Happy 30th Anniversary to Too $hort’s Born to Mack, originally released July 20, 1987.
Todd “Too $hort” Shaw remains the godfather of the Bay Area hip-hop scene. Every Bay Area-born and/or raised artist that’s ever recorded music bears some of his influence on their style or approach. Be it the hard-hitting basslines and drums, the DIY business ethic, or maybe even just fondness for rapping the word “bitch,” Bay Area hip-hop remains filled with the creative offspring of Too $hort.
Released 30 years ago, Born to Mack is essentially the beginning of the Too $hort legend. It’s his fourth album, after a trio of locally produced and recorded releases that circulated the streets of Oakland. But although those three albums produced local hits like “Girl (Cocaine)” and “Don’t Stop Rappin,’” it wasn’t until Born To Mack, self-released via his own label Dangerous Music in 1987, that he became a true phenomenon throughout the West Coast, moving albums in serious volume and attracting the attention of major labels. The album’s success ultimately led to his successful partnership with Jive Records, including a string of Gold and Platinum albums, and defined the Bay Area hip-hop sound as we know it.
Too $hort was born in Los Angeles and moved to the Bay Area in the early ’80s. With the help of high school friend Freddie B, he recorded “special request” raps for his high school classmates, creating custom songs at home, incorporating friends’ names into his rhymes for a small fee. He eventually linked up with Dean Hodges, owner of 75 Girls Records, recording three different albums for the label: Don’t Stop Rappin’ (1985), Players (1985), and Raw, Uncut, and X-Rated (1986). The 75 Girls label didn’t have major distribution, so Too $hort sold copies of his albums out of the trunk of his car, and worked with small, independent record stores to stock copies of his album. Short later left 75 Girls to form Dangerous Music and began recording Born to Mack.
Too $hort has often said that Born to Mack was the first album where he was in complete control when he entered the studio. Hodges had produced $hort’s first three albums, and often dictated to him what he could and couldn’t say on record. First and foremost, Hodges wanted $hort’s albums to be clean. Rap was by and large a curse-free business back in the mid-’80s, and Hodges aimed to keep it so with Too $hort on Don’t Stop Rappin’ and Players. He relented a bit with $hort’s third album, with Raw, Uncut, and X-Rated, allowing him to cut loose and rhyme about what came naturally to him. The album features such memorable Too $hort tracks as “Invasion of the Flat Booty Bitches” and “Blowjob Betty.”
With Born to Mack, Too $hort split the difference between Don’t Stop Rappin’ and Raw, Uncut, and X-Rated, offering some relatively clean party raps and road anthems, as well as a pair of raunch-fests, relatively speaking. The album was produced by $hort and Ted Bohannon, who continued to work with the emcee throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. The album’s sound is simple, but distinctive: raw, bare-bones, drum machine-driven tracks, punctuated by heavy bass and live DJ scratches by DJ Universe a.k.a. Crazy Rak. As East Coast hip-hop albums were making use of Ultimate Beats and Breaks records and samples from James Brown songs, Too $hort kept things sample-free. The beats are influenced by Larry Smith’s mid-1980s production for Whodini and Run-DMC, but are more bass-heavy and mixed for blasting in the car, rather than the club.
To be blunt, Too $hort was not the best rapper out there in 1987. While emcees like Rakim and KRS-One were performing feats of lyrical wizardry on wax, Too $hort was a strict adherent to a more simplistic rhyme style. But what Too $hort lacked in verbal dexterity, he made up for with panache. It takes a lot of personality to build and sustain a decades-long rap career, and just being the guy who made the use of the word “bitch” popular in hip-hop lexicon isn’t going to do it alone. Too $hort was a unique character, a rapper who could say “fuck you” with a smile and talk about his sexual exploits in explicit detail and not sound like a creep.
Born to Mack begins with “Partytime,” a straight-forward party anthem steeped in what would become Too $hort’s signature sound in the late ’80s, but still reminiscent of the mid-’80s rap hits. There’s the familiar pounding bass-drum, accompanied by stabs and scratches of guitar handled by DJ Universe. Tracks like “Playboy Short II” feature a similar traditional hip-hop sound with the Bay Area accents.
Too $hort uses his narrative skills a bit on Born to Mack. “Little Girls” is an extended warning to fellas to stay away from younger girls who look (and/or dress to look) older, lest they be caught up and end up in jail. “You Know What I Mean” is the sole song with an overtly positive message. Over a stripped-down upbeat, electronic bass groove and snapping drums, he warns against the ills of getting caught up in street violence and getting involved with drugs. It’s also about as close to light and peppy as the album gets.
Born to Mack was the first of Too $hort’s releases to split up the explicit-ness of the content by side. Side A was largely clean, while Side B hosted $hort’s “explicit” raps. It’s a practice he continued for his next two albums on Jive as well. But even some of the material on the “dirty” side of the album is relatively clean. I mean, sure, “Dope Fiend Beat” is about as explicit as hip-hop got in 1987, but the infamous “Freaky Tales” is much more restrained than its rep.
“Freaky Tales” is considered by many to be Too $hort’s signature song, a nine-minute-plus detailed description of 36 of his sexual conquests. It was one of the first “dirty” rap songs to secure a major release, and its sound was imitated constantly by Bay Area and West Coast artists for years to come. It also demonstrated the strength of $hort’s appeal, as it’s about as uncommercial as possible. The length of the track and its subject matter meant that radio would never touch the song, while it rumbles on at a tempo rarely heard amongst rap radio hits of the time.
Yet, with its pounding bassline and drums, along with its slow, piercing synthesizers, it’s very catchy. Too $hort’s similarly slow and straightforward delivery makes the lyrics easy to understand and, as many Bay Area hip-hop heads can attest too, memorize. $hort also used heavy delay on his vocals, in effect creating his background vocals with his own voice. And as mentioned before, it’s a lot less explicit than advertised. Yes, it’s a song very much about sex with dozens of women, but Short only says “bitch” twice. There’s a handful of references to fellatio and only two mentions of “pussy.” Prince’s “Erotic City,” which received a good deal of radio play, is far more “dirty,” truth be told.
On the other hand, “Dope Fiend Beat” is every bit as explicit as advertised. It’s a raunchy, weird, off-kilter track the likes of which had never been heard before and rarely since. The song is a six-and-a-half minute ode to filth. The warped and distorted synthesizers are paired with Too $hort’s warped and distorted vocals, which he runs through an effects box, adding layers of reverb, making him sound like the first dirty rap spitting Martian heard on record. The track contains such memorable lines as “I came to the party and turned it out / You said, ‘Ooh, he’s got a dirty mouth!’ / But, bitch, I kept talking shit / Mother fuck you, damn shit-head bitch” and “I’m the best of the greatest of the ice cold rap / And, bitch… You’re just a bitch! / You work fast food and you think you’re rich.” Of course, the rhymes are offensive, but they are designed to be as offensive as possible, to push the limits of what was allowed on record at the time. And, honestly, it’s still one of the best songs that Too $hort ever recorded.
The strong local success of Born to Mack and “Freaky Tales” brought Too $hort to Jive’s attention, and they soon signed the rapper. In 1988, they re-released Born to Mack into record stores nationwide without a single, video, commercials, or any real promotion, and the album sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Too $hort followed up Born to Mack in early 1989 with his first release recorded for Jive Records, Life Is…Too $hort. Since then, $hort has become a worldwide hip-hop legend and a revered Bay Area icon, most recently participating in the victory parade for the Golden State Warriors’ 2017 NBA Championship run.
In these more enlightened times, it can be difficult to celebrate an album intentionally designed to offend the listener. But the work ethic behind the actual music and Short’s determination to make rap on his own terms, without the limits of others, are to be commended. Too $hort was one of those unique individuals who created his own brand of musical ignorance and found a way to infuse it with his own personality so that it didn’t sound offensive. Few rappers have been as successful as Too $hort at walking the line between provocative and charming. With Born to Mack, and all of his albums since, he managed to achieve the right balance and develop one of the most enduring musical legacies that hip-hop has ever seen.