Too $hort Is a Legend, Rapping Hymnals to the Game
Legends are legends for a reason, and LA-born rapper/producer/ actor Too $hort (Todd Anthony Shaw) is a legend. In the early '80s, he carved his spot on Oakland streets with an iconic, out-of-the-trunk cassette hustle, establishing an ethos that he's carried through to today. For 19 albums, his funk-based mold has been a beacon for pimps and rogues alike. Too $hort raps a mantra of the player life, sounding off slow-curved hymnals to the game. Vocally, he eases words out, landing rhymes evenly on the slab of the beat. Collaborations include works with Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, E-40, Snoop Dogg, Diddy, Lil Jon, and Wiz Khalifa.
Too $hort's content is sexual, profanity-laced, and sordid. It can be offensive, disrespectful, and pornographic. Tales of prostitution abound. It's dirty, unapologetic, and parental-advisory stamped. In other words, the kids love it. The anthemic "Blow Job Betty" could be a pimp's version of "Free Bird," but the song ends with Betty dead from choking on sperm. $hort raps, "Bust a left nut, right nut in her jaw/Sperm on her cheeks is all ya saw." Search YouTube for it, and you'll find prim, young white girls (one with a Chihuahua) singing it with unabashed adoration. Too $hort spoke after getting off a plane in Northern California. I was curious about his thoughts on synchronized diving.
You're a legend—19 albums deep. How have you done it? What's the trick?
I think it's because I got into a rhythm early in my career. It felt good from the get-go with Born to Mack and Life Is... Too $hort. Prior to that, I was fortunate enough to work with a label called 75 Girls and get in the studio pretty often. That's 1985, '86, '87. From that, I learned how to record and produce. By the time I got signed to Jive Records, I was a whiz with it. Luckily, we had an investor. He got us the best equipment. It was great to have access to that kind of stuff, at that age, and at that time in my career. I was fresh out of high school. I came up on that Parliament-Funkadelic, Ohio Players, and Cameo. It's like Dre: No matter what he works on, it's always got that foundation of funk. I feel like with my career, funk has always been the safety net.
This is your Pimpin Ain't Dead Tour. What do you mean by "pimpin ain't dead"?
It comes from before my time. It's just one of those shit-talking phrases.
Your lyrics get racy. Lots of "bitches" and "hos," and pimping, and sex. Songs like "Blow Job Betty" are offensive to some women. How do you respond to people who say your material is disrespectful to women?
I haven't actually gotten a lot of that over the years. There's a side to me that's concerned about the responsible part of what the music represents. But I'm an entertainer; it's entertainment. There's a lot of sexual content, yes. And comedy, too. I don't promote rape, murder, or violence, or any kind of crime.
There are videos on YouTube of young white girls in their bedroom singing "Blow Job Betty." They're like 12 or 13 years old. I doubt they've ever walked down a downtown street alone, or turned a trick. But they love to sing that song. There's a timeless pop connection to your music. It's X-rated, but cherished by an all-ages crowd. How do you relate to that?
I think it goes back to the formula, with funk music, and the crews I've worked with making the music. I think some songs just last throughout the years, for whatever reason. No matter how many times you listen to them, you still love them. I think some of my songs have that timeless feel. I just happen to be one of those artists who was able to make songs that have lasted.
The Olympics are happening in London. Please tell me you've checked out the synchronized diving. Two diving boards, side by side. People twisting and flipping, at the same exact time. I wrote this down as one of my questions: "Ask Two $hort what he thinks of Olympic synchronized diving."
I think those two teammates would probably make the best threesome you ever had in your life.
The French judge is always too harsh. You should be an Olympic judge. There's the German judge, the Canadian judge, and then Too $hort. What would be your criteria for judging synchronized diving?
You wouldn't want me to be a judge. I'd be totally biased based on shapes and sizes and features [laughs]. I would judge the walk to the edge of the diving board. And how they dry off when they get out.
Speaking of gold and funk, the bass on "Blow Job Betty" is gold. What do you remember about that track coming together? Who is playing bass?
That's my guy Shorty B. He played bass on pretty much all the tracks from $horty the Pimp in '92 all the way through You Nasty. That song was a reggae song that I loved and listened to a lot called "Ring the Alarm." We went in and replayed all the tracks and gave it our own little hiphop, funk twist. Listen to "Blow Job Betty" next to "Ring the Alarm"; you'll hear it. You have an assignment from Too $hort now [laughs]. One thing throughout my career is that I haven't used too many samples or replays. If you look at my body of work together, it's mostly original material. Any time we replay a song or sample a song, it's something that's near and dear to us, and that's why we're recycling the music. Mostly, though, when I'm in the studio, I'm saying, "Let's keep it original, let's keep it original."
On your latest album, No Trespassing, you've got a track called "Respect the Pimpin'" with Snoop Dogg. You've worked with Snoop over the years.
There are a few artists I have this good rapport with. Like E-40 and Scarface, who I've worked with a lot, too. We have an understanding. It's a handful of guys, no matter when we see each other, or when we call each other, or when we reach out to each other to do a song, we'll always do it, free of charge. You know you get the publishing and everything, but we don't pay each other money up front. If Snoop's in the studio working and he's like, "Hey, put a verse on this," I put a verse on it, right then. No questions. That's just how we work. Anything for him. I've worked mostly with E-40, who I'm dropping an album with later this year, and it's sounding really, really good. It's tentatively titled The History Channel. Gotta check the legalities on that before it's official, though.
Talk about signing the Pack to your record label?
That was coincidental. I was just riding somewhere, and the person who was driving had them on in his car. We ended up listening to the whole tape, and I asked them to play it again, and inquired about who they were and where they were from. It was kinda funny. I was trying to find the Pack, and the guy who had played them for me originally said he could set up a meeting. But he actually set up a meeting with me and these other friends of his. They showed up at the meeting and said, "Yeah, we're not the Pack, but we're from Berkeley, and if you're gonna sign the Pack, you gotta sign us, too" [laughs]. They were tripping. Came to find out one of the members of the Pack was the son of this guy I had been friends with for 20 years. I eventually found them.
What are you digging that's coming out of the Bay Area now?
The HBK Gang is cool. I like my little homie J. Stalin; he's a local favorite. I've got a buddy I'm working with, Beeda Weeda, he just dropped a really hot mixtape. He's got songs moving around the country, in rotation in Atlanta. Clyde Carson just did a song that's getting a lot of play. I'm mainly focused right now on the album I'm doing with E-40. I'm probably not gonna be making tons more music after that, and this E-40/Too $hort album is going to be a big statement. Coming out in November.
No more Too $hort?
Plans for the near future are to write a book. I'm making a lot of songs, but instead of selling albums and trying to compete on the Billboard charts, I want to focus on music I want to make, on a different schedule. Do six- or seven-song EPs. After the album with E-40, I'll probably record another album, to flex my muscles a bit, and put up a free promotional album on the mixtape website.
What's your advice to independent rappers and artists coming up now, in this digital age?
I was handing out tapes on the streets in Oakland. That's just a primitive version of posting songs on the internet, and letting people have access to them, whether they download them for money or for free. In the last few years, we're seeing people like Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Meek Mill, and Wale emerge as superstars from their social network activity. You got artists out there now touring and getting paid career-making money off of mixtapes. Travis Porter, Waka Flocka, these guys were making money before they put out their first album. The advice would be, that it's the same hustle—you gotta be relentless. I was waking up every morning, copying cassettes, making new material, and walking the streets to sell it. That's what people are doing now on the internet. Wiz Khalifa has one or two official albums, but he's got like 15 mixtape albums. I mean, shit. I don't think he'd be as huge as he is if he didn't do all that work. When Lil Wayne captured the game, that's basically how he did it, he put out a million mixtape songs, and they were hot songs. When his album came out, he was already a megastar.
I'm guilty; whenever rappers approach me on the street with their CDs, I usually tell them I'm busy. Most of the time, they force it, or it's a swindle. They put the CD in your hand like they're giving it to you, then they sign it with a Sharpie, and tell you you owe them $5. Do you stop when rappers try to get you to listen to their stuff on the street?
I give them as much time as necessary. I'm not going around trying to be the up-and-coming-rapper-savior or anything [laughs]. But, you know, I'll talk to 'em. I've had a few of them pry a little too much with it. When a dude comes up to me in a club and says, "Man, I'm glad I got you here, I want to ask you a few questions," that's too much. It's not gonna happen.
Have you spoken to your friend Gary Payton lately? The Glove is a god in Seattle.
I saw Gary three Sundays ago at a pool party in LA. We talked for a bit, and had a drink together. Gary and Brian Shaw, J. R. Rider, Jason Kidd, all those guys are from the Bay Area. I remember Kidd coming out of high school and going to Cal Berkeley, and Rider playing at UNLV. Gary was up at Oregon State. We were all same-generation homies, and we kept in touch. We would hang out when the Sonics came to town to play the Warriors.
What do you do on your days off now?
Nothing too exotic. A vacation for me is just getting to stay home, not working. I work a lot. I'm actually a professional bowler. And a pool shark. But you have to get me in the right element to find out because I don't really show off a lot.
What do you bowl?
Two-hundred-plus, every game. Since I was in middle school.
Now that's game.
Yes. Yes, it is.