The “acknowledged West Coast master of the pimp rhyme,” Jonathan Gold wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Oakland rapper Too $hort built a hip-hop empire on the vulgar street-corner snap, clever though rudimentary litanies of profanity and mayhem.” Todd Shaw created the rap persona Too $hort out of the tradition of the “pimp,” which was popularized in the 1970s by a fad for “blaxploitation,” exemplified in films like Shaft. The character is one that has a mixed reception among black audiences. Some listeners see him as an insult to black women and as a degrading caricature of black masculinity; others have flocked to the record stores, embracing what they believe to be an image of a powerful, defiant black man. Both sides have made Too $hort an important phenomenon, as they argue about what he “means” in his rapped narratives about sex and “bitches” —and drive up his record sales, despite the fact that most of his songs are too sexually explicit for radio airwaves.
Shaw comes from a background that bears little resemblance to the film heroes he imitates. Born in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, he grew up in a solidly middle-class home. Both of his parents were accountants, and his mother spent 30 years working for the IRS before retiring in the 1990s when her son built her a home in Atlanta. Contradicting the attitude about women deployed in his music, $hort has maintained a strong and respectful relationship with his mother. He told Vibe contributor Laura Jamison, “We’re good friends, always have been. We never had a strain in our relationship at all.” Nonetheless, his mother is offended by his “mouth.” “I get really uncomfortable when I know my mother’s in the crowd,” he confessed to Jamison. “She’ll come to me after and say,’You got a foul mouth.’”
The pimp character, then, is one Shaw actively had to seek out. The move from Los Angeles to Oakland, California, helped make it accessible to him, especially as he chose to immerse himself in the city’s “street” life. In 1992 $hort described Oakland to Billboard’s Have-lock Nelson as “a pimp town. That vibe started to fade in the’80s, but in’92 it’s still here.” Nelson determined that $hort’s “pimp stance is the result of having read blaxploitation books by authors Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, and [absorbed] the mood of his Bay-area surroundings.” The Source’s Ronin Ro, writing in 1995, reported that $hort’s image “was inspired by Richard Pryor’s early comedy routines and by the pimps in 70s films and TV shows.” $hort told him that “back then, everybody was just interested in pimps! I used to wanna wear big pimp hats in old photos I took as a kid! I learned how to pimp-walk before I could walk straight!” Shaw
For the Record…
Born Todd Shaw, c. 1966, in Los Angeles, CA; raised in Oakland, CA; son of accountants.
With friend Freddy B., began producing tapes of his raps, comprised largely of “Freaky Tales” of sexual escapades; sold the tapes on the streets while in high school before producing albums through independent label 75 Girls Records, 1983-88; developed own production company, Dangerous Music; signed by Jive, a subsidiary of RCA, 1987.
Three albums attained platinum status by 1995: Life Is … Too Short, Short Dog’s in the House, and Get in Where You Fit In.
Addresses: Record company —Jive, 137-139 West 25th St., New York, NY 10001.
earned his street nickname in high school, when his growth seemed to have halted at 5 feet 2 inches.
Jeff Chang, writing in Vibe, set down the fundamental truth of $hort’s career, recalling that the rapper “built his seemingly unshakable fan base with the’Freaky’ songs and others like them.” The “Freaky Tales” Chang refers to were the staple of $hort’s high school raps—strung together vignettes of his alleged sexual escapades with a seemingly endless supply of insatiable women. Shaw didn’t have the naivete or the patience to wait and be “discovered.” Instead, he and friend Freddy B. produced and manufactured their tapes at home and then sold them on the sidewalks in Oakland.
For almost three years, from 1981 to 1983, Freddy and $hort were self-supporting musical entrepreneurs, doing a brisk business selling $hort’s x-rated rhymes. He released three albums under the auspices of a small independent label, 75 Girls Records, between 1983 and 1988. Concurrently, beginning in 1986, he pursued one of his primary dreams by founding his own record label, Dangerous Music. The label’s first release, of course, was a collection of $hort’s rhymes called Born to Mack, which he sold, in his traditional manner, from the trunk of his car. Born to Mack&Sold 20, 000 copies—an impressive feat for a tiny label-before Jive, a subsidiary of RCA, took note and signed $hort in 1987.
While this new home provided $hort with major label security, it also agreed not to limit the content of his raps. $hort remained as prolific as ever, providing Jive with the material for a new album every year. Jive’s first step was to rerelease Born to Mackin 1989, quickly turning it into a gold record. The label brought out Life is… Too Shortin 1989 and Short Dog’s in the House in the fall of 1990. The latter album brought $hort some crossover attention, mainly because of a song called “The Ghetto.” The single not only tackled issues more serious than his usual “Freaky Tales,” it was also clean enough for DJs to spin on the air, bringing the rapper attention that otherwise eluded him—and a Number 20 position on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart.
$hort had a piece included in the soundtrack for New Jack Cityin 1991 before he prepared Shorty the Pimp for release in 1992. Picking up on the tale end of Short Dog’s momentum, this album entered Billboard’s Top 200 in the Number Six position and rose through the numbers in the R&B albums chart. Of course, national sales also brought national opinion—not all of it warm. In her review for Rolling Stone, Danyel Smith described the’92 album as “a female-hating string of songs pulsing with $hort’s usual blend of nonchalance, heavy bass lines and disdainful lyrics. His rhymes … flow so effortlessly, and $hort’s delivery is so laid-back and listless, you’d think he was rhyming by accident if it weren’t for the calculated coldness of his words.” Nelson described the album as vintage Too $hort, filled with unbleeped cursing and outrageous tales from “da hood.”
Like Short Dog, Shorty the Pimp had its serious side, inspired by the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. A track called “I Want to Be Free” ends with the line, “I ain’t mad/I’m just black,” which inspired quotation in many reviews. This piece aside, $hort had already decided to step back from the crossover potential of “The Ghetto.” “I was at a point in my career,” he told Nelson, “where I had to ask myself,’Where should I go?’ I am a platinum artist who has decided to be hardcore.” The choice also had a market motive, since $hort faced the loss of his primary fan base if he was perceived as catering to mainstream tastes. Barry Weiss, an executive at Jive, explained to Nelson that although they “were hoping for another The Ghetto’…, to be honest, we’re glad that we didn’t get one. Too $hort’s appeal is at the street level. With an artist like him, the worst thing to have is the perception that he’s selling out.”
But he was selling, and very consistently; even 1986’s Born to Mackwas still holding its own in music store bins in 1992. “Oddly enough,” Chang concluded in Vibe, “$hort’s formula works. He and his music make people part with hard-earned cash for some ill-satisfaction.”
When Toure reviewed Get In Where You Fit Inior Rolling Stone in the fall of 1993, he pegged $hort as one of the definitive elements in the Oakland rap sound, which he saw as the “home of a nascent hip-hop explosion.” “He’s been recording for years, “Toure noted about $hort, “but he’s still got an underground flavor, meaning he’s got the skill to put his ghetto on tape…. $hort makes no attempt at accessibility…. He just shows you a door into his world: Press play, and suddenly you’re a young black boy cruising East Oaktown at about 15 mph on a hot… Saturday, watching the girls pass in $hort.”
Writing for The Source, Allen Gordon saw Get In Where You Fit In as a “back to basics” album for Too $hort, arguing that after eight albums, “at this stage of his life what is there left for him to do? He is too set in his ways to start jumping on any trends and bandwagons that might come his way. He’s not about to chase after the elusive crossover audience.” Gordon was happy with what he found on the recording, praising both the rapper’s rhymes—“it is a delight to see $hort on top of his mackin’ game” —and his music—“it is even better to listen to his beats, triple helpings of pure uncut, un-looped funk.” The album took the top of the R&B chart and rose into the Top Ten in pop. Get In Where You Fit In eventually reached platinum status, along with Life Is … Too Short ano Short Dog, while Shorty the Pimp went gold.
In 1994 Jive also backed $hort’s independent label, giving Dangerous Music some solid resources and strength. By the 1990s Dangerous was developing its own roster of rap talent, beginning to fulfill $hort’s ambition for the outfit. It was created as “an outlet for the many talented artists in the Bay with no outlet,” $hort told Nelson. By that time, both Pooh Man and Ant Banks were part of the production company. Soon after, Short moved Dangerous Music to Atlanta. In 1995 he told Ronin Ro that the “whole move to Atlanta was about money. [Two years ago] Dangerous Music was outgrowing its location in Oakland, which was a three bedroom home.” He did add, however, that it was also about finding a safer home for his mother and brother.
Cocktales came out in 1995 to good reviews. Chang called it “his most musically seductive ever,” noting that the artist “values easy rhymes, phat bass, and explicit sex” because those “are the skills that pay his bills.” Reviewing the release for the New York Times, S. H. Fernando, Jr., referred to it as “vintage Too $hort …, stuffed with more machismo and misogyny than a porn movie. But behind the raunch are thoughtful, melodic grooves, custom-made for cruising on a sunny afternoon. “Even Frank Owen’s critique, which appeared in New York Newsday, ended with a slap on the back, admitting that the rapper’s “sometimes lackluster delivery, limited vocabulary and the often plodding musical arrangements can’t stop [the album] from impressing with sheer cheek.”
Despite all the critical and popular success of his work, Too $hort has faced ongoing backlash for his unabashedly antifemale lyrics. In her piece for Rolling Stone, Smith voiced much of the frustration with Too $hort’s persistent misogyny, finding it represented fully in the 1992 release Shorty the Pimp. Describing the lyrics as “stuffed to busting with lines about sluts and girls riding on Short’s’snoopy,’” Smith determined that the “album is a byproduct of his angry, warranted nightmares (the police) and his angry wet dreams (the bitches).” She argued further that despite “all its deftly drawn urban male realities, Shorty the Pimp lacks the immediacy necessary to make its he-man poetry jolting. $hort’s songs momentarily empower the disfranchised Young Black Male and the fascinated Young White Male but move any self-respecting female to press EJECT—firmly.” She concluded that “his misogyny, which used to be bewildering, more taunting than challenging, has gone from insulting to scary.”
Although he admits that young men “listen to my words and wanna start calling their women ’Bee-atch!’” as he told Ronin Ro, $hort has tried to defuse his malevolent image by detaching it from his off-stage personality. “See, I know a lot of guys listen to Too $hort and wanna be like me,” he explained to Ro. “But I ain’t no’super-pimp,’ all invincible and shit. I’m a normal human being and a businessman doing what I gotta do.” When Jamison visited $hort in Oakland to interview him for a 1994 issue of Vibe, she discovered not a pimp at all, but a “preoccupied inner-city businessman who’s got deals—not wheels or women—on his mind.” In fact, the rapper explained to Jamison that he sees his tales about women in a very matter-of-fact light: they are the way he makes his living. “Rap was always my hustle,” he told her, “the way I made money. You can’t call it a work of genius—the shit is so lame. I grab the smallest part of the funk and ride it for eight minutes.”
Born to Mack (contains “Freaky Tales”), Dangerous Music, 1986, reissued, Jive, 1989.
Life Is … Too Short, Jive, 1989.
Short Dog’s in the House (includes “The Ghetto”), Jive, 1990.
(Contributor) New Jack City (soundtrack), 1991.
Shorty the Pimp (includes “I Want to Be Free”), Jive, 1992.
Greatest Hits, Volume 1, In a Minute, 1993.
Get In Where You Fit In, Jive, 1993.
Cocktales, Jive, 1995.
Paystyle (maxi single), Jive, 1995.
Billboard, December 22, 1990; August 22, 1992; January 14, 1995.
Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1995.
New York Newsday, January 22, 1995.
New York Times, March 12, 1995.
Rolling Stone, February 7, 1991; December 12, 1991; September 17, 1992; November 25, 1993.
The Source, December 1993; December 1994; February 1995.
Vibe, February 1994; February 1995.
Additional information for this piece was obtained from Jive.
—Ondine Le Blanc
Best-selling album since 1990: Cocktails (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "Get in Where You Fit In"
Too $hort emerged as an early West Coast rap icon in a hip-hop environment dominated by East Coast music. With his thick western drawl, Too $hort spins vivid tales of lawlessness that impart an authenticity that made him a founder of gangsta rap and an essential figure in rap music.
Born middle class to two accountants in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, Todd Shaw moved with his family to the northern California city of Oakland at age fourteen. Influenced by books about pimping by authors Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, Shaw began rapping about these topics. His five-foot-two-inch frame earned him the stage name Too $hort. He began producing and selling his own songs, and he attracted the attention of an independent record label, 75 Girls, which signed him to a contract. The deal resulted in three albums that increased his local Oakland profile. Ever the entrepreneur, Too $hort formed his own label, Dangerous Music, and in 1986 released the full-length album Born to Mack, which became a San Francisco Bay–area smash. Shortly thereafter, a major label, Jive Records, which had rap acts D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Boogie Down Productions on its roster, signed Too $hort and re-released Born to Mack with national distribution in 1988.
Too $hort's style of rapping is an unabashed early version of gangsta rap. His subject matter centers around pimping, prostitution, and other street hustles. America perceived Born to Mack as a window into a shrouded lifestyle and purchased more than 500,000 copies of the album. His second Jive effort, Life Is . . . Too $hort (1988), doubled those sales figures.
After 1990, Too $hort's career changed direction. At age twenty-four, he was involved in a head-on car collision that resulted in the death of the other driver. He began to include at least one cautionary tale in his subsequent albums, punctuating the outlaw reveries. Though he enjoyed a string of strong-selling albums after Mack, Too $hort's West Coast voice was no longer unique on the national scene in the mid-1990s. In 1992, the Los Angeles–based Dr. Dre released the classic album The Chronic and his Long Beach, California, protegé Snoop (Doggy) Dogg entered the market with the multiplatinum Doggystyle in 1993. Furthermore, the media branded the often-violent, misogynist releases by Dr. Dre, Snoop (Doggy) Dogg, and their immediate hip-hop associates as "gangsta rap" and omitted Too $hort from this negative, albeit highly marketable category. In seeming response, Too $hort decided to retire in 1996, but managed to record a song with Notorious B.I.G., "The World Is Filled . . .," for B.I.G.'s album Life after Death (1997).
In the mid- to late 1990s, the rap landscape became increasingly materialistic, largely driven by Sean "Puffy" Combs's Bad Boy Records, and gangsta rap faded into the background. Into this environment Too $hort briefly came out of retirement to record the song "A Week Ago" with Jay-Z for Jay-Z's Billboard number one album Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (1998). In 1999, Too $hort made a comeback with the album Can't Stay Away. Rarely one to collaborate with other artists in the 1980s and early 1990s, here Too $hort builds upon his recordings with Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z and includes songs with Combs, Atlanta rapper/producer Jermaine Dupri, and Jay-Z. The album entered the Billboard charts in the Top 10.
After 2000, Too $hort began some markedly different projects, perhaps to counteract the disappointing sales of Chase the Cat (2001) and What's My Favorite Word? (2002), his first efforts to sell under 500,000 copies since he signed to Jive Records. In 2001, Too $hort and another Bay area rap superstar E-40 announced plans to record a joint album. In 2002, Too $hort produced "Get in Where You Fit In," the first in a series of pornographic films bearing the titles of his songs. Also that year, he recorded an X-rated response record to the feminine anthem "My Neck, My Back" by Khia called "My D*ck, My Sack." Too $hort expressed a desire to create a "one hundred percent positive album," announcing to MTV News in 2002 that while he would still rhyme about pimps and prostitutes, "I'm not going to speak on it in any other way than a positive way."
No matter the direction Too $hort chooses to take, his importance in hip-hop remains secure. He was one of the first artists bold enough to record graphic songs about the underworld and to maintain a vision throughout his career.
Don't Stop Rappin' (75 Girls, 1983); Players (75 Girls, 1984); Born to Mack (Dangerous Music, 1986); Life Is . . . Too $hort (Jive, 1988); Short Dog's in the House (Jive, 1990); Shorty the Pimp (Jive, 1992); Get in Where You Fit In (Jive, 1993); Cocktails (Jive, 1995); Gettin' It (Album Number Ten) (Jive, 1996); Can't Stay Away (Jive, 1999); You Nasty (Jive, 2000); Chase the Cat (Jive, 2001); What's My Favorite Word? (Jive, 2002); It's About Time (75 Girls, 2003).