I was born with the skills of a black man / To survive in the streets and keep stackin’ / I'm thirty years old, and far from done / I don't care what you think, I ain't forgot where I'm from / East Oakland and that's where I learned / Everything I know, and when I got my turn / I never came fake on a microphone / I always let ‘em know that the town is home – Too $hort, “Survivin’ the Game” from Gettin’ It (Album Number Ten) (1996)
Expect to hear nothing but real game whenever Too $hort opens his mouth. The enterprising, self-described “legendary pimp rapper” has released 19 studio albums across his storied career and is slated to release his new album The Pimp Tape on March 10th. Having made an art out of concocting funky, bass-thumping tracks to layer beneath his undeniable rhinal voice, his laid back delivery fearlessly pours extremely graphic lyrics, filled with slick, street corner phrases, underworld colloquialisms, and overtly sexual scenarios.
The last three decades and change for the 50-year-old, Oakland, California bred performer and producer born Todd Shaw have been paved with nothing but gold and platinum. However, since releasing his debut project Don’t Stop Rappin’ in 1983, he never really took himself seriously as a wordmonger. “I was just trying to make some really good, funky music,” Too $hort confides as he rests comfortably in the green room at A3C Festival in Atlanta.
“I wasn’t really putting emphasis on the skill of rhyming words, more or less what the punchline would be or the gist of the song. I purposefully downplayed the rapping to get the point across. It was more swaggin’ it than trying to be competitive.”
There is a method to Too $hort’s fast-paced process. The forthright conceptual artist’s landmark album covers, like him seated in the back of an acute-angled, drop top Eldorado on Born to Mack (1987), the animated Short Dog’s in the House (1990) or him being flanked by a myriad of scantily clad women on Shorty the Pimp (1992) and Cocktails (1995) were intentionally designed to draw eyes, then ears, to his product.
Mimicking his rap cadences while loosely cracking jokes in a breathy spoken voice, Too $hort explains why the album (he places heavy emphasis on vinyl albums) packaging had to bait his listeners. “Album covers should grab somebody’s attention,” Too $hort contends, “Something not too bold, but subtle enough to make them stop and pick mine over everybody else’s.”
When Too $hort began to sequence and record the music, the man responsible for staples such as “Freaky Tales,” “The Ghetto,” “Short But Funky,” “Shake That Monkey” and “Blow the Whistle” continued to march to his own beat, while continuing to incorporate a sizeable amount of jive talk in his verses. One of his earlier career cuts, “Hard on the Boulevard” from Short Dog’s in the House, features live instrumentation based around an Ohio Players sample and loops, and Too $hort remembers intentionally not adding a hook to the song.
Some of his critics and a couple of record executives couldn’t understand his relatively unorthodox approach. “Those are the Too $hort songs that were important for the album,” a raspy-toned Too $hort insists. “It’s clearly not a single. It drove the character home.” Too $hort’s subject matter, sexual themes and refraining cries of “biiaaattchhh” have gotten him pegged by some listeners as sexist and misogynistic. The filter-free Bay Area legend, however, borrows his inspiration from legendary comedians like Rudy Ray Moore, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.
Reigning as one of the more successful solo acts ever signed to Jive Records, Too $hort, first signed under the boutique imprint 75 Girls, rose onto the scene by selling his cassette tapes out the trunk of his car. Turning his stage name into a caricature, he says, became quite lucrative. “It’s always been an opportunity that I could see, and I took it,” Too $hort expresses. “People like a lot of explicit comedy in rap. It hadn’t been around, so I did it. I did it with so much subtlety that you would laugh and just enjoy the music.”
Too $hort, further assessing his style of music as “talking shit and telling jokes on the low,” continues, “It went over your head because it was music. It was rhythmic. I was actually doing what a comedian, storyteller, or author would do.”
The music was also a good vehicle for Too $hort to pay close attention to his environment. Like the majority of West Coast hip-hop released in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Too $hort’s music examined drugs, poverty, racism and politics, as thematic counterweights to the trademark risqué subject matter. The host of the podcast Too $hort’s Boombox, and co-founder of Dangerous Music (now Up All Nite Records) continues to follow news headlines and viral posts on the internet, particularly the influx of reports about police officers killing young African-American men.
The disproportionate number of African-Americans currently incarcerated and officers that abuse their authority bothers Too $hort, too. He unapologetically refers to the violent acts against civilians caught on tape as murders. Those injustices are harsh reminders of when Too $hort himself was a teenager getting handcuffed and racially profiled by law enforcement in his neighborhood.
“It ain’t went nowhere,” Too $hort, who relocated to Atlanta in 1994, says. “This is born from black men looking at white women and getting hung. It’s the same exact sentiment. This shit is not equal. The policing they do in the suburbs is not equal to the policing that they do in the hood.” Even as he clarifies his views on institutionalized racism, Too $hort believes everyone should be held accountable for their part in any conflict.
He doesn’t condone glorifying criminal activity nor does he fathom complacency in the inner city. Too $hort doesn’t criticize people who rely on illegal activity to earn a living. However, he does hope they utilize their earning potential to create legal hustles. Additionally, Too $hort points out how potentially eradicating high murder rates in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles could start with civilians acknowledging their role in the problems.
“As this election goes by and we put this shit to rest [us who really care], we shouldn’t back up off our new movement, which feels similar to a new civil rights movement.” Too $hort suggests. “This ain’t nothing new. This is Jim Crow still going on. They just keep renaming it.”
Too $hort continues, “But then, we shooting the shit out of ourselves. That’s just as important. When you get trapped, you end up in prison. Flip your money, turn it into something legit and invest in your real dreams.”
Music remains Too $hort’s first love. To this day, he still purchases new full-length projects immediately after they drop every week. He lists LPs by Sade, OutKast, Scarface, Jay Z, and Dr. Dre as albums he can continue to play in full but finds it challenging to formulate a satisfactory list of his favorite albums, considering it “homework.”
“Damn, that’s hard to ask a music guy,” a pondering Too $hort declares. “There are a lot of songs we know and love. There are artists that make albums that we like. It’s a lot of artists that made albums that can play front to back. Lots of artists make songs I like, but not everybody makes an album you like.”
It still amazes Too $hort to get love and respect from his fans anytime he performs or makes special appearances. Receiving praise from a ballroom full of attendees at A3C further illustrates to the trailblazing artist that young and old fans still support his blunt yet sincere presence on wax. The performer known simply as Todd reprises his original assessment of there being a science to both his musical career and alter ego.
“It’s not just some shit-talking, foul-mouthed person who goes in the studio,” Too $hort concludes. “It’s business and a bunch of good ass music. I saw it the first time I said a curse word in a rap record, and everybody laughed.”