “Call Karidis, I’m about to cut you a check, put you on the payroll for a $100,000 a year.” And I was like, “For real, Dre? I really appreciate that.” So, maybe a couple of days later Karidis called me and she was like, “Um, well, Dre kinda jumped the gun. He really wants to do it, but –.” And I was like, “That’s fine. It’s all good.” It just seemed like at the time he really was still searching; he really didn’t know [what to do for Detox]. I couldn’t afford to be out there. You know how Cali is, it’s expensive as hell. And I was staying with somebody at the time. [So] if [Dre] wasn’t gonna try to like put me up, I couldn’t stay out there. So that’s when I bounced.
DX: I was hoping for some Sam Sneed on Detox.
Sam Sneed: I was trying to get on there. Actually, about a week ago I reached out and called Karidis up and told her, “I would like to try to do something with him for the project.” But I ain’t heard nothing back, so…there it is.
DX: Well let’s move off of that on to what you got going on. What all is on the Sam Sneed itinerary for 2011?
Sam Sneed: Street Scholars, it’s four of the songs [from 1995] that never came out…and everything else is new stuff. I got a song about my cancer situation, [about] me conquering cancer. I got my party records. It like gravitates from the streets to the clubs to consciousness. We got a song called “Nu World Order” on there. And [I got] a song called “Exodus,” [as in] exodus of the mind, a movement, as far as black people, our train of thought and where we need to be at mentally.
DX: Sound-wise, can [the album] compare to “U Better Recognize” or is this some completely different shit sonically?
Sam Sneed: It’s different… I was trying to be real different. Because, you hear so much now and everything kinda sounds similar. And I was trying my best to be different on this project. I [still] got my pimp records, of course. I got a song called “Uncle Sam.” It’s like [a] playful, crossover [record].
DX: Are you still spittin’ like in that sort of more aggressive way you were back in the day?
Sam Sneed: Nah. See that’s the thing, I’ve never really been on that real aggressive – that really wasn’t my thing. And when I did do it, it was basically like from a perspective of the cats that I knew around me that was going through how the hood was. But I’m really like a playalistic type of person, and the ladies man type of person… That’s why I did the [original version of the] song “Lady Heroin” [that was remixed for the Gridlock’d soundtrack], which went totally against the grain from what everybody was doing over there at Death Row. Dre, he even slept on that record. ‘Cause when I was doing production back then I would always take a track to Dre to get his approval and opinion, and when I did “Lady Heroin” he was like, “Eh, not really.” And [then] he let his girl hear it, and his girl was like, “Oooh, I love that song.” [So] then he gonna come later and say, “Told you Sam, I knew you shoulda did [that record].” Yeah, right, Dre. [Laughs] You know you didn’t fuck with that. [Laughs]
DX: So on these new tracks you got any other emcees spittin’ with you…?
Sam Sneed: On [“Uncle Sam”] I got a guy singing on it named L.J. He’s a really dope R&B singer. “Gorilla Pimpin’,” he’s on that also. He’s singing on that. I wrote like all the hooks on all the records. If you don’t hear me rappin’, when you hear the hook it’s [still] my writing… I’m not [rappin’] on a lot of records, but I’m on enough. I’m really trying to play the background…but I had to do a couple of my records. There’s another guy named Ramaj. I think y’all gonna really get a treat listening to him. Sonically he just sounds great. And the stuff that he talks about is just different from what you normally hear. You’ll hear him on “Nu World Order.” You’ll hear him on “Cold World.” And “Kingdom Come,” you’ll hear him on that also. And then Money Inc. They’re a south group, so when you hear that you’ll know it’s like something that [you’d hear in Atlanta]. I’m just trying to give them some light. They got a song called “Weatherman.” It’s a really sexy type of record for the ladies. And then they got a song called “I Keep A Check,” and that’s like straight Atlanta.
DX: So do you know if this project is gonna be the only thing you’re doing with WIDEawake…?
Sam Sneed: I’m not sure… I gotta see if they like it. If they like it, I’m sure they probably would wanna do something else.
DX: Is there other stuff in the vault from those Death Row years that Sam Sneed produced for - ?
Sam Sneed: With the right budget, I was thinking I could go ahead and [restore] the rest of [the songs I originally recorded for Street Scholars]. The same thing I did with this record, do the same thing with another record: bring [some original] songs to the table [along] with some more new records.
DX: What I was asking was, are there other [songs] that you produced for other Death Row artists in the vaults?
Sam Sneed: Nah, I was just really working on my album. Dre at the time was like, “You need to just go ahead and finish your record up.”
DX: So “Blueberry” on Tha Doggfather, that was the [Snoop Dogg] track that [Suge Knight and Tupac] were pissed about you trying to charge for?
Sam Sneed: Nah, it wasn’t that [one]. Snoop came to me one time because he was trying to do something with Def Jam [Records] at the time. So he came to me for a track. And I said 15 or $20,000…but at the same time I knew I had to talk to Suge [Knight] and Dre about the whole situation. I was just really going off of what I was getting paid for doing tracks. So it wasn’t like it was crazy [to be charging that amount]. Like, they paid me $15,000 for doing “[U Better] Recognize.” I didn’t get no publishing on that. “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” Dre gave me $20,000 for that. I ain’t get no publishing on that. “Natural Born Killaz,” I ain’t get no publishing on that. When “Keep Their Heads Ringin’” [was released from the Friday soundtrack] I was like, “Dre, I mean, shit, y’all might as well just tell me I can’t get no publishing!” Like, what the hell is going on? And when “Recognize” came out I was like, “Well Suge, I don’t see my publishing on that.” [And he was like], “Aw, they messed up the paperwork, but we’ll work it out.” [But] at the same time, with “Recognize” I really wasn’t trippin’. I was like, that’s a part of paying dues… I lived with Dre for damn-near a year, so I’m like, “Okay, that’s cool.” I wasn’t really trippin’ off of that record. But when “Keep Their Heads Ringin’” [was certified gold and] I ain’t get no publishing on that, I had a problem with that. I talked to Suge about it, and he was asking me what my manager felt at the time. And I said he was upset about it too. But, you know, when you come to somebody’s camp you can’t – If I didn’t have street decorum, you really can mess some shit up, you feel what I’m sayin’?
DX: Yeah, you could end up hanging out a balcony. [Laughs]
Sam Sneed: Yeah! You gotta really know how to [approach someone like Suge Knight]. And being that I come from the streets, I understand that whole situation. And, I knew they had love for me. Business-wise everything might not have went my way, but…I made history, people know my name [and because of that] I’m still doing what I do. So I ain’t holding no grudges or anything, I’m just telling you how it did go down.
DX: Let’s end this discussion on a different note. I wanted to get from the first person to put Pittsburgh on the national Rap map, his thoughts on the current “Black And Yellow” representer, Wiz Khalifa?
Sam Sneed: I mentioned his name in my song. On my song “Uncle Sam” I mention Wiz’s name. I’m happy for that brother. I wish him the best, because I know how hard it was to really blow in Pittsburgh. And he really did it. So I just advise everybody else [in Pittsburgh] to stand wit’ him, get behind him, [and] support him.
DX: When is the Sam Sneed remix of “Black And Yellow” coming?
Sam Sneed: They would have to reach out to me.