MUSIC "What can you do at the age of 44 that's relevant?" a philosophical Too Short asks over brunch at the Buttercup in Oakland. "It can't be good; it's gotta be critic-proof."
Seldom can you trace an entire artistic milieu back to one person, yet with Bay Area rap, you can. And his name is Too Short, a.k.a. Todd Shaw. In 1980, when the 14-year-old Short moved from L.A. to Oakland, rap was still considered a New York City phenomenon, but this didn't stop him from making tapes to sell on the bus and the block. Between 1983 and 1986, he cut three discs on local label 75 Girls before forming his own Dangerous Music, whose first album, Short's Born to Mack (1987), was soon re-released by Jive Records.
But after 14 albums on Jive — three gold, five platinum, one double platinum — Short Dog has gone independent. His label, once named Short Records, then Up All Nite, has been rechristened Dangerous Music, which released his Internet-only pre-album, Still Blowin', on April 7. The most exciting news is that he's returned from Atlanta to make music in the Bay, as well as his native L.A.
"What brought me back West was just the love, period," he says. "People love me other places, but the West Coast love is unconditional. Not only in the Bay. It's the same in L.A.
"Even in Atlanta," he continues, "a lot of what I wrote was Oakland music. Oakland gives me the inspiration to write songs."
Beyond the Bay, Too Short is as seminal a figure as Ice-T, bringing two major innovations to rap: profanity and pimpin'. These days, when half an MC's verse gets muted on the radio due to graphic content, it's hard to imagine rap without dirty lyrics, but it was a teenage Short who opened this Pandora's box, with hardcore classics like "Blow Job Betty."
"It's not about pimps so much as having game," Too Short says, yet the dirty rhymes inevitably meshed with Oakland's cult of the pimp, whose ur-text is the locally-shot blaxploitation film, The Mack (1973). His much-imitated signature word, "biatch," once caused controversy, though America fell in love with it after Dave Chappelle's Rick James skit. As Short raps on the hit title track of his 16th album, Blow the Whistle (Jive 2006), "He got it from me." Having discovered and recorded with Lil Jon even makes Short a pivotal figure in crunk.
Unlike Ice-T or other contemporaries, Short remains a viable hitmaker. Blow the Whistle reached No. 14 on Billboard (No. 7 on the rap chart) and spawned a second hit, "Keep Bouncin'," featuring Snoop Dogg and will.i.am, who produced it. Yet Jive refused to promote it, or even make a video, despite Snoop and will's offer to work on it for free — one symptom of a deteriorating relationship between artist and label, which changed focus in the late 1990s to concentrate on teen pop like Britney Spears. Despite its lack of support, Short says that Jive "wouldn't bow out gracefully," instead holding him up for months with talk of a major retrospective with four new tracks that never materialized.
"When it's near the end of the contract," he says. "No matter how much they made off you, they don't want to settle it in a humane way. It was clear their only intent was, 'You must leave here not famous.'<0x2009>"
"I'm a realist," he says about Jive pursuing more lucrative pop while abandoning a flagship artist who made the label millions. "It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But there are no regrets. There wouldn't be the legendary rapper Too Short if I didn't get in my early years at Jive." Eventually Short turned in a new album, Get Off the Stage (2007) — which, without promotion by Short or Jive, still hit No. 21 on the rap chart — in exchange for freedom.