September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Q Question: when might getting charged with first-degree murder be considered a savvy publicity move? Answer: when you’re the crown prince of gangsta rap, natch.

In the summer of 1993, 21-year-old Snoop Doggy Dogg (born Calvin Broadus) was at the top of his game. Once associated with L.A.’s notorious Crips gang, Snoop had done well since his 1991 release from L.A. county jail, where he’d served less than a year on a drug conviction. He had hooked up with white-hot ex-N.W.A member Dr. Dre, and Snoop’s laid-back, fluid rapping style on Dre’s multiplatinum 1992 CD The Chronic had catapulted him to stardom. The hip-hop cognoscenti breathlessly awaited the release of Snoop’s debut album, Doggystyle.

Then disaster — or was it providence? — struck. On Sept. 2, 1993, following an appearance on MTV’s Video Music Awards, Snoop and his bodyguard, McKinley Lee, were arrested for murder. The facts: On Aug. 25, Snoop and Lee were driving in the Woodbine Park section of L.A. They pulled their Jeep over to talk with a group of men sitting in the park, one of whom they’d seen earlier squabbling with a friend of Snoop’s. Ethiopian immigrant Philip Woldemariam, 20, approached Snoop’s car and reached for his gun. Lee pulled his own weapon and fired two shots at Woldemariam — who later died — and fled the scene with Snoop. The two men called 911 to report the incident, but spent the next week dodging the police before turning themselves in after the MTV awards.

Far from derailing his career, the case against Snoop — which would not come to trial for more than two years — seemed only to increase the rap star’s cachet: Doggystyle became the first debut CD ever to enter at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart when it was released just two months later. His legal troubles even provided Snoop with song fodder, in particular Doggystyle’s lavish ”Murder Was the Case.”

Snoop’s trial finally got under way in November 1995, and the star was placed under house arrest for its duration. Snoop recalls that he coped with the stress in his own unique way: ”I was smoking weed every day before I went to court.” The air cleared on Feb. 20, 1996, when the jury returned not-guilty verdicts for both Snoop and Lee. These days, Snoop — who, after recently hosting his own porn video fittingly named Doggystyle, has not been anyone’s idea of a choirboy since his ordeal — looks back on his trial as ”a learning step,” even professing that it ”gave me a chance to put God at the head of my life.” Verily, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

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