$hort Cuts 

A new Too $hort doc illuminates one of Bay Area rap's biggest icons.

A few days ago, a car rolled down Ashby Avenue in South Berkeley, a loud, bass-driven beat announcing its arrival a full block away. The make of the vehicle wasn't important -- it could have as easily been a Camry as a Cadillac. But an unmistakable song saluted passersby from the trunk, immediately recognizable to any West Coast rap fan. The distinctive "dun-da-dun-dun" bassline could only have belonged to Too $hort's "Freaky Tales."

Yes, "Freaky Tales" still serves as something to ride to, fifteen years after its initial release. Though countless turf anthems -- from NWA's "Gangsta, Gangsta" to 50 Cent's current hit "P.I.M.P." -- have come and gone, $hort's lost zero street credibility over time.

Too $hort's career is unique and unparalleled within rap music. Currently on his fourteenth album, he's had more releases hit either the gold or platinum mark than any rapper in history. A Bay Area legend even before his 1988 song "Life Is ..." introduced him to millions of hungry hip-hop fans nationwide on Yo! MTV Raps, he's seemingly always been a player, although he's never quite played the music industry game. He started out as an independent entrepreneur, and has maintained his DIY attitude even after signing to a major label, Jive, thirteen years ago.

$hort's artistic influence has been profound. For starters, take the phrase feminists love to hate: "Biiiiiiiiiitch!" The saying has since become ubiquitous among Snoop Dogg and countless other rappers, but it originated with $hort. Likewise, he also pioneered the West Coast practice of selling homemade rap tapes on the street, now adopted by everyone from E-40 and the Click to Mystik Journeymen. (True, East Coast hip-hop pioneers like the Cold Crush Brothers and the Furious Five self-marketed their music throughout the Tri-State region before $hort, yet few of those early cassettes ever crossed the Rockies.)

$hort's longevity is matched only by his tenacity and resilience. Since beginning his career crafting personalized raps for East Oakland drug dealers in the early '80s, the rapper has displayed the kind of business acumen commonly associated with old-school pimps like Fillmore Slim, resulting in an evergreen career in a field where artists are routinely tossed aside for younger act-alikes. Back in 1996, Short "retired" following his gold-selling Gettin' It (Album Number Ten), although one suspects his inactivity lasted about as long as it took Jive to renegotiate his contract on more artist-favorable terms.

To this day, Too $hort records are rarely played on radio, with some notable exceptions, including 2001's crunked-up smash "Bia Bia" with Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz. Consequently, the rapper is more likely to work the small club circuit in the Dirty South and Midwest (where his core fans are) than sneak on corporate-sponsored arena tours. You probably won't find him doing too many unpaid promos for megawatt radio stations, either. He's never much cared for interviews, preferring to let his music speak for itself.

Which is why Life Is: The Life and Times of Todd Shaw ($hort's alter ego) is such a compelling documentary. Produced by D'Wayne Wiggins' Grassroots Entertainment, Life Is offers insight into Too $hort's character that VH-1 -- and really, the rapper's entire hardcore fanbase -- wishes it had. Todd Shaw's life story might be too "ghetto" for Behind the Music or A&E's Biography, but the documentary is fascinating nonetheless, placing among the most anticipated and well-received entries at this year's Black Film Festival in San Francisco, where it screened before an enthusiastic audience that literally grew up on $hort.

Those fans will have to let Life Is tell $hort's story; fortunately, the flick tells it well.

Life Is begins with a photomontage series of testimonials describing the impact the rapper had on West Coast rap and rap in general. Some seminal figures in the Bay Area's urban music scene -- E-40, the Digital Underground's Money B, Wiggins (a member of Tony Toni Tone), and Sway (currently an air personality for MTV) -- put their two cents in on what $hort has meant to hip-hop, along with various industry suits and media folks like Davey D and Danyel Smith. E-40 bestows perhaps the ultimate compliment on his artistic influence and sometime collaborator: $hort, he says sincerely, was on some "straight game-orienfestated straight soil block turf-type shit, feel me?" (We feel you, 40, even if we don't quite understand what you just said.)

Shaw himself explains that he was initially inspired to rap by East Coast artists such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. "But instead of being like them, I said, 'I'll just tell Oakland stories,'" he recalls. His Californian street slang resonated with West Coast rap fans -- up until then, no one had represented them. "There was nothing like hearing somebody rapping the way we all spoke," Smith says.

Davey D sheds light on Oakland's "rich cultural legacy" before Too $hort's arrival. He cites Sly and the Family Stone and the Black Panther Party as important historical predecessors to a new generation of urban youth coming of age in the '80s and '90s. Other factors, like the freewheeling San Francisco rock scene and Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, contributed to an independent-minded Bay Area, which set its own trends rather than following national ones. "Selling tapes out of the trunk of a car or on the back of the bus, that's what hip-hop is about, creating something out of nothing," Davey D adds.

Ironically, the rapper's ascension as the Reagan years dawned coincided with the rise of the crack epidemic, which pumped buckets of money into the streets of Oakland but also resulted in brutal violence. "That's when it really went down," E-40 says of a time he calls the "hubba head era." During that period -- which also saw acts like Digital Underground, En Vogue, the Tonys, and MC Hammer become prominent -- a vibrant local music scene had developed, but Smith notes that "at the same time, you always heard about somebody getting shot or getting killed."

Like a ghetto griot, Too $hort's raps reported on what was going down in the 'hood. "Everything that happened in Oakland socially and economically, you would hear in Too $hort lyrics," Sway explains. A prime example of $hort's social commentary is his reworking of Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto," which plays over Life Is' opening credits:

The streets are bumpy

Lights burned out

Dope fiends die with the pipe in their mouth

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