AIN’T MY VAULT: Too $hort Interview Pt. 1
I meant to weigh in formally on Vibe’s demise, but then I didn’t. But yes, it’s a tremendous loss to the hip hop journalism world. And sure, I’m a little biased, being that my first (and last?) national print paycheck came from the publication and I was an occasional contributor intermittently. I’m also too young to really remember the glory days of the publication, I probably started paying attention around the time of the Pac/Biggie coverage, which is about the time everybody says it started falling off. But as a reader I usually found something to read in every issue I’ve picked up since then, even if there was a lot of filler. As a writer I appreciated Vibe because it granted the celebrity access that comes with writing for a major hip hop publication but wasn’t nearly as hype/buzz obsessed as some of the other similarly sized magazines I’ve contributed to. Which is to say they gave me opportunities to talk about (and sometimes to) lesser known favorites like DJ Snake, the Krown Rulers, Ready Red, Critical Condition and Suga Free without getting that “whodafuckisthatishehot?” response that stayed on the tongues of editors elsewhere. Huge shout to Sean Fennessey for that.
But to the point. Since the end of Vibe I’ve been going through some of the more interesting interviews I conducted for the magazine with hopes of eventually sharing them with you guys. I just spent a few days running all over the East Bay so it seemed appropriate to jump in with this conversation with the father of Oakland rap Mr. Todd Shaw. It was originally conducted for a short piece that ran in Vibe’s August ’08 “Real Rap” issue as part of a 1988 throwback package (hence all the 1988 specific talk near the beginning of the conversation). That issue was quite good and is available in its entirety on Google Books as are many back issues. Hit the jump for the first part of the full Short interview, biiiiitch.
Noz: What did 1988 mean to you?
Too Short: I signed with Jive records in Februrary 1988. We had been doing the independent thing for a number of years and a few years prior to that i was selling tapes in the streets. Everything started falling into place for me, so finally the major labels are interested. I signed to Jive/RCA and they rereleased the album Born To Mack. We didn’t get a poster, we didn’t get a magazine ad, we didn’t get tv commercials. We didn’t get a video there was no single and I think at that time Jive pushed about close to 200,000 of those. They pushed 200,000 units just by putting it on the shelf. And that pretty much was my introduction to america. That was the first time probably people in texas and places like that were getting wind of Too Short. Before that [my audience] was basically the West Coast. [Dangerous Music] had also sold probably like 50-60,000 copies of the same album but when Jive repacked it and put it in stores nationwide we got another 200 out of it. So that year is the year that I recorded the album Life Is Too Short, that was my first platinum album. It was released probably early 89, the single came out probably the end of 88 or the beginning of 89. I don’t know the exact dates. But that year, to me it was to me, I was given a national platform, it was what I’d always dreamed of from the first day I became a rapper. I wanted to be a major rapper on national scale.
I remember going to the studio and I had a little bit of money, we used to make a lot of money off independent records but the one thing that kept us in the game was we didn’t spend the money, we would leave the money in the company and we would draw salaries. So it wasn’t like I was this big baller, I had a nice car, nothing fancy, the cadilac that was actually on my album cover was my car and then i would start getting little pieces of jewelry. I had an apartment, wasn’t a home owner yet and you know ’89 was the year everything blew up. But I always look back to 88 like that year where you could’ve embraced it and done the right thing or I could’ve just fucked it all up at that point. And I just feel like being given the chance to finally once and for all record an album that I knew from the day it was dropped was gonna go nationwide, for me that was like the ultimate challenge.
To this day if anybody asks me, I always say Life Is Too Short is my favorite too short album and that’s because at that time I considered myself to be… there wasn’t no big money or whatever, it was on the line. And I stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. I remember those days in the studio thinking to myself like ‘this is the chance’. It’s probably equivalent to a minor leaguer getting called up to the big leagues and doing good. Life is Too Short album sold like 300,000 copies the first three weeks. Jive never even advertised em. The first thing they ever did to promote me was they printed up a poster that said something about ‘Life Is Too Short – 300,000 sold in 3 weeks’ and that’s when RCA finally got behind me. RCA used to do all Jive’s promotions back then. And it was no looking back, the album went gold, I went on tour with Eazy E & NWA, we toured the whole summer, got off tour, the album went platinum, it was just the moment. I never looked back after that, we did six platinum albums in a row in six years. And Jive, I don’t think they ever really believed what was gonna happen. I never really had major radio play, not a lot of love from the video channels, it was just a little bit of stuff there. But everywhere I’d go people would love the stuff, it was in the streets. So ’88 was the year I stepped up to the plate and went to the majors.
Why do you think Jive was so hesitant to get behind you? You’d think they’d see you having all this success and want to expand on that.
I always said it was just the whole not really understanding a west coast artist. My core markets were always the midwest, down south and the west coast. When the soundscan first came out I would look at how my albums would do and I’d sell hundreds of thousands of records. The soundscan would be like 800,000 and then I’d look at the new york area and sell like 300 records in New York. I feel like Jive just never had employees that were Too Short fans.
I grew up in Jersey and I always got the vibe that New York was the center of hip hop and all that, and now as I’m interviewing artists from all around the country it seems like more folks were listening to Too Short, E-40, Geto Boys, stuff that wasn’t really as influential in the north east. It seems like New York isolated themselves and not the other way around.
Which is true. I always knew that, but our opinion of it was the rap mecca, it’s where it came from. It was like can you penetrate the great wall? And it was virtually undoable. A very few would creep through and a rapper from outside New York would actually do good in New York. But you know, I had a lot of rappin friends from New York, we did a lot of shows together and we talked about this – chuck ds and those guys back in the day – we talked about how you would be in the midwest somewhere and they’d be like ‘man they love you out there, that’s just crazy’ and we had a mutual respect. I did a lot of shows with Slick Rick and with LL Cool J, Salt N Pepa, Heavy D, I knew all those guys back in the day. It was a respect thing. But I just feel like, even now man, it’s like people say “Too Short – respect man, we admire your career.” But they really don’t know the magnitude of it. You could talk to a 30 year old grown man from Chicago and he’ll say, “when I was a little boy I used to listen to Too Short, I grew up listening to Too Short, I became a grown man bumping to Too Short. It was the music of my whole life.”
That’s gotta be a great feeling.
Hey, I accept it man, living legend, I’m trying to live up to it everyday right now, you know? Trying to add to the legacy, to keep making good records and doing collaborations with artists. My main thing right now is I just want to be the kind of person that, after I had my say in hip hop, I just want to say that I passed it on. I spend most of my time just trying to teach younger kids about how to make music, about the business, about how to act once you get hit records, about work ethic and all kinds of stuff like that.
So what made you want to pursue this path? How’d you end up being a rapper?
Well, in the early days we were playing around. It was like 1980, 1981. I was always a musician, I could always play instruments. I was always a drummer, I’d beat on the table. When we heard “Rappers Delight”, it was me and a few buddies of mine, we said ‘we could do that’. And then records started coming out like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, “Freedom”, Spoonie Gee, everything that was on Sugar Hill records. Even the Kurtis Blow stuff. Everything that was coming out of New York was huge in Oakland. There’s some records that were big out here that, I talk to guys like Erick Sermon and they weren’t even big records in New York. We just knew that we could do it, so we started doing it. We would take 12″ records from New York artists and flip them over to the b-side and play the instrumental, run it through a DJ mixer with a microphone and rap over the instrumental.
And my buddy, his name is Freddy B, he had just transfered to the high school I went to and I was always like the guy, the dude that can rap. I’d be on the bus and people would be like ‘rap for us man, play your tape for us’. So I was just going around doing it. Freddy B hooked up with me and he said ‘we should sell this stuff’. I’m thinkin like yeah whatever, who’s gonna buy this shit? He was like ‘lets go see.’ So we made a tape and we took it to a park where drug dealers sold drugs. And we said ‘you guys want to buy this rap tape we got?’ and everybody’s like ‘why the fuck would we buy your rap tape? who the fuck are y’all?’ So we played it for ’em and somebody had a loud stereo system in their fancy car and they bumped it. It played for about 10-15 minutes then one guy just walked up, pushed eject and said ‘I’ll buy it’ and as soon as he did that everybody else said ‘let me buy that too.’ We only had one tape. So that started our hustle, we told the dudes we’d be back tomorrow with tapes for everybody. So we hit that same park the next day, sold everybody tapes. And then the word got over to the next dope turf a few blocks over, and they started requesting ‘can y’all bring some tapes over here?’ So then the light went on and we were like fuck it we’ll make tapes and sell ’em to drug dealers. The logic was that they’d have cash in their pockets. And it was five bucks for a tape so went from [one] drug turf to [the next] drug turf all over Oakland for like three years, probably like four years, it was like a business and we sold tapes.
I think the first big chance I ever got was I was one of the opening acts for UTFO and Roxanne Roxanne, that whole thing. And I come on stage, it’s like 5000 people in the Oakland convention center, I’d never had a record in my life, I’d never had anything in a record store. I get up there and I start singing these songs and the whole crowd knows all the words. And everybody is like ‘who the fuck are you? and how the fuck does everybody know the words to all your songs?’ I just never looked back man, I used to grab the microphone anywhere. I’d be at a high school dance, I’d be at house party. Anywhere. And I’d just say ‘put on the instrumental and give me the mic’. To this day, 42 years old, I’m still saying ‘turn on the instrumental and give me the mic’ and I will rock the crowd.
What do you attribute your longevity to?
Partially my upbringing in music, all the music classes I took, partially, it’s the love that I have for the funk bands of the 70s – Ohio Players, Cameo, Parliament Funkadelic – you know, just having that funky bone in me for the basslines and the drum patterns and just a consistent relentless work ethic. No matter what time of year it is, no matter what’s going on in the world, in my life, i’m always in the studio making music. And I very rarely put my vocals on beats that I think are wack, that aren’t funky. I know a lot of rappers compromise their status by just by being given a beat like ‘here, this your beat’ and then they rap to it. I would be the kind of person that if you gave me a wack beat I’d be like ‘man, I’m not rapping on that’. That’s my whole thing, it had to be the funk. And we were serious about that 808 too. Our whole thing was we make music for cars, we don’t make music for dance floors, we didn’t make music for listening to in the house, we made the music just for cars and people who had loud woofers in their cars. That was our one dimensional goal. We got music in the trunk. That’s what it was.
Now going back to what you were saying about coming up on the old Sugar Hill records, there’s obviously a big difference between that and even your early stuff. Why did you go in that direction?
Well I always had, I can’t say it’s jealousy, but it was more like envy. I’m envious of the New York rappers and I’m like ‘okay, I gotta get in that game’. To us the Fresh Fest is going around and I’m in the audience just watching Whodini and Run DMC and LL ripping to the Oakland Coliseum, 14,000 people and in my heart I’m knowing that I can get up there. So I felt like if I’m gonna emerge in this, I can’t be like them. It’s rap, it’s their thing, but I gotta put a twist on it, so what’s different about what we do? I always noticed that New Yorkers were more into the drum patterns, you know, the James Brown type stuff. And then, our thing, you could ask Dr. Dre and he’d probably tell you the same thing, we adopted the George Clinton Parliament-Funkadelic formula. Just like New York did a lot of James Brown we did a lot of Parliament. So I always felt like that funk was my edge. It’s slower, it’s funky, it’s not for the dance floor, it’s not radio music. And it was just being rebellious like fuck the radio. People tell you all the time, ‘you gotta make radio songs’. Fuck a radio song. It’s still my philosophy.
Too bad more artists aren’t willing to say that.
I feel like right now hip hop is getting so diluted and everybody’s complaining and all this shit and ringtones and downloads. I just feel like the streets are taking it back. If an artist steps up right now and tried to go against the grain and said I’m not doing the formula, with the hook, with the dance in the video, it might come off as original. Just some grimy street music.
I can’t even think of the last time I heard a rapper just rap for 10 minutes straight no hook, like your old tapes.
Yeah you know, and that was another thing I did. I got that from rappers like Spoonie Gee and there was Jimmy Spicer. Jimmy Spicer had that song “Super Rhymes”, that was a big hit out here in 1981. I felt like those dudes rapping for 15 minutes straight, I can do that shit. “Rappers Delight” was long as hell. And I kept that shit going long after everybody would chop the songs down to 3-4 minutes and they started writing rap songs and structuring them like R&B songs. I was like ‘Fuck that shit. I’m a rapper’. I made some songs where I would come on rapping from the first bar and the song would actually fade and I’m still rapping. I did that shit on purpose.
Click here for part 2…