For over two decades, Too $hort has arguably been one of hip-hop’s most prolific artists. Since 1983, the Oakland-based rapper has influenced an entire generation, releasing 16 albums, half of which earned platinum or gold status. Long before every rapper under the sun started proclaiming themselves P.I.M.P.’s, $hort Dawg was captivating listeners with his wanton lyrics, vivid storytelling and engrossing pimp persona. Largely regarded as an iconic figure in the Bay, the West Coast Mac has achieved pockets of mainstream success with such hits as 1988’s “Life Is…Too $hort,” 1990’s “The Ghetto” and 1996’s “Gettin’ It.” However, as the new millennium began, Shorty the Pimp began to see interest in his brand of rap wane as his last few projects fail to crack the gold mark. The OG’s musical prospects seem more promising, though, when he prepared to release last year’s Blow the Whistle. The 13th album on his longtime label home Jive Records, the LP rode the hyphy wave and included production from Lil Jon, Jazze Pha and will.i.am. Unlike fellow Bay Area veteran E-40, who crossed over earlier that year with “Tell Me When To Go,” Too $hort’s attempt to win over a new generation of listeners went largely unnoticed. Now, with only one album left on his contract with Jive, $hort is looking to return to his underground roots and focus on his new record label, Up All Nite. In order to kick off his imprint properly, Too $hort released a compilation album, I Love the Bay, in July. XXLMag.com catches up with the hip-hop legend to discuss his new project, burgeoning label and decision to leave Jive Records.
What was your motivation for releasing the I Love the Bay compilation?
It’s self-explanatory. I just wanted everybody to work together and know that the Bay has a certain level of unity. There’s not any major hatred, like, “I want to fight or shoot you,” between rappers. This is a representation of me hangin’ out at the studio with the homies. This is what we came up with.
I Love the Bay is distributed through your own label, Up All Nite. What else do you have planned for the imprint?
Up All Nite is a label I started at the beginning of 2006. The only group I have signed right now is The Pack from the Bay Area. I’m getting ready to sign a guy from North Carolina and a couple of other acts from the Bay. But the main objective is to have a place for me to go as I finish my contract with Jive [Records]. I don’t want to be on any major labels. I did 13, going on 14 albums for Jive [and] I’ve just been going through the motions. They pay me “X” amount of dollars, I make “X” amount of songs and I go on a promo tour. I don’t get a lot of love from the label, as far as pushing my albums. I just do the routine and turn in the album.
So is breaking out on your own something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
I’ve really been longing for about five years to get back to my independent roots. I figure if Jive saves me a half-million dollars to do an album, it’s probably the same amount of money I’d make if I were independent. Doing the math, it wasn’t urgent to run away from Jive and go independent. It was just a point of, “Well, let’s ride this contract out.” It doesn’t make sense to go to another major label. I know the game. I don’t need a label to tell me how to shoot a video [and] market an album. I’ve got a core audience, so regardless of what I put out, I can sell 100,000 records on an independent. That’s $700,000.
Some cynics suggest Jive doesn’t know how to handle hip-hop artists. Do you agree?
Well, I was doing platinum albums back-to-back with Jive when they were the hottest hip-hop label. There was a time when Jive made a lot more money than Def Jam. They had KRS-One, Too $hort, E-40, Mystikal, UGK and Keith Murray. They had Will Smith when he was still the Fresh Prince. It didn’t change until the late ’90s when Britney [Spears], ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys pretty much took over all of Jive’s resources. They never really got their hip-hop composure back. They got rich off pop [music]. It was never the same again. Everybody was like, “Yeah, we still love hip-hop,” but then there were no marketing budgets. You just made billions of dollars [off these pop artists] and you can’t match Def Jam and Universal in marketing your hip-hop acts?
So you’ve got one more album on Jive, right?
This is the last album I’m doing with Jive. It only has 10 songs on it. It’s not really what I would call a Too $hort album. It’s more like a commemorative project that will be packaged like an anniversary invitation or some shit. It’s just to commemorate 20 years on Jive and the fact that most artists can’t go through one contract, let alone two. It’ll be 14 albums on Jive in over 20 years. We’re going to throw a big party. I’m not retiring, but I am finished with Jive Records. We’re going to shake hands and say, “Congratulations and see you later.”
Being an artist who is open about his sexual endeavors, how do you feel about Rev. Al Sharpton’s crusade to clean up hip-hop lyrics?
Well, this isn’t the first time he’s stepped up and said his word about how he feels about explicit rap. I think throughout the entire time I’ve been making these dirty rap records I’ve had a guilty conscious about it on some level. I would say to myself, “You’ve got to make some positive songs because you do all negative [songs]. It can’t be all, ‘Bitch, suck my dick,’ without some kind of structure to it.” So I’ve been aware of the double-edged sword dealing with explicit rap. I remember an incident that happened recently. I was speaking to some kids about violence, ’cause there’s a lot of violence going on in the Bay Area. When we opened up the floor to questions, this six-year-old kid was like, “What’s your favorite word?” He was fuckin’ six-years-old! That just shows me the music gets around. This kid knows that my favorite word is bitch. He’s probably in first or second grade.
Do you agree with Rev. Al, then?
I’m not going to speak down on Al Sharpton or Russell Simmons because I know for a fact that they want to ban these words from the airwaves. They don’t want to ban artists from saying these words in the studio; they want this shit off the airwaves. That’s only fair, right? I mean, it really did go a little too far. When I was selling platinum albums, I was totally being censored. I couldn’t release anything raunchy as a single or a video [today]. Somewhere down the line, these new artists were allowed to say very, very graphic things on the radio. I remember not being allowed to say words like “trick.” Looking back at my video career and singles, the majority of them were positive songs—“Life Is…Too Short,” “The Ghetto” and “Gettin’ It.” Those records had nothing to do with drugs and pimpin’. Also, these crusades never mention my name. I’ve never heard, “We’ve got to ban this Too $hort guy.” They bring up Ludacris and Snoop Dogg, but they never mention my name. I keep it under the radar. How, I don’t know.
So you have no idea how you’ve been able to sell a lot of records and stay relevant over 20 years without a lot of promotion or big videos?
I had a sit down with L.A. Reid once. He really didn’t want to have a meeting with me, [but] he asked me how I do it. How do I sell all these record without videos or singles? What’s my secret? I don’t think any other hip-hop artist has achieved what I’ve achieved or the numbers I’ve sold without commercial radio. MTV and BET have never supported me. I probably had four singles in my life that got decent radio play—“Blow the Whistle,” “The Ghetto,” “Life Is…Too $hort” and “Gettin’ It.” And I never ever, ever, ever—out of all the platinum albums I’ve sold—gotten any support from the East Coast. Any other rappers that matched my numbers, all of them had sales on the East Coast. Even Death Row had East Coast people buying their shit. But the East Coast didn’t buy none of my shit. I would sell a million albums and I would look at how many copies New York bought. It would be like 1,000 units. The rest of the country bought a million. [Washington] D.C., Philly, New Jersey and Connecticut didn’t buy it. None of the East Coast communities did.
If you could do it over again, is there anything you would change in your career?
My only regret is… I was in Hollywood in the mid ’90s. I was going around doing auditions and reading for parts, getting ready to get my acting on. I’ll be honest with you; I just got a little homophobic. I don’t have any problems with the gay community, but I just felt, at that time, that it was a little too much for me. After that, I kinda ran away from Hollywood and went back to Atlanta and stepped back into music. But you’d be shooting a video and half the video crew is gay. It’s like, there’s no escaping it. My policy is, don’t try to flirt with me and everything’s cool. I kinda let that whole learning experience make me miss the Hollywood call. If I had the mentality I have now, I could’ve went in there, got focused and been doing what Ice Cube and Queen Latifah are doing. Which is something I would’ve wanted to do. Now, my passion is just embedded in music and I’m more or less cultivating new acts. I know my calling in life, but I would’ve liked to try [acting]. That’s something in the back of my head, like, “10 years ago you could’ve been that.”