When rap pioneer and local legend Too $hort returned to Oakland and started volunteering at East Oakland community center Youth UpRising, a lightbulb went off in his head. Working with YU's fledgling music program, he was impressed by the young talent he saw around him. But YU's studios, while cleverly designed to be a diversion from the streets, weren't really equipped to produce high-quality material. At the same time, $hort was ending a long businaess relationship with Jive Records, which he'd been signed to since 1987 when they re-released his now-classic Born to Mack album nationally. Although he says he received offers from other labels, he decided instead to start up an independent label, something he'd already done successfully two times.
It would have been easy for $hort to continue working out of his Atlanta studio. But "something in my heart just said, you gotta come back home," he says. Home being Oakland, the town he put on the hip-hop map (sorry, Hammer).
For a while, $hort was on the lookout for a new studio location in Oakland for his Up All Nite label. But as often happens in industry circles, music relationships lead to business relationships. He'd been working with Tony Toni Toné bassist Elijah Baker on a new soul/funk/R&B project called Town Business (also featuring vocalist Sylk-E and pianist Kev Choice). Baker, as it turned out, was part owner of a studio located smack dab in the middle of Oakland's downtown, on 19th and Franklin. The building happened to have an area unoccupied downstairs, which seemed like an ideal location for $hort's new headquarters. So $hort set up his studio with Raiders emblems, gold and platinum plaques gleaned from his illustrious career, a pool table, several TVs, a bar — and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of studio equipment.
To celebrate the studio's grand opening, $hort held a big party on May 14. The event — catered by Youth UpRising and DJ Pam the Funkstress' Piccadilly Catering — was well-attended by a wide cross-section of folks: everyone from parents to corporate types, young hyphy kids to old-school rap veterans, community activists to bureaucrats.
Trina Barton, who works for Mayor Ron Dellums, revealed that she's been a Too $hort fan since the 4th grade. She feels the studio fits with downtown Oakland's revitalization theme. "We have a lot of talented young people who just need an outlet," she said. While admitting the city hasn't worked very closely with the hip-hop community in the past, Barton insisted, "The mayor's very excited for any opportunity like this."
According to Baker, the goal of the studio is to strengthen the community economically, psychologically, and spiritually through a combination of musical talent and business acumen. "We have high expectations to bring that Oakland sound back," he said.
Veteran engineer Dale "D-Wiz" Everingham noted that some of $hort's best-loved albums were recorded locally, and that he and E-40 are just about the only Bay Area rap artists with national name recognition. He feels the new studio could have a "trickle-down effect" on the local rap scene. Oakland rap legend Richie Rich agrees."If everybody can all get along and make some music, we might stand a chance of getting back on the top," he said.
Rich thinks $hort's fame and the involvement of the Tonys add a certain luster that makes the Up All Nite studio special. "It's like the first celebrity-owned studio of this time in Oakland," he said. "It's definitely going to be able to bring the traffic. Now if the traffic can bring the music.... I think it'll be a beautiful thing for the town."
New-school producer Trackademicks believes the studio also provides a sorely needed hub. "Everybody's kinda been doing their own thing," he said. "It's hard to find a community of people." To him, Up All Nite represents a missing piece of the puzzle: "I think it gives us a little bit of infrastructure ... It's almost like a community center."
Pam the Funkstress shared his sentiment. "I think what Too $hort's doing for the community is a wonderful thing," she said. "You don't get too many people that will come from an area and give back to their area. ... It's for the youth, it's for the people, it's for the community, and it's a wonderful thing. I'm glad to be part of that."
On that note, guitarist/singer D'Wayne Wiggins says the studio can be a jump-off for other projects targeting community needs, such as Music for Food, a new organization which plans to hold concerts benefiting the homeless, the hungry, and the undereducated. "Bringing the production back to Oakland gives us a sense of pride. ... I think it's gonna make a change."
$hort says his motivation comes from helping his community and specifically reaching out to young talent: "I think it's part of my destiny, man, to come and help the kids get to the next level. I'm not trying to be the savior, I'm just trying to be a stepping stone."
Besides a state-of-the art studio, he says he offers his own work ethic and professionalism. "What I've done well in my career is help push people in the right directions and give them that little bit of help that they needed to just get from point A to point B," said the rapper.
One way $hort plans to do that is by making the studio available to YU's kids after the center closes each evening. That way, they'll still have somewhere to go and be creative. "It's another way of keeping them off the streets," said Boo, a YU staffer.
That's what you call a win-win situation: town business that's good not just for Oakland, but for the entire Bay Area urban culture.
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